Pop/rock with ruach

By Dan Durchholz, Special to the Light

Josh Nelson sees his music as having two primary tasks.

“I really want to make music that is radio friendly and is listenable in a daily context, and to have it find a place where it can meet with my Judaic commitment,” he says.

Nelson is writing and performing constantly, but he probably reached his widest audience with his 2009 pop/rock album “Lift,” which was distributed through mainstream channels.

“It was really a neat thing to see it side-by-side with music that I appreciated in daily life and to feel like it was worthy of being considered artistically at that level,” he says. “Prototypically, there’s been a struggle in Jewish music – to create stuff that really matched up in terms of quality with what we heard on the radio. But it also has to be honest and worthwhile on the spiritual side.”

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Nelson and his band will be spending a weekend – Jan. 7-9 – at Congregation Shaare Emeth, where he will perform at services as well as play concerts.

“This is our favorite kind of thing to do,” Nelson says – “to spend an elongated period of time in one place. We feel like we can really bond with the people and have a bigger impact on the community.”

Community and positivity are two of the chief topics of his music. “Those things are the center of my Jewish life,” he says. “As much as spirituality and though-based aspects are a part of it, it’s also about being part of something bigger – a feeling of being connected to Jews, not only in the diaspora, but in Israel as well. It’s a big part of my identity.”

Recently, Nelson scored a high-profile gig in the secular world. He’s co-writing the score for a musical version of “Sleepless in Seattle,” which is scheduled to hit Broadway in 2011.

Working on “Sleepless” has presented him with a new set of challenges. “It’s a completely different approach,” he says. “So the goal is to bounce back and forth [between that and his own music] and to find ways those things can live alongside one another.”

For information about Nelson’s appearances at Shaare Emeth, go to www.shaare-emeth.org.

Johnny Mathis’ Jewish music?

Johnny Mathis recently performed in St. Louis at the Fox Theater. And while his incomparable catalog of music is beloved by nearly everyone, he’s not exactly a go-to guy for Jewish music.

But maybe he should be.

As it turns out, Mathis, now well into his 70s, recorded a lot of religious music when he was in his 20s, and some of it is actually making an impact in the Jewish community now.

Earlier this year, he was honored at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles for his album “Good Night, Dear Lord,” which, alongside Christian spirituals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Ave Maria,” contained “Where Can I Go,” a song about the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as the Yiddish hymn “Eli Eli” and the liturgical chant “Kol Nidre.”

The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a non-profit foundation, awarded Mathis its inaugural Idelsohn Society Honors, and his version of “Kol Nidre” was included on the society’s compilation CD “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations.”

“The four guys who formed the foundation wanted to recognize people of color and people who would not ordinarily be concerned with Jewish music, but who have recorded it over the years,” Mathis says.

“I recently spent quite a bit of time with them and their foundation and they’re trying to get into my head and find out why, when I was just 23 years old, I decided to sing one of the most sacred songs of the Jewish faith. It all goes back, of course, to my vocal training and the teachers who taught me and influenced me by giving me different styles of music to sing,” he adds.

“When I was making my first Christmas album, I thought, ‘You know, the next thing I want to do is try to share with the public my growing up in San Francisco and being influenced by all the churches I went to.’ I got kind of dissuaded by organized religion in a way and wanted to have my little say. I went to Catholic churches, I went to synagogues with my Jewish friends, I went to Baptist churches. So I put a little bit of everything into that one album, just to give a little background as to where I came from and what my beginnings were. And these people finally recognized it after all these years!”