Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Riveting, Poignant Suite of North African Jazz Nocturnes at Lincoln Center

With the New York premiere of their new Abu Sadiya suite last night at Lincoln Center,the trio of multi-reedman Yacine Boulares, cellist Vincent Segal and drummer Nasheet Waits played what might have been the best single concert of 2018. Methodically and poignantly tracing most of its breathtaking peaks and haunted valleys, the three held the crowd rapt through a constantly shifting series of variations on ancient Tunisian stambeli themes.

Like gnawa, stambeli has origins in ancient sub-Saharan animist music brought north by slaves. Until the Tunisian revolution just a few years ago, it had been suppressed and become largely forgotten. It is stark, hypnotic and has an often otherworldly beauty. And since it relies so heavily on improvisation, it’s fertile source material for jazz.

In the course of working out logistics, Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal – one of New York’s few genuinely visionary impresarios, who programmed the night – had sent Boulares the Rumi poem Where Everything Is Music. Boulares told the crowd how moved he had been, particularly by the conclusion, Rumi’s ultimate view of music as divine:

Open the window in the centre of your chest
And let the spirits fly in and out

It was clear from the first few somber, mystical washes of sound from Segal, Boulares’ plaintive, spacious soprano sax lines and Waits’ whispery cymbals that everyone was on that same page.

The Abu Sadiya myth may be a prototype for Persephone. As Boulares explained, the moon kidnaps Sadiya; her dad journeys through the desert, then tries to capture the moon by holding a barrel of water under his arm to catch the reflection and then bargain for Sadiya’s return. Beyond resuscitating the spirit of stambeli, Boulares’ intention is to redeem Sadiya herself. “It’s a very masculine story,” he told the crowd – Sadiya is more of a pretext for male heroism than full-fledged character.

As the suite took shape, Segal alternated between spare, trancey arpeggios, sepulchral bowing, ominous modal vamps and frequent detours into propulsive low-register gnawa riffage. Often if was as if he was playing a sintir – no other cellist has such an intense and intuitive grasp of North African music as he does

Throughout the night, Boulares ranged from forlorn, airily resonant phrases to judicious crescendos up to Coltrane-like flurries capped off by the occasional triumphant cadenza. He and Segal often switched roles, from carrying the melody line to running low, hypnotically looping riffs. This was most striking when Boulares switched to bass clarinet, taking over the low end in one of the gnawa-influenced interludes. Behind them, Waits muted his snare and toms, rattled the traps a little, took a couple of misterioso prowls along the perimeter and finally hit the launching pad with a methodically climbing solo where it sounded as if he was playing a couple of congas. It’s rare that a drummer tunes his kit with such attention to the material, particularly as troubled and angst-fueled as this is.

The three, particularly Boulares, used lots of space – and also the reverberating sonics of the Lincoln Center atrium space – mysteriously well  They gave each other just as much breathing room. Contrasting with the distantly phantasmagorical quality of the music – the moon in this myth is a real pierrot lunaire – was how incredibly catchy so many of the central riffs turned out to be. The suite’s second part opened with a very close approximation of the Rick Wright organ motif that opens Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. A bit later, Segal’s concentrically arpeggiated circles brought to mind Serena Jost’s melancholy art-rock. And Waits’ subtle shifts in, out of, and around waltz time were delectably fun for listeners as well as his bandmates.

The final segment was a portrait of Sadiya, revisiting the vast sense of abandonment that opened the night but rising with flickers and flares to cast the missing heroine as indomitable, just like her dad. They wound it down to a Saharan expanse of dusky dune ambience at the end.

The trio’s next stop on their current tour is tonight, April 20 at 7:30 PM at the Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine St. in Philadelphia; cover is $20. The next free concert at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is also tonight, at 7:30 PM with salsa dura band Eddie Montalvo y Su Orquesta, featuring alums from some of the Fania era’s greatest 1970s Nuyorican bands. The earlier you get there, the better.

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April 20, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center: A Haunting, Ceaselessly Shapeshifting Vision of the Future of Piano Jazz

Playing to a rapt, sold-out, mostly under-30 crowd, Beirut-born pianist Tarek Yamani opened his Lincoln Center concert last night with an a cumulo-nimbus chordal crescendo and then took the band spiraling and rippling through a long, chromatically slashing series of variations on a hundred-year-old Egyptian classical melody. Bassist Sam Miniae danced between the raindrops as drummer Jean John boomed and rattled the rims, Yamani parsing the passing tones in the minor scale for every fraction of intensity he could find. From there the music rose and fell, sometime hypnotic, sometimes with an elegant neoromantic gleam, to a long, insistent peak. It was like witnessing peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences.

Yamani’s distinctive style is a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz, with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove as well. It’s no surprise that Yamani gravitated toward jazz, considering that khaliji sounds have more African swing than Levantine sway. It wouldn’t be outrageous to call the self-taught pianist and composer Beirut’s (and now New York)’s answer to Vijay Iyer.

Even so, it was impossible to predict how funky the night’s second number, Hala Land – a Nordic Latin Middle Eastern swing prelude of sorts – would get, from John’s irrepressible shuffle as Yamani teased the crowd with an easy resolution he wasn’t going to give in to anytime soon before pinwheeling and then icepicking through a subtly shifting series of Arabic modes. Yamani revealed afterward that although the melody is considered iconically Lebanese, its origins are actually Turkish. “It’s like falafel – it doesn’t really matter,” he grinned.

The night’s third number was an original in 10/8: “If you’d like to count, please do, but do it silent,” Yamani deadpanned. The blend of catchy Afro-Cuban acerbity, Middle Eastern otherworldliness and emphatic, punchy, ceaselessly shifting meters made sense considering that the pianist is also the author of a popular book on polyrhythms. Miniae ran circles and pounced, John gave it bounce and strut.

Ashur – named after the “Egyptian god of sex,” Yamani smiled – was a friendly, methodically crescendoing, wickedly memorable Kind of Blue-style theme and variations that John kicked off hard. Then Yamani completely flipped the script with an expansive take of Lush Life, subtly pushing it further and further toward the Middle East but finally opting for energetic wee-hours postbop lyricism. Then he launched into a tireless, grittily insistent arrangement of paradigm-shifting Egyptian composer Said Darwish’s workingman’s anthem The Melody of the Movers, circling and rippling over the rhythm section’s propulsive swing. 

The trio closed with a cantering detour toward Cuba and then a glisteningly jubilant melody that Yamani explained is claimed by pretty much every culture throughout the Levant. It was amazing how light and seemingly effortless Yamani’s touch remained after all the evening’s exertion.

Auspiciously, this concert was booked not by Lincoln Center but by their Student Advisory Council, whose agenda is to make the world of the arts in New York “a more inclusive and accessible space,” and help discover new talent who might be flying under the radar. Challenged to find an act worthy of the venue, third-year Juilliard percussion student Tyler Cunningham won the competition by suggesting Yamani after seeing the pianist listed on a bill at National Sawdust, where a friend works.  A specialist in symphonic percussion, the personable, articulate Cunningham gravitates toward postminimalist composers like Marcos Balter but has the kind of eclectic taste required in a field where he’s going to be asked to play outside the box more often than not. Cunningham also has a revealing interview with Yamani up at The Score, Lincoln Center’s online magazine.

The next show at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just south of 63rd St. is this March 29 at 7:30 PM with Portuguese fado-jazz crooner/guitarist António Zambujo. The show is free; the earlier you get to the space, the better.

March 24, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

March 19, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting Lebanese Pianist Tarek Yamani Revisits a Classic New York Concert at Lincoln Center This Friday Night

Suppose you could see the guy who played on the best live bill of 2014 – for free. Would you go? You have that option when Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani plays this Friday, March 23 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just south of 63rd St.

Yamani opened a marathon evening of music from across the Middle East at Alwan for the Arts in January of 2014, officially called Maqamfest, known informally as the Alwan-a-thon. Here’s the report originally published here the following day.

“…Yamani kicked off the night with a richly eclectic mix of brooding Middle Eastern themes and blues-infused bop. While he didn’t deliberately seem to be working any kind of overtone series with the piano – it can be done, especially if you ride the pedal – he proved to be a magician with his chromatics and disquieting passing tones. Bassist Petros Klampanis supplied an elegant, terse, slowly strolling low end while drummer Colin Stranahan nimbly negotiated Yamani’s sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring rhythmic shifts. The trio wove a tapestry of gorgeous chromatic glimmer through a couple of romping postbop numbers to a haunting, starkly direct piano arrangement of a theme by Said Darwish, considered to be the father of modern Middle Eastern classical music. The trickiest number in their set was the title track to Yamani’s album Ashur (the Assyrian god of death). Stranahan got the dubious assignment of carrying its cruelly challenging, almost peevish syncopation, but he ran with it and nailed it.”

Yamani has done a lot since then, notably his 2017 Peninsular album, whose influences span from Cuba to Oman.  You can bet this blog will be in the house for the Friday, show which could rank among 2018’s best as well. And it’s free – you just have to get there a little early to get a seat.

March 18, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, world music | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar Refines His Majestic, Transcendent New Middle Eastern Jazz at NYU

Why would anyone want to see the same band play the same piece more than once? For starters, there are always plenty of surprises when Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound make their way through Not Two, the visionary multi-instrumentalist/composer’s 2017 suite. From this perspective, was a third time a charm? On one hand, it’s hard to imagine a more transcendent performance of this lavish, titanic work than the album release show in the financial district last June, where they played the whole massive thing. On the other, their show last night at NYU’s Skirball Center was plenty rapturous…and uproariously fun.

Much of the suite is absolutely harrowing, but ElSaffar has a devastating, deadpan wit, and this time out he was in a particularly good mood. A Chicagoan by birth, he was clearly psyched to bring the band back, “Fishtailing all the way,” from a deep-freeze midwestern tour.

What they play is a new kind of music, based on Middle Eastern maqam modes and microtonal scales, but with majestic, sometimes ominous, often stormy group crescendos which draw on the bandleader’s time in Cecil Taylor’s improvisational big band. Although Not Two – whose title speaks to the pitfalls of manichaean thinking – is a fully composed score, ElSaffar will shift gears and call on any number of soloists depending where the seventeen-piece orchestra is going in the moment.

By comparison to the suite’s live debut at Lincoln Center in April of 2015 and then the epic album release show, this one was shorter and seemed more concise. Although much of it is brooding, even shattering, the whole group seemed to be stoked to be off the road and back on their home turf. Maybe as a consequence, solos all around seemed more animated as well – with the exception of tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen’s two long, methodically suspenseful upward tangents while the band coalesced in a somber grey mist behind him.

The crowd gave their most breathless applause for cellist Naseem Alatrash, whose elegaic, mournfully circling solo early in the suite refused to cave in to any kind of easy resolution. Likewise, he and ElSaffar’s violist sister Dena – leader of the similarly paradigm-shifting, somewhat smaller ensemble Salaam – held the audience rapt with their poignant dialogue a little later on.

Percussionist Tim Moore anchored the suite’s most haunting segment, Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son) with a chillingly echoing, funereal thump on frame drum as the group slowly swelled in an invocation of longing and loss. On the other side of the emotional equation, it turned out that the title of Penny Explosion looks back to ElSaffar’s childhood, when he and his sister would fill a jar with pennies – and then dump them on a tile floor, to max out the reverb.

Mohamed Saleh was charged with delivering a handful of the evening’s most pensively resonant solos, both on oboe and english horn. To his left, JD Parran took over the lows on bass sax and also joined the hazy ambience on clarinet. Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal took two of the night’s most acerbic, intense, chromatically slashing solos; guitarist Miles Okazaki remained in even more low-key, terse mode.

Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz reveled in the opportunity to fire off endless volleys of microtones while pianist John Escreet punctuated the rings and ripples with an exploratory precision. Oudists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh built a devastating rustle, eventually joined by buzuq player Tareq Abboushi and bassist Carlo DeRosa, as the night’s vertigo-inducing final number, Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, built steam through several surreal variations on themes from throughout the suite. Drummer Adam Cruz, clearly psyched to get the chance to step in, gave the music a spring-loaded swing. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan’s stygian bubble was a river of sound all its own, underground.  Driving the highest peaks and most poignant lulls, the composer began with stately ripples on his santoor, rose eventually to blisteringly aching volleys on trumpet and also sang in an impassioned, microtonal baritone.

At the end, they flipped the script with a vaudevillian encore that had everybody laughing out loud: comic relief wasn’t such a bad idea after the intensity. ElSaffar’s next show with this ensemble is on March 3 at 8 PM at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach; cover is $25/$20 stud/srs.

February 11, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Todd Marcus Orchestra Play a Riveting, Epic Set at Smalls

Last night Smalls was packed for the New York debut of the Todd Marcus Orchestra’s new Middle Eastern jazz suite In the Valley. Much as the band onstage was cooking, these people had come to listen. Bass clarinetist and bandleader Marcus gets a mighty sound, bigger than you would expect from a nine-piece outfit. Part of that stems from Marcus’ use of the whole sonic spectrum, Gil Evans-style. The other is how much gravitas he builds in the lows, best exemplified by the punchy contrapuntal interweave during the first set’s towering final number, Horus, Marcus teaming up with trombonist Alan Ferber against the highs: Troy Roberts’ tenor sax, Brent Birckhead’s alto and Alex Norris’ trumpet, pianist Xavier Davis hitting the midrange hard.

Marcus’ compositions draw a pretty obvious comparison to Amir ElSaffar’s work. But Marcus relies more on chromatics than distinctly microtonal melodies, and typically employs the traditional jazz model featuring individual soloists instead of pairings of musicians or seesawing between contrasting frequencies. And as formidable as Marcus’ orchestra is, it’s smaller than ElSaffar’s current huge ensemble: if ElSaffar is the Red Sea, Marcus is the Nile.

Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, and the suite draws heavily on his recent travels there. The group opened with the towering, cinematically suspenseful, chromatically pulsing title track, inspired by the Valley of Kings, featuring long, methodically crescendoing solos from Norris and Roberts. The night’s most colorful number was Cairo Street Ride, a depiction of a crazy cab negotiating what Marcus called “controlled chaos.” Rising from a bustling thicket of voices, the music straightened out with a jaunty bounce and eventually an irresistibly funny interlude where the cab’s engine revs up, then the driver shifting through the gearbox. People still drive stickshift in Egypt!

Ferber got to add some wry, Wycliffe-style humor of his own in the next tune, The Hive, the bandleader finally adding a rapidfire, spiraling solo of his own over the band’s lustre. The brooding ballad Final Days built artful variations on a somber stairstepping riff anchored by Jeff Reed’s bass. And the closing epic was a real showstopper. Drummer Eric Kennedy took a regally tumbling solo against Davis’ eerily circling piano loops as it gained momentum, Marcus launching into the most wildly gritty, intense solo of the night before the jousting at the end kicked in. Chamber Music America, who commissioned this piece, got plenty of bang for the buck. And that was just the first set.

You’ll see this on the best concerts of 2017 page here later this month.

December 4, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Harrowing, Ferociously Relevant Mother-Daughter Conflict at the French Institute

While there’s nonstop drama and some actual physical violence in Nazmiye and Havva Oral’s No Longer Without You, a searing mother-daughter conflict currently in its US debut run at the French Institute/Alliance Française, its most serious fireworks are only alluded to. We don’t get more than a mention of the abortion, or passing references to the screaming matches and literal tug-of-war between religious Muslim mother and her willful daughter determined to escape the confines of what she feels is an antedeluvian, misogynist environment.

On a surface level, this is a feel-good story of female empowerment and triumph over adversity. A Turkish immigrant in Holland, Havva raises her Nazmiye with an iron fist in a strict religious household. Nazmiye’s father dies young and doesn’t figure much in this story: it’s clear who runs the show in this family. But Nazmiye doesn’t want an arranged marriage at age eighteen and a life of domesticity like her mom. So she leaves home, marries a foreigner, has a couple of daughters of her own, divorces and becomes a world-famous journalist and performer along the way. What’s not to be proud of?

Havva doesn’t exactly see it that way. In this performance piece, she’s less volubly critical than Nazmiye recalls, dredging up one childhood battle after another. And she’s withholding. What Nazmiye wants most is her mother’s love. In the piece’s most touching scene, Nazmiye recalls that despite the disputes and the terror of being dragged off by a teenage husband-to-be whom she doesn’t even like, the one place she feels secure is in her mother’s arms. And time after time, Havva keeps her at arms length.

Yet Havva is also anything but an ogre. Her traditional garb makes a stark contrast with her daughter’s scarlet dress. She’s calm, stolid, unassailably confident and someone who says a lot in a few aphoristic words. And she’s funny! As the piece progresses, it’s clear that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, two indomitable women, each with big dreams. Daughter speaks in English, mother answers in Turkish, usually translated by Seval Okyay, who also provides gorgeous, haunting musical interludes with electric saz lute and a soulful, often plaintive voice. If there’s anything this performance could use more of, it’s Okyay.

While the cultural idiom here is specifically Muslim, the story is an all-too-familiar one: escapees from militant Christian and Orthodox Jewish environments tell the same tale. Beyond the breaking of one taboo after another – where Havva seems genuinely worried for her daughter’s soul, not to mention her own – the most shocking moment of all might be where Nazmiye asks what right a mother has to live vicariously through her daughter. Havva asserts that it’s perfectly kosher for a child to be the vehicle for a parent’s aspirations – or dashed hopes, perhaps. It’s another familiar dynamic. Obsessive Colorado pageant moms, psycho Texas football dads and harried Park Slope helicopter parents would find themselves more at home in Nazmiye’s childhood environment than they might think.

More poignantly, there are several “do you love me” moments: the answer may surprise you, like the ending, which is anything other than pat. But the one question that Nazmiye never asks, after all she’s accomplished, is “Are you proud of me?” One suspects the response would be more predictable.

Adelheid Roosen’s direction is everything the relationship isn’t: comfortable and familial, the audience seated on comfy cushions around the floor, living room style. There is also a little interaction with the audience, which is similarly welcoming and comforting and a serendipitous respite from the intensity of the performance. The final show today is sold out, but the Institute’s long-running events and concert schedule, including their legendary film series continues through the fall. 

October 15, 2017 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Radical Cross-Pollination From Amir ElSaffar and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

The waves of melody slowly massing, leaping and often caressing the walls at Lincoln Center Friday night were less radical than they were a natural, spontaneous new invention. The premise: to mash up two often haunting, otherworldly traditions, Arabic maqam and Indian ragas, into a sometimes serene, sometimes turbulent, ultimately transcendent new element. Fresh off European tour, trumpeter/santoorist/singer Amir ElSaffar joined forces with violinist Arun Ramamurthy and another five of the world’s leading creative musicians in Indian classical music and beyond, for a dynamic, characteristically epic performance. As far as single-band concerts in New York in 2017 are concerned, this might have been the best of them all.

There’s far less of a stylistic gap between Arabic music and its counterparts from the Hindustani subcontinent than some might assume. Both traditions are highly improvisational and rely on overtones outside the western scale. Among many other things, this performance underscored how closely the most chromatic Indian modes resemble those of the Middle East, and how resonantly hypnotic Middle Eastern music can be.

“We’re going to experience Indian music in a radical new way!” grinned Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal.  Ramamurthy enthused about how this show was an attempt to connect the “parallel lives” and shifting modes of Middle Eastern maqam with the Indian tradition’s slow upward trajectories, along with a heavy dose of improvisation.

The five-part suite hit a counterintuitive peak during the night’s first really lighthearted moment, a lively raga-based number fueled by tabla player Shiva Ghoshal’s increasingly animated beats. But even that grew overcast and wary to match the nebulous, distantly ominous sensibility that had pervaded the evening up to that point. Then sitarist Abhik Mukherjee took a gracefully bounding solo that was just short of imploring – and then Ramamurthy jumped in. This was too good to not be a part of. Everybody wanted a piece of it.. Bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, cellist Naseem Alatrash and finally the bandleader himself followed, building a bracing, acerbic mist with his trumpet..

As a composer, ElSaffar’s genius is how translucent and irresistibly catchy his themes are: he is to this era what Miles Davis was to the late 50s. Likewise, Ramamurthy is taking carnatic  themes to places no one ever imagined – like this. From the allusively angst-fueled opening theme and variations that rose on an ashen tide of sound, to the concluding number – built around a familiar riff that the Grateful Dead famously appropriated – these elegant, often wounded melodies lingered long after the show. Yet ElSaffar’s most electrifying moments here were not on trumpet, but on vocals and then santoor, methodically and incisively rippling and pinging, once in exquisitely pointillistic tandem with kanun player Firas Zreik. Perhaps the most haunting, stunning solo of all was Alatrash’s somber, intense pavane right after the first movement finally coalesced. 

And the audience was treated to a fullscale spectacle that went beyond the music. Mukherjee opened the show with a brief creation-myth narration that set the stage for the night’s looming, enveloping introductory sonic cocoon. Meanwhile, intricate, tectonically shifting projections by Nitin Mukul played on the screen over the stage. Depending on the music, or the individual tableau – a mudpuddle, planes in the clouds, mandala-like images – he’d slowly pour water into each slide for a kaleidoscopically dissolving effect. And midway through the set, ElSaffar read a passage from Rumi about how after humans are long gone from this planet, invisible instruments will still be playing. For that we can only hope.

