Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The Flail – A Night at Smalls

Popular in Europe but not yet widely known on this side of the pond, this album will doubtlessly help the Flail reach a wider audience here in the US. Captured live on a particularly inspired night at the popular New York jazz joint Smalls last November, the recording quality here is terrific: there’s virtually no audience noise except the applause at the end of a song or two, and Jean-Marie Migot’s production (he also works with French psychedelic cult artist Jacques Dutronc) perfectly balances the instruments. The quintet’s previous album Never Fear (whose title track is featured here in a much more adventurous version including a somewhat devious bass solo) was a gorgeous collection of smartly arranged songs without words. This one shows the band going out further on a limb while retaining the melodicism that has been their strongest suit. The album opens with a swing number by pianist Brian Marsella titled I Love France, morphing into a tricky polyrhythmic knot and then back to the melody again. Of the two covers here, Ellington’s Oclupaca (if anything Ellington ever did has been underrated, it’s his Latin American Suite, where this one originates) is the best, a lovingly spot-on reinvention whose eerie bossa melody slips and slides out the door and then back in again to see how many people are paying attention. They also tackle Monk’s Trinkle Tinkle, which Smalls’ owner characterized as “Monk on acid” (does anything Monk ever did sound like he wasn’t tripping at the time?) 

 

Bassist Reid Taylor’s ebullient Permaflail II, the first part of an unfinished suite, underscores the band’s evident raison d’etre (their definition of “flail” is to “swing like crazy,” this one definitely in the Jason Giambi/Cliff Johnson category. Baseball fans, particularly Yankee fans, will get that one). The album concludes with two cuts by Marsella. No Sex in Spain is a true story (even the hookers were apparently on siesta), but it’s not what you might think, no tense crescendos that end up going nowhere: instead, it’s the piano working with trumpeter Dan Blankinship and saxist Stephan Moutot, building a slinky lounge number as drummer Matt Zebroski playfully kidney-punches the melody with strategically placed offbeats. The tune ends with more than a hint that things didn’t end up as badly as the title would suggest. The cd’s final cut, Slightly Cool is something of a departure for them, a wild “bebop vortex,” as the Flail’s press kit puts it, something they’d like to play as they accept their first Grammy. A joke, of course: this one’s as far outside as the band gets, a brisk run accented by Blankinship line drives all over the place. Not to jinx this unit, but it’s been nice watching them evolve: now’s your chance to get to know them before what promises to be the usual inevitable tour of the big-ticket, big-bucks festivals and clubs. The Flail plays Smalls on Friday, June 27 with sets at 10:30 and around midnight.

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June 10, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | Leave a comment

An Astonishing Debut from the Next World Music Star

Remember this name: Mavrothi Kontanis. You heard it here first. In a remarkably ambitious and even more remarkably successful display of musicianship, scholarship and archivism, oud virtuoso Kontanis is simultaneously releasing two brilliant albums of Greek songs, with a cd release show at Alwan for the Arts this Friday, June 13 at 9. The first, Sto Kafesli Sokaki is an alternately haunting and rousing collection of Greek, Turkish and Cypriot songs from the 1920s and 30s influenced by the influx of refugees from Turkey who brought their slinky shakecharmer music with them in the years after World War I. The second, the ironically titled Wooden Heart also includes a mix of sensationally good, vintage obscurities along with several equally superb original songs. While Kontanis’ core audience will obviously be those who speak the Greek and Turkish of the lyrics on these two cds, any adventurous listener, anywhere in the world will find each of them an irresistible melodic feast. It’s impossible to imagine anyone hearing one of these albums without wanting the other.

As a player, Kontanis has sensational chops: he’s in the same league as Simon Shaheen, but more terse, less inclined to wild excursions than meticulously plotted conspiracies among the notes. More often than not, he leaves it to the band to embellish the melodies, especially violinist Megan Gould, who serves as lead instrumentalist for the most part here since many of the songs on Sto Kafesli Sokaki are basically a duo between her and Kontanis. Clarinetist Lefteris Bournias – whose breathtaking, lightning-fast solo on Arapina, from the first cd shows off his scorching chops – with politiki lyra player Phaedon Sinis and somewhat ubiquitous percussionist Timothy Quigley (who propels the delightfully fun Chicha Libre) round out the cast.

Disabuse yourself of any preconceptions you may have about Greek music: this isn’t what you’d typically hear in your average taverna in Astoria on a Saturday night. Rather, it harkens back to the era just before the psychedelic, hash-smoking, politically charged music known as rebetika emerged in the Greek resistance underground in the late 20s and 30s. Both the originals and the covers on these two albums blend the hypnotic ambience of Levantine dance music with the often savage chromaticism of Turkish and gypsy music, set to a tricky, circular Mediterranean beat. Most of it is dark and pensive: highlights of the first cd include the viscerally anguished Armenita as well as Etsli Marika Dhehome, featuring a pointillistically incisive solo from Anastassia Zachariadou on kanun (a sort of Mediterranean zither, similar to the cimbalom, played with mallets to produce a pinging, staccato sound, like an amplified harpsichord but with more reverb). Ouzo is a deliberately maudlin number, Kontanis’ amusingly over-the-top vocal rendition of the narrator’s beer goggles (or, in this case, ouzo goggles) making them obvious even to non-Greek speakers.

Wooden Heart (referring to what an oud is made of) is where Kontanis’ heart is, an equal display of soul and chops. The opening cut, Wooden Kite soars and crescendoes imaginatively; Kontanis opens the shape-shifting, violin-fueled original Nikriz Longa with a thoughtful, incisive taksim (solo improvisation) as he does onstage with most of his material, including the following instrumental Ushak Saz Semal.

To Kontanis’ immense credit (at least to Western ears), it’s next to impossible to distinguish his originals from the archival gems on these albums (where he found them is anyone’s guess – and probably the equivalent of a doctorate worth of digging). For fans of great bands like Magges, Luminescent Orchestrii and the aforementioned Simon Shaheen’s older work, as well as anyone caught up in the gypsy music craze, both these cds are must-owns. What the Silk Road Ensemble was to the early zeros, Kontanis is to the later part of this decade, a master of many styles but most of all his own, for that reason one of the most exciting new artists to come around in the last several years.

June 10, 2008 Posted by | folk music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Isle of Klezbos at the 12th St. Garden, NYC 6/9/08

From the street, two female forms with horns were visible in the sweltering dark, silhouetted eerily against the blackness of the garden. Drums clattered from some invisible source within the thick shrubbery as the horns rose in a mysterious invocation. A shadowy, seated figure, holding what sounded like an accordion, painted little rivulets of blood against the night air. The song they were playing was called Intrigue in the Night Market. This was witchcraft. If this had been Wyoming – woops, colonial America – the coven raising a racket tonight in the thickets of the 12th St. Garden would have been run out of town, even hanged. Especially since what they were playing was Jewish music.

 

The leader of this shadowy organization, drummer Eve Sicular has two bands, Metropolitan Klezmer and this group, Isle of Klezbos, the world’s only (mostly) all-female, (semi) lesbian klezmer band. The two bands share drums and a horn section; what differentiates them is that IoK is a smaller unit, plays more originals, jams more and doesn’t have quite as encyclopedic a repertoire as Met Klez. Tonight was such a great show on so many levels: a triumph of sheer endurance, with the darkness, the creepy-crawlies in the garden and the unrelenting heat; an often pyrotechnic display of extemporaneous virtuosity, and a rare chance to hear IoK delve into the Met Klez repertoire with strikingly different yet equally captivating results. Tonight’s show, courtesy of a well-spent municipal grant to celebrate the kickoff of gay pride month, harkened back to another era in the East Village. The difference was that ten years ago, those who found themselves in the grip of this strange and captivating music would have found themselves powerless to walk away. Tonight, several tourists drifted into the space only to turn away or be pulled back to the sidewalk by their fellow suburbanites, mystified by the strange and often troubling tonalities wafting through the night air. 

 

First-time listeners, especially non-Jews might call what they play gypsy music. Much of it basically is: those haunting snakecharmer tonalities can all be traced back to the Middle East, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Roma. As they reminded tonight, Isle of Klezbos are at their adrenalizing best when they play their jazziest material, although several of their quieter, more atmospheric numbers were equally good. The dark, stately Revery in Hijaz was even more gripping than the version on their myspace; a nocturne by their reed player Debra Kreisberg was equally terse and intense, as was the East Habsburg Waltz, a gypsy-flavored tune by Sicular.

 

But ultimately this was a party night, Isle of Klezbos triumphantly reclaiming their own turf, a community garden dating to the early 1970s, when the whole East Village was one big shooting gallery. It makes a striking contrast with the sterile, sheetrock-and-plastic luxury condos pushing out the neighborhood’s remaining working people and retirees. Perhaps because of the garden’s centrality among these people, even as the party grew more lively, there were no complaints or vegetables being hurled from the windows above. For this gig, the band had Saskia Lane from the amusing cabaret satirists the Lascivious Biddies sitting in on bass, swinging the changes effortlessly yet looking like a cat stalking her prey, waiting for the chance to pounce on the melody and twist it around by its tail. Kreisberg, a purist clarinetist with impeccable taste and a love for dark, plaintive melody showed off a surprisingly playful wit when she played alto sax. Guest accordionist Patrick Farrell (from sensationally good gypsy rockers Lumiscent Orchestrii, and gypsy improv monsters Ansambl Mastika) played his usual darkly glimmering lines and trumpeter Pam Fleming (who also leads the excellent jazz group Fearless Dreamer) soared and pushed Kreisberg into some serious dueling. New vocalist Melissa Fogarty was at the absolute top of her game, cutting loose with a wail that was as sultry as it was clear and pure. Sicular led the crew through some pretty wild, extemporaneous versions of the Molly Picon classic Abi Gezunt (Be Well), as well as the coy Muzikalischer Tango from the 1940 Yiddish film The Matchmaker, wherein a guy apologizes to a girl for his lack of interest. It’s all subtext: a muzikalischer, i.e. somebody who sings in or enjoys musicals, is code for “gay guy.” Plus ca change, huh? But the song was written at the time when nobody, especially an orthodox Jew, could come out as gay. When they finally closed the show with a furious freilach, the remaining crowd was finally forced to confront the hundred-degree heat and swarming instects that Isle of Klezbos had seemingly vanquished throughout their over 90 minutes onstage.

 

Metropolitan Klezmer are also playing a free midday show (half past noon) at St. Mark’s Park, Second Avenue at Ninth Street on Thursday June 19, a great way to re-energize yourself if you work in the neighborhood or closeby. 

June 10, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | 2 Comments