Let's begin by noting that Black Sabbath the CD I am reviewing has nothing to do with either the band, Black Sabbath, or any of its vocalist front men: not Ozzy, not Ronnie, not any of the others. This Black Sabbath is a compilation of songs related to Judaism in one way or another by a variety of African-American artists. Thus what you've got is black and Sabbath, or Black Sabbath.
The roster of artists includes well known jazz and pop singers like Billie Holiday, The Temptations, and Johnny Mathis, as well some lesser known performers, like Johnny Hartman and Marlena Shaw. They sing in Yiddish; they sing in Hebrew, and they sing in English. The songs come from the Yiddish theater and the Broadway stage, as well as from Tin Pan Alley and Jewish folk traditions. But in nearly all cases the musicians make the music their own, sometimes so much their own as to be jarring to the listener familiar with the traditional versions.
Marlena Shaw's rendition of "Where Can I Go" for example uses upbeat Latin rhythms which seem to work against the song lyric's passionate plea for a homeland for those oppressed in the Diaspora. While the song does end with the promise of a homeland, the happy danceable beginning seems out of place. Lena Horne's "Now!" takes the Israeli folk standard, "Hava Nagila" and transforms it into a demand for equal rights. While there is no quarrel with the sentiment, it's militancy seems alien to this classic expression of rejoicing. The Temptations' Fiddler on the Roof medley does some funky things with the rhythms of "If I Was a Rich Man" and the harmonies they use for "Sunrise, Sunset" turn a beautiful melody into something eerily discordant. In general the arrangements of all the songs in the medley are enough askew to annoy anyone who loves the originals.
On the other hand, Cab Calloway's "Utt Da Zay" which begins with very traditional sounding pseudo-chanting and then morphs into some vintage jive with a Yiddish touch makes something exciting out of what is essentially an ephemeral pop novelty song. Eartha Kitt's "Sholem," her version of the traditional religious anthem "Shalom Aleichem," captures its spirit of fervent joy, even discounting her characteristic spoken interpolations. Alberta Hunter's impassioned "Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Leiba" is a beautiful take in both Yiddish and English of the oft recorded classic, usually translated "I Love You Much Too Much." The Cannonball Adderly Sextet's "Sabbath Prayer" featuring Nat Adderly's cornet is an eloquent jazz interpretation of the Fiddler on the Roof ballad.