Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ansambl Mastika’s Second Album is Raw Adrenaline

Combining the raw power of gypsy punk with the precision of jazz, Ansambl Mastika’s new album Songs and Dances for Life NONSTOP is literally the best of both worlds. They call their sound the “new Balkan uproar.” It’s got the same instrumentation as the pop music currently coming out of the Balkans, but without the wanky fusion sound or stiff, robotic, computerized rhythms that plague so much of it. Reedman Greg Squared leads the band on clarinet and tenor sax, with unearthly speed and relentless intensity: his formidable chops obviously draw deeply on legends like Ivo Papasov and Husnu Senlendirici. The rest of the band displays a similar blend of ferocity and virtuosity. Ben Syversen – whose unhinged, assaultive noiserock/jazz album with his band Cracked Vessel was one of 2010’s best – plays trumpet, along with Matthew Fass on accordion, Joey Weisenberg on electric guitar, Reuben Radding on bass and Matt Moran on percussion. These are long songs, typically clocking in at seven minutes or more – more than anything, Ansambl Mastika haven’t forgotten that what they play is dance music.

The opening track, Zurlaski Cocek (a Greg Squared original) sets the stage for what’s to come. It begins with a suspenseful clarinet solo into a long, burning vamp, a triumphant solo from Syversen, and a big reggae-tinged crescendo roaring with bass chords that the clarinet finally launches into whatever’s out there past the stratosphere. They bring it down a little bit afterward with a biting, Cypriot-flavored traditional Greek medley with some interesting flamenco rhythms, stately ambience from Fass and distant menace from the clarinet again. The Turkish-themed march Mahkum Efe is something of an Istanbul street scene through the mist, with a powerfully building trumpet solo from Syversen. And the Slovenian Memede Zlatna Ptica has the feel of a classic, anchored by fat, crescendoing bass and a long, smoldering sax interlude.

A collaboration with the innovative all-female Brooklyn Bulgarian folk choir Black Sea Hotel, Ispukav Poema sets Ruzica Apostolova’s Macedonian lyrics to lushly otherworldly four-part harmonies that soar over a catchy, jangly turbo-folk tune. Nova Zemja is a brilliantly bizarre, eclectic mash-up of surf music, psychedelic rock and Serbian brass with a raga undercurrent: it might be the best song on the album. A dramatic, dark duo of Macedonian songs features some neat harmonies between Greg and Rima Fand (who has an exciting new project setting Frederico Garcia Lorca poems to music); a couple of Turkish numbers veer from wry wah funk to scorching, melisma-driven exhilaration. The album ends with an irrepressible psychedelic rock arrangment (with cautionary English lyrics) of the old folk song Dafina – watch out, the girl’s dangerous! – and a hallucinatory, shapeshifting version of the Greek To Spiti kai o Dromos. All this is as exhilarating as it is eclectic. It may only be February, but right now it’s the frontrunner for best album of 2011. Watch this space and see where it lands in December.

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February 11, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Hole’s Got a Bucket in It

Ben Syversen plays trumpet in two of New York’s best bands, Balkan juggernaut Raya Brass Band and also ferociously eclectic guitar-and-horn-driven “new Balkan uproar” outfit Ansambl Mastika. His new solo album Cracked Vessel is a masterpiece of warped, paint-peeling noise and spontaneous fun. Part noise-rock, part free jazz, with frequent Balkan and funk tinges, it screeches, squalls and rattles its way through one side of your cranium and out the other. Easy listening? Hardly, but it’s without question one of the most deliciously intense albums of the year (it’ll be on our Best of 2010 list at the end of December). Alongside Syversen’s alternately thoughtful atmospherics, blazing Gypsy sprints and tersely wary passages, Xander Naylor’s guitars do triple duty, serving as both bass and percussion along with providing some of the most memorably twisted sonics recently captured on disc. The beats can get even crazier when Jeremy Gustin’s drums are in the mix; otherwise, he holds this beast to the rails while it thrashes to break free and leap into the nearest abyss.

The album opens with the possibly sardonically titled Frontman, Syversen playing sort of a “charge” theme over percussive, trebly guitar skronk. As is the case frequently here, the drums crash in, the guitar goes nuts – and then it’s over. A staggered, off-kilter stomp with Balkan overtones, Weird Science sounds like a sketch that Slavic Soul Party might have abandoned because it was too crazy even for them, especially as the guitar careens and roars. Bad Idea contrasts pensive, terse trumpet against gingerly stumbling guitar underneath, finally exploding in a ball of chromatic fury and then back down again. Naylor cools the embers with sheets of reverb-drenched white noise.

The fourth track, Untitled, begins with a creepy minimalist Bill Frisell guitar taqsim and gets even weirder: even Syversen’s pensive, sostenuto trumpet can’t normalize this one. Krazzle works a long noise-funk crescendo up to a macabre trill, all the way down through a shower of amplifier sparks to virtual stillness – and suddenly they’re back at it. End of Time turns a playful trumpet-and-guitar conversation into a memorably nasty confrontation and another effective quiet/insane dialectic; From the Abyss has Syversen craftily dodging everything Naylor and Gustin can hurl at him, which is a lot, all the way down to a netherworld where a richly and unexpectedly beautiful minor-key art-rock song assembles itself and then eventually fades. It’s the most counterintuitive and richly satisfying passage in the entire album. There’s also the aptly titled Apparition, a study in percussion on all available instruments; Fried Fruit, a twisted funk tune, and the bonus track, Talk, which hints at minor-key janglerock before going completely off the rails with several blasts of guitar fury and finally a brutal, bodyslamming crescendo. The louder you play this, the more exhilarating it is. Definitely not for the faint of heart. Watch this space for upcoming shows.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Zlatne Uste and Raya Brass Band at Drom, NYC 6/13/09

Big party at Dracula’s castle last night, were you there? Alone in a darkened room, The Count? Not exactly. While not quite the mobscene that the NY Gypsy Festival’s show at le Poisson Rouge was last month, the big Balkan brass band concert last night was well-attended and deliriously fun. It was something of a juxtaposition of the old guard and the young lions of the thriving but still largely under-the-radar New York Balkan underground. The dancing started before the bands did, the dj spinning an auspiciously diverse, pan-global mix of Mehanata-style stuff while a line formed and circled the room, growing longer by the minute. Then Zlatne Uste took the stage. The nine-piece Balkan brass juggernaut – four horns, trumpet, tuba, drum and two saxes – were the first of the New York Balkan brass bands, dating from way back in 1983. Their name means “golden lips,” definitely a boast, but they back it up. “Most of us are older than you are,” their trumpeter somewhat proudly told the crowd. A guy in the crowd kept yelling for them to play his favorite song, the Goran Bregovic hit Kalasjnikov. “Not now!” a fellow partyer grinningly advised. “They always do that later.”

They opened with their darkest number of the night, basically a murky two-chord chromatic dance vamp and then another that was even simpler, serving as a chassis for some darkly intense soloing from the trumpet and sax. Most of the songs were instrumentals, although several band members sang on the vocal numbers, sometimes sharing a line or trading off.  A few were marked by a noticeable shift, opening somewhat wary, the staccato pulse of the horns then growing bouncier and more carefree. As their long, exuberant set went on, the sea of dancers grew, through a bouncy, happy number in 4/4, a bracingly soulful cocek dance and several with far trickier, syncopated rhythms that didn’t phase the dancers a bit. One of the guys in the band sang a drinking song (rakia, the potent Balkan apple brandy featured prominently). The crowd – a diverse mix of expats and Americans – was clearly psyched to hear what were obviously some old favorites. As predicted, they finally did Kalasjnikov, a lickety-split vocal number, one of the horn players leading the crowd in an exuberant “one, two, three, OPA!” to wind up the chorus.

After a lengthy break, Raya Brass Band came out of the back room and secured a spot on the floor, quickly encircled by not one but two lines of dancers. There’s been a buzz about this band lately and it’s well-deserved. Where Zlatne Uste got the party going, these guys took it up a notch. Their sound is looser, far darker and they threaten to fly off the hinges at any second: this band is all about adrenaline, taking the intensity as high as it can go and then adding something on top of that. Clarinetist and sax player Greg Squared – also of the equally intense, somewhat more diverse Ansambl Mastika – is a pyrotechnic player in the Ivo Papasov mold, delivering an endless series of long, careening, wildly flurrying clarinet solos packed with lightning-fast melismas. On the sax, he backed off only a little. Yet it was his achingly terse, minimalist clarinet solo toward the end of the set that was the most intense of all. Trumpeter Ben Syversen is a kindred spirit, blazing through the songs’ eerie Middle Eastern scales while accordionist Matthew Fass (also of Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar) held things together as much as he could, ominously and atmospherically. Sometimes the band would all blast through the same repetitive riff as an ensemble, otherwise barrelling along with the fat, undulating groove of the tuba and drum as trumpet, sax or clarinet cut loose, the songs going on for minutes on end without respite. Eventually, two of the women from the Brooklyn Balkan a-capella quartet Black Sea Hotel (who have a sensationally good debut album just out) joined in and belted a few choruses

By 2 AM, the drunk munchies were kicking in, and the kitchen was still serving food. By the way, these NY Gypsy Festival events are a surefire way to get away from tourists and trendoids. Tourists, if they knew this stuff existed, would think it’s weird and scary (a lot of it is); trendoids, if they knew anything about it, would ridicule it as declasse. There’s nothing more populist than when the band is on the dancefloor and either you’re in the band or you’re unable to escape being drawn into the joyous vortex of dancers around them.

Raya Brass Band is at Mehanata on 6/25 at 9; the 6/27 Turkish Woodstock at Central Park Summerstage at 3 featuring Mazhar-Fuat-Özkan, Painted on Water with Sertab Erener & Demir Demirkan plus the NY Gypsy All-Stars with iconic clarinetist Hüsnü Senlendirici is not to be missed, and afterward the organizers have kept things going with an afterparty at City Winery, Senlendirici playing with the Brooklyn Funk Essentials and more from the Gypsy All-Stars. Is this turning out to be a good summer or what?

June 14, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment