New Orleans Klezmer All Stars / Manichalfwitz

Album cover: half-witted drawing of Manichalfwitz

New Orleans Klezmer All Stars
Gert Town, 1996

Boy, I dunno. The New Orleans Klez All Stars are probably the hardest-working klez band in the country right now. By a wide margin, they account for the majority of e-mail I get from people who have just seen an amazing klezmer band, or who are long-time fans. Just last month, having dinner with some computer interface folks, one of them says to me, "klezmer? you know, I saw this amazing band...." Brave Old World and the Klezmatics may have Europe covered, but NOKAS is the American Klezmer bar band, par excellence.

I've seen them a couple of times, myself, and I'm going to continue to see them again as often as I can. Passing through San Francisco a couple of months ago, they managed to play a succession of dives throughout the area, opening for a more traditional New Orleans band at the largest of the; for the rest, they would just get onstage and rock.

Having said that, I am finally ready to confront the fact that (a) I love this band, and (b) I'm not sure how close this is to klez, anymore. Having gotten that off my chest, I can also add, "and who cares!"

Look, we're talking about a band that records original titles such as, "The Bar Mitzvah of Raymond Scott" and then follows it up further down the album with "Benya Krik the gangster." By definition, no klezmer band recording a song inspired by the wonderful Isaac Babel stories set in Odessa can be anything less than stunning.

The band does cover a lot of territory. While the music isn't often extremely close to klez, neither is it rock nor funk nor jazz. It's New Orleans klez. This means that there are moments, such as on the "Chromatic Freylech" when they do sound relatively traditional, but manage to be all over the map in "Mazel tov cocktail," and wonderfully interesting, but definitely elsewhere backing the poem, "Would be Hungarian."

There are moments when I wish the band would slow down a bit and just take the time to play something familiar for a while. They do start to do this on the aforementioned "Benya Krik," but despite the pace, so much is happening that the song feels much busier than it is. On the other hand, that cut also serves to exemplify how "on" the band is. The theme is the perfect Benya Krik theme. It's what you would have to write if you were holed up rereading the Benya Krik stories--the moreso if you were to look at today's Odessa and realize that it is again (still?) a gangster's city--and started to play. But, by near the end of the album, "Leibdich and freylech" has that, "we're going to fit this into 3:14 or bust" sound to it. Slow down! Which they do, with one of my favorite numbers from concert, a version of "Dem rebns tantz" that starts off with a chorus of voice humming the nign, just right, just a bit Nawlins style.

All in all, I wanted more. But this is so much, and so good, that I can easily be happy with what is here until the band comes back through town. No problem!

Reviewed by Ari Davidow 6/29/96

Personnel this recording:
Ben Ellman: soprano, tenor saxophone
Jonathan Freilich: guitars
"Mean" Willie Green III: drums (tracks 2,6,7,9,14,15,16)
Glenn Hartman: accordion, piano
Arthur Kastler: bass
Stanton Moore: drums (tracks 3,4,5,10,11,12,13)
Rick Perles: violin, electric violin
Rob Wagner: tenor saxophone and clarinet


  1. Vi bistu geveyzn far prohibisn? / Where were you before prohibition (trad., name per recording by N. Brandwein) 3:14
  2. Mazel tov cocktail (Jonathan Freilich) 3:32
  3. Would be Hungarian (music: Jonathan Freilich/words: Delmore Stuart) 4:53
  4. Chromatic Freilich 3:36
  5. The Bar Mitzvah of Raymond Scott (Jonathan Freilich) 1:53
  6. Ich vein fur mein gas (Glenn Hartman) 4:00
  7. Urban Turk (Jonathan Freilich) 4:30
  8. Downtown Doina 4:15
  9. Mo white fish (Glenn Hartman) 3:39
  10. Fur my mame (Rob Wagner) 1:53
  11. Heiser tartar bulgar 3:14
  12. Naf toony 3:23
  13. Benya Krik the Gangster (Jonathan Freilich) 1:49
  14. A glezele vayn 5:28
  15. Leibdich und freylech 3:14
  16. Dem rebns tantz 4:11

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