New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: naftule Brandwein

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

“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.

Fun, Ferocious Afro-Klezmer Dance Music from Atlanta

Atlanta’s 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra are one of the most original bands on the planet. Part high-voltage klezmer ensemble, part Afrobeat dance band, part circus rock, with tinges of Ethiopian music and hip-hop, their latest album Abdul the Rabbi is one of the year’s best. It’s streaming all the way through at the group’s Bandcamp page. The mighty nine-piece group draws on Jewish music from around the world as well as African and Middle Eastern sounds, many times within the same song. It’s a wild ride.

They open Yemenite Tanz with an uneasy trill from the alto sax over lingering noir guitar chords and then the band comes in, blazing and pulsing, exchanging edgy riffs, with a couple of spine-tingling, menacing alto solos followed by an even more-spine-tingling, shivery one from trumpeter Roger Ruzow. They begin a number by klezmer clarinet legend Naftule Brandwein as a brisk, triumphantly fiery minor-key anthem and then morph it into a slinky New Orleans-flavored theme with a summery alto solo. Then they give a funk-punk edge to Fiddler on the Roof and take it into Mulatu Astatke territory.

The title track has emcee Zano Ludgood rapping over Ruzow’s biting Middle Eastern changes:

My merger murders the devious previous…
Both sides have claims to insanity
They both derive from the same family
What I have is chutzpah
Most likely it’ll lead to a fatwa

But it looks hopefully toward peace in the Middle East as it winds up.

Yesh Li Gan, a traditional, Middle Eastern-flavored tune which grows from eerie and somber to a toweringly orchestral anthem on the wings of multi-reedman Jeff Crompton’s arangement, might be the best song here. Toco Hills Kiddush Club, by Ruzow, works an anthenmic, cinematic, marchlike Ethiopiques groove, like a more klezmer-fueled Either/Orchestra. Doina Blues, by Crompton sets a similarly Ethiopian-tinged melody to a spare noir guitar blues with all kinds of intriguing moments: Ruzow’s trumpet shadowing the clarinet, a terse trombone solo and absolutely sizzling ones from the baritone sax and guitars, all the way up to where they take it doublespeed and suddenly it’s a powerhouse Afrobeat groove. The album ends with the cinematic, suspenseful Der Stazi (a reference to the feared former East German gestapo, maybe?), the horns exchanging voices with a conspiratorial defiance over burning guitar, up to a wailing guitar duel out. You want adrenaline? Give this a listen. Solos aren’t credited to individual players on the Bandcamp page, but it’s a sizzling effort from Crompton, Ruzow, multi-reedman Bill Nittler, tenor saxophonist Tony Staffiero, trombonist Nick Dixon, guitarists Colin Bragg and Edin Beho, bassist Kevin Scott and drummer Noah Kess. Count this among the most fascinatingly original and intense albums of the year.