Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Haunting, Stunningly Individualistic, Exotic New Orchestral and Piano Works From Konstantia Gourzi

Anájikon, the new album from Konstantia Gourzi – streaming at Spotify – will blow your mind. Gourzi’s often haunting compositions bring to mind sounds from traditions as far-flung as her native Greece, Armenia, Iran and India as well as contemporary minimalism. The rhythms here are strong and prominent, with heavy use of percussion. There’s more of an emphasis on melody than harmony, and Gourzi’s tunes are rich with chromatics and implied melody. There’s a careening intensity to much of the orchestration.

Gourzi conducts the Lucerne Academy Orchestra in the achingly lush, often utterly Lynchian Two Angels in the White Garden. A dramatically dancing percussion riff – and a hint of Richard Strauss – punctuate the mournfully tolling and then enigmatically swirling, allusively chromatic interludes of the first part, Eviction. The rhythms are more muted in Exodus, the brooding swirl of the orchestra receding for a hauntingly minimalist piano theme anchored by ominous bass and flickers throughout the ensemble. Part three, Longing has a dense, stormy pulse, akin to Alan Hovhaness in a blustery moment. The orchestra rise from stillness over looming, pianissimo drums to a bit of a Respighi-ish dance and then contented atmospherics in the conclusion, The White Garden.

The Minguet Quartett – violinists Ulrich Isfort and Annette Reisinger, violist Tony Nys and cellist Matthias Diener – first contribute Gourzi’s String Quartet No. 3, The Angel in the Blue Garden. The first movement, The Blue Rose begins with an insistent, staccato violin pulse anchoring achingly beautiful, lyrical cello and then a similarly melancholic, modal, Armenian-tinged viola line; it ends surprisingly calmly. Movement two, The Blue Bird pairs spare, broodingly soaring cello against fluttery echoes from the rest of the quartet – anxious wings, maybe?

The Blue Moon: The Bright Side is more minimal and hypnotic, high strings shimmering and weaving an otherworldly melody over a persistent cello pedal figure. The muted mystery of Turning, which follows, is over too soon. The Dark Side begins with a circling, distantly Balkan-tinged dance, pizzicato cello and viola answering each other beneath plaintive lustre.

Violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn close the record with a stunningly and starkly lyrical performance of Gourzi’s Three Dialogues For Viola and Piano, the most vividly Hovahaness-esque work here. Part one has variations on an allusive, poignant melody descending over simple, alternately lingering and insistently rhythmic piano accents. A catchy, circling bell-like interweave persists and finally rises in part two. Part three is at first shivery and otherworldly, then Youn runs a rippling riff beneath Mönkemeyer’s austerely looping, sailing lines. If this is your introduction to this brilliant and fascinatingly original composer, you are in for a treat: this might be the best album of the year so far.

May 19, 2021 Posted by | classical music, gypsy music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Neotolia Take Haunting Turkish Sounds to New Places

Neotolia’s 2017 album Neotolian Song – streaming at Spotify – is long overdue for a more comprehensive look. No time like the present to catch up on great albums you might have missed over the years, right? It’s a distinctive mix of broodingly diverse Turkish themes for jazz orchestration; piano, oud, guitar, vocals and rhythm section, spiced with flute and haunting Chinese erhu fiddle.

Frontwoman Nazan Nihal intones an imploring Turkish lyric over menacing, Lynchian minor/major changes from pianist Utar Artun in the album’s opening track, Bir Barmis Bir Yokmu, up to a big crescendo interrupted by a bracingly spiraling Jussi Reijonen oud solo. They end it on a raptly mysterious note. What a way to kick off the record.

The Thrill of the Chase is completely different, beginning a funhouse-mirror take on a Yoruban chant, Reijonen’s circling, hypnotic oud contrasting with Artun’s stern jazz chords, a thumping, tumbling drum solo and a raspy improvisational interlude where everything disintegrates.

Reijonen switches to guitar for the elegantly swaying, syncopated anti-terrorism ballad Degismek Cesaret Ister, the flute reaching upward as Nihal leads the fiery, insistent vocal harmonies up to the chorus. The title track begins as a rather opaque jazz ballad, then Artun brings back the crepuscular Lynchian changes, a springboard for an uneasy intertwine of Tao He’s stark erhu and Yazhi Guo’s trilling flute.

The group follow the increasingly angst-fueled piano-and-vocal ballad Manastir Terkes with a suspiciously deadpan tropical jazz take on Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca – it’s nothing like the wry Brubeck version. Artun’s piano glitters broodingly and then reaches for Rachmaninovian majesty in contrast with a plaintive erhu solo in Gel Kuruttum, then they back away for Nihal’s tender, achingly chromatic vocal.

Pendulum is a moodily existentialist violin-driven jazz waltz, the lone tune here in English. Nihal returns to Turkish for the lilting ballad Lydianic, with a deliciously dusky Bruno Råberg bass solo that Reijonen follows with a surreal ebow guitar interlude. They close the album with Depmen Benim Gamli Yasli Gonlume, an energetically pulsing, syncopated, Egyptian-tinged anthem, Reijonen swooping and diving microtonally on fretless guitar over Artun’s eerie close harmonies.

April 28, 2021 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Ensemble Fanaa Bring Their Magical, Mysterious Middle Eastern Grooves to Prospect Park

It was a pleasantly cool Wednesday night in the late summer of 2016. The evening had gotten off to a disappointing start with an album release event in the dingy basement room at the Rockwood, where a talented tunesmith’s pickup band pretty much phoned in what could have been an electrifying set. As it turned out, the electricity that night would happen a little later in another basement room, at Rye Bar on the south side of Williamsburg, where Ensemble Fanaa played two rapt, mysterious, genuinely transcendent sets of Middle Eastern-flavored jazz.

This blog had given a big thumbs-up to their debut performance at Barbes earlier that year. This show was arguably even better. Tenor saxophonist Daro Behroozi spun a web of otherworldly microtones, slithery chromatic melody, hypnotic resonance and the occasional ferocious burst as drummer Dan Kurfirst switched between his kit and a boomy dumbek for intricate polyrhythms as well as slinky snakecharmer grooves. Bassist John Murchison held the center, often playing subtle, sometimes haunting variations on a pedal line. If memory serves right – this was a long time ago – he switched to the magical, incisive Moroccan sintir bass lute for a handful of trance-inducing, gnawa-inspired numbers.

Game plan at the time was to write up this show to plug whatever the trio’s next gig was. But they were all busy in other bands at the time, and if they actually played somewhere else within the next couple of months, it was so far under the radar that this blog missed it. The good news is that Ensemble Fanaa are doing an outdoor gig on April 20 at 5:30 PM in Prospect Park, close to the 11th St. entrance off 7th Ave. Considering that this band’s music is on the serious side: haunting, and rapturous, and mystical, nobody in the group seems like a weedhead. But if that’s your thing, there is no other 4/20 show that can match this one for psychedelic ambience. And it that’s not your thing, this still promises to be the best concert of the month.

April 15, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mesmerizing, Paradigm-Shifting, Intimate New Album From Hafez Modirzadeh

Hafez Modirzadeh’s 2012 album Post-Chromodal Out! isn’t just one of the greatest jazz albums ever made: it’s one of the most paradigm-shifting albums ever made in any style of music. After decades of blending classical Persian modes with jazz, the tenor saxophonist employed several microtonal piano tunings for a session packed with riveting, otherworldly sounds. It’s probably the best album Vijay Iyer ever played on. It’s the dream record Erik Satie never wrote, that Thelonious Monk and Abdolhasan Saba never got to make. It also sounds like absolutely nothing else ever recorded…except for this.

With his latest release, Facets – streaming at Bandcamp – Modirzadeh switches out the pyrotechnics for a mesmerizing, intimate series of duets and solo pieces. He chose three completely different pianists as partners: Craig Taborn, Kris Davis and Tyshawn Sorey. The first comes out of the Knitting Factory school of the late 80s, the second is known for her lyricism but also has recently branched out into both more electronic and avant garde sounds. In the jazz world, Sorey has built a strong career as a drummer, but in the last few years he’s turned to solid, purposeful new classical composition.

Here, Modirzadeh employs a piano tuning where eight of the keys in the scale are retuned microtonally. Most of these pieces are on the short side; several of them are miniatures. While he gave each pianist a score prior prior to the recording sessions, none of them had played the music in this tuning before. The overtones are to die for: there’s as much sound in between the notes as there is when the hammers hit the strings. Davis is the most expansive pianist here, relishing the opportunity to discover new harmonic universes. True to form, Sorey is all about atmosphere and focus. Taborn, who opens and closes the album solo, is clearly learning on the job and takes his time, ceding centerstage to the ringleader here for some of his most invocative passages.

The first pianist Modirzadeh engages with is Sorey, for a blend of gentle, soulful, rhythmic sax over a solemn, lingering minimalism with just a few hints of microtonality. It fits his style perfectly.

The first duet with Davis, on the same composition, comes across as a more picturesque dawn tableau, Modirzadeh wafting and in one place sounding what could be a muezzin’s call as the pianist calmly but playfully works rising righthand against a still, low resonant figure. Their miniature after that is more concise and over too soon, although that could be said for everything on the album: who would ever want such rapturous music to end? Time stands still when you hear this.

Her methodical gestures, thoughtful syncopation and symphonically vast dynamic shifts on the album’s ninth track, a solo piece, are as otherworldly as they are fun: good luck trying not to crack a smile when she hits that ridiculous dance theme. And she finds regal solemnity but also moments of puckish mirth in a solo piece later on.

She also gets to take Monk through a funhouse mirror, with a coy restraint, in Modirzadeh’s minimalist microtonal mashup of Pannonica and Ask Me Now. The saxophonist does each as a duet with Taborn, the former a cautious hint of a stroll, the latter with spare yet inviting and increasingly surreal wee-hours ambience

With Sorey, Modirzadeh develops a warm, increasingly hypnotic nocturne; playfully expands and contracts around a clustering, jumping riff; and ushers in the album’s most mystical nocturne. The contrast between low crush and high belltones in Sorey’s first solo improvisation is spine-tingling. Later, he parses a Satie-esque fugue.

To compare this album to anything else released this year is unfair: jazz is more microtonal than most people realize, but Modirzadeh is still galaxies ahead of anybody else. That being said, it would take Ellington and Mohammed Abdel Wahab coming back from the dead to knock this one off the top of the best jazz albums of 2021 list.

April 7, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One Mighty Showstopper After Another on the JCA Orchestra’s Latest Live Album

The JCA Orchestra are the Boston counterpart to Miho Hazama’s rotating cast of big band jazz talent, whose home until the lockdown was the Jazz Gallery. But the JCA Orchestra have been championing the work of lesser-known composers since before Hazama was born. These days the Jazz Gallery has been repurposed as a web tv studio – temporarily, let’s hope – and the JCA Orchestra are on ice, at least for the time being. But they have a brilliant, wildly diverse and entertaining new album, Live at the BPC streaming at youtube.

A couple of extremely colorful compositions by violinist Mimi Rabson open and then close this concert from early October, 2018. The former, Romanople, imagines a Turkish entourage journeying to ancient Rome, only to be drafted into the army and killed in battle. The Strings Theory Trio – Rabson, cellist Junko Fujiwara and violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies – slink along on a cantering Near Eastern theme, turning it over to the brass for a boisterous Balkan dance with a simmering Phil Scharff clarinet solo. The orchestra’s eerie nebulosity as the two themes mingle is deliciously disquieting; Fujiwara’s similarly bracing solo is tantalizingly brief. Everything falls apart, as empires tend to do, a ghost of a melody undulating into the sunset.

The closing number, Super Eyes – Private Heroes is a sort of big band take on Spy vs. Spy-era John Zorn, a bustling swing tune with an incisively bluesy Sherrah-Davies solo over a halfspeed breakdown, trombonist David Harris’ tongue-in-cheek solo triggering an irresistibly funny coda.

The middle of the set is every bit as entertaining. The slow, enigmatic swells that introduce The Latest, the first of two Harris compositions, don’t hint at the electra-glide latin groove that follows, Melanie Howell-Brooks’ crystalline bass clarinet solo over a catchy theme that looks back to McCoy Tyner’s orchestrated 1976 classic, Fly With the Wind. Subtle variations on Thai-influenced pentatonics and a fanged, prowling Norm Zocher guitar solo raise the energy from there.

Harris’ conduction on his other tune here, Yellow, Orange, Blue, blends Butch Morris-style massed clusters and bursts with a catchy, allusively Middle Eastern clave theme, strongly bringing to mind Amir ElSaffar‘s adventures in largescale improvisation. Trombonist Jason Camelio’s invigorating solo as drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith drives this beast doublespeed and then cuts loose himself is one of the album’s tastiest interludes.

Trombonist Bob Pilkington’s epic The Sixth Snake sheds its skin more times than you can count, from suspenseful atmosphere puncuated by Vessela Stoyanova’s vibraphone, to Darcy James Argue-like insistence, to an eerie, spacious Maxim Lubarsky solo piano break. The composer follows with a sagacious solo as the rhythm edges toward a funky sway; Lihi Haruvi’s sailing soprano sax narrowly averts a collision with Scharff and draws an explosion of applause before the funky romp out.

Uneasy microtones filter through the airy introduction of another equally epic number, Darrell Katz’s A Wallflower in the Amazon, a setting of text by his late wife, poet Paula Tatarunis. Soprano Rebecca Shrimpton gives velvety, soaring affirmation to an embattled individualist finally finding her footing in an unexpected milieu, the band reaching from a lustrous sway, to a bubbling waltz, to a tropical duel between the string section and Hiro Honshuko’s EWI. Rick Stone’s agitated alto sax fuels a shivering massed coda; Shrimpton pulls the volume down and the intensity back up to all-stops-out squall. They take it out elegantly.

A richly conceived accomplishment by a group that also includes trumpeters Mike Peipman, Dan Rosenthal and Jerry Sabatini, horn player Jim Mosher, percussionist Gilbert Mansour and bassist Jesse Williams.

March 23, 2021 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poignant, Gorgeous, Paradigm-Shifting Iranian and Ethiopian Flavored Mashups From SoSaLa

It’s been a long time between albums as a bandleader for Iranian-American saxophonist Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi, who records under the name SoSaLa. His 2008 album Nu World Trash was a wildly eclectic mix of Middle Eastern, dub, Ethiopiques and jazz, among other styles. The album’s underlying concept was to encourage people to get back to reality and leave the virtual one behind. There’s never been a more important time for that message, and auspiciously SoSaLa has a follow-up, wryly titled Nu World Trashed – streaming at Spotify– to remind us how little the paradigm has changed since then. But, damn, the world is on the brink of a seismic shift, and this guy is ready!. If jazz, psychedelia, Middle Eastern or Ethiopian music are your jams. crank this often starkly beautiful album. Fans of great Levantine reedmen from Daro Behroozi to Hafez Modirzadeh are especially encouraged to check it out.

The opening number, Welcome Nu World has brooding, gorgeously allusive tenor sax over spare, echoey electric piano from Paul Amrod and a dissociative electronic backdrop with agitated crowd noise.  The second track, Enough Is Enough is a hip-hop broadside against “vampire capitalists” and the anti-artistic contingent who are so well represented among the lockdowners. Cornel West makes a characteristically fiery cameo; the bandleader plays a poignantly melismatic, Ethopian-tinged solo.

Mystical Full Moon Hymn for Ornette Coleman is an attractively modal Ethiopian reggae shout-out to Ladjevardi’s onetime teacher and mentor. David Belmont does a spot-on recreation of a sarod, Ladjevardi loops a balmy but bracing Ethiopiques riff and kamancheh player Kaveh Haghtalab jabs and plucks in a live remake of an acid jazz number from the previous album, Sad, Sad, Sad Sake.

There are two versions of Anybody Out There?, the first a haunting trip-hop number with stately, flurrying Ethiopian-tinged sax and delicate acoustic guitar attcents from Bob Romanowski over an echoey, loopy backdrop of Rhodes electric piano and twinkling atmospherics. The second is a bitingly swirly dub miniature.

What’s What? is the album’s most hypnotic number, Ladjevardi’s elegantly incisive modal phrasing over similarly stark kamancheh from Haghtalab and a dubby background. “Fucking internet, taking our private time away,” Ladjevardi grouses.. The album’s most epic track is  My Shushtari, a shout-out to the late Iranian musical icon Mohamad Reza Shajarian, with Ladjevardi on imploring, plaintive soprano sax and David Shively rippling sepulchrally and intensely across the sonic spectrum on cimbalom. It will give you chills. The duo revisit the theme more broodingly further down the scale to close the album with the ironically titled Intro Music.

February 22, 2021 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Brilliant, Haunting New Works From Iranian Composers Soheil Shirangi and Shervin Abbasi

Teheran-based composers Soheil Shirangi and Shervin Abbasi have released an aptly titled, haunting new album Maelstrom, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a diverse but persistently dark collection of works for both solo instruments and small ensembles. The two draw on influences as vast as European minimalism and horizontal music as well as traditional Iranian sounds. In a year of one horror after another – especially in Iran, which was one of the first countries crippled by prppaganda and hysteria – this is indelibly an album for our time. Yet the music here also offers considerable hope and even devious humor.

The first work is Trauma, a Shirangi trio composition played by cellists Ella Bokor and Mircea Marian with accordionist Fernando Mihalache. The strings enter with a syncopated, mutedly shamanic drive that quickly rises to an insistent pedalpoint. The accordion first serves as a wary chordal anchor while the cellos diverge and then return with an increasingly stricken intensity, then wind out with plaintive washes.

Violinist Mykola Havyuk, clarinetist Yaroslav Zhovnirych and pianist Nataliya Martynova play Abbasi’s The Rebellion, beginning more hauntingly microtonal, its austere resonance punctuated by simple, forlorn piano incisions. Eerie, circling chromatics from the piano underscore troubled, anthemic phrases. A couple of vigorous flicks under the lid signals a wounded call-and-response: slowly but resolutely, a revolution flickers and eventually leaps from the desolation. The obvious comparison is the livelier moments in Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time.

By contrast, To Lose Hope – another Abbasi piece, featuring clarinetist Mykola Havyuk and a string quartet comprising violinists Marko Komonko and Petro Titiaiev, violist Ustym Zhuk and cellist Denys Lytvynenke – first takes shape as a hazy cavatina, Havyuk’s crystalline leads balanced by brooding cello and shivery vibrato from the rest of the strings. It’s the most distinctly Iranian piece here. The jauntiness, acerbity and suspense that follow are unexpectedly welcome. The point seems to be that hope is where you find it.

Afrooch, an Abbasi solo work played by violinist Farmehr Beyglou, requires daunting extended technique, shifting back and forth between ghostly harmonics, moody atmosphere, insistently hammering riffs, shivery crescendos and a call-and-response that grows from enigmatic to puckish. The ending is too funny to give away.

The closing composition, Shirangi’s The Common Motivations is a solo piano piece, Sahel Ebae’s low murk contrasting with muted inside-the-gestures, expanding with spacious minimalist accents and eventually forlorn, Messiaenic belltone chords. If this is characteristic of the new music coming out of Iran these days, the world needs to hear more of it.

January 13, 2021 Posted by | classical music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fascinating Album of New Music From the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s Home Turf

One of the most consistently interesting and richly diverse albums of symphonic music released in the last couple of years is the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest recording, Contemporary Colours, a collection of new works by Maltese composers streaming at Spotify. Malta may be a relatively small place, but the country clearly has no shortage of orchestral or compositional talent. Many of these pieces reflect an edgy Arabic influence; the rest run the gamut from neoromanticism to horizontal music.

Led with striking attention to detail by maestro Sergey Smbatyan, they open with a triptych by Euchar Gravina inspired by the manufacture and then the deployment of fireworks. The first two segments are a a microtonal study in slowly rising, occasionally crushing wave motion against a recording of a brass band playing a much smaller-scale arrangement; most of the third is much more low-key.

Waiting, by Mariella Cassar-Cordina is exactly that, still horizontality from the high strings with a pensively minimalist, increasingly troubled cello solo floating overhead. Christopher Muscat’s magnificently charging, circling, hauntingly minor-key Mesogeios – a portrait of the Mediterranean – features soloist Francesco Sultana on microtonal, melismatic Maltese zummara oboe, zaqq bagpipe and flejguta flute, winding up with a ferocious, Egyptian-tinged dance.

Veronique Vella’s colorful, artfully orchestrated, Romantically tinged Fine Line has a Rimsky-Korsakov sonic expanse and triumphant bustle. Alexander Vella Gregory’s short, Tschaikovskian five-part suite Riħ (Wind) evokes everything from calm sea breezes to winter storms, via pulsing counterpoint, disquieting close harmonies, percussive drama and whispers from the strings.

The orchestra close with Albert Garzia’s Xamm (Scent), a largescale arrangement of a dance piece about a murder mystery. The orchestra have fun with all the classic Bernard Herrmann-ish tropes: sharp tritones over stillness, sudden furtive swells, chase scenes and a surprising amount of Dvorakian windswept calm. Classical music as entertainment doesn’t get any better than this in 2021. Now if we could only see this live!

January 12, 2021 Posted by | classical music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkly Glistening, Blissfully Tuneful Improvisation From Pianist Cat Toren’s Human Kind

Pianist Cat Toren’s new album Scintillating Beauty – streaming at Bandcamp – references a Martin Luther King quote about what the world would be like if we were able to conquer racism and achieve true equality. But the title is just as apt a description of the music. Toren has always been one of the most reliably melodic improvisers in the New York creative music scene, and her group Human Kind achieve a similarly high standard of tunefulness here. Jazz these days seldom sounds so effortlessly symphonic.

The epic opening cut is Radiance in Veils, sax player Xavier del Castillo introducing a balmy, Indian-tinged nocturnal theme immediately echoed by oudist Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor as Toren glistens and ripples spaciously in the upper registers behind them. The bandleader glides into Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics and then pounces hard as the bass and drums develop an elegant syncopation, del Castillo and Fruchter weaving a similar gravitas. Shuddering sax and torrential piano fuel a couple of big crescendos, Toren and Leckie team up for a tersely dancing passage and Fruchter pulls uneasily away from a broodingly emphatic center. The great Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani comes to mind.

The lush, rapturous Middle Eastern ambience continues in Garment of Destiny, from the flourishes of Toren’s solo intro, through Fruchter’s hypnotic oud solo over reflecting-pool piano chords. Del Castillo adds nocturnal ambience and then agitation matching the murk rising behind him.

Ignus Fatuus is a moody midtempo swing number, Toren doing a more allusively chromatic take on Errol Garner, del Castillo taking his most jaggedly intense, spine-tingling solo here. Toren switches to funeral-parlor organ to open the closing diptych, Rising Phoenix, Fruchter leading the band into a reflective calm spiced with Toren’s many bells and rattles. Her switch to the piano signals an increasingly bustling return from dreamland, del Castillo a confidently bluesy light in the darkness. The second part has a bittersweet, rather stern soul-infused sway, Honor and the rest of the band finally seizing the chance to cut loose. In Toren’s view, we all make it to the mountaintop. This is one of the best and most memorable jazz albums of the year.

November 26, 2020 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rapturous, Haunting, Moroccan-Inspired Sounds From Ensemble Fanaa

One of the best albums to come out of New York in the last couple of years is Ensemble Fanaa’s often magical, mysterious debut, streaming at Bandcamp. The trio of alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Daro Behroozi, bassist/sintir player John Murchison and drummer Dan Kurfirst conjure up a sometimes hypnotic, sometimes stark interweave inspired by Moroccan gnawa music.

The opening track, Creation doesn’t seem to engage with North African traditions, but it’s a fun piece of music. Behroozi opens it, solo on bass clarinet, with a snort of overtones; slowly the trio work their way up from stillness. Kurfirst rattles the cage for contrast. Behroozi and Murchison – on bass – size up the space, peering through the cymbal mist, then they bring it full circle with a cheery, syncopated hook.

Murchison picks up his sintir (the band call it a gimbri; either way, it’s the Moroccan three-string bass lute whose distinctive, lightly boomy sound defines gnawa music) for Traces, Part 1, running a steady, catchy riff while Behroozi’s sax floats spaciously overhead. The trio reprise it later on the record, slowly building to a lithely circling, raptly catchy gnawa theme with Behroozi back on bass clarinet.

The trio keep the gnawa catchiness going, rising with a whisper to the surprise rhythmic shifts of Imram, Behroozi’s trilling microtones building a goosebump-inducing intensity. Murchison introduces the loose-limbed groove of Water Song, Behroozi’s spacious, gorgeously desolate sustained lines and increasingly searing microtonal melismas overhead. It’s the album’s most stunning track.

Kurfirst’s marvelous, misterioso, muted thump and rattle anchors Sujood, Murchison’s bass echoing that, Behroozi pouncing and spiraling with an otherworldly intensity.

From a spare, exploratory bass intro, the trio develop a spacious, brooding lattice spiced with the occasional biting chromatic riff in Now What, the album’s most improvisational number. They close with Yobati – Breath, the album’s most energetic track, shifting from a cheery bounce of an intro to a serpentine, undulating, uneasily keening gnawa theme.

Ensemble Fanaa are still around, individually; all three members maintained busy schedules with other projects in jazz, African and Middle Eastern music until the lockdown. Fortuitously, Kurfirst has a handful of gigs coming up at the cube at Astor Place, staged by Concerts From Cars. Tonight, July 2 at 7 PM he jams with Ras Moche Burnett on sax, then on July 5, also at 7 he’s back with multi-reedman and trumpeter Daniel Carter, Rodney “Godfather Don” Chapman on sax and other artists tba. And then on July 8 at 7 Kurfirst and Carter return to the cube with fearless, politically woke trumpeter Matt Lavelle and supporting cast tba. 

July 2, 2020 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment