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What Would Jesus Listen To?

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The Short Answer: An album called Judeo.
(Listen here.)

The slightly longer answer: While I always thought it was preposterous to ask what would Jesus drive, it does seem reasonable to ask what would Jesus listen to, which is what Hillel Tigay asked when he started on a journey to create a modern album of ancient music that could have been used as part of second temple services, the period when Jesus was alive. Convenient for Tigay was his ability to consult his father, a biblical scholar who was able to help guide him about the type of prayers that were sung and ancient instruments that were played in the temple 2,000 years ago.

According to Tigay, "The temple service had elaborate instruments and accompaniments." Translation: Jews used to rock out in temple. Who knew?

Tigay gave himself permission to wonder what the high priests sang 2,000 years ago and not what some Rabbi in Poland sang 200 years ago. In this respect the album Judeo, as well as being hauntingly beautiful, is also radical.

My connection to Judeo is a little less ancient and started seven years ago on a Friday night when I walked into LA's Westside Jewish Community Center where Ikar, a new Jewish congregation was holding prayer services. While the room was sparsely filled with people, it was completely filled with a voice that changed my perception of what a synagogue experience could be. I would later learn that the voice that went inside me and stirred things around belonged to Hillel Tigay, Ikar's hazzan (cantor). There was a lot of rock 'n' roll in that room and I liked it and kept going back.

Ikar, in addition to providing a setting to test and refine this material, was also a source of inspiration for Tigay and where he met many of his collaborating partners including singer Jaclyn Beck and co-producer Ross Levinson.

This album, executive produced by former Virgin Records co-chairman Jeff Ayeroff, is more layered than the music that is played in a synagogue setting. Tigay took full advantage of a studio setting and some tracks contain more than 100 instruments and vocals. The effect of all this complex studio arrangements reminded me of Pet Sounds. Judeo's influences are not limited to the pop genius of the Beach Boys, you can also hear Peter Gabriel, U2, Beatles and Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn.

When I asked Tigay about these performers' "biblical provenance" as a way to challenge him, he just smiled and said, "Great music is timeless."

This is Tigay's way of saying that although the texts he used are ancient it was very important for him to make an album that was accessible.

While Judeo makes the old seem new and the new seem relevant, this album is not a history lesson. The history lesson can be found in the liner notes where you will find an explantation of each song along with some personal anecdotes. I especially enjoyed the songwriter letting us in on his writing process, which led me to think about the inherent contradictions of writing ancient spiritual music in modern times by staying up all night with a friend in Mexico, or riding a scooter around LA and singing melodies into his iPhone as they came to him.

Tigay says, "Most songwriters will tell you their better songs come to them very quickly and in their completed form."

This statement stuck with me and I couldn't help thinking about it in relation to Judeo. Songwriters aren't writers in the traditional writerly sense. Rather, they are vessels that receive "things" that others are unaware of. Perhaps, this is why our connection to music remains so strong, because all good music is a form of prayer whether we are aware of it or not.

This was confirmed by Tigay when he said, "The ancients were keenly aware that music had a singular power to bring the presence of God into their midst."

Judeo's presence leaves me with the thought that because of its inventiveness within strict traditional conventions it will transform Jewish liturgy as Shlomo Carlebach's music did in the last century, and will be passed on by Jews generationally. Meaning that this album has the potential to achieve monumentality.

I say this knowing there is coding in here for observant Jews. For instance the song "Shema" is an ancient prayer that was recited in the temple after daily sacrifice and today is taught to children when they learn to speak. There is a meditative component in the song which is a reflection of the meditative moment in the prayer. All of the songs have these nuances that depending on your world view can blur the line between song and prayer. Where ever your ability to draw the line, the music comes first. And like all good music it goes deep inside you -- I have caught myself humming these songs upon waking up, something that years of attending non-Ikar synagogue services never did.

To paraphrase a famous advertising campaign for Levi's bread, "You don't have to be Jewish to listen Judeo." This isn't only music that Jesus might have listened to, but he might have danced to it too, so why shouldn't you? While people from other faiths might gravitate to this music because of its content, this is also an album for people without any faith, other than, say, their faith in music, which means that no serious music collection will be complete without a copy of Judeo.

You can purchase Judeo at http://www.judeomusic.com/ And if you are interested in hearing Judeo performed live come to Ikar for the best free weekly concert in LA 7 years running.