Lucid Culture


Check This Out Before It’s Samizdat

The best metaphor for the show Ljova and the Kontraband put on today at Trinity Church would be open bar on top shelf liquor. That obscure vodka you’ve always wanted to try but never did because it was too expensive? Here, have a shot. You want a pint? OK, have a pint. The only difference was that at the end, it was possible to leave unassisted, without the looming inevitability of an allday hangover. This concert was exhilarating, transcendent, a blast. It’s impossible to imagine a better new New York band than these guys.


The idea of blending equal parts classical, jazz and gypsy music might sound impossibly fussy, but this band pulls it off and makes it seem effortless. Led by gregarious, engaging frontman/violist Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin, the quartet also featured subtly virtuosic percussionist Mathias Kunzli as well as supersonically fast accordionist Patrick Farrell and jazz bassist Mike Savino. In an exuberant show that went on for well over their allotted hour onstage, the group blended fiery gypsy dances, rustically melancholy songs without words, intricately and imaginatively arranged jazz and potently crescendoing classical melodies, often in the same song. Zhurbin proved equally at home with pretty much anything that can be played on the viola, from sizzling, Vivaldiesque runs to strange, ambient atmospherics. Kunzli alternated mostly between his hand-held dumbek and the drum box on which he perched and played with his hands, effectively mimicking the sound of a full kit. Farrell unleashed an onslaught of cascades that grew from a few tastefully placed rivulets to full-blown tsunamis and all points in between. Savino played virtuosically and cerebrally (which sometimes seemed at odds with the material’s emotional sensibility), using a punchy, staccato tone common in 70s fusion jazz bass.


Because Zhurbin gets a lot of work writing film scores, many of his compositions have a narrative feel, winding up in a place altogether different from where they start. There was great humor in several of them, particularly Love Potion, Expired which featured an extended, “uh-oh” solo on kazoo from Kunzli at the point where the song reached its expiration date. Zhurbin’s titles and themes frequently proved counterintuitive. The pastorale which opened the show was a darkly lingering lament; Szeki, influenced by Transylvania folk music was an ethereal, Jean Luc Ponty-esque soundscape; Ori’s Fearful Symmetry (a movie scene, perhaps?) was anything but symmetrical, a whirlwind tour through a casbah of the mind.


A Savino composition, How Easily I Get Lost began with a circular motif with something of a generic Afropop feel. But as it made its way through the other members of the group, the band took turns playing its chordal underpinning or playing melody against it, which was great fun to watch. Farrell’s Walking on Willoughby had his bandmates hustling and bustling through downtown Brooklyn while the bass beat a steady path through the crowd.


Zhurbin then invited his wife, Romashka frontwoman Inna Barmash up to sing a couple of numbers, the first a nostalgic tune with lyrics taken from a poem from the late 1800s. It started out with a sentimental melody nicked from Those Were the Days, but by the end, the band had brought the volume up to a scream while Barmash went deep into her lower register for every ounce of anguish and longing she could muster. It was perhaps the highlight of the show. She then did a traditional Russian folk song whose lyrics, she explained, went something along the lines of “I want to hurt/I want to love/I want to party.” The chemistry between the couple was obvious: party animals, both of them, or so it seemed.


By the time the band finally wrapped up the show, with yet another jazz-inflected gypsy romp, the crowd roared for more, but time was up. In case you were one of lucky ones there today – or if you wish you were – Ljova and the Kontraband are playing Drom this Saturday at 8. You would be crazy to miss them.

May 8, 2008 - Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews

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