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Klezmer band strives for "new Jewish music'

Brave Old World is one of the top klezmer bands in the world, but you'd never know that by perusing the cover of its new album, Blood Oranges.

"The word "klezmer' is hard to find on there," violinist and vocalist Michael Alpert said from New York. "We're basically calling what we're doing "new Jewish music,' because we want to get away a little bit from this label. We see ourselves as doing something broader than klezmer. Also the word has come to mean happy, good-time and often poorly played music. There's more to what we're doing and to a number of the other groups playing new klezmer."

Klezmer is a Yiddish term for the music that was played at East European Jewish weddings and other celebrations from just after the Middle Ages until the Holocaust. Since the 1970s, it has enjoyed a remarkable revival in the hands of groups like Brave Old World, which performs tonight at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

However, as Alpert indicates, klezmer now encompasses musical styles ranging from classical to rap. Blood Oranges (Pinorrekk), the group's third CD from which they'll play selections tonight, is like a concept album, with arrangements of traditional music as well as original material, much of it improvised with jazzy flair and imagination.

"It's an attempt to keep the music alive and artistically interesting," Alpert said.

Brave Old World's other members are Alan Bern, piano and accordion; Kurt Bjorling, clarinet; and Stuart Brotman, bass and percussion. All were in other klezmer revival bands, and came together in 1989.

"I'm the member of the band with the least formal musical education," said Alpert, 44, who grew up in Los Angeles in a Yiddish-speaking family. "At 12 I put down the violin, picked up the guitar and became a folkie. The other members have studied and taught classical music."

Hundreds of professional klezmer bands have sprung up in the United States and Europe, but one country where the music might be expected to be popular has not embraced the revival: Israel.

"It's one of the great ironies," Alpert said. "In Israel . . . the state ideology was this powerful force of creating a new Jewish identity and leaving the past behind."

A further irony is the popularity of klezmer in Germany, where Brave Old World has a big following. Bern, the group's musical director, lives in Berlin.

"Germany has been one of the biggest markets." Alpert said.

Klezmer's most persuasive advocate may be classical violinist Itzhak Perlman, who has toured with Brave Old World.

Alpert thinks Perlman's involvement has been great for increasing awareness of the music. "It's really put it on the map in a lot of ways," he said.