When we talk about "roots" music, the thought of old blues, folk or bluegrass music often comes to mind. But for some, their roots have taken a more twisted path. The New Orleans Klezmer All Stars for example, provide an interesting history lesson of sorts, blending their influences of old Eastern Europe with the more "modern" takes of blues, jazz and funk found in their chosen promised land in the bayou of Louisiana. Most of NOKAS' releases walk a fine line between a more traditional take and more daring Jewish-wedding-on-acid departures. The appeal of the Klezmers, like the reemergence of bluegrass and old-timey music, is akin to the phenomenon that the most popular baby names happen to be the names of your grandparents and their friends. Spending much of their history rewriting and scribbling in the margins of the rulebook on Klezmer and traditional Jewish music, their newest release, Borvis (Stretchy Records), marks a decided musical maturing as the All Stars return to the foundation from where they began.
Which isn't to say that the Klezmers stopped having fun along the way: it would be more accurate to say that the album can be split two ways. There are songs that follow the more wild-and-crazy shtetl-bop of their past releases and then there are more moving pieces which often see the sextet fractured into a smaller version of itself to tackle traditionals or originals playing like the new traditionals of klezmer.
The title track penned by guitarist Jonathan Freilich is an example of the former where old-style riffs are twisted into a head/solo mixture as any jazz or funk tune might. It is in these solos that the musicians show off their alloyed chops, unlocking centuries of songsmanship through loose interpretations and jamming. But even in this number, the band is much more restrained as usual. Where Freilich goes, so does the direction of the All Stars: when he is getting dirty with a distorted electric guitar, the music takes on a new life – these songs, like "A Heimesher Sher" are the exclamation point of the Klezmers experience. On the song "Borvis," though, the choice is for an acoustic guitar, as it is for many tracks on the album, which lends to a more tasteful, old-style sound. While this may be a departure from the original "mission" of the band, the maturing of the music to its roots signal a growth for the Klezmers.
Along with Freilich, the band is Robert Wagner on clarinet, David Rebeck on violin, Glenn Hartman on accordion, Arthur Kastler on bass and David Sobel on drums. Having seen the band multiple times over the years, the line-up seems to be a transient thing, while the core of Freilich, Hartman and Wagner remains constant. Nonetheless, each member gets a chance to shine, both individually and in concert with the entire ensemble.
The disc starts off with a short klezmer breakdown called "Goodbye Big Homey" with just Wagner, Hartman and Soebel setting the mood. Borvis has many of these moments sandwiched in between the meatier numbers allowing the musicians a little piece of the spotlight on their own. These serve less as show-off solo numbers than a chance to meet the person on a more intimate level. "Panogiotis" finds Hartman on his own with accordion in hand, wallowing over his arrangement of this sorrowful traditional number. "Fun Tashlich" is a chance for Freilich to playfully pick on the acoustic guitar with a minimal background of accordion and drums. Rebeck moves to mandocello for a swinging "Nikolaev Bulgar" which evokes some of David Grisman's directions with bluegrass in a duo with Freilich, again on acoustic. The album ends much as it began, with Wagner leading the way on clarinet backed only by Hartman and Soebel again. The bass and drum combo of Kastler and Sobel play out their strengths best when the band is integrated as a whole again. Soebel handles the stop-and-go madness of the rocking "Naftuna Melt" with inspired ease. Arthur Kastler sets the tone with an exotic-funk bassline on the album's centerpiece "No More Freilach."
Unfortunately, this band works best in a live setting and no album can replace the sheer thrill of seeing the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars in person. This album does the worst job representing what you might get at a NOKAS show of their entire catalog. At the same time, it may be the best one to sit down and listen to. It isn't as adventurous as past efforts, but it is solid through and through. Of note is the excellent recording, as a listener you really feel surrounded by not just the music but the musicians themselves as the clicking of clarinet valves and pressing of accordion keys translates the bare-bones feel that the songs evoke. My only other complaint about Borvis is that the song order seems a bit suspect which forces the flow to lag a little bit more than you'd like it to. Just a minor quibble and I'm not sure how they could change it considering the wide range of moods on there, but it just doesn't pace well.
Ned-O-Matic: 3 stars (out of 5)
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