Where do the classics come from; the words and music from very early in the 20th century that so many take today and make their own…riffing (not ripping) off the Great American Songbook, each with their unique interpretations and melodic bent? It struck vocalist and songwriter Hadar Orshalimy that so many of the unheralded powerhouses were Jewish women like Dorothy Fields, Betty Comden, and many others.
In Witchcraft, the New York City-based musician has pulled together some timeless chestnuts and adds her smoky, rich voice in an important collection. “Willow Weep for Me” is slow and deep, Orshalimy’s phrasing with some of the most delicious and slightest holdback. In the title song, she plays with intervals, sporting a true pitch no matter where her range takes her. “The Best Is Yet to Come” has elaborations that adorn the notes with just enough flair to keep propelling the song forward. Her ensemble, by the way, swings easily, piano laying out love on the keys, percussion fizzy, and bass nimble and sweet. Not only a grouping of some of our most adored tunes, but an important honoring of Jewish women in this beloved body of work.
What inspired this CD?
A few years ago I was invited to sing with my jazz trio at a reception for President Barack Obama. While putting my setlist together I discovered that an overwhelming number of tunes written for The Great American Songbook were written by Jewish writers! I had no idea! So I wanted to shed a little light on these writers by recording my own album of jazz standards written by Jewish writers which I released in December of 2019 and titled “It Never Was You.”
Shortly after the release, the pandemic broke out and I was forced to tour virtually from my NYC home studio. With the help of my incredibly talented and vision-driven husband, Sheldon Low, we put together a fully produced, live band, storytelling concert of the album, featuring the music and the stories behind the music of these wonderful writers. It certainly was a different experience than touring in person but we were able to reach thousands and thousands of audiences and I felt that I was able to connect with my fans in a much more personal and intimate way.
We interacted live through the chat and Q & A after each show and the recurring question kept coming up – “When’s the next album and what songs will you put on it?” Fans even made actual requests for other Gershwin and Hammerstein tunes and while I absolutely love these writers and their incredible music, I knew that whatever struggles they must have had being Jewish and trying to “make it,” their struggles must have been miniscule in comparison to their female colleagues.
So I did a little more research and discovered the brilliant, fierce and achingly talented Jewish women behind some of the most iconic songs in history and I wanted to share them with the world. Specifically now, as a Jewish woman in America who’s also a mother to a young girl, I wanted a project that would celebrate and highlight Jewish women in the height of rising antisemitism and the war on women’s rights. This album is my way of saying we’re here and we’re not going anywhere… and we’re also really talented and awesome 😉
Have Jewish women in jazz historically the composers, lyricists, or other?
Historically, they were more often the lyricists than the composers but I think the answer to this question is a little less linear. When I think of the Jewish women of the Great American Songbook and their historical role, I think of them as trailblazers and as revolutionaries. Not just because they were women in a man’s industry who had to overcome social norms and at times their own parent’s disapproval, not to mention antisemitism, but because they were significant to some of the greatest and most influential historic moments, for example…Ann Ronell was one of the first writers to write both lyrics and melody, as well as a Disney hit song and a featured theme song behind the credits in a film. Carolyn Leigh wrote the last song Sinatra ever performed and the lyrics of that song were inscribed on his tombstone: “The Best Is Yet To Come.” Ruth Low, who was another writer who wrote both lyrics and melody and who was inducted into the songwriters hall of fame, contributed to the creation of the Canadian Songwriter Hall of Fame. Betty Comden and Dorothy Fields, who were two of the most significant female Jewish writers of the Great American Songbook, have won Oscars, Tonys and Grammy Awards among many other accomplishments and the list goes on.
So to me, their role was to be tough, resilient and never give up. This is why I recorded this album: to honor them and inspire myself and others.
How did you choose the songs? How did you decide the order of the tracks on the CD?
To be honest, what I chose first was the writers. I really wanted to pay tribute to the Jewish women of jazz who I felt most connected to and those writers were what guided the song selection. Of course, selecting the exact songs wasn’t an easy task either since there were so many good ones. But I went with my heart; I chose the ones that evoked a strong emotional response in me both musically and lyrically like “Some Other Time” or the ones I felt I could have written about someone I love like “The Way You Look Tonight” which always makes me think of my baby girl.
I chose the songs that I felt could have been written about someone close to me like “I’ll Never Smile Again,” which always makes me think of my mom after my father passed away, or songs that could have been written about me like “Young at Heart.” The order of the songs had to do with the general flow (upbeat vs, downbeat), the different keys (you never want to have two songs in the same key that are back to back on a record), balancing the familiar vs. the somewhat less familiar, and the overall tone I was hoping to set for the album. Starting with a beautiful monster hit love song by the amazing Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern (“The Way You Look Tonight”) and finishing with a less-known but gorgeous, heart-wrenching ballad (“Some Other Time”) by the incredible Betty Comden and the great Leonard Bernstein, featuring his famous dissonance tritone also known as the devil’s interval. I think finishing with that “longing” tune makes the listener want to hear more.
What’s behind the choice of the name of this CD, besides of course being one of the classic great tunes?
