Songs For The Sparrows

Nefesh Mountain

Eden Sky Records, 2021

REVIEW BY: Conrad Warre


Turn on the radio and most of the music you hear has been so electronically manipulated that you have no idea what that artist would sound like standing on a stage performing live without massive technical support.

Imagine Maroon 5, Beyoncé, BTS, Megan Thee Stallion, Dua Lipa, Greta Van Fleet, or even the Rolling Stones trying to draw your musical attention using only acoustic instruments and their voices? But it can be done. The proof is the duo Doni Zasloff and her husband Eric Lindberg. Vocalist Zasloff and Linberg on acoustic guitar and vocals create a musical landscape of unerring beauty, sophistication, and lyrical meaning, accompanied by a collection of supremely accomplished acoustic musicians using only strings, their voices, and a bodhran (a small frame drum originating from Ireland).

The group, Nefesh Mountain (“Nefesh” is the Hebrew word for soul), is Zasloff and Lindberg’s band playing bluegrass influenced and informed by Celtic, Americana, and Eastern European music. Zasloff graduated from Brandeis University and she started writing songs while teaching at her daughter's synagogue preschool. Lindberg, originally from Brooklyn, frequently travelled to Georgia where he fell in love with bluegrass music. The two met at Rutgers University, started writing together, and by 2014 they had successfully combined bluegrass with Americana, Celtic, and Jewish liturgy.

Songs For The Sparrowmy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 s is their fourth commercial release and contains fourteen tracks, thirteen of which were composed by Zasloff and Lindberg. Just like the auditory excellence of those early jazz albums recorded for Impulse! or Blue Note, with only a few microphones suspended in a church hall or from the rafters of a barn, you can hear the instrumentation and vocals as clearly as though you were listening live. The playing, the compositions, arrangements, performances, and mixing, and mastering of the album are all flawless. The album takes the listener to parts of the world we don't often see or hear.

The song “A Piece Of The Sun” is dedicated to the memory of Anne Frank, and the breathtakingly up-tempo unison musical lines belie the sadness of the subject matter. Unlike most bluegrass/Celtic instrumental arrangements, Nefesh Mountain pays careful attention to the “stacking” of their instruments and have the grace and musical smarts to add and subtract voices and instruments to add and create sub-contrasts in the flow of the tunes to best serve each song.  One of my favorite tunes, “David & Goliath,” is an instrumental bonus track where the guitars play against each other in the manner of a Bach invention – until they coincide in unison and then part ways again while taking turns accompanying the other beautifully.

“A Sparrow’s Song” disproves the adage that you can't make sad music with a banjo; it is an excellent example of how Nefesh Mountain is pushing the boundaries of bluegrass music by wandering through and changing keys to suit their own ends instead of adhering slavishly to one pentatonic mode for the duration of a song. The third song, “Somewhere On This Mountain,” co-written with Jerry Douglas on dobro, presents a sumptuous landscape that would melt the heart of Scrooge or Attila the Hun. Oftentimes, in acoustic bluegrass, the listener is expected to tolerate a little out of “tune-ness,” but one of my favorite tracks, the instrumental “Suite For A Golden Butterfly,’ represents an example of how brilliant these musicians are. Despite the complexity of the tune and the wildly different instruments that are at play here, their collective tonality is absolutely perfect.

The aim or intention of any great music is to impart atmosphere and emotion to the listener and this album leaves the listener smitten with feelings of joy and sadness – I defy anyone to listen to these songs and tunes and to be unmoved emotionally.

The ensemble for the album is Doni Zasloff (vocals,) Eric Lindberg (guitar and vocals), Alan Grubner (violins), Max Johnson (bass), and David Goldenberg (mandolin). The album also features guest musicians Jerry Douglas (dobro), Sam Bush (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), John Doyle (guitar/bouzouki), Mike McGoldrick (whistles), Jeff Taylor (accordion, piano, dulceola), Wes Corbett (banjo), and John Mock (bodhran).

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2021 Conrad Warre and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Eden Sky Records, and is used for informational purposes only.