The Tarras Band Bring Their Haunting, Exhilarating, Historically Rich Music Back to Barbes

by delarue

“Lemme tell ya about Naftule, he was the biggest drunk of all of them,” pianist Pete Sokolow told the crowd at his most recent Barbes show. He was referring to Naftule Brandwein. “He was a real wildman, sort of the Sidney Bechet of klezmer clarinet.”

Sokolow has plenty of stories like that, and he loves to share them. He’s the leader of the Tarras Band, the all-star ensemble who play the repertoire of his old bandmate, the brilliant clarinetist Dave Tarras, along with music associated with other cult heroes from the Jewish jazz demimonde of the 1950s and further back. Sokolow self-effacingly calls himself “Klezmer Fats,” not because he’s overweight, but because he bridges the gap between Fats Waller and centuries of dance music from throughout the Jewish diaspora. He and the band are back at Barbes tomorrow night, April 7 at 7 PM opening for Slavic Soul Party, who made a name for themselves bringing funk and hip-hop into Balkan brass music, but more recently have been reinventing the Duke Ellington catalog. The whole night is bound to be pretty amazing.

What’s hard to figure out is how the music the Tarras Band plays somehow hasn’t reached a broader audience. It’s deep, it’s otherworldly, it’s historically rich and it’s incredibly fun. At their show last month, Sokolow reaffirmed his reputation as a living archive of Jewish music history as he chatted up the crowd and sparred with his bandmates, verbally and musically. When Erik Satie was writing his Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies, was he stealing ancient Jewish themes….or was Sokolow subtly interpolating Satie into his mesmerizing cascades of eerie passing tones? Maybe both? It was hard to tell.

Notwistanding his reputation as a hardass, there are few musicians who are aware of Sokolow who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play with him. This show featured Michael Winograd on clarinet, who shares Tarras’ crystalline tone and silky legato: the way he plays, even at escape velocity, it’s a wave that just happens to move up and down in microseconds. Drummer Dave Licht was all about counterintuitive accents and wryly vaudeville-tinged fun, occasionally smacking an upside-down cymbal atop his kickdrum for good measure. Bassist Jim Guttman dug in deep and darkly and bowed most of his lines until the end, when the music hit a swing groove and stayed there. Trumpeter Ben Holmes harmonized intricately with Winograd when he wasn’t opening a song with a moody, hauntingly Middle Eastern-tinged improvisation.

Early in the set they did a World War I-era narrative about Jews fighting in the trenches, along with alternately sizzling and brooding originals by Winograd and Holmes. Sokolow illustrated the similarities between a Russian sher and a Virginia reel: the call-and-response and “reptile dance” at the end, where everybody forms a line. They delved into the bristling, edgy catalog of Sam Musiker, an early proponent of klezmer jazz who was way ahead of his time, dead at 48 in 1963 – the same year as Brandwein, Winograd grimly reminded. From there they romped through a tango and a medley from Tarras’ cult classic 1955 Tanz album, a commercial flop now considered a landmark of genre-smashing esoterica. And as much as what this band plays is very distinctly Jewish, with lots of chromatics and minor keys and humor and irony, it’s music that would resonate with anyone who likes Gogol Bordello, or any of the current crop of circus rock bands. Be the first in your tribe to get to Barbes and find this band playing your soul.