Jeremiah Lockwood’s New Cantorial Blues Album, Kol Nidre, is a Yom Kippur Dream

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Hillel Broder

Take a moment, before this Yom Kippur, to anticipate Kol Nidre’s solemn opening and rising crescendo: from the ringing of the first three syllables that reach through the public confession, to the absolute regret and resolute nullification of empty promises. Recalling the prayer might conjure images of communities alternately humbled and proud at the start of this high holiday—inspired and sobered, swaying and still, and of course, clothed in the bright white linens of the day.

Every year, the opening prayer of Yom Kippur never fails to give me the chills—sometimes from the prayer’s words, but always from the melody’s ubiquitous presence in Ashkenazi synagogues for over 200 years. (In fact, the seventeenth century authority, Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe of Prague – the Levush – had already noticed a universal melody shared by all cantors). I am struck by the traditional tune’s staying power; year after year, it actually sounds like ritual transmission.

And its staying effect is shared by many, I’m sure—personally, I look forward to the internal switch it seems to flip, as it sets the tone of the subsequent day. Perhaps you might think otherwise, but I see no need to alter the prayer’s tune—and it is likely, for this reason, that nearly every Jewish community, in nearly every denomination, has adopted it as standard.

Still, Jeremiah Lockwood, the bandleader of the Brooklyn-based cantorial-rock group, The Sway Machinery, has just released a meditation on Yom Kippur’s traditional liturgy entitled Kol Nidre, a collaboration produced by Rabbi Dan Ain of Because Jewish. The album works as both a modern update and a sustaining force of the title track’s traditions. Where cantorial music has been relegated to few figures and even fewer ritual moments, Lockwood and The Sway Machinery offer a nuanced and relevant translation of an arcane musical tradition without displacing its complexity and force. As he’s done previously, he voices in this work the blues in cantorial melodies, the mythical reach of some of the most obscure liturgical texts, and the rhythms shared by both cantorial and other soul musical traditions.

Lockwood, the grandson of renowned American Cantor Jacob Konigsburg and student of Piedmont blues legend Carolina Slim, is at ease fusing various soul traditions. Over the last seven years, he and his brass and rock band have innovated three previous albums, Hidden Melodies Revealed (2009), The House of Friendly Ghosts (2011), and Purity and Danger (2015), each of which explore a cantorial tradition mixed with the rhythms and tones of blues, folk rock, and Afropop.

Unlike the band’s previous albums, however, the songs on Kol Nidre highlight Lockwood’s vocal virtuosity in ways that foreground the cantorial over the instrumental. The effect is one that retains the liturgy’s traditions, perhaps honoring their worshipful origins and homes.

At once stylized and minimalist, this album’s songs foreground Lockwood’s iconoclastic cantorial blues while backed by Lockwood’s own plucked strings and slide guitar, Shoko Nagai’s organ, and John Bollinger’s percussion. The opening, middle, and final tracks of Kol Nidre are varied renditions of the album’s title—a nod to the melody’s repetition three times in the traditional liturgy. And these riffs on Kol Nidre punctuate an assortment of takes on traditional melodies, ranging from the folksy to what can only be described as cantorial-psychedelic.

The album does not shy away from choosing melodies related to the metaphysical and even enigmatic themes of the day’s liturgy. And it is this bold character that is consistent across compositional choices, with many songs attempting striking contrasts among vocal and instrumental elements.

On a first pass, the most memorable songs are studies in such contrast, with each song pushing the limits of traditional melodies in new forms. The album’s second track, for example, “Ribono shel Olam,” is a dreamer’s petition regarding her dream’s unknown futures. Throughout, a dark and inverted blues twang underlies chants that feel both measured and mysterious. “Revive the Dead” starts as a quieter, though bluesier version of the same song off the band’s third album, but brings new life to the haunting Hebrew words of this sacred plea by the song’s end with a psychedelic vocal jam. “Avinu Malkeinu Zkhor” is likewise an update of an older Sway Machinery song—this time from their first album. On this track, however, upbeat drums and steady organ chords offer balance to and base for Lockwood’s leaping cries. And as an experiment in extreme contrasts, “Birkas Kohanim” offers highly optimistic, bright organ pipes accompanying far darker chants of the priestly blessings.

The other tracks are either easier or far more difficult to classify. “Unasane Tokef” is an impressive achievement of vocal nuance and pacing, and it moves more for its absolute passion than any other cantorial rendition I’ve heard. Perhaps it is only when Lockwood is most traditional that he is most detached as a chazan —“Lechu Nerana” and “Kedusha” were fine renditions of traditional tunes, but might have done more with their opening riffs. And the original English “Everybody’s Got to Be Tried” is perhaps the album’s anomaly on the album—both hymnal and folksy, Lockwood riffs breathlessly on the title’s words of judgment and resignation.

Most memorable, however, are the eponymous tracks that structure the album, and especially as they do so in an inverted manner. As mentioned earlier, the Kol Nidre melody is traditionally chanted three times, each time rising in pitch and volume. Lockwood reverses the order moving from instruments to vocals and from confidence to despair, with the final track, “Kol Nidre #1,” as the most raw and intimate—his vocals alone perform the song without instrumental backing, proceeding from a desperate cry to a choking whisper. At the album’s halfway point, “Kol Nidre #2” is perhaps the most conventional (for The Sway Machinery), with a gospel organ and Lockwood’s usual intensity slowed for comfortable pauses.

It is the opening track, “Kol Nidre #3,” which is easily my favorite song off this album. Here, Lockwood offers an instrumental take on the traditional melody, initiated by a repeated, wavering note on his slide guitar. As the melody builds with guitar and organ, it echoes both human weeping and bells ringing, as it calls—trembling—for the listener’s attention. (For a somewhat more expressionistic visualization of what I’m describing, The Sway Machinery released this music video of the song put to Archie Rand’s animated, pulp representation of the commandments in The 613, a collection from which the album’s cover art draws as well.)

With his latest project, Jeremiah Lockwood does best what he attempts in all of his work—recovering the haunting and mythical elements of cantorial traditions. By amplifying the voice of familiar melodies through the sounds of varying traditions, he not only deepens and broadens the reach of a fading Jewish art, but he does so for that one day, Yom Kippur, when cantorial music is, perhaps, most iconic and stylized.

Kol Nidre by Jeremiah Lockwood was released on October 3 and is available for listening and purchase here.

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Hillel Broder has written previously about Jeremiah Lockwood and The Sway Machinery for The Forward. He holds a PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY. Currently, he is a teacher and writer in New York. Follow him on Twitter @hillelbro. He has published two books of Jewish poetry, Counting Spheres and Daily Blessings.