Despite success fronting Jaffa Road, a Toronto-based band that mixed the ancient with the modern and the sacred with the secular, Aviva Chernick was looking for a musical outlet that embraced more of her Ashkenazi Jewish roots. She found the gateway to it under the tutorage of Flory Jagoda, a specialist not only in the Sephardic music with origins in Spain, but the Balkan Ladino tradition that branched from it. Three of La Serena’s 10 tracks are Jagoda originals, and the rest are rich with her influence.
This includes, notably, opening song “Ti, Espanya” (“For You, Spain”), a word of thanks to where this music began. Chernick sings it with a lullaby-like tenderness that matches Jagoda’s arrangement, and it’s the softer side of her singing abilities that continue to be showcased throughout the album. But there is some fire amidst the smoke and it builds slowly as the electric/acoustic textures that frame the songs emerge with equal deliberateness. This collection is a celebration, albeit a meditative one.
Though sometimes it gets a trifle too pensive, such as when spoken word passages emerge in the midst of “Kol Dodi” (based on the Biblical Song of Songs), it never veers from a genuine, heartfelt longing that Chernick’s intimate vocals bespeak and the musical backing enhances like a Balm in Gilead. It’s mostly the delicate, slightly quivery tones of guitarist/mandolinist/pianist Joel Schwartz that shadow Chernick’s every move, and on songs like the traditional Sephardic folk piece “Esta Montanya De Enfrente” (“This Mountain Ahead”) their symbiosis is remarkable.
Even so, my favorite tune is also liveliest of the lot, the Yemenite liturgical poem “Adon Olam” (“Majestic One”), a ney and percussion-laden haunter that paves the way for the acapella conclusion that once again brings things around to Flory Jagoda. La Serena is music for life’s quieter moments; make sure you have it on hand when the next one fortuitously comes along. -Tom Orr
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