The title of my album “Witchcraft,” as you mentioned, was of course inspired by the great Frank Sinatra classic “Witchcraft” that is track number 7 on the album. But it’s also a nod to The Salem Witch Trials and the overall persecution of women throughout history. I had discovered feminism years ago through my younger sister Sharon, who’s a big women’s advocate in Israel, but it was the combination of the rise in antisemitism and the war on women’s rights that really made me want to make this record now. I wanted an opportunity to feature women, to celebrate their talents and accomplishments, and make sure their voices and ours are heard loud and clear.
The title, which by the way was suggested to me by my husband, was a playful way to say, “We’re not playing — we’re here to stay!”
Where did you receive your music education and what is the most important lesson you learned while in school?
I got my music education from Berklee College of Music in Boston and Rimon School of Music in Israel (which is an extension of Berklee). I think the most important lesson I learned was that “following your dreams” means you put out the best, most undeniable music you can and as long as you feel whole and complete with what you created, the rest will fall in place. In other words, be authentic, be true, listen to yourself and trust your art and the fans will see you.
How would you characterize your voice? What are your strengths?
I think of my voice as full, soulful, deep and rich. When it comes to strengths as a vocalist, I think that it’s first and foremost finding yourself in the song both lyrically and melodically.
I love singing those big, soaring, heartfelt ballads like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from my debut jazz album and “It Never Was You” but also those soft, beautiful ballads like “The Party’s Over” and “Some Other Time” from “Witchcraft.” I guess it’s a bit of a funny thing to say but I think my strength lies on both ends of the musical spectrum, from the super-intimate, almost cracking voice notes and in those huge, belting heart-exploding notes.
How do you take care of your voice?
I work on my voice with vocal warmups almost every day and when I’m touring and prepping for a show I add advanced vocal exercise as well. I drink a lot of water and herbal tea…try to sleep (as much as one can with a toddler), work out (as much as one can with a toddler) and practice (as much as one can with a toddler).
Your favorite type of venue to play (small and intimate, large, outdoors, festival, etc.)?
I have to say there’s a benefit to all types of venues. I love that intimate living room concert feel of literally looking into your audience’s eyes and seeing their reaction, and I love those big stages that make you feel larger than life and remind you just how much you love the stage. More than anything, it’s the shows where you connect with your audience in one way or another…whether seeing them sing along with you or shed a tear, it’s really all about connections and relationships for me.
Most exciting collab you’ve done?
I’ve definitely had some pretty great collaborations with some bigger names like Robopop (“Payphone” by Maroon 5) and Emily Shackelton (“Every Little Thing” by Carly Pearce) but more importantly they are close friends of mine, so I’d say it was just exciting to get to work with friends! And of course I love collaborating with my husband Sheldon Low, who’s amazing in every possible way!
I recently had the privilege of performing in the UN for International Holocaust remembrance and that was incredibly moving. It was televised and I was interviewed by a few media outlets that was of course very special but I think more than anything being able to stand on that stage and honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust was what made this experience so memorable and meaningful.
What do you hope people take from hearing this new music?
I hope they love it! I hope they enjoy the creative arrangements that breathe new life into these classics, I hope they’re mind-boggled by the unbelievable musicianship of some of the best jazz instrumentalists in NYC, and I hope they connect to these iconic tunes through my delivery. But more than anything, I hope they recognize the important role Jewish women played in creating this American art form.
When and why did you move from Israel to NYC and how has this impacted your music career?
I always wanted to study music and pursue a music career in the US. I remember telling my mom, “Some people make it! So why can’t I be one of those people!” And I still stand by that. So in 2004, just four years after I completed my mandatory army service in the IDF and two years after I attended the Rimon School of Music, I was accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston on a partial scholarship and knew I was going. I just didn’t know if I’d ever come back. I met my husband who was a mechanical engineering student at Tufts University, and when I graduated, we moved to NYC together. He somewhat abandoned his engineering career and began pursuing a Jewish music career, making him one of the top Jewish contemporary artists in the country today.
Living in NYC definitely comes with its challenges. It’s a constant hustle and it’s exhausting and it’s expensive, but the people in this town help shape you in the best possible way. I’ve learned more resilience than I ever imagined I’d need and I’m surrounded by the most incredible talent in the world.
I don’t think I would have had the drive, the vision or even the success I’ve had as the independent artist that I am if I lived in another city. I’ve had some of the most amazing opportunities here such as singing in receptions for several dignitaries (Obama, Clinton, Bush Jr. – twice!), the UN performance I had mentioned earlier and many many more. Even with all the challenges, NYC is what helped make me and for that I am grateful.
What do you love about being a musician?
Wow… a lot! Making music and being proud of what I’ve created. Playing with my husband and hearing how good we sound together. Working with my musicians.. Each one of them is a gem of a person and a world-class talent. Connecting with audiences…musically, personally, emotionally. Being on stage! Belting out those high, high notes with the band backing me up and feeling the energy in the room. Moving people. Seeing their faces change from song to song. Recording live in the studio! Two or three takes and done! I love recording in that way. And last but not least, singing with my daughter and fighting the urge to burst into tears when this little 22-month old sings in pitch! This might be my most favorite part of it all.
MLK once said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” With everything going on in the world today, specifically in the US and back home, I hope this album does exactly that. Thank you for giving me the space to be.
For more information, visit https://hadarmusic.com/home.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2023 Debbie Burke
Leave a Reply