By Andrew Gilhooley / 411
Alisa Fineman has long had a reputation for playing folk music with a lot of soul; she won top honors at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1991 for her songs and was voted Best Folk Musician four years running by the readers of the Coast Weekly. With her new CD release “Closing the Distance: Poems, Prayers and Love Songs,” she is turning to music for the soul, with a collection of traditional and original Jewish music backed by a mixture of Middle Eastern and Western instruments. This Sunday, she will be playing at a CD release party hosted by Chadeish Yameinu, the Jewish Renewal Community of Santa Cruz.
Fineman’s story begins in the San Fernando Valley in southern California. She was born into a very musical family her grandmother was a concert pianist and her great grandfather played first trumpet with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. She studied piano and guitar as a child and by age 11 was already writing her own songs. Her influences at this time included Joni Mitchell, Odetta and Kate Wolf. She gained her interest in world music, and Jewish music in particular, during a stay on an Israeli kibbutz at age 14 and at a summer camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that Fineman began to consider recording her music. At the time, she was attending UC Santa Cruz, studying Environmental Studies and Natural History. During her summer vacations, she worked as a fire lookout in Idaho’s Salmon National Forest, a time spent in almost complete seclusion. After graduation, she moved to Big Sur to help manage the University of California Big Creek Reserve. During these years, she composed a number of songs and in 1988 recorded them directly to tape. The result was her first album, “Cup of Kindness,” released on cassette in 1989.
“Cup of Kindness” received an enthusiastic response, and Fineman was encouraged to devote more time to her music. She began to host a radio show on Pacific Grove’s KAZU, showcasing her music and that of other songwriters from around the country. She toured widely both as a solo performer and as a member of Martin Simpson’s Band of Angels. In 1993, she released her second CD, “Better with Time,” and in 1996 re-released her first album on CD.
Fineman has maintained the spiritual side of her music over the years too, serving as cantor in synagogues all over northern California. It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that eventually she would release an album in the vein of “Closing the Distance,” which indeed closes the traditional distance between spiritual and secular music. With some inventive arrangements that occasionally veer into jazz territory, and Fineman’s distinctive, smoky alto, the album could appeal to a very wide audience. Join Alisa Fineman and her special guests this Sunday afternoon for a very special concert in the garden. You’ll be entertained and uplifted by her music.
First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, August 4, 2005
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