The self-proclaimed “king of Klezmer clarinet”, Naftule Brandwein was born into a musical family in what is now Ukraine and emigrated to the United States in the early 20th century along with scores of other eastern European Jews. Over the course of the next three decades, Brandwein distinguished himself with wildly emotive and technically advanced playing that combined klezmer and other Eastern European styles of folk music with the improvisation and lyricism of jazz. Now, some 45 years after Brandwein’s death, Minnesota-based guitarist Tim Sparks pays tribute to the legendary clarinetist with a collection of 10 moving, elegant Brandwein compositions. Little Princess, one of the latest entries into the excellent Radical Jewish Culture series of John Zorn’s Tzadik label, features first-rate playing from Sparks, the phenomenal bassist Greg Cohen, and the extraordinarily talented percussionist Cyro Baptista.
Unfortunately, while Little Princess is a thoroughly imaginative and thoughtful work, it rarely evokes the fiercely emotional and often schizophrenic lyricism of Brandwein himself. Instead, with lush bossa nova-style ballads and ragtime swing tunes, Little Princess plays like an ode to the nylon fingerstyle jazz guitar of Andres Segovia or Charlie Byrd. Still, Little Princess is enjoyable in its own right, and it’s best to view the album as an independent work, loosely inspired by klezmer melodies rather than a tribute to “the king of Klezmer clarinet”. For a true taste of Brandwein’s genius, get your hands on a copy of Rounder Records’ 1997 release, King of the Klezmer Clarinet.
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