Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ben Holmes Brings His Darkly Tuneful Naked Lore Project Back to Barbes

Trumpeter Ben Holmes has been a mainstay of the Barbes scene practically since the beginning. With roots in klezmer, Balkan music and postbop jazz, he will often shift between all three idioms in the course of a single song…or even a single solo. Blasting away with endless volleys of notes is not his thing: his full, resonant tone, which comes out especially when he’s on the flugelhorn, pervades his dark chromatics, moments of sardonic humor and unselfconsciously poignant lyricism. Over the years he’s played the Park Slope hotspot with all sorts of bands, from legendary pianist Pete Sokolow’s Tarras Band to the Yiddish Art Trio, and most recently, with Big Lazy.

That iconic noir trio have experimented with horns many times over the years, but Holmes is the one trumpeter who really gets their ilngering menace. He sat in with the band after a more distantly uneasy set with his Naked Lore trio at the end of August and held the crowd rapt with his spacious, enigmatic lines and occasional stalker-from-the-shadows burst. Big Lazy guitarist/frontman Steve Ulrich likes to employ horns to max out the suspense in his crime jazz themes, and Holmes picked up on that in an instant. He also added spicy hints of Ethiopian style to a couple of more recent, rather epic Big Lazy numbers which look back to the group’s days of deep, dark dub exploration in the early zeros. Big Lazy’s next gig is at 8:30 PM this Dec 6 at Bar Lunatico.

Holmes’ set with Naked Lore to open that August Barbes gig was a chance to see how tightly the trio have refined their sound over the past several months. Guitarist Brad Shepik had cut the fret finger on his left hand – and was playing acoustic. Was he going to be able to pull this off? Hell yeah – even when that meant running tricky, syncopated cyclical phrases over and over, as he did on one recent number, or chopping his way through fluttery tremolo-picked passages. Was there any blood? Not sure – Shepik played the set seated next to drummer Shane Shanahan, and the venue was crowded, so it was sometimes hard to see the stage.

What’s become obvious lately is how prolific Holmes has been, and how vast his catalog of unrecorded material is. The best song of the set was a diptich of sorts that he’d begun as an attempt to write a pastoral jazz tune, but then he “Lapsed into freygish mode,” as he put it, drifting into biting Middle Eastern microtones as the melody grew more overcast. Naked Lore are back at Barbes on Dec 8 at 8 PM on a typically excellent if bizarre Saturday night bill. Trombonist Ron Hay’s fascinating Erik Satie Quartet – who reinvent works by Satie and other early 20th century composers as pieces for brass and winds – open the evening at 4 PM; bizarro, unpredictable psychedelic salsa revivalist Zemog El Gallo Bueno plays afterward at 10.

And catching the debut of Holmes’ brand-new trio earlier this month, again at Barbes, was a revelation. The not-so-secret weapon in this band is pianist Carmen Staaf. Among the sort-of-new, “rising star” generation of New York pianists, only Arco Sandoval can match her in terms of consistent edge, imagination and tunefulness. In fact, the best song of the night, built around a clenched-teeth, circling minor-key riff, might have been hers. Holmes’ own picturesque, pensive tunes gave her a springboard for plenty more of that. While Shanahan’s playing with Holmes is spacious, terse and part of a close interweave, this group’s drummer, Jeff Davis romped and thumped behind the kit, raising the energy at the show several notches. They closed with a funky, catchy number of his. Where Naked Lore is all about close attunement and interplay, this group is just the opposite: three very different personalities in contrast. Let’s hope this trio stay together and reach the depths that Naked Lore have been able to sink their chops into.

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December 2, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New York’s Best 2016 Halloween Concert? At Barbes Last Month

As far as New York concerts this year go, the most irresistibly yet understatedly macabre Halloween music played on any stage in this city was Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell‘s duo performance of Holmes’ Conqueror Worm Suite at Barbes on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s lurid 1843 poem, it’s a disturbing, grimly picturesque, many-segmented work – just like Poe’s flesh-eating insect.

A catchy, low-key trumpet figure with allusions to oldtime African-American gospel matched by moody, suspenseful low-register accordion opened the suite before Holmes picked up the pace, pensively and optimstically. The trumpeter narrated the first verse as Farrell’s accordion shifted into a morosely staggered waltz rhythm, Holmes’ brooding lines overhead echoing the Balkan music he’s been immersed in over the years, especially at this venue.

The poem follows the same plotline as Poe’s better-known short story The Masque of the Red Death. a high-society party turned into a nightmare – in 2016 political terms, there might be some symbolism here. Holmes put his mute in for a plaintive, rustically bluesy minor-key theme as Farrell held down a brooding, resonant anchoring ambience. From there the duo shifted unexpectedly from a momentary interlude of sheer, rapt horror to a bouncy Balkan dance, the trumpet soaring over Farrell’s rat-a-tat pulse; then the two switched roles and intertwined like..well, a giant worm and its prey.

After a briefly scampering detour, Farrell took centerstage with his big, evil, Messiaeneaque chords as Holmes did a Frankenstein sway several octaves higher. Since we know how the poem ends, it’s probably fair to give away the ending: only here did Holmes let terror flutter through his valves. The duo wound it up with a morose march. According to esteemed photographer and Barbes music room honcho Kate Attardo, this was the second time the work had been performed in its entirety here. Attardo knows a thing or two about good Balkan and brass music, and strongly affirmed that as good as the debut was, this performance was even better. There’ll be a “best concerts of 2016” page here at the end of the year, and this one will be on it. Holmes’ next gig is on Nov 5 at 10 at Barbes with mighty, exhilarating Sionaloa-style ranchera brass orchestra Banda De Los Muertos. Farrell’s next New York show is on Nov 28 at 6 PM with klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals‘ sizzling band outdoors at the triangle at 63rd St. and Broadway on the upper west side.

October 28, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Enticing Gutbucket Stand at the Stone and a Characteristically Edgy Album From Their Bandleader

Since the late 90s, Gutbucket have distinguished themselves as purveyors of moody, sardonic, cinematic instrumentals that combine jazz improvisation with noirish rock themes. You could call them a more jazz-inclined version of Barbez, and you wouldn’t be far off. If you miss the days when Tonic was still open and edgy sounds were an everyday thing on the Lower East Side, you’ll be psyched to know that Gutbucket are doing a stand at the Stone from Nov 18 through 23 with two sets nightly at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $10. As you would expect from pretty much everybody who plays there, the band are doing several interesting collaborations and are making a live album in the process. The most enticing set of all might be the early show on opening night when the music will have some added lushness via the strings of the Jack Quartet.

Frontman/guitarist Ty Citerman also has a wickedly fun, tuneful, genre-defying sort-of-solo Tzadik album, Bop Kabbalah, out with his Gutbucket bandmates Ken Thomson on bass clarinet, Adam D. Gold on drums plus Balkan trumpeter Ben Holmes. Although the themes draw on traditional Jewish music, jazz tropes and rock riffage take centerstage. The first track, The Cossack Who Smelt of Vodka (possible ommitted subtitle: what cossack doesn’t smell of vodka?) follows a tensely cinematic, noirish trajectory to a long outro where Citerman’s tensely insistent guitar pairs against Thomson’s calmness.

Conversation with Ghosts works a catchy minor-key theme punctuated by droll leaps and bounds up to a long Holmes solo, then the band reprises it but much more loudly and darkly. Snout moves from squirrelly free jazz into a brief Romany dance, then the band refract it into its moody individual pieces, transforming what under other circumstances would be a party anthem into a fullscale dirge.

The Synagogue Detective bookends a tongue-in-cheek cartoon narrative with alternately biting and goodnaturedly prowling solos from Citerman, Holmes and Thomson. Likewise, they liven the skronky march After All That Has Happened with squalling Steven Bernstein-esque flourishes. In lieu of hip-hop flavor, Talmudic Breakbeat has an unexpected lushness, neatly intertwining voices, some drolly shuffling rudiments from Gold and the album’s most snarling guitar solo.

The album’s most deliciously epic track, Exchanging Pleasantries with a Wall moves up from echoey spaciousness, through a disorienting, funereal groove that brings to mind low-key Sonic Youth as much as it does Bernstein’s arrangements of old Hasidic nigunim. The closing cut puts a clenched-teeth, crescendoing noir dub spin on a broodingly austere old prayer chant. Now where can you hear this treat online? Um…try Citerman’s soundcloud page and youtube channel for starters; otherwise, the Stone is where it’s at, next week.

November 12, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooding, Darkly Fascinating Balkan-Inspired Sounds from Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell

Ben Holmes has a distinctive, soulfully purposeful voice on the trumpet. He plays with Ty Citerman’s Bop Kabbalah, Russian Romany party band Romashka and the funky Brooklyn Qawwali Party, among others, and on the jazz side with his quartet featuring trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, bassist Matt Pavolka and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. Holmes also has a pensive, often haunting new duo album, Gold Dust, with brilliant accordionist Patrick Farrell. The two are playing the release show on June 7 at 8 PM at Barbes.

Much as Farrell has supersonic speed and is one of New York’s great musical wits, and Holmes tends to play tersely, with plenty of gravitas, the album doesn’t have the kind of dichotomy you might expect. Most if not all of the music here is on the somber side, and the duo lock into that mood. They open the album with a purposefully stripped-down, lithely dancing arrangement of a stately Shostakovich piece. From there they take their time building the catchy, klezmer-tinged Black Handkerchief Dance from a dirge, Farrell using every inch of register at his disposal, from keening highs to murky lows, up to a more triumphantly bouncy pulse.

The next number is a suite. Holmes and Farrell exchange warily spiraling leads and contrapuntal riffs as it opens, then Farrell anchors a grey-sky theme with an airily otherworldly, Messiaen-esque ambience, then the duo pick up the pace and make a rustically off-center Balkan dance out of it. The Shostakovich tune that follows it is all about distantly ominous foreshadowing punctuated by uneasy cadenzas.

Zhok, a brooding Balkan waltz, makes the most of a stripped-down arrangement, first with the instruments trading off and then intertwining up to a big crescendo. A New Mammon is similarly moody, a grey-sky Balkan pastorale, something akin to the Claudia Quintet without the drums taking a stab at Eastern European folk. From there they pick up the pace with a jaunty Erik Satie ragtime waltz and then go back into pensively subdued territory with Peace, whose calm ambience can’t hide a lingering unease, building suspensefully from spacious solos from both instruments to a rather guarded optimism.

From there they pick up the pace again with Honga, its tricky, Macedonian-flavored shuffle beat, animated tradeoffs between instruments and intricately ornamented trumpet leads. The final track, Romance, blends oldschool jazz balladry with a more modernist feel, Farrell leading the way. A lot of people are going to like this album, fans of jazz and classical as well as Balkan and Middle Eastern music.

June 4, 2014 Posted by | classical music, gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ljova and Fireworks Ensemble Revisit and Reinvent the Rite of Spring

Saturday afternoon on Governors Island offered a wide variety of sounds: the incessant, ominous rumble of helicopters, indignant seagulls, squealing children all around, cicadas in stereo, and the occasional gunshot. There was also music, which was excellent. On the lawn along the island’s middle promenade, pianists Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg pulled together a deliciously intriguing program to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that began with reimagiing its origins in ancient traditional themes and ended by taking it into the here and now.

Leading an eclectic nonet with fadolin, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, hammered dulcimer, acccordion, bass and percussion, violist/composer Ljova explained that it had long been theorized that the Rite of Spring was based on folk themes, which turned out to be correct. Invoking the old composer’s adage that if a motif is too good, its source must be folk music, he explained how he’d reviewed the scholarship, and from there and his own research was able to locate several tunes from northwest Lithuania which, if Stravinsky didn’t nick them outright, closely resemble themes and tonalities in the Rites. Except that those folk tunes’ jarringly modern dissonances are actually hundreds if not thousands of years old.

The concert began with about half the ensemble gathered in a circle in front of the stage, unamplified. A slowly sirening theme with eerie close harmonies almost impreceptibly morphed into a hypnotic march followed by a handful of slowly dizzying rondos, a couple featuring Ben Holmes’ lively trumpet, another Shoko Nagai’s stately, unwavering accordion. Things got more jaunty as they went along.

When the band took the stage, a big shot from Satoshi Takeishi’s drums signaled a return to where they’d started earlier, that apprehensively oscillating, sirening motif given more heft and rhythm. It was Ljova at the top of his characteristically cinematic game  – a group creation, actually, deftly pulled together in rehearsal over the previous couple of days. They turned their ur-Stravinsky into a jazzy romp punctated by a Zappa-esque fanfare, an atmospheric crescendo, screaming stadium-rock riffage from guitarist Jay Vilnai and then a segue down to singer Inna Barmash’s otherworldly vocalese which she delivered with a brittle, minutely jeweled, microtonal vibrato. Finally coming full circle with the ominously nebulous opening theme, they gave the outro to Barmash, who sang it in the original Russian, stately and emphatic but with a chilling sense of longing: it made an austere but inescapably powerful conclusion. They encored with a lively Romany dance with hints of Bollywod, which seemed pretty much improvised on the spot, but the band was game.

The equally eclectic indie classical octet Fireworks Ensemble followed, first playing a couple of brief works by bandleader/bassist Brian Coughlin: a lively, bouncy number originally written for trio and beatboxer, with a lively blend of latin and hip-hop influences and then a pair of more moody, brief  Wallace Stevens-inspired works, the second setting pensive flute over a broodingly Reichian, circular piano motif, They wound up the afternoon with an impeccably crafted performance of their own chamber-rock version of the Rite of Spring.  It’s remarkable how close to the original this version was, yet how revealing it also was, more of a moody pas de deux than a fullscale ballet. Stripping it to its chassis, they offered a look at where Gil Evans got his lustre and where Bernard Herrmann got his creepy cadenzas – and maybe where Juan Tizol got Caravan.

Coughlin’s arrangement also underscored the incessant foreshadowing that gives this piece its lingering menace. Jessica Schmitz’ flute and Alex Hamlin’s alto sax lept and dove with a graceful apprehension; Coughlin’s bass,  Pauline Kim Harris’ violin and Leigh Stuart’s cello dug into the bracing close harmonies of those sirening motives, Red Wierenga’s piano carrying much of the melody. They saved the big cadenzas in the next-to-last movement for Kevin Gallagher’s gritty guitar and David Mancuso’s drums, ending with a puckish flourish. It was surprising not to see more of a crowd turn out for the whole thing; Governors Island is a free five-minute ferry ride from the Battery and on this particular afternoon, the cool canopy of trees made it easy to lean up against one of the trunks and get lost in the music – with interruptions from the cicadas and the Civil War reenactment behind the hill. McMillen and Goldberg have another concert scheduled here for September 1 featuring music from Brahms to Kate Bush performed by the organizers, Classical Jam, Tigue Percusssion, Theo Bleckmann, Wendy Sutter and many others.

August 11, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Smart Balkan-Tinged Tunesmithing and Improvisation from the Ben Holmes Quartet

Trumpeter Ben Holmes’ Quartet is one of those great bands that defies categorization. Rhythmically, they are most defnitely a jazz group; melodically, they encompass everything from Balkan music, to klezmer, to a cinematic sensibility, with plenty of improvisation and elements of both the high Romantic and the avant garde. Over the past couple of years, what began as a trio has expanded to a a quartet with trombonist Curtis Hasselbring (who’s got a typically wry, witty album of his own due out momentarily from Cuneiform), Matt Pavolka on bass and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums.The group’s album Anvil of the Lord – Holmes’ second as a leader, just out from Skirl – doesn’t hammer anywhere near as hard as the the title suggests, but it is a mighty intriguing listen. Holmes has a fondness for shuffle beats along with impeccable tonal control, from an ambered gleam to rustic and gravelly, depending on context, adding tantalizing Eastern European spice to his warmly expansive melodies. Throughout the album, improvisation is drivem by a commitment to judicious exploration rather than anything remotely approaching a squawking free-for-all.

A Doodle For Rhapsody, a pensively altered klezmer shuffle anchored by Pavolka’s insistently suspenseful pedalpoint and tense, terse rising lines opens the album. Hasselbring brings a characteristic wryly bubbling touch to his firsr solo, shadowing Holmes on the way out. Magic Mondays waltzes along casually, Sperazza taking charge as the horn harmonies fall away for a similarly matter-of-fact, lyrical Holmes solo. The deceptively catchy Moving Like A Ghost shuffles and slips between minors and majors, with a transluscent, crystalline solo  from Holmes, Pavolka’s restless bounce underpinning the horns’ moodily rising lines and Sperrazza’s misterioso cymbals.

Kingston isn’t a reggae song but a rather wistful waltz, Holmes using just the faintest touch of a mute as he shifts from pensive to assertive, the band swirling up a stew as Hasselbring brings in southern-tinged heat. It’s one of many instances where holding the center is left to the bass while Sperrazza supplies color, in this case a nebulous cymbal ambience.

Otessianek hints at bossa nova as Pavolka and Hasselbring come together and then methodically take it into livelier klezmer territory over a hypnotic bass vamp. The title track opens with a tongue-in-cheek, effervescent bass solo and then an animated duel from the horns as Sperrazza kicks the smoke machine into high gear.

The moody, atmospheric ballad Malach Hamovi has Pavolka channeling Chopineque morosity with his stately, tiptoeing lines, Sperrazza bringing the shuffle back via a sardonic march. Song For Creel Thompson is a rather austere midtempo swing number; the album ends with Nada Vs Armitage,  the rhythm section walking the line between suspense and swing: and then the band goes for it wholehog with the nonchalant determination that permeates this expertly crafted collection. Holmes’ next gig with this unit is on March 12 at 7 PM at Barbes, setting the stage for Slavic Soul Party’s mighty brass assault.

March 4, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Romashka and the New York Gypsy All-Stars at le Poisson Rouge, NYC 4/11/09

This was kickoff night for the New York Gypsy Festival, 2009, taking last fall’s week of delirious fun at Drom to the next level. While this year’s festival will also take place sometime in the fall, the promoters will be putting together monthly shows in preparation for the big event and this was the first. And it was a mobscene, but a comfortable one, a sold-out room full of unpretentious, multi-ethnic twentysomethings, a throwback to Saturday nights at Mehanata ten years ago with not a single $500 bedhead haircut or pair of Elton John-sized glasses anywhere in sight. These people just came from all over to party. Nobody was disappointed.

 

Among New York gypsy bands, Romashka are second in popularity only to Gogol Bordello. They took the stage minutes after eleven, opening their too-brief, barely forty-minute set with a dark, lushly beautiful version of the Roma anthem Djelem Djelem highlighted by the haunting strings of violinist Jake Shulman-Ment and Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s viola, trumpeter Ben Holmes adding a plaintive solo after the second verse. Frontwoman Inna Barmash – recently reviewed here in a rare duo show with Zhurbin, her husband, at Small Beast at the Delancey – once again teased and then riveted the audience with her voice. Like all the best dramatic singers, she only goes for the kill when absolutely necessary. In this case, she waited until the band’s last song, an alternately hushed and frenetic, noir cabaret-tinged number before cutting loose with an astonishingly powerful blast of vocalese.

 

Otherwise, the band alternated between bouncy, upbeat dances, a tricky Balkan trumpet tune and a torchy Russian tango as well as some even darker material which proved to be the most captivating. Barmash told the crowd that one of those tunes was their “Russian nightmare song,” as the band added tongue-in-cheek horror-movie flourishes during its slow introduction, then going up and down and finally ending with a big burst of sound from the tuba. Their big, enthusiastic crowd wanted an encore but didn’t get one.

 

Which was ok because the New York Gypsy All-Stars were on next. This time out the Drom house band brought their A-game, not only because they had a full house but also because the iconic Selim Sesler – billed as “the Coltrane of the clarinet” – was scheduled to play with them. Their frontman, clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski is an extraordinary player in his own right, leading the group through a blistering series of haunting dance numbers and a couple of one or two-chord jams that the players used to show off their sizzling chops. This time around bassist Panagiotis Andreou stayed within himself, then playing a fiery horn line when the time came to introduce the next number. Kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi added a dark, spiky and spicy intensity. Then they brought up Sesler and the crowd went wild – how refreshing to see a bunch of American kids screaming for a balding, middleaged Turkish guy. It was a summit meeting, absolutely fascinating to witness, especially listening to the contrasting timbres of the two clarinetists when they doubled each others’ lines. Sesler has dazzling speed but maintains a confident, round tone that made a vivid contrast with Lumanovski’s restless, burning style. The effect was even more striking when the two alternated solos. Coltrane he may not be (Miles Davis is the more obvious comparison), but he is unquestionably a talent who should be far better known here than he is.

 

The “legendary trumpeter of the klezmer underground,” as the promoters aptly billed Frank London, may have played earlier, or later (it was pretty much pandemonium upstairs, with the line all the way around the block); it was impossible to tell. It would come as a shock to find out that his set had been anything short of outstanding as well. By two in the morning, the crowd hadn’t thinned, still bopping to the pan-Balkan Mehanata-style mix that the dj was spinning, but for those who’d been running around to concerts and galleries all day, it was time to call it a night.

April 15, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment