“Is this your debut as a trio?” Balkan multi-reedman Matt Darriau wanted to know. “Yeah,” his multi-reed colleague Daro Behroozi admitted. The two had just duetted on a hard-hitting, insistently hypnotic take of Mal Waldron’s Fire Waltz, their rare two-bass clarinet frontline backed by a robustly perambulating rhythm section. The packed house at Barbes roared with appreciation. Think about it: a jazz trio improvising on original themes inspired by Middle Eastern and North African traditions packed a club in New York City this past Tuesday night. No matter what the corporate media would like you to believe, this is how miraculously un-gentrified and multicultural certain pockets of Brooklyn still remain.
Fanaa basically means “lose yourself.” In their debut, Ensemble Fanaa played music to get seriously lost in. They opened with bass player John Murchison on gimbri, a North African ancestor of the funk bass. He switched to upright bass later in the set, concentrating more on holding down the groove rather than squeezing microtonal ghosts out of the western scale as the rest of the band, particularly Behroozi, was doing. The rhythms in general were tight and slinky, although the meters were sophisticated and often very tricky – it was easy to count one of the North African numbers in 7/8 time, harder to figure out where the others were going. Which was just part of the fun.
Drummer Dan Kurfirst eventually took a long solo interspersing rimshots with a relentlessly misterioso, boomy prowl along the toms, worthy of Tain Watts or Rudy Royston. Then later in the set he matched that intensity on daf (frame drum). Behroozi held the crowd rapt with a seemingly effortless command of melismatic microtones on his alto sax. The night’s most rapturous number brought to mind the paradigm-shifting pan-Levantine jazz of Hafez Modirzadeh. Otherwise, the influence of Moroccan gnawa music was front and center, driven by Murchison’s kinetically trancey pulse. The trio closed by bringing up guest Brandon Terzic on ngoni for the night’s bounciest, most upbeat yet similarly mystical number. The trio are at Rye Restaurant, 247 S 1st St in Williamsburg on September 7; it’s a short walk from the Marcy Ave. J/M stop. And Kurfirst is playing a similarly, potentially transcendent duo set on August 10 at 6 PM with brilliant oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis at the Rubin Museum of Art; the show is free with paid admission.
The Ochion Jewell Quartet Play Haunting, Sepulchral, Deep Blues and North African-Infused Jazz in the West Village
Of all the possible universes where improvised music can go, the Ochion Jewell Quartet chose to explore one of the most interesting ones last night at Cornelia Street Cafe. The opening set of their album release party for their new release, Volk, was the reverse image of your typical cutting contest, everyone trying to say as much as possible in the fewest possible notes, a challenge to see who could play the quietest. The four – tenor saxophonist Jewell, pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Sam Minaie and drummer Qasim Naqvi – displayed the camaraderie that comes from years of close collaboration (in this case, in a much more frenetic unit, the Bedstuy Ewe Ensemble). Mirroring each other and framing each others’ time in the spotlight – a sepulchral, ultraviolet one, such that the music was – their commitment to the subtle architecture and unselfconscious gravitas of Jewell’s slowly unwinding, blues- and North African-infused melodicism was singleminded. And beyond the chatty staff at the bar, the crowd locked in on the alchemy being created onstage.
Jewell rose from a predawn smokiness to a squawk or a squall a grand total of three times in maybe fifty minutes onstage, and the first lasted just a millisecond. Otherwise, he he held to a rustic, carefully considered approach, even when spiraling through one of the many looping Andalucian or Berber-inspired phrases that brought to mind an especially tuneful take on Steve Reich just as much as they echoed rai or gnawa themes. Only on occasion were the four all playing at once, both Jewell and Belyamani letting the bass and drums – who in places on the new album are so sepulchral that they’re almost invisible – take centerstage. What a treat it was to hear Miniae go to the bottom of his sonic well for the pitchblende bowing that opened the set – and what a thrill it was to watch him interpolate high harmonics into those deep-riverbed washes so seamlessly as to become a one-man string section. Likewise, Naqvi went for extended technique only when it really counted: his flickering use of his hardware, muted hand-drumming and a single bowed cymbal riff brought to life a phantasm rather than a poltergeist.
Belyamani – whose allusively chilling, judiciously resonant phrasing is one of the album’s most powerful assets – was especially chill here, holding much of that in reserve as he painted lowlit lustre and aurora borealis glimmer with minute variations on open fifths and minimalistically ornamented Middle Eastern phrases. They picked up the pace midway through with a mashup of the blues and gnawa, Jewell’s aching red-clay lines low and somber beneath Minae’s artfully plucked, bouncy riffs, articulated with the lively pop of a Moroccan bendir lute. They finally went around the horn with a fleeting, somber reinvention of Ennio Morricone’s Navajo Joe – “You’re never heard it like this before,” Jewell grinned – but they did that with the song’s head, nobody getting more than a bar at a time, a rapt, wounded one at that. Sometimes less is more than most people can possibly imagine.
Ethiopian themes tend to be simple but often profoundly so, no surprise considering that Ethiopia is the birthplace of humanity and culture. Sketches of Ethiopia, the latest large-ensemble album by Mulatu Astatke, the world’s best-known exponent of Ethio-jazz, is rich with what may be both echoes and foreshadowing of everything from blues, to reggae, to funk and Egyptian music as well. That most of the album’s tracks are original compositions doesn’t change that back-and-forth mirror effect. The compositions often have the dark, dusky minor-key modes and hypnotic clip-clop rhythms typically associated with Ethiopian music, while Astatke puts his signature eclectic stamp on them. The ensemble is also an eclectic bunch, comprising both Astatke’s London-based touring band as well as Ethiopian musicians recorded on their home turf and also in France. Like everything Astatke has done, this is a deep album.
Either/Orchestra bandleader and Ethio-jazz maven Russ Gershon gets the ultimate validation by having his tune, Azmari, kick off Astatke’s album. It’s a delicious mix of eerie modal vamping and American noir, Indris Hassun’s otherworldly trilling massinqo fiddle juxtaposed with rich horn and string swells and a strangely nebulous surprise interlude. The first Astatke tune here, Gamo, opens with a brooding horn riff that sounds straight from an early Burning Spear album – how’s that for coming full circle? Thickets of lutes and percussion underpin lively horn call-and-response throughout this swaying, propulsive anthem.
Hager Fiker, a traditional theme, opens as a moody fanfare, Astatke’s arrangemente moving swiftly from the roots of the blues to absolute noir, driven by Alexander Hawkins’ murky, menacing low lefthand piano contrasting with bright, bluesy horns and Middle Eastern-tinged flute. Gambella develops very subtly from a long, suspenseful intro to a galloping minor-key funk romp. Asossa Derache works a similar dichotomy but more darkly and intensely, its long rustling introduction giving way to a brisk clip-clop theme packed with biting solos and conversations between James Arben’s tenor sax and Byron Wallen’s trumpet, building to a big, noir blues crescendo.
The traditional tune Gumuz is recast as dissociatively anachronistic, low-key mid-70s fusion with a choir overdubbed in the background. Motherland Abay has flickering orchestration that develops almost imperceptibly from a nocturnal tone poem to a slinky sway, muted trumpet in the background providing a distant menace, lit up with oboe, ominously glimmering piano and Astatke’s own uneasily lingering vibraphone. The album winds up with two different versions of Surma, another fusiony track that hints at reggae. To call this one of the best jazz albums of 2013 practically goes without saying. One drawback: the production is on the sterile side, everything in its perfect digital place – it threatens to subsume the raw intensity that’s so front-and-center on Astatke’s earlier recordings.
Violinist Regina Carter led her captivatingly cross-pollinated African jazz quintet Reverse Thread through a characteristically intriguing blend of styles last night at Madison Square Park. Backed by kora virtuoso Yacouba Sissoko, bassist Chris Lightcap, drummer Alvester Garnett and accordionist Will Holshouser, Carter alternated between gorgeously stark minor-key blues leads, hypnotic loops of pizzicato and the occasional terse cadenza: throughout the set, she chose her spots.
They opened with the slowly unwinding, bluesy Dancing on the Niger, Carter’s tersely bittersweet, sometimes atmospheric lines hovering over the swaying rhythm and Holshouser’s steady pulsing chords, Sissoko throwing off a similarly terse, sparkling solo. The dancing second number, by Amadou and Mariam, began as another showcase for Sissoko, working his way down from spiraling glissandos to an insistent, rhythmic intensity before turning it over to Carter, who turned the heat up all the way over a repetitive two-bar motif, Holshouser winding it out in a whirling torrent of chords.
Garnett’s New for New Orleans was a fullscale suite. A stately, somberly hopeful solo accordion intro kicked off a jaunty jazz waltz, followed by a long Holshouser solo that veered from triumphant to apprehensive and back again, and a tense duel between Garnett and Lightcap that springboarded Carter’s purist, blues-drenched, smartly crescendoing coda. They followed with a biting, slinky rendition of a Papo Vazquez salsa jazz tune with a long shivery kora solo, Carter taking it into more pensive, spacious terrain. Carter took care to explain that Hiwumbe Awumba (meaning “God creates, God destroys”), a Ugandan Jewish traditional song from the album, would be the opposite of fire-and-brimstone, and she was right, the band taking turns throwing devious quotes and playful jabs over its happy-go-lucky bounce. The Malagasy dance that followed could have passed for a zydeco jam. A Richard Bona tune, pulsing along on an Ethiopian triplet rhythm, served as a platform for Sissoko’s most lickety-split solo of the night, Carter then teasing the band – and the crowd – with pregnant pauses and spritely, split-second flourishes. They encored on a high-energy note with variations on a theme that could have been a country blues, or a West African folk tune – both which it could have been in other times and places.
Carter plays with pianist Pablo Ziegler’s fascinating, intense Tango Connection tonight through the 28th at Birdland, then she goes on world tour with Joe Jackson’s band.
Either/Orchestra’s long and remarkable career has taken them from a sort of punk jazz, through a latin jazz phase and then on to worldwide acclaim collaborating with the dean of Ethiopian jazz, Mulatu Astatke. While there’s been some turnover in the group, bandleader/saxophonist Russ Gershon has been a rock of consistency as far as strong, imaginative tunesmithing is concerned (their 1992 album The Calculus of Pleasure made our 1000 Best Albums of All Time list). Saturday at the New School, Gershon unveiled a suite of New York premieres recently commissioned by Chamber Music America: after all these years, this band’s creativity just gets more and more amazing. This had to be one of the two or three best New York concerts of the year.”We’re going to play this, and then we’re going to pass out,” Gershon joked about halfway through almost three hours of new compositions and some other tunes recently rescued from the archives in Ethiopia.
Gershon’s stock in trade is wit and sophistication. The new compositions and arrangements revealed an unexpected gravitas and lush, majestic power to rival or maybe surpass anything this band’s ever done, effortlessly and imaginatively bridging the gap between Cuba and Ethiopia. Either/Orchestra in its many incarnations has always had the sound of a big band twice their size (this version has ten players): the shifting textures and voicings of these new compositions are equal to anything Gil Evans ever came up with. Another strength of Gershon’s is how he writes to the strengths of his players: alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger’s restless intensity, pianist Gilson Schachnik’s fluid melodicism, trombonist Joel Yennior’s febrile, cerebral expansiveness and drummer Pablo Bencid’s effortlessly spectacular facility for demanding polyrhythms.
Interestingly, the new suite, The Collected Unconscious – which was being recorded for broadcast on WBGO’s Jazz Set early next year – incorporates several waltzes, from the unselfconsciously attractive, Beatlesque opening theme, to several bracing, acidic variations on Ethiopian riffs that occur later on (the whole thing runs about an hour and a half) along with a little straight-up swing and several richly noir segments. Yennior’s long, slow burn on the second segment, which elliptically mixed loping Ethiopian triplet rhythm with hints of Afro-Cubanisms, was one of dozens of highlights; Niswanger’s no-nonsense attack during a long Ethiopian vamp was another, with Gershon himself contributing casually climactic passages on tenor and soprano sax and joining Niswanger on flute on another. At one point, Bencid had one beat going with the hi-hat, another with the cowbell he had on a kick and a third which he used as the basis for a solo while not missing a beat with his magic left foot.
As the suite unwound, the group went deep into noir territory, took it back to Cuba with just drums and Vicente Lebron’s congas against slinky Rick McLaughlinbass and Schachnik’s piano. After a break, they unveiled three new versions of classic Ethiopian themes. As has been documented on NPR and elsewhere, Haile Selassie discovered western brass band music, but there was no such thing in Ethiopia, so he hired an Armenian immigrant, Nerses Nalbandian, who would become a sort of royal court music teacher and arranger. He also happened to be a fan of Afro-Cuban music: it was as if a proto Either/Orchestra had been born. Gershon’s new arrangements of these songs – which probably haven’t been performed since the early 70s, maybe earlier – utilized the same artful exchange of voices that’s always characterized his work. The most spectacular of the new ones, with charts by Yennior, was a stunning and hard-hitting example of the sheer number of permutations that an inspired arranger can pull out of one simple, eerie riff. After that, they treated the crowd to a rousing, lengthy, funky dedication to New Orleans, then the politically-fueled Town Hall Meeting, featuring a hilariously bellicose duel between trumpeter Tom Halter and baritone saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase. They closed with their new version of Auld Lang Syne, which of course bears virtually no resemblance to the original: Gershon took one of those gorgeously apprehensive Ethiopian riffs and expanded on it, interpolating a little Scotland to see if anybody might be paying attention. Ostensibly, that’s also scheduled for broadcast on BGO for New Year’s Eve. If this is what this group does with a commission, Chamber Music America might as well just make Either/Orchestra their house band.
Bet you’re wondering when we’re ever going to do something other than the countdown here. It’ll happen – and would have happened if we hadn’t been locked out of our building on Tuesday! In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album was #616:
Mulatu Astatke – Ethiopiques Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-74
The best-known Ethiopian jazz bandleader, Mulatu Astatke continues to be sought after as a collaborator by all sorts of western musicians. His career on this side of the globe may have been springboarded by his numerous contributions to the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers, but he was well-known as the father of Ethiopian funk long before that – he’s every bit as much of an innovator, and a great dance tunesmith, as Fela Kuti was. This album collects most of the bittersweet, memorable themes from early in his career: the iconic Tezeta (Nostalgia), the longing of Metche Dershe (When Will I Get There), the love songs Munaye and Gubelye, the eerie, reggaeish Sabye and the rousing overture Dewel (The Bell) among the fourteen tracks here. Intricate, complex yet danceable, it’s a good introduction to a guy who needs none among African music fans. Here’s a random torrent via Totem Songs.
Growing up in France, chanteuse Malika Zarra had to downplay her Moroccan Berber roots. Here she celebrates them. It’s a quiet, rapt celebration: imagine Sade’s band if they’d relied on real rhythm rather than that annoying drum machine, and you’ll have a good idea of what her new album Berber Taxi, just out on Motema, sounds like. Blending the warmth of American soul music with tricky North African rhythms, intricately yet tersely arranged, jazz-inflected melodies and lyrics in Berber, Arabic, French and English, Zarra has carved out a niche for herself which manages to be completely unique yet very accessible. She’s got an excellent, pan-global band behind her, including keyboardist Michael Cain (fresh off a potently lyrical performance on Brian Landrus’ latest album), guitarist Francis Jacob, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wirht, oudist/percussionist Brahim Fribgane and violist Jasser Haj Youssef. All but two of the songs here are Zarra originals.
The quiet blockbuster here is Amnesia. Sung in French, it fires an offhandedly scathing, vindictive, triumphant salvo at a racist politician (Nicholas Sarkozy?) over a hypnotic Afrobeat pop tune as Joni Mitchell might have done it circa 1975, balmy verse followed by a more direct chorus. Your time is over, Zarra intimates: all the kids behind you are playing the djembe. Leela, by Abdel Rab Idris, is a gorgeous, sparse update on a Fairouz-style ballad with rattling oud, austere piano and gentle electric guitar – it wouldn’t be out of place in Natacha Atlas’ recent catalog. Kicking off with Zarra’s trademark resolute, nuanced vocals, Tamazight (Berber Woman) is the closest thing to North African Sade here, right down to the misty cymbals on the song’s hypnotic bridge, and the fetching call-and-response with the backing vocals on the chorus.
The title track pairs a reggaeish verse against a jaunty turnaround, Zarra throwing off some coy blue notes – it’s a vivid portrayal of the search for love in a distant place. Zarra’s casual, heartfelt vocalese – she doesn’t scat in any traditional jazz sense – carries the terse, gently imploring Houaira, and later, No Borders, an instrumental by Ba featuring some clever harmonies between bass and voice. Sung in French, Issawa’s Woman pensively recalls a woman watching her fantasy and reality diverge, Cain’s spacy, reverberating electric piano ringing behind her. Other tracks, including the knowing ballad Mossameeha and the breezy Mon Printemps, give Zarra room to cajole, seduce and show off a genuinely stunning upper register. It’s worth keeping in mind that even in the age of downloading, Sade’s Warrior album sold in the megamillions. As the word gets out, this one could resonate with much of that audience as well. Zarra plays the cd release show for the album with her band at the Jazz Standard on April 19, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.
More bands should do live albums. Boston-based Ethiopian groove orchestra Debo Band are as good a candidate as any. If their expansive new four-song ep Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn), recorded live on the band’s 2010 East African tour and available for five bucks at their bandcamp site, is any indication, their upcoming full-length concert cd will be unbelievable. Although they frequently indulge in the tricky polyrhythms in most Ethiopian dance music, this one grooves along to a pretty much straight-up 4/4. If these songs don’t make you move, you need to be defibrillated.
It’s amazing how interesting Debo Band can make a one-chord jam sound. Through all the catchy hooks, the hypnotic vamps, the funky grooves and sizzling horn motifs, there’s one chord change on the album. It’s on one of the songs’ choruses – that’s it. For those who listen to music from India, for example, that’s to be expected, but for music as funky as this, it’s quite a change. That it’s barely noticeable says a lot about how much fun it is. The six-minute opening track works a swaying, insanely catchy minor-key funk vamp with wah guitar, tight horns and incisive staccato violin accents from Jonah Rapino: he jumps on the hook and takes a juicy funk solo over the steady pulse of PJ Goodwin’s bass and the slinky shuffle of Keith Waters’ drums. Danny Mekkonen’s tenor sax sneaks in almost imperceptibly, then out, then in again with the rest of the section in tow. It’s a monster track. When’s the last time you heard a juicy funk solo played by a violin? Ever? That they’d have one pretty much speaks for itself.
The second cut has frontman Bruck Tesfaye singing lyrics in Amharic, careening along with wah-wah on the violin and snarling, distorted upper-register guitar from Brendon Wood. When it reaches the point where the interlocking guitar, horn and violin themes all mingle, it’s psychedelic beyond belief. The tension between squawking tenor sax and wailing electric lead guitar as the intensity rises slowly toward the end is typical of how this band works a crowd of dancers. A fervent, impassioned guest vocalist lends her powerful alto voice to the third cut, a bouncy, hook-driven joint with playful tradeoffs between the horns and Stacey Cordeiro’s accordion as it opens, followed by a seemingly endless series of oldschool funk turnarounds and a big fluttering crescendo at the end. The last cut works down to a mysterious, slinky reggae groove punctuated by a low ominous pulse from Arik Grier’s sousaphone, down even lower to a spooky dub breakdown, and out with a bang. Debo Band make frequent stops in NYC: their show last month at Joe’s Pub was characteristically fun. Watch this space for upcoming dates.
Two long, exhilarating sets of jazz from the highly sought-after horn player/bandleader and her seemingly favorite cast of characters. Pam Fleming has played with everybody. She spent a few years in reggae legend Burning Spear’s band as one of the all-female trio the Burning Brass, toured with Natalie Merchant and has lately been the not-so-secret weapon in Hazmat Modine. Her trademark is the instant crescendo. Whether playing trumpet or flugelhorn, she can pull one out of thin air in a split-second and make it seem perfectly natural, a trick that only a few musicians (Robert Cray and Mary Lee Kortes come to mind) can pull off. As breathtaking a soloist as she is, it’s ironic that in her own band, she doesn’t get to do that much. Most of her compositions seem to be written through, in other words, meant to be played note for note without much if any opportunity for soloing or extemporization.
Fleming typically writes in three disparate styles: vividly evocative, richly melodic songs without words; long, sprawling, psychedelic one-chord jams that sound like early 70s gangster movie soundtracks, and jazzed-up reggae tunes that wouldn’t be out of place in the Monty Alexander songbook (imagine if Alexander was a horn player instead of a pianist). Many of the compositions she played tonight had a narrative, cinematic feel: Hollywood would do well to seek her out.
Tonight she had almost all of the unit from her latest album: the always surprising, brilliantly musical Todd Isler on drums and percussion, the fast, stylistically diverse Peter Calo on electric guitar, Leo Traversa holding down the bass, Jim West on keys, and new group member Erik Lawrence on tenor and alto sax and flute. They opened with the reggae tune Slimy Business (guess which business that is), Fleming and Lawrence conversing through their instruments and trading off on sections of the melody, a sonically textural treat. They followed that with the gorgeous, major-key Because of Anthony from their first album. The brand-new, defiant, bluesy I’ve Had Enough gave both Fleming and Lawrence their first chance to stretch out. The haunting, achingly beautiful More Than Anything began with West playing the song’s central hook and built from there; from what Fleming told the audience, it seems to be a love song, but it’s very, very dark: West’s tasteful, traditional approach to his part worked wonders. After that, they did Intrigue in the Night Market, a rousing gypsy dance she wrote for Metropolitan Klezmer (another band she plays in regularly), featuring a boisterous, imaginative hand drum solo from Isler.
The highlight of the first set was Say Goodbye, which actually isn’t nearly as mournful as the title might imply: it’s a comfortable, familiar-sounding theme (perhaps this is a personal interpretation: maybe I’m so used to saying goodbye that it feels comfortably familiar). With its nostalgic, homey central hook, it sounds like it ought to be playing over the opening credits of a popular tv drama (any HBO people out there?).
The evening’s most mesmerizing piece was Fleming’s ominous 9/11 theme, Climb, the title track from her most recent album. From the song’s tersely harrowing opening hook, it’s obvious what’s going to happen, yet the foreshadowing is white-knuckle intense, right up to inevitable crash – and the band missed the crescendo when they hit it. To their credit, they turned on a dime and then brought out every bit of the macabre, disastrous feel of the following succession of chords as the song literally fell apart. Live, watching the melody break down and disintegrate was absolutely riveting. It’s a credit to this band that they can absolutely nail Fleming’s sometimes completely unexpected thematic and mood changes.
The night finally came to a close with Ba-Bo-De, a world-music inflected, two-chord vamp that unsurprisingly evoked a Burning Spear jam, which Fleming opened by playing a conch shell for a few bars. Fleming had had a devious look on her face the entire night, and took this as her opportunity to finally leave the stage and circulate amongst the audience, getting seemingly everyone to sing part of the melody. The crowd loved the personal attention, and the band jumped on the opportunity to get mischievous while she was out mingling with the audience.
This show was part of an ongoing series here called Women Take the Bandstand, featuring a new female-fronted act on the third Tuesday of every month. Given the venue, it seems to be mostly jazz and world music. Kudos to the reliably friendly, sonically superb Nuyorican for creating the series: it’s an admirable concept.