The last decade of the 20th century saw a revival of klezmer music, with groups like the Klezmatics and the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band. Reinventing the European Jewish musical idiom with a modern sensibility, klezmer music drew music lovers with its irrepressible sound and dance rhythms. Out of this renaissance came the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, adding a special twist to the Jewish roots music, based deep in the musical traditions of the group's hometown. Street parade and Mardi Gras music, Dixieland, traditional, and contemporary jazz were mixed with traditional Yiddish tunes and new compositions to produce a unique and joyous sound. The group was rewarded for its efforts in synthesizing its sound by becoming one of the most popular bands in the city of New Orleans.
The New Orleans Klezmer All Stars burst upon the musical scene in 1996. The exciting sound and beat, and catchy lyrics made the band an instant success. This was music you could dance to, and dance the people did, from the French Quarter Festival to school fairs to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The hot clarinet of Rob Wagner led the way, accompanied by a variety of instruments, from the saxophone of Ben Ellman to the accordion of Glenn Hartman, all dressed up by that indefinable but always recognizable New Orleans funky backbeat, provided by drummer Willie Green III.
Part of the group's success came from its endearing quality of not taking itself too seriously, to which their CD titles, such as Manichalfwitz (1996) and the Big Kibosh (1997), and tunes such as "Transition to Buffet," "Mo' White Fish," and "Aging Raver's Personal Hell," bear witness. Even famous columnist and NPR humorist Andrei Codrescu joins in the fun with some incisive narrative.
At heart though, this is the traditional music heard at weddings and funerals and celebrations of all sorts in the Jewish culture. The group pays homage to its roots with many Yiddish standards, such as "The Silver Wedding" and "Bweep Bweep." But the band, particularly on its recording Fresh Out the Past (1999), focuses on its own material, with tunes from the pen of Hartman, Wagner, and guitarist Jonathon Freilich. Songs like "The Unholy Chazir" and "Struttin' With Some Donor Kabob" speak to the past and the present, as well as the cultural heritage of New Orleans. The result is an alchemical process in which musicians and dancers form something wonderful in a new and unanticipated way. You have to love a group that acknowledges, as bandleader Wagner says, that without its audience, it would be just another Bar Mitzvah band. ~ Rose of Sharon Witmer