Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Fishtank Ensemble’s New Album Is More Gypsy Than Ever

Fishtank Ensemble boast that they’re the “leading American gypsy band.” Their third album, Woman in Sin goes a long way to back up that claim: they just might be right. Energetically speaking, they raise the bar for pretty much everybody else. Frontwoman Ursula Knudson’s dramatic four-octave voice soars to the stratosphere along with Fabrice Martinez’ violin over Doug Smolens’ fleet, nimble acoustic guitar and Djordje Stijepovic’s incisive bass, frequently augmented by accordion or Knudson’s singing saw. Their previous album Samurai Over Serbia mixed Asian melodies into a wide range of gypsy and Eastern European styles; the melodies on this one run from Spanish flamenco to a Greek ouzo anthem to the shores of Tripoli. It’s an excellent approximation of their high-energy live show.

The title track is a scurrying oldtimey swing number, a feel replicated on the gypsy jazz version of Bessie Smith’s After You’ve Gone and, later, the Betty Boop flapper vibe of CouCou, both punctuated by inspired, spikily virtuosic Smolens solos. The instrumental Espagnolette, a live showstopper, is basically a Belgian barroom dance featuring some wild singing saw and vocalese. The somewhat epic Amfurat de la Haidouck kicks off with the gypsy equivalent of a heavy metal intro, a tricky sway with furious, rapidfire chromatic accordion and a long, methodical buildup to a wild, frenzied, swirling coda. They follow that on a smaller scale with the shapeshifting dance Djordje’s Rachenitza and then Pena Andalouz, which sounds like an acoustic Alabina song. The  album also includes another crazily metamorphosizing dance tune, a stately waltz that gives Knudson and Martinez a chance to show off a more introspective side, an ecstatic Greek drinking song and another dance that interpolates dark Middle Eastern passages within a more upbeat gypsy framework. It’s another winner from one of this era’s most adrenalizing, captivating bands in any style of music.

August 24, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Fishtank Ensemble at BAM Cafe, Brooklyn NY 1/9/10

Saturday night at BAM Cafe, Bay area gypsy music innovators Fishtank Ensemble brought the intensity to redline in seconds flat and kept it there for the duration of the show. Their cd Samurai Over Serbia (which received a rave review here and a spot on our 50 best albums of 2009 list) more than hinted that this would be the case, and the five-piece group didn’t disappoint. As expected, frontwoman Ursula Knudson seized the moment and led the charge, whether playing violin, using every octave of her vocal range or playing eerie washes of sound on her singing saw. Their first number, a fiery original titled Espagnolette saw her wind up her saw solo with some wild, stratospheric vocalese. With its tricky time signature, the Romanian gypsy song Shalaiman gave her another chance to go airborne and operatic, followed by a lightning, chromatically-fueled solo by accordionist Dan Cantrell.

A flamenco number saw guitarist Douglas Smolens introduce it with some strikingly terse, direct phrasing, which he’d return to with just a touch more firepower when it came time for him to solo as the band snapped their fingers in unison – and then Knudson went on the mic and brought the whirlwind intensity back. On the oldtimey blues staple After You’re Gone, she switched to banjo ukelele and gave it a winsome Blossom Dearie style treatment, after which upright bassist Djordje Stijepovic took an ostentatiously dexterous, amusing rockabilly solo, smacking the bass around as much as he was actually playing it. The group also scampered through a noir cabaret number featuring Knudson on violin, a gypsy dance written by Stijepovic bristling with unexpected dynamic shifts, a breezy take on the Transylvanian gypsy standard Chika Chika, and a playfully gypsified cover of Ring of Fire that Knudson sat out. It was too slow for her, she said – and then the band took it seemingly quadruplespeed at the end. The impressively diverse crowd, a mix of locals and fans from the burgeoning New York gypsy scene, were stunned. Watch this space for return NYC dates.

January 13, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Fishtank Ensemble – Samurai over Serbia

This is the last thing you want to have playing if you’re trying to fall asleep. It’s pure adrenaline: there hasn’t been anything this viscerally exciting playing around here since Ivo Papasov’s new one came over the transom. It’s a safe guess that listening to this cd burns calories. Fishtank Ensemble’s shtick is that they add Asian spice to gypsy music, primarily via Mike Penny’s shamisen, a Japanese lute with a brittle, slightly more piercing tone than a koto. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is violinist/chanteuse Ursula Knudson, whose ability to project all the way to the top of her spectacular range is nothing short of exhilarating. Rachelle Garniez fans will notice a similarity, particularly on the jazzier numbers. 

 

The cd kicks off with the fast traditional gypsy dance, Saraiman, Knudson adding passionate vocals with some rapidfire vibrato. The second cut, Turkish March takes a familiar Mozart piece back to its roots at an extremely entertaining, lickety-split clip. Knudson adds a sprightly ragtime feel to the gypsy swing number Tchavo. Face the Dragon features its composer, violinist Fabrice Martinez trading off atmospheric sheets of sound with Penny’s spiky shamisen and a nifty little bass solo by upright bassist Djordje Stijepovic. A homage to Paco de Lucia written by guitarist Douglas Smolens, Gitanos Californeros sets a frenetic gypsy violin chart against smoldering flamenco guitars, Knudson upping the dramatic ante as the piece builds. Spirit Prison, a first-person, tongue-in-cheek account of life in the loony bins comes across as a hybrid of Carol Lipnik phantasmagoria matched to the purist oldtimey ragtime charm of the Moonlighters. Nice upper-register singing saw solo from Knudson too! They follow it with the eerie, shape-shifting Fraima, originally performed by Opa Cupa.

 

The Kurt Weill song Youkali is a showcase for Knudson in legit mode, followed by the whirling traditional dance Ezraoul, fueled by the raw intensity of Martinez’ violomba. After the the swinging pulse of Mehum Mato, the title track blasts along with a firestorm of fretwork from the shamisen and the violins, with the rest of the band eventually joining the melee: Dick Dale or a similarly talented surf guitarist would have a field day with this. The cd winds up with the Extremely Large Congenial Romanian, by accordionist Aaron Seeman, more singing saw and vocalese from Knudson, and a bonus track, Yasaburo Bushi, a ferocious Japanese folksong arrangement by Penny. Listen to this all the way through – this is a long cd, many of the songs clocking in at a good seven minutes – and then try breathing lightly. Impossible. A lock for our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year.  

April 20, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment