February 2000

Brave Old World - Blood Oranges
Red House Records RHR CD 134
Released: 1999

by Ian White

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]If Jewish music has taught me anything, it is that unfortunately there can be no beauty in life without pain. The murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust was more than just a systematic slaughter of innocent people; it was an eradication of 450 years of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe, including a irreplaceable number of classical musicians and Klezmorim, who kept Jewish music alive in the shtetls of their respective countries. Klezmer ("musical instruments") all but vanished following the Holocaust, only to be reborn with the creation of the State of Israel, although with more of a Sephardic flavor, and its current American revival started in the late ‘80s has exposed the beauty of Yiddish music to a larger global audience. My late Bubie often referred to Klezmer as "blues for Jews" -- she actually put it another way, but it doesn’t sound as funny when I say it -- and for the most part she was correct. Klezmer is about celebrating life, dealing with pain, remembering how great life used to be, and how horrible it was as well.

The first time I ever heard a live Klezmer band perform was during an Independence Day celebration in Israel, and it was one of those magical experiences that truly made me proud of what we as a people represent. When I listen to Klezmer, I feel a sense of connection to my past, and it moves me unlike any other type of music. In 1989, four of Klezmer’s leading figures came together to combine traditional Yiddish music with contemporary subjects and ended up becoming the "super group" of the Klezmer revival. Brave Old World’s powerful musical style, which combines improvisation, classical, jazz, and the power of Eastern European Jewish tradition, makes for some simply wonderful music that deserves a much wider audience.

One of the most unique things about the Klezmer movement is that there is a great deal of collaboration amongst the various groups (Brave Old World, The Klezmatics, Kapelye), and it is not uncommon for four Klezmorim of this caliber to perform together. Michael Alpert (vocals, fiddle, guitar) is considered to be one of the pioneering figures of the Klezmer revival and also one of the finest Yiddish singers in the world today. He was the musical director of the PBS special Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler’s House and one of the performers on the CD as well. Alan Bern (accordion, piano) is a renown classical and jazz pianist with an enormous following in Germany, and one of the most respected accordionists in the world today. Kurt Bjorling (clarinet, bass clarinet) has been one of the most popular clarinetists on the Klezmer scene going back to almost 1984, and his soulful and elegant playing of traditional Klezmer music has made him one of the most-sought-after Klezmer musicians. Stuart Brotman’s (bass, cimbalom, percussion) career in world music spans close to four decades, not to mention the time that he spent touring and recording with Canned Heat, Kaleidoscope, Geoff Muldaur and Ry Cooder.

Blood Oranges starts off with the rather frenzied "Wailing World," and while it is less than fun to do a hora by yourself (it’s not exactly normal either), the song had me out of my chair dancing with my imaginary circle of friends. For a Klezmer album, there is a lot of singing (unique considering that Klezmer is Yiddish instrumental music), and I found it to be a welcome change. The Yiddish language is quite beautiful, and for those who understand the language, the lyrics are rather magnificent. Alpert has a very rich voice and I was quite moved by his singing on "The Band," "Uncle Elye," and "Homeland."

On the instrumental side, "The Tsadik," "Night," and "Prayer" are three of the more exceptional compositions, and I must confess that it was quite difficult to not think of my late grandparents while listening to these songs. Bjorling’s clarinet really does transport you away and into the shtetls of Eastern Europe. The music is very much like the calm before the storm, and I found myself deep in thought about where I come from, what horrors my family went through, and why I am so proud of my heritage.

The overall sound quality of the recording is quite good, but I found that the clarinet was bright-sounding on some of the songs. It wasn’t irritating to the point where I had to turn the volume way down, but I found it somewhat distracting. I’ve never been all that impressed with the recording quality of any of the Klezmer recordings in my collection, but Blood Oranges is a step forward as far as I am concerned. It is a very well-crafted collection of modern Klezmer that combines traditional melodies with some very zestful playing. If you are looking for an introduction to the genre, this is the recording to start with.