By: Staff Writer - Lifestyle
|"The entertainment business is a
remarkable business," says Ira Heller. He ought to know. He’s
been a major player in this business for over twelve years and has
become something of a musical icon. His personae, his albums, and his
countless live performances are all firmly etched in our consciousness.
Ira Heller and Jewish Music - we can barely imagine one without the
It takes equal doses of talent and perseverance to remain a constant presence in the public eye for so many years. Especially when the public is as discerning and demanding as ours is. But Ira has always had a sense of the ebb and flow of musical tastes and directions. Since 1988, he has released five successful albums which have reflected the social and political predilections of our greater community. He is adept in numerous musical styles, and has graced hundreds of venues. He inevitably concludes that, "if you want to make it in Jewish Music, you have to work within the guidelines of accepted standards, while simultaneously being creative and unique. You have to reach out to others by combining the elements of who you are with the best of what the community wants to hear."
To Ira, musical success has been a learning experience. He readily admits, "When I first came into this business I was unrealistic. I offered to give myself to the world one hundred percent, regardless of what they wanted to hear. I kind of hoped that everyone else would come around to seeing things my way." But today, Ira is older and wiser. He recognizes "the universal principles of the entertainment industry: That the listening public will ultimately make its own decisions. That they will choose the genres that they are most comfortable with. And that performers have to give of themselves in a way that can be easily absorbed." Ira realized that there are newer and better ways to communicate his music, albeit without compromising his principles. "The idealism is still there," he explains, "but with an added sense of realism."
Ira takes this lesson seriously. "As a performer," he tells us, "I have this tremendous drive to communicate. But I also have a responsibility to recognize the market." Studying trends has been an educating experience for Ira. "Jews are very musical and there are thousands of songs out there that reflect their tastes and opinions." But as he was doing his research, he noticed a distinct trend. "The vast majority of truly great hits were written by a core group of composers and song-writers."
Ira was not surprised. "The same is true for secular music, he points out. "Marvin Hamlisch, Irving Berlin, Burt Bacharach – these are the names you keep hearing over and over again." These are the brilliant composers who consistently deliver the songs that people want to hear.
A similar trend persists in Jewish music as well. We’re all familiar with those select songwriters who are today as famous as those who are singing their songs. And by now, we are all clever enough to realize that behind every great musical superstar lies a composer - or composers - whose creativity and talent have helped catapult this vocalist into a star status.
Which brings us to the partnership of Ira Heller and Yitzy Bald. Seems like an odd couple? Maybe, maybe not. Consider their backgrounds. Both are considered vibrant members of the Jewish music elite. Both are well known and immensely talented in their fields. Yet each has created a singular niche. While Ira dazzles audiences around the world and reaches out to the thousands of loyal fans, Yitzy brainstorms at his keyboard, intertwining melody and Jewish texts to create yet another musical masterpiece.
That’s why Ira decided to collaborate with Yitzy Bald on his upcoming album. He had heard Yitzy’s music and was impressed with his rhythm and style. "He’s very gifted," Ira points out, "and he really knows his market." He also knows how to match a singer to his song. "He reads entertainers," Ira explains, "and chooses songs that are especially suitable for them."
The relationship is hardly "strictly business." Ira and Yitzy have become good friends as well. "I’ve come to love him, he’s a fantastic human being. Aside from the music, there’s an entire other side to him. He does a lot of chesed (righteous deeds) that nobody even knows about."
Lest you think this relationship is one sided, consider what Yitzy has to say about Ira. "He’s much more than the sum of his talent - he’s a real ‘mentsch’ and a very special person." But Yitzy discovered that there was a whole new dimension to Ira’s talents that hadn’t been tapped yet. He saw that Ira was well suited to adapt his style to appeal to a wider audience. And he gently encouraged him to experiment with an entirely new sound.
The results are outstanding. "It’s Ira all over again," Yitzy explains, "but with an added ‘geshmack’ (flavor), and a more Yeshivishe sound." The changes are subtle, but they’re definitely there. Ira’s diction and pronunciations are redefined on many songs. His sweet melodious voice is bursting with energy. And he allows the excitement and emotion of the songs to come through for us full force.
Yitzy, who had made his mark by composing hit songs which are consistently lively and energetic, considers this album to be the ultimate thrill. He seems genuinely pleased with the results. "The music is really pumping on this album," he tells us, "And the songs are fantastic, one after another."
Yitzy is the ultimate perfectionist. Whereas Ira waxes prolific about the philosophy behind the music, Yitzy gathers together the best that the music world has to offer to help create this album. He insists on flying to Israel to record the rhythm tracks, because, "the greatest Jewish musicians are there. They have a special ‘taam’ (taste), an ethnic feel that can only be found in Israel." And he gathered a powerful and mesmerizing choir, consisting of himself, Yaakov Gifter, and Shmuly Wald. "The biggest koach of our choir, "Yitzy explains, "is that we have a true understanding of harmony, pitch, timing, and energy. That’s certainly self evident throughout the album."
Ask Yitzy to point out some of the album’s hottest songs, and he is at a loss for words. Each one is a gem. Consider ‘Agudah,’ the title song (which is already immensely popular this summer at a certain camp with the very same name). This is a song that will ‘put a smile on your face and a swing in your step.’ It’s upbeat, catchy and – as Yitzy is wont to say – very ‘geshmack!’
The ballads on this album are especially meaningful and inspiring. ‘Shema Yisroel’ goes straight to the heart, telling the story about a loving father and son. The song opens with a scene of the father whispering Shema Yisrael into his newborn son’s ear, and continues saying it together with him every night throughout his childhood. Finally, it comes to the end of the father’s life, and the roles reverse, as the son says Shema Yisroel with his father for the last time before his death. Yitzy calls this song "Very touching, very emotional, very ‘hartzig.’"
Ira allows his own formidable composing talents to come through on this album. His songs reflect his sincerity and sensitivity. "My song-writing is an important element of what I do," he says. Ira’s songs can be intensely personal, and always passionate. "My Little One." which he performed live at a recent Ohel Concert at Madison Square Garden, has been ranked as one of the greatest Jewish songs of all time by Nachum Segal of WFMU radio. This song receives an ovation unlike any other I’ve heard at a concert event, and it is all there on the album for us to hear and cherish. Other songs by Ira are "A Voice In the Dark," a fiery song regarding the land of Israel, and the current ‘politics’ there, as well as all the other English lyrics that appear on the album.
Yitzy’s specialty has always been the ‘hora’ type songs. He anticipates a sensational response to one particular horah, of which he is reluctant to divulge the details. "It’s still top secret," he says. "But I’m very excited about it and I expect that it will absolutely blow people away."
No doubt it will. With the combined talents of one Illustrious vocalist and one gifted songwriter who are collaborating together on this project, there’s no question that this recording will rank among Jewish music’s finest. When Yitzy Bald considers the imminent release of this album, he can’t help but smile in deep satisfaction. "The album has everything going for it," he concludes. "All we need is a little ‘siyata d’shmaya’ (help from Heaven)!"