Much as it’s going to be hard to top this, that’s the game plan for Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation, which seeks to radicalize and transform the Indian classical tradition for all sorts of innovations. Future artists who will be joined by Massive members here include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Raga Massive return to their weekly 8:30 PM Wednesday residency this month at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St.  (at Washington Ave) in Ft. Greene. There’s a special guest every week, followed by a raga jam. Cover is $15; the closest train is the 2 to Bergen St.

September 11, 2017 Posted by | Art, avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

September 3, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Souren Baronian Brings His Agelessly Soulful Fun and Middle Eastern Jazz Gravitas Back to Barbes

Is Souren Baronian a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, there are guys younger and a lot less accomplished who’ve received that honor. No time like the present, people…while there still is such thing as the NEA.

Now in his eighties, the Armenian-American multi-reedman, percussionist and bandleader is absolutely undiminished as a soloist, one of the greatest pioneers and most soulful players in the history of jazz, let alone the Middle Eastern jazz  he’s made  a career in. He’s bringing the latest edition of his long-running Taksim ensemble to an intimate show at Barbes on August 10 at 10 PM; you should get there early.

A listen to Baronian’s 2002 album Ocean Algae – streaming at Spotify – offers a good idea of what he does in concert, and he still plays a lot of stuff from it live: it’s one of his best. Much as Baronian is known for unselfconscious depth and gravitas, he also has an often ridiculously surreal sense of humor, something that bubbles up when least expected. This album has three-quarters of Baronian’s original 1975 version of Taksim, including the rhythm section of bassist Steve Knight and drummer Mal Stein.

A funky clickety-clack groove underscores Out of Exasperation, which Baronian opens with a moody, spacious soprano sax solo before the oud and rhythm section kick in. The late, great Haig Magnoukian’s oud solo goes ratcheting over growly bass and drums while Baornian’s son Lee provides extra boom on the low end with his dumbek.

The seven-minute title track is a taste of the some of the liveliest stuff to come out of the ocean, the bandleader alternately jubilant and uneasy as the rhythms shift on a dime. Magnoukian switches out the slashing tremolo-picked clusters of the first song for rapidfire hammer-ons and a surgically slashing attack on the strings.

Gooney Bird, a big concert favorite, could also be called It Ain’t Got a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Oud – after Baronian’s done choosing his spots, veering between the blues scale and Middle Eastern modes, Magnoukian takes the song closer to Turkey with his jaunty pastoral picking. The wry, surfy drum turnarounds are a favorite trope.

Toxic Tonic, an almost thirteen-minute epic, contains everything from echoes of medieval English folk, to jaunty Lebanese pastorale passages, surrealistically altered blues riffage on the oud, a psychedelic drum interlude that would have made the Grateful Dead jealous, along with all kinds of delicious microtonal sax flutters and dives. There’s also a subtle joke early on that will have you pulling on your earbuds.

Five For Chick – a Chick Corea homage, it would seem – is a lot jauntier, at least until the senior Baronian takes it further into the shadows, veering between modes as Magnoukian grounds it with his spiky, machinegunnig riffage. Then he takes a poignantly searching, rapidfire oud taksim into the aptly titled Conversation, the bandleader switching to kaval (wood flute), Magnoukian eventually edging everybody out.

Jubilee is the album’s catchiest and most upbeat track, a shuffling mashup of New Orleans second line and dusky levantine influences with a tastily bustling oud/percussion interlude. Baronian’s moody duduk (wooden oboe) improvisation leads into Desert Wind, another concert favorite with its catchy, circling clarinet riffs, subtle echo rhythms and one of his most poignant solos here.

11th Hour is a lot more carefree than its title implies, although Magnoukian brings in some unease, at least until a completely unexpected south-of-the-border detour. Jungle Jive is the most joyously warped number here, the band taking it methodically further east out of a dixieland-flavored jazz waltz. The band follows a similar tangent on the final cut, Time & Time Again. from Knight’s uneasily bending bass intro through Magnoukian’s tensely suspenseful solo to an intertwining oud/sax conversation. This album is as rich as it is long, and it’s very long. Onstage, Baronian hasn’t lost any stamina either.

August 8, 2017 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment