Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Maqamfest – 2012’s Best Concert So Far

The first weekend after New Year’s in New York is the booking agents’ convention a.k.a. APAP, and most of the shows put on for conventiongoers are also open to the public. Because the artists performing are all auditioning for at least theoretically lucrative gigs, they’re usually at the top of their game. As a result, some of the year’s most extraordinary bills, and extraordinary performances, happen here, and this past weekend was no exception. While Winter Jazzfest on Saturday night and then Globalfest on Sunday – both part of the convention – had their moments, the best show of the weekend was the first annual Maqamfest at Alwan for the Arts.

The maqam trail, with its otherworldly microtones and eerie chromatics, stretches from northern Africa to central Asia, and across the Mediterranean to the Balkans. In a spectacularly successful attempt to cover as much ground as possible, the organizers assembled a diverse program including music from but not limited to Egypt, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and many points in between. Organizer Sami Abu Shumays – virtuoso violinist and leader of the first act on the bill, Zikrayat – took care to point out that while each group drew on centuries, maybe millennia of tradition, each added their own individual vision to the music. Middle Eastern cultures don’t typically differentiate between classical, and folk, and pop music as westerners do, anyway: over there, music is music, pure and simple.

In introducing the program, what Shumays omitted, maybe out of modesty, is that the players on the bill were not only some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians outside the Middle East: they’re some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians anywhere in the world. They make their home at Alwan for the Arts downtown, where a vital, cutting-edge scene has evolved. What the Paris salons of a hundred years ago were for classical, the 52nd Street clubs were for jazz in the forties and fifties and what CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s, Alwan for the Arts is for music from the Middle East now. Unsurprisingly, the acts on the bill each brought classical purism, jazzlike improvisation and some punk rock fearlessness too.

The most traditionally-oriented group was Safaafir. A trio led by Alwan music honcho Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena (virtuoso of the jowza fiddle and leader of the considerably different but equally exciting Salaam), Safaafir play hypnotically rhythmic, centuries-old Iraqi court music and folk songs. The band name means “coppersmiths” in Persian, which is fitting because that’s what the ElSaffars’ grandparents, and their parents before them, did in the Baghdad marketplace. For all the stateliness and split-second precision of the music, Safaafir gave it a jolt of energy, sometimes with a bounce, sometimes with an insistent attack courtesy of percussionist Tim Moore, locked in with the graceful arcs of the fiddle and Amir ElSaffar’s precise lines on santoor dulcimer (and also occasional, unaffectedly exuberant trumpet). Some of the songs had a trancelike, Indian tinge while others allusively referenced modes from the other side of the Euphrates.

The most western-sounding performance was by Gaida and her band. Many of the musicians on the program made multiple appearances, Amir ElSaffar playing torchy muted trumpet in this group along with the night’s most popular musician, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, with George Dulin on piano, Jennifer Vincent on bass, Zafer Tawil on oud and Hector Morales on percussion. The Syrian-born chanteuse has a minutely nuanced, warmly breathy delivery that looks back to iconic singers like Fairouz and Warda; like many of the instrumentalists over the course of the evening, she began a couple of songs with quietly spectacular, microtonally melismatic improvisations. Behind her, the band shifted effortlessly from bossa nova, to urbane saloon jazz, to vintage habibi singalongs and the most dramatic, impactful number in her all-too-brief set, a darkly apprehensive piano-driven ballad that evoked the more ambitious cross-pollinations of legendary Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers forty years ago.

The set that was the most cinematic (which happens to be the title of the band’s latest album) was delivered by Zikrayat (Arabic for “memories”). Their speciality is classic Egyptian film music from the 50s and 60s, along with originals that update this lush, slinky genre. This particular incarnation of the band featured Shumays accompanied by Abboushi, ney flute player Bridget Robbins, bassist Apostolis Sideris and percussionists Johnny Farraj and Faisal Zedan. Meanwhile, a trio of bellydancers twirled and dipped in front of them, managing to pull off a neatly choreographed balancing act without anyone in the tightly packed, sold-out crowd getting bumped. Through a trickily shapeshifting Mohammed Abdel Wahab mini-epic, a fetching Umm Kulthumm ballad delivered masterfully by guest singer Salma Habib, and another soulful number featuring young crooner Salah Rajab, the instruments blended voices and wove a magical tapestry of melody over beats that were as slinky as they were hypnotic. At the end, they abruptly switched from plaintive elegance to a stomping, ecstatically rustic, jajouka-ish folk tune that managed to be both ancient yet absolutely modern as it pulsed along with the percussion going full steam.

Maeandros, unlike what their name might imply, don’t meander: their oud-based Greek music is straightforward, soulful and frequently dark. Their connection to the rest of the acts on the bill is that they favor bracing Arabic maqams via music from the underground resistance movement in the 1930s as well as originals with the same kind of edgy intensity. Frontman Mavrothi Kontanis is a world-class oudist and a strong singer who conveys drama and longing without going over the top, but he’s a generous bandleader, leaving the spotlight mostly to violinist Megan Gould – whose pinpoint, precise, microtonal inflections wowed the crowd – along with clarinetist Lefteris Bournias. Bournias may not be a household name in the United States, but he’s one of the most sought-after reedmen in the world, especially in his native Greece, a truly Coltrane/Papasov-class soloist. Predictably, it was his rapidfire, flurrying, judiciously incisive soloing that stole the show, supersonic speed matched to an intuitive feel for where to employ it. The band’s set built an undulating, cosmopolitanally nocturnal ambience much as Zikrayat had done, Kontanis opening one number with a long, achingly crescendoing improvisation and ending the set with a brief, upbeat song featuring some blistering tremolo-picking.

With its funky rock rhythm section and electric bass, Abboushi’s genre-smashing band Shusmo – with Abboushi, Morales, Dave Phillips on bass and Zafer Tawil on percussion – rocked the hardest, covering a vast expanse of sonic terrain, from an understatedly scorching, intense take on an apprehensive Turkish folk melody, to a brief detour into stately western baroque, to hints of jazz, all with a purist, levantine undercurrent. With Bournias’ clarinet salvos bursting out alongside the clank of the buzuq and the hypnotic rhythmic pulse, they evoked another great New York group from ten years earlier, the Dimestore Dance Band, except with Arabic tonalities. Bournias used a long one-chord vamp to cut loose with his most feral, wailing solo of the night, Abboushi also wailing a lot harder than he had as a sideman earlier, particularly through a long, very welcome taqsim where like Bournias, he expertly spun furious clusters of chromatics spaciously and suspensefully, choosing his spots. As the clattering, rumbling grooves shifted unpredictably from funk, to rock, to less predictable tempos and then back again, the intensity was relentless.

The show ended with the Alwan Music Ensemble: Shumays, Abboushi, Farraj, Tawil (now on eerily reverberating qanun), Amir ElSaffar on both trumpet and santoor, George Ziadeh on oud and Cairo Opera star Ahmed Gamal on vocals, making his U.S. debut. It seems that Gamal had other things in mind than the set list Abboushi had come up with: with a little humming and a few cues beforehand, it was amazing to watch the band create a lush arrangement on the spot behind Gamal’s smooth but powerful baritone crooning and breathtaking microtonal inflections (where European opera is all about bombast, Arabic opera is built on subtleties). Gamal sang to the women in the crowd and then got everyone singing and clapping along with a joyous mix of swaying, popular Egyptian standards. Even after more than five hours of music, the crowd was ready for more: as ElSaffar had predicted before the show began, it was impossible to feel tired at this point.

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January 10, 2012 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From the Archives: Nightcrawling 9/23/00

The night began with bluesy trio Gate 18 at the dreaded Orange Bear (a seedy old-man bar downtown in the financial district on Murray St. that hardly ever had anyone there, yet for some inexplicable reason could afford an expensive, state-of-the-art sound system). Instructive how a venue this wretched can still pull a quality act like Gate 18 for a Saturday night show with a $5 cover charge. Indicative of how the proliferation of venues has affected bands that don’t always pack the house. Sad to see frontwoman Lynn Ann (an amazing singer equally at home with searing blues, sultry jazz, twangy country and just plain straight-up rock) being harrassed about the volume of her Gibson Les Paul guitar when she wasn’t actually that loud at all. And she’s a big belter – there was absolutely no reason why the sound guy couldn’t have raised that powerful voice above the volume she was playing at. It was equally annoying to see the band being driven from the stage without giving their extremely enthusiastic audience the encore they were screaming for.

The band did their big college radio hit Nikki’s Tits early in the set, Lynn Ann not even trying to belt it (maybe they’re sick of playing it). The rousing Give Me a Reason, which could be a commercial radio hit, featured bassist Chris Witting playing excellent, melodic fills whenever and wherever he could fit them in. They closed with the swinging cover of the Billie Holiday hit Lover Come Back to Me that they always do. The band seemed in good spirits despite having been treated less than cordially by the club.

The Cooler was our next destination. This venue really shouldn’t exist. It’s on the edge of nowhere in the meatpacking district, draws a crowd of weirdos, is never open when it should be and is owned by someone with a reputation for treating bands – female artists, especially – with disrespect. Said disrespectful owner can’t even find a way to put together his own shows: the bands tonight were assembled by Moonlighters frontwoman Bliss Blood. Too bad the turnout was mediocre at best: perhaps this was a last-minute booking. This time, we’d come out to see the Dimestore Dance Ensemble (the former Devil’s Grimy Ascot, with Jack Martin on guitar), but given how early they’d gone on (10ish), there’s no way we could have made it up from the Orange Bear in time. As it turned out, we got there in time to catch the last song by the excellent bluegrass band Jim & Jennie & the Pine Tops (formerly the Pine Barons – that was before they moved to Pennsylvania from Brooklyn. Go figure). Their stuff fit perfectly on an old-timey bill like this. The Moonlighters followed with a brief, 50-minute set (this band will play all night long if you let them), with a standin standup bass player who was clearly lost when they launched into their best song, Blue and Black-Eyed. It’s a harrowing tale of a prostitute who kills herself by leaping from the fire escape at McGuirk’s Suicide Hall, a notorious early 20th century dive bar known for its suicide jumpers. The tenement that housed it still exists today just south of Houston [not anymore: it’s luxury housing now]. While Bliss Blood didn’t bring the musical saw or the train whistle she played at her most recent show, she did hum along as her second vocalist Carla Murray did a great job with their big audience hit Humming to Myself.

The next act, the Hank Williams Lonesome Cheatin’ Hearts Club Band is a Hank Williams cover band fronted by a young, clean-cut, articulate, educated, possibly very affluent East Coast-bred singer/guitarist who has less in common with Hank Williams than most people. But the band – including a standup bassist, and the Pine Tops’ violin player – is super tight, and it’s impossible to have any complaint about their choice of material. The high point of their set was Ramblin’ Man, which actually gave me the chills. Most sensible people would have called it a night at this point, but not us: we had lost a couple of people from the posse, but a couple of late additions re-energized us and we moved on to Finally Freddie’s around half past one in the morning.

It’s another impossible venue way over on Washington St. a couple of blocks south of 14th. There’s a small bar upstairs, an even smaller one down a flight via a tight, spindly staircase that seems ready to collapse. The bands play in the back of the narrow room, which has benches instead of chairs. But at least the air conditioning was blasting. Too bad the sound was awful, which didn’t help things because the band onstage, Cabana Rock, got very loud in the small space. Their frontman is Cuban-American; their metalish lead guitarist seems to hail from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and their bassist, wherever he’s from, is tremendous (a Latin McCartney, said one of our entourage, rapt). In addition to their two percussionists, they have a rock drummer, a local punk legend who’s played with everybody including the Ramones. He’s very busy, and took a ridiculously long, clattering, Mitch Mitchell style solo that wasn’t exactly right for the venue. But the band was good: while Santana is the obvious comparison, he doesn’t seem to be an influence. They fit in better with the current crop of Mexican rock en espanol stars like Jaguares and Maldita Vecindad, building their songs on folky, sometimes eerie acoustic melodies with psychedelic, electric flourishes and lots of energy. Their best original was a syncopated, swaying number in English called In Your Sanity. They also did a good, boisterous cover of the Beatles’ Why Don’t We Do It In the Road. Since the plan the next day was to get up relatively early in order to get to Hoboken by early afternoon for their annual Arts & Music Festival, I cut out after the band was done instead of stopping at the Fish on the way home for a drink or however many may have followed that.

[postscript: each of the venues here are now defunct, as is every band except Jim & Jennie & the Pine Tops and the Moonlighters. The former have achieved real stardom playing the indie rock circuit and backing Neko Case on her live album; the latter have gone through numerous lineup changes yet seem to get better than ever whenever they bring new blood into the band]

September 23, 2007 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment