Filmmaker Josephine Decker is also an accomplished accordionist, and a member of all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra. She credits the first time she saw a show by Raya Brass Band – the explosive Balkan brass jamband – as a life-changing experience. So it’s no surprise that experience would springboard what would ultimately become her first feature film, the deliciously creepy Butter on the Latch, which opens at the IFP Center, 30 John St. in Dumbo (on a double feature with her second full-length horror film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely) on Nov 14, when it will also be out on VOD.
Reduced to most basic terms, Butter on the Latch contemplates how men disrupt or fracture relationships between women (although women do the same thing to men – talk to your buddy at the bar, if you can find him on a night when he’s not off with his girlfriend). The disruptions and fractures in this film come suddenly and unexpectedly, even if the progression toward those cataclysmic events makes perfect sense as the narrative unfolds. Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence are pure dynamite in contrasting roles as students at Balkan camp, a retreat in what at first seems like an idyllic northern California woodland setting where bemused expats from Eastern Europe teach the eerie harmonies and befuddling rhythms of their native folk music to an eager cast of American kids.
On face value, Balkan camp seems like the funnest place in the world, where half the population is half in the bag by lunchtime, and where getting laid seems like part of the curriculum. Although Decker’s version maxes out the dread of its deep-woods milieu, it owes less to the Blair Witch films than to David Lynch (much of its iconography borrows heavily from both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), with a fond nod to Bergman’s Persona. The woman-to-woman dialogue couldn’t have been written any better, or more spot-on, than Sarah and Isolde (who each use their real first names in the film) improvise here. Their sometimes winking, sometimes feral, sometimes tender intimacy captures both the spontaneity and snark that Lou Reed was shooting for with the girls in the Velvet Underground’s The Gift, but couldn’t quite nail.
Ashley Connor’s cinematography careens in and out of focus, which is jarring at first, until it’s obvious that this story is being told from the point of view of a woman who literally can’t see straight. Complicating the picture is that Isolde relies on Sarah for stability, a misjudgment with disturbing consequences. One particular scene, the two staggering into the woods with what’s left of a bottle of wine as the sun goes down and then out, is as chilling as it is funny – and it’s absolutely hilarious.
Further complicating matters is the appearance of Steph (Charlie Hewson), a hunky guitarist that one of the duo can’t resist. A cat-and-mouse game with interchanging roles heightens the suspense, their interaction interspersed among what seem to be actual unstaged moments from music class or performances which help illustrate what the serious (i.e. not alcohol or sex-related) side of Balkan camp is all about. As cruel and cynical as it is surreal, Butter on the Latch is a riveting debut that solidly establishes Decker as an individual voice in 21st century noir cinema.
The soundtrack is sensationally good and appropriately haunting, with contributions by ensembles led by Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni along with Small’s own otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel and others. It’s a playlist that deserves to exist as a stand-alone album: it could convert as wide an audience to Balkan music as the initial Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares albums did twenty-odd years ago.
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.
Former Turtle Island Quartet violinist Irene Sazer, a pioneer of string-band improvisation, founded the all-female Real Vocal String Quartet. You could characterize them as a less caustic. considerably more eclectic alternative to Rasputina. They’re playing Barbes on Oct 13 at midnight – and then they’re at Passim in Cambridge, MA the next day at 4:30 PM! That same sense of adventure pervades their music, drawing on genres from around the world to create an enchanting, original, sometimes gypsy-tinged blend.
The best song on their 2010 self-titled debut was a radical reworking of a Paul Simon song, of all things. This time around, they open their new album Four Little Sisters by radically reworking Regina Spektor’s Machines, first giving it a slyly satirical, robotic bounce and then roaring through an outro that’s the furthest thing from detached and coldly mechanical. Everybody in the band – Sazer, violinist Alisa Rose (also of Quartet San Francisco), violist Dina Maccabee and cellist Jessica Ivry – contributes vocals as well, therefore the band name.
Sazer’s instrumental Homage to Oumou follows, a swinging minor-key gypsy/klezmer romp capped by a blazing violin solo, held down by Ivry’s alternately stark, bowed washes and swinging pizzicato basslines. Elephant Dreams, by Rose, has a fresh, distantly West African tinge, swinging counterpoint and an edgy series of bluesy exchanges.
They begin Gilberto Gil’s Copo Vazio with an insistent staccato pulse, growing to pensive, lush chamber pop with a tersely thoughtful Sazer solo. Likewise, Maccabee’s arrangement of the cajun dance Allons a Lafayette gives it plenty of oomph – and some neat four-part vocal harmonies.
Duke Perarson’s Sweet Honey Bee is transformed by a Sazer arrangement into a tioptoeing but acerbic blues ballad with a long, intricately intertwining jam at the end – it makes a good segue with Vasen guitarist Roger Tallroth’s Falling Polska, a moody mix of the baroque and the Balkans. Durang’s Hornpipe, dating from the American Revolution, gets a rousing cajun treatment, and then a long jam, a vein they return to with the album’s more nocturnal concluding track, Grand Mamou Waltz. There’s also a bright, blue-sky cover of the Dirty Projectors’ Knotty Pine. It’s hard to think of another recent album that so entertainingly connects jazz, indie classical, jamband rock and so many other worlds as this one does.
Music blogger reading Downbeat on the subway spies a mention of Guy Klucevsek’s most recent album The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour. How could a (relatively) new release by such an important figure in jazz and its outskirts have slipped under the radar here? Breathless email to the publicist at Innova – who put out this delightfully witty album at the end of January – results in a package of files which translates, at least to some extent, into what you are reading right now. This is not a heavy album, but it’s very smart, a bright, playful mix of short, droll numbers along with a handful of more expansive tunes. Novoya polka stars Brave Combo join Klucevsek along with a vast supporting cast mostly hailing from the downtown New York scene.
Marcus Rojas’ pulsing tuba drives the Balkan-flavored opening track, Breathless and Bewildered, shifting from major to minor with twin accordions in perfect unison. The pensive, slow Waltz for Sandy features drummer John Hollenbeck at his most tersely coloristic, adding vividly sepulchral brushwork. Jo Lawry’s deadpan, breathless layers of vocalese color the tongue-in-cheek Gimme a Minute, Please (My Sequins Are Showing).
Klucevsek follows that with Larsong, a diptych for solo accordion that shifts from a purposeful Nordic folk theme to a rather wary canon. Likewise, Ratatouille builds a circular west African motif up to a lavish choir of voices and then back again. There are also three imaginative rearrangements of Erik Satie “hymnopedies,” the first being a sort of mashup of Satie and a European hymn, the second a slightly more hopeful version of the famous Gymnopedie No. 2 featuring bright Dave Douglas trumpet, and the third a stately klezmer-inflected dirge that goes unexpectely bouncing with a surreal off-centeredness that would make its composer proud.
The best song here is Pink Elephant, climbing from an insistent Taxi Driver-style intro to a balmy but bracing Balkan dance. Klucevsek doesn’ t show off much on this album, but he pulls out all the stops on a deliriously thrilling, trilling solo. He follows that with O’o, a jauntily swinging psychedelic calypso number with all kinds of trippy efx. The album winds up with Ladereld, extrapolating on the riff from California Girls; The C and M Waltz, a coyly orchestrated schoolyard jumprope theme, and the irresistibly funny party-gone-wrong scenario Moja Baba Je Pijana, complete with understandably distraught English translation. Big up to Klucevsek’s like-minded supporting cast, which also includes fellow squeezebox guy Alex Meixner, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, bassist Pete Donovan, drummer Kenny Wollesen, singers Theo Bleckmann and Peter Eldridge, saxophonist Steve Elson and Texas bandleader Little Jack Melody.
Klucevsek works fast: he’s already got a lavish double album featuring even more collaborations than this one due out later this fall from Starkland.
Whether Roger Davidson knows it or not, he’s just released an elegant gypsy punk record. It’s not likely that the eclectic composer, whose previous work spans the worlds of jazz and tango nuevo, launched into his new album On the Road of Life with that idea in mind. But that’s pretty much what he ended up with. “Pretty much,” because there are no distorted guitars or pummeling drums here – and also because Davidson’s intent was to write an original album of klezmer tunes. Whether this is klezmer, or Balkan music, or gypsy music is really beside the point – whichever way it falls stylistically, it’s a collection of memorably simple themes bristling with the scary/beautiful chromatics and eerie minor keys common to all those genres. Here Davidson is backed by what he calls the Frank London Klezmer Orchestra, an eclectic group with the great klezmer trumpeter alongside another klezmer legend, Andy Statman on mandolin and clarinet, plus Klezmatics drummer Richie Barshay, Avantango bassist Pablo Aslan and Veretski Pass accordionist/cimbalom player Joshua Horowitz.
Some of these are joyous romps. Freedom Dance has solos all around and some especially rapidfire mandolin from Statman. Dance of Hope is sort of a Bosnian cocek with mandolin and clarinet instead of blaring brass, and a tune closer to Jerusalem than to Sarajevo. There’s Harvest Dance, based on a crescendoing walk down the scale; Water Dance, with an absolutely ferocious outro, and Hungarian Waltz, which in a split second morphs into a blazing dixieland swing tune fueled by London’s trumpet. Yet the best songs here are the quieter ones. The title track is basically a hora (wedding processional) that builds gracefully from a pensive, improvisational intro to a stately pulse driven by Aslan’s majestic bass chords. There’s also Equal in the Eyes of God, which reaches for a rapt, reverent feel; Sunflowers at Dawn, which klezmerizes a famous Erik Satie theme; The Lonely Dancers, a sad, gentle Russian-tinged waltz, Statman’s delicate mandolin vividly evoking a balalaika tone; and the epic, nine-minute Night Journey, glimmering with suspenseful, terse piano chords, tense drum accents, allusive trumpet and finally a scurrying clarinet solo.
Davidson may be a limited pianist, but he’s self-aware – his raw chords and simple melody lines only enhance the edgy intensity of the tunes here. That he’s able to blend in with this all-star crew affirms his dedication to good tunesmithing, keeping things simple and proper, as Thelonious Monk would say. Fans of moody minor keys, gypsy music and the klezmer pantheon will find a lot to enjoy here.
Here’s how it works in the blogosphere:we’ve got every PR agent on the planet hammering on our virtual door, pleading for some attention, but we like it best when we do a writeup on the Montreal Jazz Festival, a Quebecois band we’ve never heard of finds it, and then sends us a link to their stuff. And it turns out, they’re great! Canadian trio Swift Years’ most recent album goes back to 2005, and it’s a ton of fun. They’re sort of a north-of-the-border counterpart to Tribecastan. What guitarist Patrick Hutchinson, mandolinist Bob Cussen and bassist Suzanne Ungar have assembled here is an endlessly surprising, eclectic, genuinely amusing mix of cross-pollinated global sounds. They don’t have drums on the album, but it’s so tight that you don’t notice unless you listen closely.
Musically, the two real killer tracks here are The Exile and The Sand, both tricky, bitter, bracing, psychedelic Smyrnika rock instrumentals much in the style of Annabouboula, with layers of mandolin, guitar and soaring bass. The real classic here is Old Man Santo. See, Old Man Santo – think about that title for a minute – had a Farm, E-I-G-M-O. On the farm he had some pot, and some pigs, and some cows, really bloody pissed-off mad cows everywhere. We won’t spoil the plot because it’s as funny as it is unfortunately true.
A lot of the other tracks here add reggae to enhance the comedic factor. Beside Me’s protagonist doesn’t let his lack of money stop him from trying to pick up the girl: “After supper we could split a beer,” he tells her. He’s strictly oldschool: “I’m a rotary phone, I’m the last bus home…at home I drink out of glasses that I take home from bars, an old piggybank is my retirement plan, the clothes from my back are from the Sally Ann.” Rasta Puszta blends reggae, bluegrass and a happy Eastern European dance in there somewhere. And I Dreamed I Stopped Smoking is an amusing faux-country song, like a zeros update on what the Stones did with Dear Doctor.
They do a tongue-in-cheek speed-up and then do it all over again on the gypsy-flavored Hanko Hanko, and merge Quebecois with bluegrass on the equally sardonic Mon Vieux François. The title track, which sounds like the Boomtown Rats doing a creepy reggae tune, offers a view of the afterlife where everything is pretty much the same for these guys, everybody playing everyone else’s culture’s music in one big mashup, with a politically aware edge. In this particular world, right-wing politicians are reincarnated as single mothers. The album also includes a gorgeous, plaintive Belgian barroom waltz, a medley of the Eddystone Light and three jigs, and a lickety-split string band version of Ain’t Nobody’s Business. The whole thing is streaming at Swift Years’ bandcamp site – thanks for finding us, guys! Now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to discover this entertaining band.
Sometimes the best albums take the longest to get to know: that’s our excuse for sitting on this one as long as we have (it came out last fall). Bay Area instrumentalists Pickpocket Ensemble’s latest album Memory is one of the most unselfconsciously beautiful ones to come over the transom in recent months. Their dark, austere, gypsy-tinged acoustic melodies linger over tricky rhythms that sometimes shift shape to the point where it’s impossible not to get lost. Plaintive but not sentimental, wistful without being hokey, this is tremendously captivating rainy-day music.
The opening cut, Home, blends elements of Belgian barroom musette with tricky gypsy rhythms, bandleader/accordionist Rick Corrigan layering one track over another like a piece of baklava, guitarist Yates Brown and violinist Marguerite Ostro’s lines mingling with the wary ambience over the shifting pulse of bassist Kurt Ribak and percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz. The aptly titled 3 AM veers closer to gypsy jazz with staccato piano and memorably spiky solos from both piano and guitar. The third track, If (not to be confused with the cheeseball 70s hit by Bread…or the Pink Floyd tune, come to think of it) is another brooding minor key number, violin taking the lead over incisive, thoughtful fingerpicked guitar. Brown’s gorgeously spiraling solo over shuffling acoustic guitar and bright piano on the fourth track, Sometimes Never, is one of the album’s high points.
Baroque meets jazz on the wistful ballad Bird in a Web, featuring another beautiful Brown solo. They follow that with the bittersweet, elegaic waltz For Those Who’ve Left and then Seriously, which blends gypsy jazz with a cosmopolitan, Astor Piazzolla-ish elegance. The title track adds banjo and brass – and a sizzling muted trumpet solo – over a bracing minor-key gospel melody; after a brief Arab-flavored spot for solo cello, they close the album with a characteristically pensive, rhythmically dizzying number titled Nowhere Else. Fans of eclectic pan-global bands from Beirut to Kotorino will enjoy this: count it among the best we’ve heard lately.
Neutral Milk Hotel made some good music but nothing this amazing. A Hawk and a Hacksaw were originally a solo project of that band’s drummer Jeremy Barnes, which grew both in members and diversity as he immersed himself in Eastern European music, including a noteworthy collaboration with Hungarian group Hun Hangar Ensemble. Their new album Cervantine is characteristically intense and eclectic, something of a cross between the “new Balkan uproar” of Ansambl Mastika and the hypnotic dancefloor string-band grooves of Copal.
The epic masterpiece here is No Rest for the Wicked, a blistering suite of what are essentially variations on a fiery Balkan brass piece: accordion and strings picking it up, a long, suspense-building crescendo, a couple of wildly adrenalizing accordion solos and a graceful march out. It’s nothing short of breathtaking. They don’t try to outdo themselves after that, instead following with a lushly clanging, hypnotic bouzouki vamp. Espanola Kolo is a deliciously ominous gypsy tune, morphing from a somber march to wild ensemble passages with a particularly artful section with the brass and accordion going doublespeed against the stately grandeur of the strings. The title track follows, quieter and more brooding but similarly tuneful, featuring a raw, intense, tremolo-picked saz lute solo.
They take the popular gypsy standard Uskudar and give it a lush, understated majesty and a bracing violin solo that throws off all sorts of otherworldly overtones. Laszlo Lassu is a tone poems of sorts with an unexpectedly effective gospel flavor; after that, they pick up the pace with another crazed Balkan dance, shifting from the delirium of a hook that they run again and again that builds to one of the most darkly memorable choruses here. The album winds up with a gorgeously plaintive bouzouki song playfully titled The Loser. The band will be on West Coast tour starting in March (check their site for tour dates).You’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2011 list at year’s end.
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.
The tendency is to ignore a composer’s practice pieces. Sometimes that’s a mistake. The Bach Clavierubung is a goldmine of obscure treasures, the Schumann etudes transcend the genre as they grow more cruelly difficult – and let’s not forget old Fur Elise. In the early 1930s, at the suggestion of a colleague, Bela Bartok decided to take many of the Eastern European folk themes he’d collected over the years and turn them into a series of etudes. His agenda: to further his own cause and get the kids playing bitonalities, atonalities and the astringencies found here which are often more Bartokian than Balkan. Violinists Angela and Jennifer Chun have artfully assembled them as a suite, making for segues that are literally seamless: most of these brief, barely minute-long miniatures blend together. Likewise, their playing is seamless: the two violins often literally join together as one, which might not seem so remarkable considering that the Chuns are sisters.
The melodies are austere, plaintive and often poignant: for the most part, the violins set a steady pace and keep it going. Dances often sound more like marches; the most memorable of the wedding songs here would make a more appropriate theme for a divorce. The most vivid of the traditional themes here include a deliciously fast, chromatically-fueled Ruthenian dance; a Transylvanian theme which disquietingly shifts from the Arabic hijaz scale to hypnotic major-key ambience; a brief, evocative “mosquito dance,” a rather macabre “counting song,” and an eerie Romanian dance tune that’s more closely related to Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring than might seem possible. A whirling bagpipe theme over steady pedalpoint resonates equally well, along with a distantly anguished Hungarian march and a couple of original themes that Bartok snuck in here: a “burlesque” melody that’s more scary than seductive, and a bucolic, atmospheric harvest passage that works as a tone poem (or a tone couplet – it’s over just a handful of bars after it begins). The quieter material here tends to be more brooding and acidic, with the exception of a couple of amusing interludes like one of the “teasing songs” and a handful of blithe dance themes. This one’s out now on Harmonia Mundi.