Brave Old World / Bless the Fire

Album cover: I still haven't seen a Brave Old World cover that I liked Brave Old World
Bless the Fire
, 2003
Pinorrekk Records PRCD 3405039

Available in the US from

Pinorrekk Records website:

Here's the two minute summary: Nobody is exploring new Jewish and new Yiddish music like Brave Old World. And nobody is creating music this diverse, this rooted in Jewish Eastern/Central European roots so wonderfully. But even if this wasn't wonderful Jewish music, I would still be writing about it as wonderful music.

There is also an intriguing mythos that is part of the music. This is music that, to my ear, tries to invoke the shtetls that were. It is not urban Jewish music. This is not the music of Jews joining the Bund, nor of Jews reinventing literature or language, nor of Jews creating (or fighting) capitalism in the new industrial cities. In many senses, it isn't even the Jewish music of poor, ignorant shtetls sinking into deepening poverty under prejudice and pogroms and emigration. Rather, the music and the words evoke a bucolic shtetl that never was, and in doing so, create a vision of Jewish life that transcends time and place to speak to us now.

From the opening davening of "The Ladder," a song adapted from "Shalom Aleichem", originally written by 17th century kabbalists in Tzfat, and a song that had a profound influence on Hasidim, this album uses those images to create haunting, beautiful music, but also to speak to that world as we see it today, through lenses scattered around the world (members of the band are based in Europe and the US). To build on what was, so organically and so deeply, and yet to be entirely of our time, is magic. It's just magic. When Michael speaks, in English (it is so rare that English appears on these albums): "Let us sing, plainly and simply / of all that is down-home, near and dear / of aged beggars who curse the frost / and of mothers who bless the fire" we not only see the world that was in our mind's eyes, but we see our own world, and our identities as people with Jewish roots in this world. Earlier, he sings, "Diaspora, disaspora, how great your are / Holy shekhina, how beautiful you are / Let the diaspora be gone / And let us both be together", invoking both the kabbalistic meaning of the Sabbath with which the CD began (kabbalistic legend holds that on the Sabbath, the Shekhina, the divine aspect of God, and God's male aspect, are united), but also speaking to our secular needs and loves, of the end of exile that is true for all of us sexually entwined with one whom we love.

I don't want to get lost in the words of the album. I do believe that Michael Alpert, along with Josh Waletzky, is one of the few people writing new Yiddish music that compels one to learn Yiddish and that keeps the language alive and vital. There are also texts here by Itsik Manger, one of the great Yiddish poets of the last century.

The music is so damn deep, so stunning. Alan Bern's keyboards, Michael Alpert's fiddle, Stu Brotman's tsimbl and bass are beyond compare. But Kurt Bjorling's clarinet is revelatory. I have been a fan of Kurt's playing for a couple of decades, but he only gets better. And when four musicians of this calibre play together, the result is Jewish chamber music, hassidishe, Yiddishe, Jewish chamber music such as has never existed before. This is the music of which I once wrote, describing God, sitting on her throne in heaven, listening and exclaiming to the heavenly hosts, "At last I can hear it live".

Kurt's improvisations on "Mazltov Boris" are incredible. Indeed, if that was the only place where he gets to let loose I would be satisfied and call this album essential, "must have" and all that. It isn't just that Kurt is so amazing, or that the band is so tight, but that they are so joyously amazing. This is one of those tunes that revives the dead and makes the sad gleeful. But there's more - "Tsum Tish" brings out more of the hassidic side of Kurt's musical imagination (along with old world melodica by bern), while his improvisation with Stu, "At Midnight" is simply brilliant.

Speaking of happy music, Bern's "Still Happy," first heard by me on an album he released with the equally splendiforous Guy Klucevsec in 2001 (Accordance) is even better here than the original. I always have trouble identifying this as a klezmer tune, even though the pieces are all klezmer. The result is just too ... happy ... too cheerful for klezmer, but like Kurt's "Mazltov Boris," excellent tonic for the soul, nonetheless. But, then there is "Yankl Dudl," Bern's cheering-up tonic married to the whole pot of what Brave Old World sounds like at this moment. When Michael's voice appears towards the end of the song, it reminds me of that magical moment on "Beyond the Pale" when he begins singing towards the end of the "Doina Extravaganza":

... as the other instruments are added, the character of the melody changes, echoing Hasidic songs and eventually Anglo-American folk songs. Bjorling takes a wonderful, improvised clarinet solo based on a traditional klezmer dance melody. The text of Manger's poem reappears briefly, and the climax of the song is its softest moment, when Alpert sings the melody under his breath [in both English and Hebrew this time], recalling private moments when we sing "just for ourselves."

The album ends with an updated version of "Ez iz shoyn shpeyt" (It's already late), which first appeared on Blood Oranges. This is Alpert at his best (but so was the rest of the album), and a perfect concert/CD closer.

Every Brave Old World album seems like the best. They have all been so different that I am sometimes reluctant to insist that any one is "best". But, belay that. This album is the best yet. It is a tour de force. It is new Jewish culture in the best, most wonderful sense of the world. The only catch is that, if you live in the US, the CD isn't being distributed in stores: you'll have to purchase it from Once you have the CD in your hands to listen to, I guarantee that you will agree that life is better. Order your copies today.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 4/10/04

Personnel this recording:
Alan Bern: musical director, piano, accordion, melodica
Michael Alpert: voice, violin, percussion
Kurt Bjorling: clarinet, bassett horn
Stuart Brotman: bass, tsimbl, tilinca


  1. The Ladder (music: Bern / text: trad.) 5:46
  2. Gules, gules (music+text: trad., Alpert) 2:00
  3. Marmarosh (music: trad., Alpert) 3:53
  4. Der mentsh trakht un lakht (music: Bern / text: Itsik Manger) 7:41
  5. Mazltov Boris (music: trad., Bjorling) 11:22
  6. Hora Flora (music: trad., Brotman) 2:45
  7. A shpay in yam (music+test: Alpert) 5:22
  8. Tsum tish (music: Bjorling) 3:43
  9. Still Happy (music: Bern) 4:55
  10. At Midnight (music: trad., Bjorling) 4:06
  11. Yankl Dudl (music: Bern / text: Itsik Manger) 10:10
  12. Es iz shoyn shpeyt (trad., Alpert) 5:22

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