It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of the Emerald Trio’s gem of a show at Trinity Church this past Thursday. Flutist Karen Bogardus, pianist James Matthew Castle and violist/violinist Orlando Wells teamed up for a fascinating and vividly affecting mix of relatively obscure material that gave them the chance to push the envelope and deliver a remarkably robust show that sounded considerably more hefty than one would think just those three instruments could deliver. Even by bigtime concert hall standards, Bogardus’ intonation was a clinic in nuance and subtlety, her attack ranging from crystalline directness to an earthy throatiness with an easy vibrato in lighter moments.
They opened with the comfortable late Romantic cinematics of 20th century composer Seymour Barab’s Suite for Flute, Viola and Piano: bright introduction, a dance theme that shifted from stately to swaying, a crescendoing anthemic Alegretto and carefree closing Giocoso movement. They followed that with the insistent, propulsive Allegro Energico from Castle’s own Sonatina, moving back and forth from an uneasy modernism to more predictably warm, consonant tones; it brought to mind the recent work of Robert Paterson.
Their take on Nino Rota’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Piano had majesty and suspense galore: its opening Allegro with gravelly piano and biting conversational reparteee from Wells, followed by the low-key anthemic Andante and then concluding Allegro, with more low-register piano, harmonies whirling in tandem above Castle’s brooding rumble. Next on the bill was Davide Zannoni’s Le Pressioni del Passato, beginning with an uneasy, steadily marching theme that unwound from plaintiveness to fullscale angst fueled by Wells and Bogardus, then a cosmopolitan bustle on the wings of the piano before Bogardus got to dive deeply into Middle Eastern allusions. As it wound out with vividly intense simplicity, it packed a wallop: it was the showstopper of the afternoon. The trio closed with Stravinsky’s Infernal Dance from the Firebird, in an arrangement by Castle which by force of necessity lacked the bulk of the orchestral version, although it was authentically infernal: pity the listener too close to the business end of Bogardus’ instrument. What a treat it would be to see this fascinating and passionately eclectic group in a smaller room, although realistically they deserve a much larger one.
As a founding member of the Dastan Ensemble, Ghazal Ensemble and Masters of Persian Music, Iranian composer and kamancheh fiddle player Kayhan Kalhor is in considerable demand as a collaborator: his 2008 album Silent City with string quartet Brooklyn Rider is one of the the highwater marks in music this century. Most recently, he’s recorded a somewhat different album, a suite titled I Will Not Stand Alone with bass santoor (a slightly lower-register Iranian hammered dulcimer) virtuoso Ali Bahrami Fard, due out on World Village Music on February 14 and streaming here. Like its predecessor, it is a transcendentally beautiful album, one that fits this era particularly well, never quite letting its undercurrent of anxiety lift despite the melodies soaring overhead. It’s a vivid, rippling, nocturnal work.
The question of how much of this was improvised and how much was composed is really beside the point. For the most part, the suite blends Fard’s ringing, cascading phrases with Kalhor’s sometimes plaintive, sometimes warmly sailing, often haunting sustained lines, silvery glissandos and his trademark echo effect, letting a phrase trail off elegantly into silence at the end. Fard’s precision is breathtaking, as is Kalhor’s. Playing a new instrument that he calls the shah kaman, Kalhor gets an especially breathy, raw tone here. Recorded in a space with immense natural reverb, the instruments mingle seamlessly to the point where it is sometimes hard to keep track of who’s playing what. As with much of classical Persian music, the scales hover between East and West, blending bracingly distinct Persian modes but also the warm consonance of western classical music. To call this cutting-edge is a somewhat of an understatement.
The suite begins with a lushly gorgeous, distantly Mediterranean-flavored theme, Between the Heavens and Me, opening with solo santoor: the Godfather obscured by an olive grove, perhaps. Kalhor eventually winds his way in, fluttering, taking turns with the Fard as each player shadows the other and then a brief, subdued conversation follows. As the piece segues into its second interval, Where Are You, it takes on a dirgelike sway and then grows more aggressive. A somewhat bucolic, energetic dance theme playfully titled The Laziest Summer Afternoon is then introduced, followed by the warily crescendoing, rather brooding Dancing Under the Walnut Tree. If that’s a dance, it’s less celebration than elegy.
Kalhor’s shah kaman then picks up the pace with an energetic insistence in the next movement, Hear Me Cry, which reaches a spiraling, whirling crescendo with Pluck a Star from the Sky. Then they return to a variation on the opening theme, Here I Am Alone Again: Kalhor’s stately, steady pizzicato interspersed among the rivulets rushing from the santoor establishes the work’s most haunting ambience. They close the album on an unexpectedly triumphant note, Kalhor’s resolute, rhythmic staccato rising against Fard’s muted tones. A vividly provocative evocation of the state of the world today, whether Kalhor’s or anyone else’s, this piece transcends categorization. Whether you prefer to call this world music, Middle Eastern music, classical or even jazz, it’s captivating to the point of being impossible to pull away from until it’s over. You will see this on a lot of “best-of-2012” lists at the end of the year.
When you hear “unpredictability factor,” that’s usually a red flag, whether it’s a boss, a ballplayer or a band you’re talking about. Butch Morris, on the other hand, has made a career out of unpredictability, which is why his “conductions,” as he calls his live performances with (usually) a large ensemble, are so consistently excellent. He’s been playing up a storm lately, on Tuesdays downstairs at Lucky Cheng’s at 8 and at Zebulon on Sundays at 4:30 PM. But for deep listening, his most fascinating weekly show these days might be the one at the Stone on Mondays starting at 7:30 with an open rehearsal followed by a performance of the material he’s just worked up at around nine. If you play improvised music, whether that be jazz, salsa, reggae or jamband rock, this show is a must-see – and you have plenty of chances to catch it, since his Stone residency continues through the end of this March. At worst, it’s a refresher course in good ideas; at best, it’s a master class by one of the most important figures in jazz and for that matter in any kind of musical improvisation.
Monday night he had an eleven-piece band to work with, a characteristically unorthodox lineup that included three percussionists, two bassists, piano, mandolin, bass clarinet, trumpet, tenor sax and vocals (everybody wants to play with Morris, so the players vary from show to show). As conductor, Morris has a set of hand signals not unlike a baseball third-base coach’s signs: it’s more complex than “back to the head” but not all that much more. Depending on where the music is going, Morris may add or subtract voices or move between themes from a sketch, a brief composition or something the group’s just made up on the spot. Conduction actually has a long, long historical precedent: Middle Eastern bandleaders have been doing it for millennia, and many classical conductors, notably Leonard Bernstein, have given it a go.
This time around the “information,” as Morris likes to call it, was a deftly assembled, brightly rhythmic, Brazilian-tinged composition of his that worked extremely clever variations around a central note. But the group didn’t just jam on the changes. Rehearsing it, Morris had the rhythm section begin it a couple of times before bringing in the whole ensemble, or a smaller handful of players as they felt their way around improvising on a series of three themes. If you think that watching the same piece of music over and over again for an hour and a half is tedious, you are in for a real surprise. The only player who actually got much of a solo this time out was the trumpeter, who finally cut loose with a vivid, tender, precisely articulated four or five bars. Considering the terseness of the rest of the individual contributions, that definitely wasn’t planned.
Otherwise, Morris hammered the point home again and again: simplicity! “If you have information surrounded by a lot of space, that’s good,” he reminded the crew. This was a talented but combative bunch. On one hand, the rapport between Morris and his players is one of complete, mutual trust; on the other, these are A-list players, Obviously, you can jam on any piece of music ever written, but Morris takes the concept to the next level. Musicians tend to gravitate to playing variations that work in a traditional melodic sense, but Morris wanted to stretch this crew out. At one point when the energy was particularly high, he had them each work out individual improvised riffs, then transpose each to a different tonality and then use those as a basis for more extended improvisation. The trumpeter took exception to that. “So she’s playing the second, and I’m playing the fourth, which will make it static and…”
Morris was unperturbed. “If she’s playing the second and you’re playing the fourth, that’s fine,” he said. The result proved the trumpeter right – for about thirty seconds, as the band held dissonant sheets of noise up against each other, and at this point Morris left them to their own devices. And it was as if the sun had come out from behind the clouds: working their way back to simple, memorable riffs on the original theme, they’d crossed a bridge, triumphantly, both together and alone. If Morris knew what was coming, he didn’t let on. At the end, he had the group do the piece all the way through, pulling musicians into and then back into the arrangement, throwing split-second individual mini-solos at various players, shaking up the rhythm (which is just as important in Morris conductions as melodic contributions) and turning what in lesser hands could have been Spyro Gyra into a joyous mesh of voices with just enough dissonance to make it real. Morris has done hundreds of these conductions: by the end of his residency at the Stone, he will have done over a thousand. You should see one.
To what degree is a player responsible for individual interpretation of a piece of music? When playing a piece of composed music, should the question be whether or not a performer should add any individual interpretation at all beyond the dynamics suggested by the composer? Geoffrey Burleson’s virtuosic performance of French Baroque and Romantic piano works at Trinity Church on Thursday tackled those questions.
His careful, precise, rippling approach of Rameau’s Gavotte avec Six Doubles set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. It’s court music: a stately dance and variations. As Burleson did it, it’s almost a march. That he found that inner core and worked it as hard, yet as effortlessly as he did, was an auspicious beginning. Saint-Saens’ Suite, Op. 90 was next. Burleson played it from memory with the same seamless precision. The question is, do you take chances with this? Or, are there any chances that can be taken with this, short of turning it into salsa, or hip-hop, or punk rock, in the process alienating many of those who know and love this music? Saint-Saens wove a series of variations on familiar themes together into this characteristically bright, warmly melodic partita: a prelude and fugue, a minuet, a gavotte and a gigue, and Burleson made them completely at home with a comfortable, fluid approach. Interestingly, he followed with Saint-Saens’ Allegro Appasionatto, Op 70 which is anything but, until its slow starlit crescendo kicks in.
The revelation in the program was Roy Harris’ Sonata, Op. 1, gospel-inflected fervor followed by fierily rumbling melody, equal parts blues and Romanticism and then a murky, martial fugue that hinted at the macabre but never quite went there. Whatever the dynamics for that piece were, it was a showstopper. He went back to carefully precise, rippling mode for Ravel’s Ondine and Scarbo from the Gaspard de Nuit suite, letting the nocturnal atmospherics ring out simply and unaffectedly without adding any fireworks or mist. That he could do this all from memory, all of it comfortably in his fingers, speaks volumes. His next performance is at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, 319 W 107th St. on February 19 at 5 PM with violinist Janet Packer, playing music of Debussy, Pierne, Kryzsztof Meyer and Vittorio Rieti, a chance to hear an entirely different side of a gifted performer.
Jazz trombonist Samuel Blaser has been on a creative tear lately. His absolutely gorgeous third-stream Consort in Motion album with the late, great Paul Motian on drums plus Russ Lossing on piano and Thomas Morgan on bass was one of those records which should have been on our best-of-2011 list but got cut since it had already received so much good press elsewhere. If the idea of otherworldly jazz improvisations on vivid Renaissance themes by Monteverdi, Frescobaldi and Marini strikes you as intriguing, the album is that and much more, minutes of exquisite beauty matched by Lossing’s sepulchral, austerely glimmering, sometimes chillingly apprehensive piano and Motian’s suspenseful clouds of cymbals alongside Blaser’s purist melodicism and occasional good humor.
Blaser also has two other albums out which sound absolutely nothing like that. The first, issued last September (and also available on limited edition vinyl!), is Just Observing, credited to “three-piece brass band” La Fanfare du Porc, an irrepressibly comedic, often wickedly catchy live set on the Moisturizer or Ilhan Ersahin tip with Blaser alongside bass clarinetist Lucien Dubuis and drummer Luigi Galati. Blaser isn’t afraid to go for laughs, and neither is Dubuis, spiraling and skronking over a boogie, several shuffles, dixieland and funk beats, with droll Spokes-like counterpoint and tongue-in-cheek Gypsy Schaeffer-ish diversions, on songs with titles like In the Shower and The Olive with Variable Geometrics. If you ever wondered how well a trombone could mimic hip-hop-style turntable scratching, this is the album for you.
Notwithstanding the beauty and brilliance of Consort in Motion, the most fascinating of all of these albums is last October’s release of Boundless, a 2010 live recording of free improvisations with Blaser accompanied by Marc Ducret on guitar, Banz Oester on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Done as a lavish four-part suite, it’s hard to believe that virtually all of this is an expansive, thoughtfully paced one-chord jam. Cleaver methodically builds six-foot snowbanks with the swirls from his cymbals as Ducret alternates between long sustained tones, skronk and the occasional, savagely understated, distortion-toned attack, Blaser and Oester taking turns holding the center. The quartet calmly navigate their way from warm permutations on a characteristically vivid Blaser riff, through a long (seventeen-minute) suspense interlude with Ducret masterfully shadowing Blaser, through tense, agitated noir atmospherics fueled by Blaser’s chromatics, to a conclusion with murky echoes of dub reggae. The chemistry and interplay has a singleminded focus, and for free jazz, it’s remarkably tuneful. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see what Blaser comes up with next – one thing’s for certain, which is that whatever it is, it’ll be fascinating to hear.
Vivid, intense and often unselfconsciously dark, many of the compositions on the Danny Fox Trio’s latest album The One Constant follow a cinematic trajectory, frequently into very creepy territory. If pianist Fox ever gets tired of jazz, he has a career in film scores waiting to happen. He’s a hard hitter, yet very precise and also very rhythmic. Fond of nonstandard tempos (and jazz waltzes), he’ll frequently loop a riff and run melody over it, or variations on that riff. Bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest and drummer Max Goldman are essentially a supporting cast here, but Fox works their contributions in artfully, whether an off-center conversation between piano and drums on the moody, triplet-driven Sadbeard, or the cello-like bass owing on the waltz Even Tempered, a deadpan mashup of Bach Invention and Beethoven Moonlight Sonata that builds to a completely unexpected menace.
Fox also isn’t afraid to cut loose with a sarcastic sense of humor: one gets the impression that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The Icebox mocks electronic club music, from techno to trip-hop, at one point the whole group joining in a leaden thump on the beat. And then the club becomes a crime scene with another welcome digression into noir. Then there’s Drama King, somebody who’ll do just about anything for attention, whether hinting at an operatic buffoonery or hammering again and again on the same idea until it’s genuinely annoying (the punchline of the joke is too satisfying to give away here). And Bad Houseguest starts out funky before the visitor begins behaving badly – and gets shown the door with a bang.
But it’s the more serious tracks here that really pack a wallop. The opening cut, Next Chapter juxtaposes blithe loopiness with Satie-esque menace, while Easily Distracted, a syncopated, modal tango of sorts, very cleverly works in major-on-minor effects: it reminds of Michel Reis’ recent work. Trudge trudges heavily in waltz time, from an insistently macabre, Tschaikovskian slog, to a richly crescendoing, far more triumphant theme. Likewise, Fable’s End reaches for a cinematic, dynamically charged sweep, including a digression into a surprisingly salsa-flavored bass solo. And the stomp recurs with a vengeance on the methodically more apprehensive Room 120. There are also a couple of more lighthearted, funky, even danceable tunes along with the brooding, tense title track, another jazz waltz with some marvelously well-chosen echo effects from Fox. As tuneful as it is cerebral, the album makes a great introduction to a resolutely individualistic, powerful voice in third-stream jazz.
Here’s an interesting case of how two groups can cover a lot of the same territory and come up with results that are equally compelling but completely different. Basically, Grupo Falso Baiano’s Simplicidade: Live at Yoshi’s is the party; Claudio Roditti’s Bons Amigos is the afterparty. They both play bossa nova jazz, for the most part anyway, and keep the rhythm simple and in the pocket – no hypnotic volleys of booming Bahian beats here. Both represent the classic Brazilian songbook, yet don’t neglect current-day composers. Otherwise, the albums are like two sides of the same coin.
Grupo Falso Baiano – that’s tongue-in-cheek Portuguese for “fake Bahian band” – have Jesse Appelman’s mandolin as a lead instrument, other than when guest Jovino Santos Neto isn’t playing electric piano or flute, which gives their sound a bright, rustic bite. Appelman gets a deliciously resonant, slightly watery tone out of it, much like a Portuguese guitar, alongside Brian Moran on 7-string acoustic guitar, Zack Pitt-Smith on reeds and Ami Molinelli on terse, purist percussion. Their opener here, Caminhando, is typical, a happy samba but with bite, Pitt-Smith’s balmy solo contrasting with Appelman’s spikily caffeinated lead lines. They do the same thing with Jacobo de Bandolim’s bossa nova title track, shifting methodically from pensive to triumphant, Appelman finally ringing out joyously over the final verse.
The thicket of textures from piano, guitar and mando get lush but aggressive on Pixinguinha’s Cheguei – they way they do it, it’s two steps from being a surf song. A trio of Santos Neto compositions follow: first, Feira Livre, scurrying warily with extra thump on the low end from guest percussionist Brian Rice, lit up by an animated Pitt-Smith alto sax solo. Kenne E Voce starts out as a jam with the two flutes floating overhead but then gets a welcome shot of adrenaline as Santos Neto switches back to keys. The third of his tracks is a beautifully expansive ballad, with affectingly starlit piano and pensive alto sax work.
Altamiro Carrilho’s Bem Brasil is done somewhat coyly, with constant rhythmic shifts and a surprisingly slamming outro; Sivuca’s Deixa O Breque amps up its balmy tropicalisms, while Bandolim’s Doce De Coco gets a cinematic, Henry Mancini-ish treatment, building from Santos Neto’s solo piano intro to Appelman’s ragtimish solo. They close with a joyously romping take on Sivuca’s Forro Na Penha.
Where Grupo Falso Baiano work a fast dance vibe elegantly, trumpeter Claudio Roditi reaches for a slightly slower, more cosmopolitan one alongside Donald Vega on piano, Marco Panascia on bass, Romero Lubambo on guitars and Mauricio Zottarelli on drums. Egberto Gismonti’s O Sonho – a prototype for many pop songs, most famously Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out – opens the album as a full-band study in dynamic shifts, rising and falling, Roditi taking it out on a surprisingly moody note with a characteristically crystalline solo. They raid a more recent era for Eliane Elias’ bittersweet Para Nade, followed by Roditi’s Bossa De Monk, done simple and proper with the trumpeter emulating a Charlie Rouse-style fluttery/calm diptpych. The title track, a Toninho Horta ballad, gets a warm, wee-hours treatment; after that, they swing Roditi’s own, clever composition Levitation – an artful arrangement of two shifting two-chord vamps – with a carefree, bluesy vibe.
Roditi’s most effortlessly stunning track here, Fantasia (Stella), has the trumpeter holding the center after Vega’s memorably murky solo intro, through wary banks of chromatics and a similarly apprehensive bass solo, Lubambo finally spiraling free of the tension. They end the album with another Elias tune, Amandamada, a playfully syncopated showcase for Lubambo, and then a high-spirited original, Roditi’s own piccolo samba, where he plays animated flutelike cadences on piccolo trumpet.
Jay Vilnai may be best known as an eclectic, intense guitarist and connoisseur of gypsy music. He’s also a formidable composer, most recently reaffirmed by his new collection, Shakespeare Songs, a setting of six Shakespeare texts sung with counterintuitive relish by soprano Gelsey Bell over the often downright creepy strings of the Mivos String Trio. Much of this is sort of a missing link between Rasputina and Bernard Herrmann.
The Mourning Song from Cymbeline matches an austerely aching string melody to soulfully apprehensive vocals. Set to a stately, insistent rhythm, it’s a brooding reflection on mortality, with just enough bracing atonality to give the dirge a genuinely creepy otherworldliness. The second cut, To Dream Again is a vignette anchored by stark lo/hi contrast between cello and violin. Sigh No More (from Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene 2), a slow waltz fueled by pizzicato cello, has Bell adding a strikingly melismatic, soul-inflected quality: she gets the max out of her occasional flights as it builds with understated counterpoint and hints at vaudeville. Rather than “converting all your sounds of woe,” as the Bard suggests, the song plays up the pain of the past, with a deliciously creepy outro.
There’s also a wry humor here, particularly in Behind the Door (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1), its clever mimicry, ghostly ambience and ethereal overtones making a marvelously nocturnal backdrop for the ghoulish lyric:
Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide
It it grows to a march with clever counterpoint and a deadpan horror-movie conclusion. Likewise, I Have Drunk and Seen the Spider, from The Winter’s Tale, Act II, Scene 1 – a Melora Creager-esque spoken-word piece – playfully looks at the power of suggestion. The final track is an operatic take on the old folk song Hey Ho the Wind and the Rain, its shifting astringencies making a marvelously menacing contrast with the blitheness of the melody. The musicianship is understated, with nuanced dynamics by the entire ensemble: Joshua Modney on violin, Victor Lowrie on viola and Isabel Castellvi (also of exhilirating worldbeat string band Copal) on cello. Throughout the songs, Vilnai’s arrangements are strikingly terse and economical, not to mention memorable – indie classical doesn’t get any better than this.
Winter Jazzfest, the annual festival where some of the cheesy Bleecker Street clubs turn into an astonishingly eclectic jazz mecca for a couple of nights, has come to dovetail with the annual booking agents’ convention otherwise known as APAP. That’s a great thing for the artists, who get a chance to turn their shows into auditions for at least potentially lucrative gigs; it’s a less auspicious development for the general public. More on that later. Friday’s lineup actually looked at first glance to be more enticing than Saturday’s, but Friday night there was an even better concert at Alwan for the Arts.
Once Jazzfest day two began, it was clear that the night had the potential to be an embarrassment of riches. From this particular perspective, the evening began and ended with familiar sounds – the pleasantly melodic, creatively orchestrated, occasionally modal postbop of pianist Laurence Hobgood and his sextet at le Poisson Rouge to kick things off – and ended with the high-energy, solo-centric psychedelic funk-bop of trumpeter Wallace Roney and his group at Sullivan Hall. In between, there were seemingly unlimited choices, many of them Hobson’s Choices: the best way to approach this festival is to bring a friend, see a completely different series of shows, record everything and then exchange recordings afterward. There’s literally something for every taste here, from the most mainstream to the most exciting.
As Hobgood’s set was winding down, bassist Jason Ajemian’s Highlife were launching into their possibly satirical, assaultive no wave funk at Kenny’s Castaways. Down the block at the Bitter End, bassist Stephan Crump led his Rosetta Trio with guitarists Liberty Ellman on acoustic and Jamie Fox on electric, through a series of jazzed-up Grateful Dead-style vamps and big-sky themes. Then, back at Kenny’s Castaways, the pyrotechnics began with Herculaneum: what a great find that Chicago band is. With a blazing four-horn frontline, hypnotically catchy, repetitive bass and a remarkably terse, creative drummer in Dylan Ryan, they groove with a ferocity seldom seen in this part of town. Where in New York do they typically play? For starters, Zebulon and Cake Shop. They opened with their best number, the horns agitatedly but smoothly trading off in lushly interwoven counterpoint, tenor saxophonist Nate Lepine – who seems to be one of the ringleaders of this crew – sailing intensely yet tunefully through a couple of long solos before handing it over to trombonist Nick Broste, who brought in an unexpectedly suspenseful noir vibe before the towering, vivid chart that ended it on a high note. Wow! The rest of the set included syncopated, Ethiopian-tinged funk that wouldn’t be out of place in the recent Either/Orchestra catalog; a wryly catchy, swaying midtempo number that reminded a little of Moisturizer, with Lepine wandering warily into noir territory before David McDonnell’s alto sax swirled in to save everything; an Indian-inflected flute tune; a delicious 11/4 clave piece with some tricky, microtonal playing by Lepine; and a memorably psychedelic shuffle that sounded like a beefed-up version of Moon Hooch. Fans of more traditional jazz might be wondering who the hell those bands are, but to a younger generation of New Yorkers, they’re very popular, even iconic. It was good to see Herculaneum get the chance to represent the future of jazz so auspiciously here.
And it was an unexpected treat to be able to get a seat to see their set; by ten PM, that was no longer in the cards. For that matter, neither was seeing Vijay Iyer and his trio, or for that matter Matt Wilson with his quartet and a string section, unless you were already in the club, because both le Poisson Rouge and the Bitter End were sold out, lines reaching halfway down the block. It was nice to see a young, scruffy crowd that doesn’t usually spend much time in the pricier jazz clubs come out and testify to the fact that Matt Wilson is worth standing in line for; it would have been nicer to have actually seen him play.
But there was still space over at Sullivan Hall to see pianist Fabian Almazan and his rhythm section, with bassist Linda Oh playing terrifically vivid, horn-inflected lines as he showed off his dazzling technique. Then he brought up an all-star string section of violinists Megan Gould (who’d just stunned the crowd the night before at Maqamfest with Maeandros) and Jenny Scheinman, the Roulette Sisters’ Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld (who has a great new album of Jewish music with pianist Lee Feldman) playing his cello with a vibrato you could drive a truck through, tackling a jazz arrangement of a Shostakovich string quartet and making it look easy without losing any of the original’s haunting quality. Which was especially good for Almazan, because it made him slow down, focus and make his notes count: it’s a no-brainer that he can do it, but it’s good to see that he actually enjoys doing it. Then they followed with an equally captivating, brooding third-stream arrangement of a Cuban folk ballad.
Back at Kenny’s Castaways again, “bebop terrorists” Mostly Other People Do the Killing had just wrapped up their set (this club seems to be where the festival hid all the edgiest acts). Bassist Shahzad Ismaily was next, leading a trio with Mat Maneri on violin and Ches Smith on drums. This was the most radically improvisational set of the night and was every bit as fun as Herculaneum had been. Ismaily quickly became a human loop machine, running hypnotic riff after hypnotic riff for minutes on end as Smith colored them with every timbre he could coax from the kit, whether rubbing the drum heads til they hummed or expertly flicking at every piece of metal within reach while Maneri alternated between hammering staccato, ghostly atmospherics and bluesy wails much in the same vein as the late, great Billy Bang. As deliciously atonal and often abrasive as much of the music was, the warm camaraderie between the musicians was obvious, violin and bass at one point involved in an animated conversation fueled by the sheets of feedback screaming from Ismaily’s amp, after which point they kept going at each other but as if from behind a wall, jabbing playfully at each others’ phrases.
By midnight, Sullivan Hall was about to reach critical mass, crowdwise if not exactly musically. Would it make sense to stick around for the 2 AM grooves of Soul Cycle followed by Marc Cary, or to see if there might be any room at the festival’s smallest venue, Zinc Bar, to check out Sharel Cassity’s set with Xavier Davis on piano at one in the morning? After more than five hours worth of music, and not having gotten home until four the previous morning, it was time to call it a night – and then get up and do it all over again one final time at Globalfest on Sunday evening.
And while it’s heartwarming to see such a good turnout of passionate jazz fans, not everyone who was packing the clubs was there for the music. What quickly became obvious as the night wore on is that many of the people there, most noticeably the drunks bellowing at each other over the music, were tourists from the suburbs who make this part of “Green Witch Village” their home on Saturday nights. Initially baffled when they discovered that they couldn’t get inside their usual haunts without a pass, they simply went around the corner to the ticket window at the Theatre for the New City space, pulled out their moms’ credit cards, and you know the rest. A word to the wise for next year: if you really must see one of the ten PM acts, get where they’re playing by nine or risk missing them. And you might want to hang there for the rest of the night as well.
The first weekend after New Year’s in New York is the booking agents’ convention a.k.a. APAP, and most of the shows put on for conventiongoers are also open to the public. Because the artists performing are all auditioning for at least theoretically lucrative gigs, they’re usually at the top of their game. As a result, some of the year’s most extraordinary bills, and extraordinary performances, happen here, and this past weekend was no exception. While Winter Jazzfest on Saturday night and then Globalfest on Sunday – both part of the convention – had their moments, the best show of the weekend was the first annual Maqamfest at Alwan for the Arts.
The maqam trail, with its otherworldly microtones and eerie chromatics, stretches from northern Africa to central Asia, and across the Mediterranean to the Balkans. In a spectacularly successful attempt to cover as much ground as possible, the organizers assembled a diverse program including music from but not limited to Egypt, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and many points in between. Organizer Sami Abu Shumays – virtuoso violinist and leader of the first act on the bill, Zikrayat – took care to point out that while each group drew on centuries, maybe millennia of tradition, each added their own individual vision to the music. Middle Eastern cultures don’t typically differentiate between classical, and folk, and pop music as westerners do, anyway: over there, music is music, pure and simple.
In introducing the program, what Shumays omitted, maybe out of modesty, is that the players on the bill were not only some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians outside the Middle East: they’re some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians anywhere in the world. They make their home at Alwan for the Arts downtown, where a vital, cutting-edge scene has evolved. What the Paris salons of a hundred years ago were for classical, the 52nd Street clubs were for jazz in the forties and fifties and what CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s, Alwan for the Arts is for music from the Middle East now. Unsurprisingly, the acts on the bill each brought classical purism, jazzlike improvisation and some punk rock fearlessness too.
The most traditionally-oriented group was Safaafir. A trio led by Alwan music honcho Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena (virtuoso of the jowza fiddle and leader of the considerably different but equally exciting Salaam), Safaafir play hypnotically rhythmic, centuries-old Iraqi court music and folk songs. The band name means “coppersmiths” in Persian, which is fitting because that’s what the ElSaffars’ grandparents, and their parents before them, did in the Baghdad marketplace. For all the stateliness and split-second precision of the music, Safaafir gave it a jolt of energy, sometimes with a bounce, sometimes with an insistent attack courtesy of percussionist Tim Moore, locked in with the graceful arcs of the fiddle and Amir ElSaffar’s precise lines on santoor dulcimer (and also occasional, unaffectedly exuberant trumpet). Some of the songs had a trancelike, Indian tinge while others allusively referenced modes from the other side of the Euphrates.
The most western-sounding performance was by Gaida and her band. Many of the musicians on the program made multiple appearances, Amir ElSaffar playing torchy muted trumpet in this group along with the night’s most popular musician, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, with George Dulin on piano, Jennifer Vincent on bass, Zafer Tawil on oud and Hector Morales on percussion. The Syrian-born chanteuse has a minutely nuanced, warmly breathy delivery that looks back to iconic singers like Fairouz and Warda; like many of the instrumentalists over the course of the evening, she began a couple of songs with quietly spectacular, microtonally melismatic improvisations. Behind her, the band shifted effortlessly from bossa nova, to urbane saloon jazz, to vintage habibi singalongs and the most dramatic, impactful number in her all-too-brief set, a darkly apprehensive piano-driven ballad that evoked the more ambitious cross-pollinations of legendary Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers forty years ago.
The set that was the most cinematic (which happens to be the title of the band’s latest album) was delivered by Zikrayat (Arabic for “memories”). Their speciality is classic Egyptian film music from the 50s and 60s, along with originals that update this lush, slinky genre. This particular incarnation of the band featured Shumays accompanied by Abboushi, ney flute player Bridget Robbins, bassist Apostolis Sideris and percussionists Johnny Farraj and Faisal Zedan. Meanwhile, a trio of bellydancers twirled and dipped in front of them, managing to pull off a neatly choreographed balancing act without anyone in the tightly packed, sold-out crowd getting bumped. Through a trickily shapeshifting Mohammed Abdel Wahab mini-epic, a fetching Umm Kulthumm ballad delivered masterfully by guest singer Salma Habib, and another soulful number featuring young crooner Salah Rajab, the instruments blended voices and wove a magical tapestry of melody over beats that were as slinky as they were hypnotic. At the end, they abruptly switched from plaintive elegance to a stomping, ecstatically rustic, jajouka-ish folk tune that managed to be both ancient yet absolutely modern as it pulsed along with the percussion going full steam.
Maeandros, unlike what their name might imply, don’t meander: their oud-based Greek music is straightforward, soulful and frequently dark. Their connection to the rest of the acts on the bill is that they favor bracing Arabic maqams via music from the underground resistance movement in the 1930s as well as originals with the same kind of edgy intensity. Frontman Mavrothi Kontanis is a world-class oudist and a strong singer who conveys drama and longing without going over the top, but he’s a generous bandleader, leaving the spotlight mostly to violinist Megan Gould – whose pinpoint, precise, microtonal inflections wowed the crowd – along with clarinetist Lefteris Bournias. Bournias may not be a household name in the United States, but he’s one of the most sought-after reedmen in the world, especially in his native Greece, a truly Coltrane/Papasov-class soloist. Predictably, it was his rapidfire, flurrying, judiciously incisive soloing that stole the show, supersonic speed matched to an intuitive feel for where to employ it. The band’s set built an undulating, cosmopolitanally nocturnal ambience much as Zikrayat had done, Kontanis opening one number with a long, achingly crescendoing improvisation and ending the set with a brief, upbeat song featuring some blistering tremolo-picking.
With its funky rock rhythm section and electric bass, Abboushi’s genre-smashing band Shusmo – with Abboushi, Morales, Dave Phillips on bass and Zafer Tawil on percussion – rocked the hardest, covering a vast expanse of sonic terrain, from an understatedly scorching, intense take on an apprehensive Turkish folk melody, to a brief detour into stately western baroque, to hints of jazz, all with a purist, levantine undercurrent. With Bournias’ clarinet salvos bursting out alongside the clank of the buzuq and the hypnotic rhythmic pulse, they evoked another great New York group from ten years earlier, the Dimestore Dance Band, except with Arabic tonalities. Bournias used a long one-chord vamp to cut loose with his most feral, wailing solo of the night, Abboushi also wailing a lot harder than he had as a sideman earlier, particularly through a long, very welcome taqsim where like Bournias, he expertly spun furious clusters of chromatics spaciously and suspensefully, choosing his spots. As the clattering, rumbling grooves shifted unpredictably from funk, to rock, to less predictable tempos and then back again, the intensity was relentless.
The show ended with the Alwan Music Ensemble: Shumays, Abboushi, Farraj, Tawil (now on eerily reverberating qanun), Amir ElSaffar on both trumpet and santoor, George Ziadeh on oud and Cairo Opera star Ahmed Gamal on vocals, making his U.S. debut. It seems that Gamal had other things in mind than the set list Abboushi had come up with: with a little humming and a few cues beforehand, it was amazing to watch the band create a lush arrangement on the spot behind Gamal’s smooth but powerful baritone crooning and breathtaking microtonal inflections (where European opera is all about bombast, Arabic opera is built on subtleties). Gamal sang to the women in the crowd and then got everyone singing and clapping along with a joyous mix of swaying, popular Egyptian standards. Even after more than five hours of music, the crowd was ready for more: as ElSaffar had predicted before the show began, it was impossible to feel tired at this point.