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.

Advertisements

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

Concert Review: Gaida at BAM Cafe, Brooklyn NY 5/7/10

Syrian/American chanteuse Gaida’s new album Levantine Indulgence made a big splash in Middle Eastern music circles when it came out in March. Last night’s show made believers out of a largely local crowd that didn’t know what to make of her for the first few songs, but by about halfway through she had them dancing, clapping along and responding with an uninhibited joy. She’s a star on the way up. Fairouz is her big influence, but like Fairouz she doesn’t limit herself to one style – she’s taking emotion-drenched Middle Eastern art-song and pushing the envelope with it. Backed by a shapeshifting sextet including jazzy pianist George Dulin, upright bassist Jennifer Vincent (also of Pam Fleming’s all-female quartet) and acoustic guitarist Arturo Martinez along with sensationally good oud, percussion and buzuq players, Gaida delivered the songs in a crystalline high soprano that ranged from disarmingly coy to wrenchingly intense.

They started out with a jazz feel, sort of a habibi blues with distant echoes of Fairouz, a pensive story of unrequited love backed by just piano, guitar and bass. Gaida brought in the whole band for a swaying version of the levantine bossa nova of Illak Shi, taking the first of several vocalese improvisations with a melismatic attack that was as nuanced as it was poignant and on this song, downright heartwrenching.

A slow buzuq taqsim led into the slinky levantine anthem Dream, another cut from the new album, followed by the sly, metaphorically laden Almaya, the tale of a guy following a girl carrying her full bucket home from the village well. A couple of the songs had distinct latin tinges: an old Lebanese number from 1950 featuring some eerie, distantly glimmering piano from Dulin that wound up with understated menace as the outro wound down to just piano and guitar, and a scurrying, tangoish shuffle featuring another intense vocalese interlude. They also debuted a hypnotic, pensive new song written in rehearsal a couple of days before, frenetic buzuq trading off artfully versus casually strummed guitar and then vice versa. They wound up the set on a high note with a brisk, bouncy Yemeni song, the serpentine, anthemic Ammar (another standout track on the new cd) and encored with a standard that made yet another showcase for Gaida’s matter-of-factly plaintive, resonant vocal presence.The crowd wanted more but didn’t get it – and then joined the line for the cd table.

May 8, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Gaida – Levantine Indulgence

Syrian-born chanteuse Gaida’s debut cd has been highly anticipated in world music circles: for once, it’s a release which lives up to its hype. Her high, versatile voice with just the hint of a jazzy, smoky edge draws comparisons to Natacha Atlas, and like Atlas, she proves equally captivating not only at the levantine ballads intimated by the title, but also bossa nova and rock. What’s most notable is how she and the group behind her shift between styles, often mingling jazz and Brazilian motifs within a traditional levantine framework. As much as there may be tears close to her eyes, as she puts it, on many of these songs, there’s also joy and exuberance. When she became part of the scene at New York’s music mecca Alwan for the Arts, a who’s who of expatriate Middle Eastern musicians assembled around her. The band on the album is extraordinary – credits include Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and santoor, Bridget Robbins on ney flute, Johnny Farraj on riq, Tareq Abboushi on buzuq and Zafer Tawil on oud, qanun and percussion. In fact, the album’s title track may be its most disarmingly beautiful, a taqsim (improvisation) with Gaida’s fetching vocalese surrounded by wary qanun, percussion and even a terse upright bass solo.

The cd begins with a classic Mohammed Abdel Wahab style Egyptian ballad featuring ney flute and characteristically vivid trumpet accents from ElSaffar. Ammar picks up the pace with insistent buzuq and oud chords and a triumphantly ululating choir of women’s voices – and even a little piano for extra spice. Gaida’s most wrenchingly intense vocal here is on the imploring habibi jazz ballad Khaifa Uhibuka, which segues into a slinky levantine number featuring qanun and oud. There’s also a haunting piano-based European-style art-rock song (with Arabic lyrics), a swaying, upbeat one-chord groove number, a straight-up bossa song, and the majestic anthem Bint Elbalad, wrapping up the album with intense, darkly soulful solos from buzuk and trumpet once again. You’re going to see this on a whole lot of “best-of” lists at the end of the year, including ours. Gaida plays the cd release show on 3/21 at 6:30 PM at le Poisson Rouge, advance tickets are an absolute must because the show will sell out.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubek Quartet with Simon Shaheen at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/5/09

In their New York debut, Iraqi-American trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar’s seventeen-piece Middle Eastern jazz orchestra the Two Rivers Ensemble were nothing short of transcendent. Since music in the Middle East goes back so many millennia, most attempts at melding jazz with music from the region have come out of the jazz arena. This particular ensemble comes at it from the opposite direction, layering a feast of tonalities from both hemispheres with the occasional jazzy flourish over a slinky, Levantine-style snakecharmer groove, at times evoking Mingus in their most darkly lush moments. The music was as hypnotic as it was otherworldly beautiful. ElSaffar began the show on santoor (a hammered zither that sounds almost identical to a kanun) before moving to trumpet and eventually vocals. The full orchestra, with trumpet, santoor, alto and baritone saxes, ney flute, trombone, guitar, upright bass, drums, percussion, vibraphone, kamancheh (spike fiddle), oud, lute and piano would come together as they reached a swell, but frequently there would be just a couple or small handful of musicians playing off each other intricately over the beat.

The first of their long pieces, which could be something of a suite, was a stately rollercoaster ride of dynamics, moving up and then down again with solos from bari sax and trumpet with starkly beautiful piano accents, fading down to the bass solo that would eventually start the next composition. That one had an even more otherworldly feel, caught somewhere in limbo between major and minor but resolving to neither, lit up by a gorgeous oud solo played against the beat and another by the guitarist, moving from the Levant to gently incisive, staccato blues. Guest vocalist Gaida – a pioneer and a star in her own right – contributed heartfelt, shimmering vocalese on a couple of the latter pieces, the last – a fanfare and the night’s most overtly jazzy number – in tandem with ElSaffar. Considering how fascinating the solo spots were, it would hardly be fair to single out only a few of the players, but it was also impossible to keep up with ElSaffar’s band intros at the end to figure out who was playing what. Of those, Michael Ibrahim’s straightforward ney flute and practically macabre zurna (Turkish oboe) playing, Vijay Iyer‘s wirewalking piano work and ElSaffar’s own microtonal trumpet were especially captivating. ElSaffar also has an intriguing project, Salaam, with his sister Dena – their auspicious new album comes out August 11, watch this space for a review. And just for the record, this is the culture that Dick Cheney, in his insatiable greed for oil, wanted to destroy.

Dave Brubeck is 89, so he can do whatever he wants. Yet the jazz piano icon remains as deviously shapeshifting and fascinating as ever. He and his quartet had just been in Washington where there’d been an Ellington festival going on, and since Duke is Brubeck’s hero they took a stab at Take the A Train and reinvented it with characteristic passion and nuance. As usual, they messed with the time signature – a couple of particularly poignant 6/8 passages led by the piano – when bassist Michael Moore wasn’t pushing it along with a growling, hypnotic power, or when alto player Bobby Militello wasn’t giving it a warm, sailing vibe. After they’d run through the head the last time, Brubeck added a cleverly playful little fugue between the left and right hands. Brubeck has always been more about substance and innovation than flash, so if he’s lost some speed, it hardly makes a difference: the swing, the ideas, the timing and the voicings are as vital as ever.

Swanee River got a similar treatment, shifting subtly from poignancy to exuberance, Militello leading the charge. It’s a Raggy Waltz was similarly, warmly expansive, Brubeck pulling out the hooks and then reassembling them, drawing in his bandmates when everything was back together. This group has been a Lincoln Center Out of Doors institution for over a decade, and among their notable concerts are a handful of collaborations with the extraordinary Armenian oud player George Mgrdichian. It was no surprise, then to see the equally extraordinary oudist/violinist/composer Simon Shaheen join them for a couple of numbers. He played oud on the first, a murky, atmospheric tune that didn’t really come together, and it didn’t help that Militello stepped all over him before finally realizing that he’d overswung, finally taking a seat after all that exertion. They closed with a spirited Take Five, Shaheen adding subtle textures and harmonies on violin in tandem with the sax. How they manage to keep that one fresh after all these decades is testament to both the song and the quality of the crew that played it last night.

August 6, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments