Inside the Town Hall last night, the atmosphere was not quite as dark and stormy as the unseasonable torrents pelting the midtown streets. Out of the rain, a robust, enthusiastic, mostly Russian-speaking crowd were engaged by some of the most otherworldly sounds resonating on any New York stage this year. Music from the Republic of Georgia is instantly recognizable – there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. While the twelve men of the eclectic and often electrifying choir Ensemble Basiani sometimes echoed the solemn, brooding quality of the Russian tradition, as well as a couple of interludes of lustrous polyphony in the same vein as Palestrina or Monteverdi, most of their music was strikingly and unmistakably distinctive.
Singing completely from memory, the choir seamlessly aligned an endlessly shifting series of uneasy close harmonies, when they weren’t firing on twelve individual cylinders’ worth of wry, sometimes droll call-and-response. Much of the material in their repertoirs dates back hundreds, maybe thousands of years, yet those harmonies are so strangely sophisticated that they’re avant garde: music that old suddenly becomes new again. Stravinsky took melodies like those from further north on the Russian continent and turned them into the Rite of Spring – nobody knew at the time how much he was simply appropriating ancient village themes.
There wasn’t a lot of the ornamentation found in Ukrainian, Baltic and Balkan music in this set, but when there was, the choir worked those effects for all the deadpan humor they were worth. One number pulsed along with an emphatic “huh” refrain worthy of James Brown. The opening and closing pieces featured one of the tenor voices leaping around, utilizing a device that came across as half yodel, half chirp. And he was very good at it!
Likewise, the group worked the dynamics up and down, from insistent, rhythmic agrarian chants, to rapt hymns, to a handful of slowly crescendoing, hypnotic themes which a couple of guys in the ensemble accompanied with bandura lutes. Another number featured a larger-body lute to match the heft of the music. One of those songs, possibly the biggest hit with the audience, was recognizable as a larger-scale arrangement of an ancient folk tune memorably recorded by the duo of acclaimed American singers Eva Salina and Aurelia Shrenker on their classic AE album. The audience finally came out of their trance and began a spontaneous clapalong; at the end of the concert, they wouldn’t let the group go and after several standing ovations were treated to three encores. Ensemble Basiani’s next stop on their American tour is November 1 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S Goodwin Ave in Urbana, IL; tix are $33.
The Brooklyn Blowhards Albert Alyer-ize sea chanteys. As bandleader/saxophonist Jeff Lederer told the crowd at their record release show at Joe’s Pub last night, they got their start when trumpeter Kirk Knuffke brought an album of sea chanteys by the Foc’sle Singers over to Lederer’s place. Ayler being Lederer’s “personal muse,” as he put it, the connection was made.
Connection? Isn’t this seven-piece band just a bunch of A-list New York jazzcats having absurdist punk-jazz fun with the last themes you’d ever expect these guys to be pilfering? Well, sort of. But there’s no denying the similarity between the singalong quality of sea chanteys and the disarmingly direct, simple, catchy ideas that Ayler liked to slice and dice. Being work songs, some chanteys have a sway and swing that also dovetails with jazz.
The rest of the band onstage playing these less-than-likely mashups included Jon Irabagon on saxophones, Brian Drye on trombone, Ches Smith on drums and Stephen LaRosa on marching bass drum and percussion. Art Bailey sat behind everyone, played accordion and was only audible during the show’s relatively few quiet moments. Guitarist Gary Lucas guested on resonator on a couple of numbers, alongside Lederer’s wife Mary LaRose, who supplied both low-key, soul-infused vocals and tongue-in-cheek recitations.
Beyond traditional numbers like Hull Away Joe, the band also write their own. Lederer dedicated Black Ball Line to its inspiration, the transatlantic freight company: They opened that one as a tenor sax duet between Lederer and Irabagon, turning on a dime into fullscale freakout and ending with a droll, deadpan marching vamp. Ayler’s Dancing Waters served as a showcase not only for sputtering and frenzy but a surprising, contrasting lyricism. They closed with another Ayler tune, Island Harvest, which with its jaunty calypso chorus and sardonic spoken-word passages juxtaposed with unhinged improvisation, capsulizes what this group is all about.
The night’s funniest moment, out of many, belonged to Iragabon, as you might expect. He opened a sopranino sax solo with a rapidfire practice pattern and wowed the crowd with his unwavering fluidity if not imagination. But then he went into the extended technique, maintaining the same breathtaking precision through all sorts of harmonics and overtones and finally capped it off with a series of defeated squawks. The crowd howled. And just when it seemed that all this would be about fun and games, they hit an unexpected plaintiveness with Santy Anno, kicking it off as a misty dockside tableau and then taking it into darkly resonant territory on the gentle, steady wings of Drye’s trombone. It was a reminder of just how serious the guys in this crazy band usually are.
Ultimately, Jen Shyu‘s mission is to break down cultural barriers and unite people. In her own work, the singer/multi-instrumentalist has assimilated an astonishing number of styles, both from her heritage – Taiwan and East Timor – as well as from Korea, Indonesia, China and the United States, among other places around the world. Last night at Roulette she celebrated her birthday by unveiling a bracingly dynamic, otherworldly surrealistic, envelopingly beautiful new suite, Song of Silver Geese, a characteristically multilingual work combining the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss and flutist Anna Webber.
Shyu opened with a series of judicious plucks on her Korean gayageum lute, then switched to piano, Taiwanese moon lute and eventually a small Indonesian gong. Throughout the roughly hourlong piece, dancer Satoshi Haga struck dramatic poses when he wasn’t moving furtively or tiptoeing in the background when the music reached a lull.
The storyline, according to the program notes, involves the interaction between two characters from Timorese and Korean folklore, both known for their disguises, in addition to an iconic Taiwanese freedom fighter and a Javanese schoolgirl who was tragically orphaned at age six in a car accident.
Spare exchanges between the strings and the gayageum grew to an uneasy lustre evocative of 80s serialism, Cellist Mariel Roberts’ wounded, ambered lines eventually giving way to sinister microtones from Maneri. Shyu’s switch to the moon lute signaled a long upward climb through a dreamlike sequence punctuated by Weiss’ increasingly agitated rumble and the flutter of the strings, texturally ravishing yet troubled.
Shyu’s uncluttered vocals were just as dynamic, ranging from a whisper, to an imploring, angst-fueled Carol Lipnik-like delivery, to an insistent, earthy, shamanistic growl and pretty much everywhere in between. The big coda, seemingly meant to illustrate the fatal crash, built to a pandemonium that came as a real shock in view of the lustre and glistening atmospherics that had been lingering up to that point.
The performance ended with the ensemble members performing a candle ceremony of sorts and then walking out through the audience as Shyu sang a mantra: “I am alone, but not lonely; Life has no boundaries when every place can be home.” Something for everybody in the audience to take home.
Shyu’s next performance features another premiere,of a dance piece at 7 PM on April 21 at the Czech Center, 321 E 73rd St. Those who were lucky enough to catch this performance would probably also enjoy the concert of rare, delicately haunting folk music from Amami Island, Japan, played by Anna Sato and Shogo Yashi at Roulette on May 14 at 8. Tix are $25/$21 stud/srs.
“When I first heard gnawa music, I heard the blues, and jazz, and the Black church,” Randy Weston explained to the sold-out crowd at the New School Tuesday night. The ageless piano sage has made a career of taking jazz back to its ancient African roots and then reinventing them, first inspired by his father and later while living in Morocco, where he immersed himself in innumerable North African folk and classical music styles. Currently artist-in-residence at the university, he brought along his pal Abdellah El Gourd along with a trio of energetic, impressively athletic dancer-percussionists from his group Dar Gnawa of Tanger for an insightful, sometimes trance-inducing, sometimes raptly transcendent performance of both traditional material and some of Weston’s best-loved compositions.
The percussionists supplied a hypnotically polyrhythmic clickety-clack backdrop with their pairs of cast-metal qraqab castanets while El Gourd grounded the music in low, circling, propulsive phrases on his three-string gimbri lute – one of the earliest ancestors of the funk bass. While Weston didn’t mention that particular lineage, he took care to explain that the qraqabs are a descendant of something considerably more disturbing: handcuffs. Centuries ago, in the Berber lands, prisoners in chains would use them to communicate in code.
Since gnawa music continues to serve several roles in the community – as rhythmic backdrop for mass celebration, spiritual ritual and physical healing, among other things – it’s no surprise that the vocals, delivered robustly by El Gourd an the rest of the group, have a mantra-like quality. In conversation with El Gourd along with a younger countryman and New School student, Weston revealed that the music also has a synesthetic connection – different individuals, different songs and even riffs are associated with different colors. Weston took some obvious relish in being someone whose color, predictably, turned out to be blue.
And the blues, along with their ancient, more lingering and slowly unwinding roots, were everywhere in Weston’s solo pieces, which he played in between numbers by the Moroccans. Night in Medina, he told the crowd, was inspired by a trip to the bustling Tangiers marketplace he frequented during the day but hesitated to visit after dark: “You know, bring from Bed-Stuy!” he joked. Awash in hushed, low-register, moonlit resonance, saturnine modes and allusive Middle Eastern phases, Weston slowly pulled good-natured postbop out of it. Likewise, he closed the performance with a regal, judiciously crescendoing take of Blue Moses, joined slowly and then joyously by the rest of the group as it unwound out of a gently rhythmic trance groove.
Speaking of the blues, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger has a connection with them that goes deeper than most. His brand-new live album, Pivot, comprises two lengthy explorations of Bukka White classics. Last night at Smalls, he made another live recording with his quartet, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Ian Froman on drums. After Preminger and the group had stayed pretty much within themselves, playing their cards close to the vest, very puristically as they do on Pivot, it was a real rush to watch them finally jump and spiral out of control with a pretty wild free interlude late in the set. They went back to dusky and evocative and tersely melodic with their closing number, Mississippi John Hurt’s I Shall Not Be Moved, Palmer anchoring the sound as Froman built toward a steady hailstorm, Preminger finally cutting loose and wailing to the rafters, making the song’s title all the more ironic. Let’s hope this one makes it onto the record as a pure, unedited thrill.
It’s likely that there’s a crowd of people who think the idea of playing classical music on bluegrass instruments is flat-out absurd. Then again, music is always evolving, and the musicians pushing that evolution are usually the bravest. The Jake Schepps Quintet have chops to match their utter lack of fear. Wednesday night at Subculture, the five-string banjoist and his group – Ryan Drickey on violin, Jordan Tice on acoustic guitar, Andrew Small on bass and Matt Flinner on mandolin – played an ambitious program that encompassed so-called indie classical as well as Nordic fiddling and a healthy dose of traditional Appalachian music. At worst, they came across as a less fussy take on the Punch Brothers; at best, they took a lot of chances, danced on cinders and came away for the most part unsinged.
The centerpiece of the program was Flinner’s four-part Migration, a vivid, uneasy suite that, as the mandolinist explained to a pretty full house, sought to explore how bluegrass made its way from rural areas to larger population centers like Knoxville and Baltimore. Growing from a stern, terse, ruggedly minor-key gospel theme, it slowly brightened, although it ended with a lingering lack of resolve. Along the way, there were plenty of choice moments for soloists throughout the band, at one point Small pushing a waltz interlude with a practically new wave bassline. And it worked as well as it did, because, as Schepps put it, Flinner comes out of “the tradition” and never lost sight of it, no matter how minimalist, or avant garde, or for that matter, cinematic, the piece became.
Small revealed himself as an inspired country fiddler on an animatedly pulsing, biting, original bluegrass number on which the band was joined by a guest bassist who just happened to be in town. Tice alternated between big, expansive, jazzy chords and nimble flatpicking, particularly on an elaborate, dynamically-charged, waltzing original. Drickey led the group through a bracing number from the Swedish-Norwegian border which gave the quintet a launching pad for plenty of high-octane solos.
The night got off to a slow start with a couple of works by contemporary composers from outside the group. The first was gingerly blues-tinged, with the unfocused yet cautious feel of a student work, one that came across as trying to avoid failure rather than reaching for victory. The second rehashed Steve Reich and Windham Hill with the kind of preciousness that plagues so much of the indie classical demimonde. So when Schepps led the group from there into a mashup of a Bartok Mikrokosmos etude (#87, maybe?) and a high lonesome traditional number, it took awhile for the band to shake off the stiffness. One up-and-coming composer that the group ought to seek out is mandolinist Vivian Li, whose irrepressible, distinctive style is a richly intertwining blend of traditional bluegrass and cutting-edge contemporary composition for traditional folk instruments.
The Jake Schepps Quintet is currently on tour; their next concert is Feb 7 at 8 PM at the Theatre at 291 Gay St. in Washington, VA, tix are $20/$10 18-and-under.
You might think that a drum-and-dance troupe performing an ancient Korean peasants’ nongak harvest festival celebration would draw a mostly Korean audience, right? Friday night at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, Korean ensemble Norian Maro (whose name translates roughly as “Premier Performance”) had an unmistakably multi-ethnic, sold-out New York crowd, ranging from in age from kids to their grandparents, on their feet, cheering and stomping along with the irresistibly kinetic performance onstage.
The show reached a peak and then stayed there for its final twenty minutes or so, the performers clad in bright costumes and wearing caps topped with streamers on a swivel. The group members charged with the task – pretty much everybody – first spun their heads in a semicircle to activate the swivel and get the streamers flying in big arcs behind them, all the while spinning around the stage, and also playing intricate polyrhythms on a diverse collection of drums at the same time. And nobody onstage could resist a grin as they worked an ecstatic call-and-response with the crowd – and made it all look easy. How they managed to do that without losing their balance, or the beat, or a lot more, was mind-boggling. As a display of sheer athletic grace combined with musical prowess, it’s hard to imagine witnessing anything more impressive in this city in the past several months.
Norian Maro premiered the piece, titled Leodo: Paradise Lost, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last fall. It’s a metaphorical tale of the cycle of renewal, personified by a lithe dancer who gets caught in an ocean undertow and then comes face to face with the sea gods, among them a strikingly decorated dragon figure requiring two group members to keep him on his feet. After some very vigorous resuscitation, she’s transported to a magical isle where she comes to life again. One of the women in the group sang the narrative in Korean, in low, mysterious, otherworldly microtones, a revealing glimpse of the ancient, mysterious roots of dramatic Korean pansori singing.
As meticulously choreographed and spectacularly athletic as the dancing was, the stars of the show were the drummers, on a series of janggu drums ranging from a big, boomy tom, to a metal gong, to smaller metal hand drums that provided both clanging and mutedly shimmering tones. The star among all the players was a petite woman with a double-headed drum slung over her shoulder that was almost as big as she was, which she played in two separate time signatures at once, at one point firing off long volleys with a single mallet on both drum heads. Of all the players onstage, including Jong Suk Ki, Jung Hyeon Yung, Min Kyoung Ha, Sungjin Choi and Yoo Jeong Oh, she seemed to be having the most fun. Although one of the guys in the group had an equally good time with a tassel that he swung about fifty feet into the crowd, then later spun and spun until he had it flying from the roof to the floor of the stage, practically cartwheeling to keep it in motion.
The Korean Cultural Service, who staged this show, have a series of enticing concerts and spectacles coming up here. The next one is by Korean classical pianist Eunbi Kim playing works by Debussy, Fred Hersch, Daniel Bernard Roumain and others at 7 PM on Feb 26. Admission is free, but you have to RSVP, the sooner the better: and make sure to get to Flushing Town Hall’s historic Gilded Age auditorium, about five blocks from the last stop on the 7 train, at least a half hour early in order to claim your seats.
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.
A Darkly Riveting Concert and an Upcoming Parkside Show by Diana Wayburn’s Dances of the World Ensemble
You might think from the name of the group that pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s Dances of the World Chamber Ensemble play ballet music. That might be possible, but while their music is kinetic and intensely rhythmic, it has an edge and an individuality that transcend the boundaries of African music, classical, jazz, rock and film music while combining elements of all those styles. While Wayburn’s music often reminds of Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopiques, or Astor Piazzolla’s shapeshifting, tango-based compositions, her sound is unique. There is no band in the world who sound anything like this group. If darkly glimmering, intense, energetic sounds are your thing, they’re playing the Parkside tonight, Nov 2 at 7 PM. Which might seem a strange place to see a chamber ensemble, but this group is just as at home in a rock venue as on a classical stage or in a jazz club.
Wayburn’s recordings – up at her Soundcloud page – encompass influences from West Africa to Spain, Argentina and beyond. The group’s concert at St. Marks Church this past September was much darker, more intense and seemingly jam-oriented than any of those tracks suggest: this is first and foremost a high-voltage, dynamic live band. Their opening number at that show began as a leapfrogging dance, Wayburn opening with a jaunty flute solo before handing off to trumpeter Marco Coco and violist Adam Matthes’ lingering lines. As the piece took on a moodily hypnotic Ethiopiques groove, trombonist Spencer Hale and then guitarist Ken Silverman took it deeper and deeper into the shadows, the guitar finally leading them up with a spiraling 70s art-rock feel before the band took it back down again. They let it wind out on an unsettled, unresolved note.
Switching to piano, Wayburn brought to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal, but with a towering, art-rock grandeur lit up with eerie chromatics and passing tones as the brooding second tune got underway. Coco added a tinge of the Middle East, Silverman some more traditional jazz phrasing and then Wayburn played bitingly rippling, incisive neoromantic lines all the way through to a triumphant downward cascade out. She and the band would revisit a similarly epic intensity with a brisk tango of sorts later in the show.
They played a more spacious, spare, bouncy number in between, with methodical solos from flute, trumpet and trombone over an insistent pulse reminiscent of American Indian music. They followed that with a gorgeously cinematic number fueled by Silverman’s insistence and Wayburn’s glistening minor-key piano, the most distinctively Ethiopian-flavored tune in the set. Andy O’Neill’s tumbling drums fueled the one-chord jam they closed with, Coco taking his time, choosing his spots and finally getting pretty wild before the group took it down into an ominously moody interlude fueled by Hale’s mournful trombone, then rising as the guitar and trumpet lept and jabbed over the murk underneath. Obviously, the lows resonated more mightily and maybe more menacingly in the church’s boomy sonics than might be the case in another room, but the intensity of this band – and Wayburn’s catchy, deceptively simple phrasing and intricate thematic variations – will be a factor no matter where they play. Catch them now before Wayburn gets a big Hollywood film score deal and all of a sudden the only place you’ll be able to find them is in much larger, pricier venues.
Although violinist Arun Ramamurthy has extensive training in Indian carnatic music, he’s also a jazz guy. He’s got a lively, intriguing, cross-pollinating new album, Jazz Carnatica,streaming at Bandcamp. It’s an attempt to radically reinvent ragas with his trio, Perry Wortman on bass and Sameer Gupta – leader of Indian jazz band Namaskar, who reinvent old Bollywood themes – on drums. What does this music sound like? Because all but one of the tracks are based on classic ragas, it’s Indian classical music first and foremost. But the rhythms are lithe and dancing and full of pulsing energy, and far more terse than the frequently expansive, slowly unwinding themes of sitar music. If you’ve got friends who might confide something like, “Sure, I like Indian music ok, but it’s so meeeelllllllloooooowwwwww…” play this the next time you see them and they’ll have a change of heart. The trio are playing the album release show on Nov 1 at 8 PM at at Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. in the West Village; cover is $15.
As much as Ramamurthy’s violin moves around, and it’s always in motion, even when he’s at his most energetic he doesn’t stray far from a central tone. That tension fuels a lot of understated mystery here. The opening track starts out surprisingly funky, with a catchy turnaround and a very cleverly implied two-chord (or two-mode, if you must) vamp. The elegant intro of the second number quickly gives way to a dancing but hypnotic theme, which the band vamps on – Wortman often doubles Ramamurthy’s lines, providing a staccato contrast to Ramamurthy’s lingering sustain.
Marc Cary – who also plays with Gupta in Namaskar – guests on the album’s three central tracks. The first also features another cross-pollinating violinist, Trina Basu – it’s the closest thing here to a psychedelically rustic, Ravi Shankar-style raga, but built around a riff that’s pure blues. The second has Cary adding a little calypso jazz flair and the most traditional jazz vernacular of the tracks here.
The next two tracks build out of moody atmospherics to more lively interplay. Likewise, the seventh track – the one Ramamurthy original, and the best of them all – expands outward from a broodingly chromatic tune to a bouncy bass solo. As the album goes along, Ramamurthy goes deeper into the microtones, his rather severe, intense tone contrasting with Wortman’s bubbly bass on the eight number here. The final one is the closest to the kind of modal jazz that Gupta plays in Namaskar, Ramamurthy choosing his spots. All of the tracks clock in at more than five minutes, sometimes considerably more. Onstage, they’ll probably take them out even further into more psychedelic territory. This is an album that will grab a lot of people: Indian music fans in search of a shot of adrenaline, and jazz fans who thrive on the space between the notes.