Naftule Brandwein

King of the Klezmer Clarinet

Rounder CD 1127

Yet more vintage klezmer to add to recent releases by Tarras and Hochman.  Brandwein's recording combos were smaller than many similar groups, and this must be attributable in part, at least, to his brilliant improvisatory technique (he was unable to read from the dots), which had more fire than just about any other two Jewish musicians put together.  Heiser Bulgar sets this excellent CD going with a real bang, as seemingly endless notes cascade from Brandwein's hard-edged clarinet.  In a review of the Flanagan Brothers - elsewhere on this site - I commented on the slightly demented musical genius of John J Kimmel, Michael Coleman and Johnny Doran.  We may add yet another star to that roster.

Brandwein's clarinet carries the melody alone, but the backing musicians are of an exceptionally high calibre, and add immeasurably to the whole.  The trombonist in particular, almost certainly Sam Speilman, is locked in tightly to the lead.  On many titles, Freit Sich, Yiddelach is a good example, he underpins the main melody with an exciting contrapuntal line; while on Der Terkisher-Bulgar Tanz he ranges boldly across the whole textual gamut, from growling bass notes to trilling staccato in the high register.

Solid rhythmic foundations are provided also by the anonymous pianists and percussion players.  These latter - perhaps the same men throughout the nineteen year recording period covered here - never use a bigger kit than snare, cymbal and woodblocks, but it is effectively sufficient.  The pianists - again perhaps the same man on all titles - characteristically provide little more than a straight two-handed vamp, although on Fun Tashlach the instrument really takes off, showcasing a wine range of fingering techniques.

Liner note author Henry Sapoznik observes that Brandwein has lost some of his former edge by the date of his final session in 1941 (reissued here in its four track entirety and completely new to me), but I'm not certain that I agree.  His dissolute lifestyle may, as suggested, have contributed to a musical decline, but his actual instrument seems a lot more mellow, which I believe accounts for at least some of the stylistic divergences.

Several tracks reinforce the widely-held notion of a pan-Eastern European style.  Freit Sich, Yiddelach, for example, would not be out of place on a Greek or Turkish reissue, sounding remarkably like an item by, say, Jimmy Apostolou or Klarnet Sukru.  Kolomeika is an interpretation of a Ukrainian dance played in the more restrained and straight-ahead dance style typical of the genre, but even here Brandwein cannot resist the odd flattened note, or passing rapidly through that mock weeping tone he sometimes used for effect.

Despite fine notes by the ever reliable Sapoznik, this reviewer would like to yet again take exception to Rounder's blatant disregard for providing relevant discographical data.  It's as if they believe that anyone who exhibits interest in the recording context is somehow a bit cranky.  (See Squeeze Play review, for an address to send your complaints to - Ed.)

But don't be put off by my bÍte noir.  This is a superb issue altogether, and the music will lift you out of your seat with its hard-edged brilliant innovations.  At one point (page 10) the notes, inadvertently I think, create the impression that the twenty-five tracks reissued here constitute the entire Brandwein output.  Not so.  Happily, sufficient remain for yet another volume.  I can hardly wait.

Keith Chandler - 10.5.97

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