The Glorious Debut of Yiddish Songbird Eleanor Reissa as the Jewish Beyonce
By Myra Chanin
Eleanor Reissa, the demure, traditional, world-class interpreter of the Great Yiddish Songbook, came out of the kosher closet during Kulturfest2016 and revealed herself as the sexiest Jewess since Delilah, singing minor key melodies with such sinuous body movements and enough verbal ardor to singlehandedly obliterate the century-old canard about Jewish females as frigid housekeepers, more fixated on the cleanliness of their two sets of dishes, pots and silverware than on the carnality of their climaxes.
When, where and why did all this happen? Last week at Joe’s Pub to celebrate the CD release of A Vilde Mekhaye – A Wild Ecstasy – on which Eleanor partners with the multi-instrumental trumpet-wizard/bandleader/composer Frank London and his Klezmer Brass Allstars on exultant melodies that would make hospice residents link elbows and swing their partners in a sher – an Eastern-European square dance popular during the early 20th Century at Lower East Side celebrations.
Frank London, a cross between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, blows the most powerful and versatile horn since The Angel Gabriel. He’s been featured on over 300 CDs and has played with a gamut of musicians from LL Cool J and Iggy Pop to Itzhak Perlman and was even featured on the soundtrack for HBO’s Sex and the City. His Klezmer Brass Allstars, a super-syncopated sextet, followed Frank’s hand signals and created an improvised musical wall of Jewbilation. They are the always splendid Michael Winograd on clarinet, Ron Caswell on tuba, Patrick Farrell on accordion, Aaron Alexander on drums, Yoshie Fruchter on guitar and trombonist Brian Drye who may be last on this list but first in the heart of his mother whose smiling face, she was seated at our table, beamed naches – pride in the accomplishments of her offspring – to every corner of the showroom.
The Klezmer Brass Allstars’ opening number was at least 8 minutes long and from the expressions of total joy on all the faces in the crowd it could have continued for 8 minutes more. It was the best band instrumental I ever heard! I hope someone recorded it because I suspect it was totally improvised. Frank and the Allstars played the opening bars, then Frank waved his hand and they switched to a different but compatible rhythm and melody until Frank waved his hand again and they continued on and on effortlessly without playing a single boring note.
Eleanor Reissa was center stage for the next nine tunes and returned for a three song encore. She is and has been a driving force on Yiddish cultural vistas for many years as an award-winning performer/director/writer but still looks like she just graduated from Brandeis University last month. Eleanor included two popular, familiar even to Gentiles, Yiddish tunes in her repertoire – Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn, The 1937 Andrew Sisters hit on which their neutral Catholic harmonies superseded any hint of shtetl passion, and Sheyn Vi Di Levone, A Barry (ne Bagelman) Sisters success, where an added bolero beat destroyed any connection with the song’s true origins. When Eleanor sang them everyone knew from whence they came and what the lyrics meant in any language. She has a great voice, an expressive delivery, an endearing style and an, entrancing stage presence. She also has a very pretty face on a very slender shapely body. Who even suspected she could shake it like that? I was familiar with many of the songs she sang, but her delivery made me realize they were songs about the joy of living, and not dirges.
Her patter is irresistible. She’s the daughter of holocaust survivors who grew up in Brooklyn thinking there were two kinds of Jews – sad ones and happy ones, and then she found out that the happy Jews were actually the Italians.
And if you missed the ecstasy of the Eleanor Reissa, Frank London and the Klezmer Brass Allstars at Joe’s Pub, click on the video above and you’ll see them at their not quite sexiest. The song is called Fargess Mir Nit – Don’t Forget Me, and Eleanor’s body movements will remind you why.
Where can you see and hear Eleanor, Frank and the Klezmer Brass Allstars in the future? I know they’ll be performing at Yidstock 2016 at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA between July 14 and July 17, 2016. Check it out at www.Yiddishbookcenter.org. If you like that kind of music, it’s well worth the trip. How far is it? Three hours by car or bus. Last time I was there, I had the world’s best tuna fish salad sandwich on fresh sourdough bread! Takeh a mekhaye!