Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ansambl Mastika’s Second Album is Raw Adrenaline

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.

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February 11, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Turkish Woodstock II, 7/3/10

Last year’s “Turkish Woodstock” was sold out practically before the show started: if you include the thousands who couldn’t get inside New York’s Central Park Summerstage arena, a safe guess is that there were about 20,000 people milling about. This year’s “Turkish Woodstock II” a.k.a. Istanbulive didn’t appear to reach peak capacity until well after 4 PM. Both 2009 and 2010 shows blended east and west, although the segues last year (the NY Gypsy All-Stars, clarinet legend Husnu Senlendirici, Painted on Water and MFO, with a cameo from the Brooklyn Funk Essentials) were more seamless. But this year’s still made for a good, eclectic bill. The concert began with a single foreboding, somewhat funereal traditional song by Emrah Kanisicak, backed by oud, percussion, bass, drums and accordion. Chanteuse Sukriye Tutkun then took over centerstage. She has a lovely voice, exemplary range and a completely casual, warmly familiar stage presence. It was as if she was singing in her living room (ok, not her living room, but maybe from her fire escape – it was a brutally hot afternoon). Calmly and methodically, she ran through a selection of understated, Middle Eastern-tinged ballads and a slinky pop song that evoked Henry Mancini. The songs were all seemingly Mancini-era: the crowd knew most of them; a few sang along.

Ilhan Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions – Ersahin on tenor sax, Alp Ersonmez on electric bass, Turgut Bekoglu on drums and Izzet Kizil on percussion were next, a short, rewarding day’s journey into night. Ersahin, impresario of well-loved East Village jazz oasis Nublu – is at his best when he mines a nocturnal vibe, and he worked his way down. He’s all about melody – it wasn’t til the third song of his set that he worked any kind of ornamentation, in this case an evil little trill, into his playing. Ersonmez matched him, sometimes pedaling a note or, occasionally, a chord, for what felt like minutes on end while the percussion clattered hypnotically and Ersahin scoped out the territory. Chipper and cheery, he worked permutations on a series of catchy hooks much like JD Allen will do, keeping each piece to a comfortable four minutes or so. They got better and better as they went along, Ersahin introducing a sly, late-night, understatedly simple bluesy tinge. Ersonmez introduced one with a fast percussive line that mimicked an oud while Ersahin ran circles around a bouncy spy theme, followed by a trance-inducing percussion solo. They went out on a joyous note with the reggae-tinged Freedom, pulsing along with a wickedly catchy three-chord chorus. Anyone who misses the late, great Moisturizer should discover Ersahin: he has the same irrepressible, irresistibly playful sensibility.

By the time moody rock quartet Duman – Turkish for “smoke” – took the stage, the arena looked close to capacity. They got a lot more singalongs than Tutkun – the young crowd, restless to this point, were suddenly one with the music. Turkish lyrics aside, Duman have the same memorable jangly and sometimes chromatically tinged sound that’s been all the rage in Latin America since the days of popular Mexican rockers Caifanes. Add some terse Johnny Marr cross-string guitar work, with just a hint of surf, or sometimes riff-driven garage rock, and that’s their terrain. What was most impressive was that despite their monochrome sound, all the songs didn’t sound the same: Duman are not boring. One anthem began almost ghostly before its chorus exploded out of nowhere; another sounded like the Smiths’ What Difference Does It Make, through a glass darkly. Brooding verses gave way to upbeat, hook-driven choruses, and vice versa. The band’s two guitarists traded a few solos, including one that they might have learned back in the day when they might have been playing Hotel California for their friends. There was another act scheduled to play afterward, but with a completely different demographic and a pop feel as different from this as Ersahin, and Tutkun before him, had been.

July 7, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Boban i Marko Markovic – Devla: Blown Away to Dancefloor Heaven

Truth in advertising: Serbian brass legends Boban i Marko Markovic’s new album is a party in a box. The title, Devla, is an exclamation, sort of Serbian for OMG! Bandleader/flugelhorn player Boban Markovic and his trumpeter son Marko play blistering, rapidfire clusters of eerie gypsy harmonies, backed by accordion, clarinet and sometimes a real rhythm section, sometimes a synth and drum machine (the use of several different singers undoubtedly necessitated the use of multiple recording situations). Whatever the case, the power of the brass overshadows the occasional cheapness of the production [New Yorkers – if you wonder what they spin at Mehanata, this is it, you can take the party home with you now]. Most of the originals here are by Marko, and as a rule they are excellent, from an ominous, slinky vamp punctuated with astringent, microtonal reed solos, to the title track (a huge club hit – you’ve undoubtedly heard it if you’re into this stuff), to the machine-gun staccato of Hopa Cupa, to Kazi Baba with its mysterious bounce. A cover of a similarly bouncy Saban Bajramovic Balkan pop hit features a passionate, gritty vocal by Mustafa Sabanovic; Sofi Marinova’s vocal gives another dancefloor number a Madonna-goes-to-Sofia vibe. Of the low-key numbers, there’s a slow, stately swinging jazz orchestra tune with Cab Calloway-esque vocals by Ljubisa “Luis” Stojanovic – in Serbian. For those not familiar with the vernacular, the effect is bizarre yet heartwarming. There’s also a nice, soulful, expansively fluttering cover of an instrumental by Turkish clarinet god Husnu Senlendirici rearranged for brass. This album is intense enough to satisfy the most hardcore Balkan brass fan yet accessible enough to cross over to an international dance music audience: devla, this is fun!

January 13, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Turkish Woodstock

As concerts in New York go, this was something of a landmark, representing both the vanguard and the old guard of cutting-edge Turkish music, something that according to people involved with the project would have been far less likely to have taken place on Turkish soil. Istanbulive AKA the Turkish Woodstock was a quick sellout (or the equivalent – the Summerstage arena was filled to capacity minutes after the opening act, the NY Gypsy All-Stars took the stage). This time around, acclaimed Turkish clarinetist Husnu Senlendirici stood in for the mostly instrumental group’s usual reed man Ismail Lumanovski, taking the music in a surprisingly but effectively murky, pensive direction. In Turkey, the clarinet carries the same connotation as the sax does here, frequently the instrument of choice for bandleaders and for party music in general. Where Lumanovski is a ferociously intense player, someone who typically goes straight for the jugular, Senlendirici took a characteristically more spacious and contemplative approach, an apt fit for several of the ballads in the set. With a rhythm section including electronic keyboards along with guitar and kanun, they alternated between tricky, rousing dances and quieter fare, some simply instrumental versions of Turkish pop hits which became mass karaoke for the high-spirited audience. One of them sounded like the old Burt Bacharach standard Never Gonna Fall in Love Again set to a more complex rhythm. Their best number featured a guest chanteuse doing a wistful, homesick Armenian folk song backed by just keys and clarinet.

The unannounced Brooklyn Funk Essentials followed with a brief, entertaining mini-set with Senlendirici out front (their 1998 album with him is a major moment in American/Middle Eastern fusion), working a dark reggaeish vibe on the first tune, following with a straight-up funk number that lept doublespeed into ska. They then did a funny ska version of the Mozart Rondo a la Turk, and were out of there – a quick rehearsal for their show later at City Winery maybe?

Painted on Water maintained the cutting-edge vibe, delivering the afternoon’s most electrifying moments. Frontwoman Sertab Erener is a star in her home country, and this mostly English-language project – her vocals and accent are flawless – ought to expand her audience exponentially. Kicking off the set with a long, passionate, intense vocalese intro, it was clear that she had come to conquer. Like Siouxsie Sioux without the microtones, she showed off a forceful, defiant wail that on the next-to-last song of the set she unleashed with unrestrained fury, a stunning crescendo that seemed to defy the laws of physics. That such a relatively small, lithe frame could cut loose such a powerful blast of sound was a wonder to behold. Then she did it again.

They built up to that with an intriguingly cross-pollinated blend of tastefully jazzy, guitar-driven, blues and Turkish-inflected rock songs. Guitarist Demir Demirkan came across as something of a warmer Andy Summers, casually tossing off artfully precise flourishes in a multitude of styles, sticking with a clean, trebly tone. The anthemic 1000 Faced Man, from the group’s brand-new debut cd packed a funereal, Doorsy wallop, courtesy of some totally Manzarek-esque organ from the keyboardist. On the next number Demirkan matched Erener note for note, his lines thick with vibrato and apprehension, as she went off with more vocalese. The catchy, swaying, syncopated Shut up and Dance brought back the psychedelic vibe with another long, haunting organ solo. On one of the tables in the seating area to the right of the stage, a little girl methodically built an impressive pyramid out of the plastic wine goblets they were using back there, which stood resolute until blown over by a gust of wind. It made a good visual counterpart to the steadfastly wary, purist intensity of Demirkan’s playing.

Legendary Turkish rockers Mazhar Fuat Ozkan turned the vibe back to haunting, at least for awhile. Because of their three-part harmonies, the comparison they always get is CSNY and that’s completely wrong because they’re far darker – their closest western counterpart would probably be early, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, or perhaps Barclay James Harvest before they turned into the poor man’s Moody Blues, with more than a few echoes of Pink Floyd. Their mostly slow-to-midtempo anthems mixed lush, sometimes elegaic layers of guitar over stately descending progressions that owe more to western classical music than to either rock or traditional Turkish melodies, and these were potently effective. As with many of their contemporaries who date back to the early 70s, their attempts to incorporate slicker, funkier, more commercial sounds were less successful (artistically, at least, though the crowd loved them), taking on a derivative feel that the lead player’s metalish guitar licks only aggravated. As Kerouac said, first thought, best thought – stick to what you do best and you can’t go wrong.

June 28, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lucid Culture Interview: Painted on Water

Painted on Water is the innovative collaboration of two of the most pioneering stars in Turkish music, chanteuse Sertab Erener and guitarist/composer Demir Demirkan. A mix of traditional Anatolian melodies, American jazz, rock and funk, their brand-new self-titled album just came out this month. Lucid Culture had a few questions for the duo in advance of their live show at the “Turkish Woodstock” at Central Park Summerstage at 3 PM this coming Saturday, June 27:

 

LC: Whose idea was Painted on Water? 

 

Demir: We came up with the idea of creating a project based on Anatolian musical elements that we can present to a non-Anatolian audience, together with Sertab. We wanted to bring out the large spectrum of musical elements of Anatolian music to the world stage so that it wouldn’t be too foreign but still unique to a wider audience. And we wanted our subject matter to be based on some of the principles of Anatolian and Eastern wisdom like sufism and taoism. Impermanence being one of them actually was the name root of the band. “Painted On Water” is the perfect metaphor for impermanence. The lyrics: “You and me is a long lost story painted on water…” reminds that our lives are colorful paint-drops and images which will be lost and forgotten in time. This is a rather positive point of view – no matter how impermanent our lives are, we still have to paint or picture on this canvas of life with attention and awareness.

 

LC: Who writes what? Sertab, are you the lyricist and Demir, you’re the composer, or do you mix and match?

 

Sertab: Demir wrote the lyrics to half of the songs and the rest were written by Phil Galdston.

 

Demir: I did the arrangements and harmonizing in the songs. In fact, there is no vertical harmony in Anatolian music, it’s a different system. I had to adapt it to a western system and build it harmonically first. The album was co-produced by Jay Newland, and he also mixed some of the songs. Some other material was recorded and mixed by Michael Zimmerling.

 

LC: Many of these songs are updates of Turkish folksongs – are these well known in your home country or have you uncovered some great obscurities? 

 

Demir:  Aegean Bride, the instrumental is actually an instrumental folk theme that I don’t think many people know about. We dug into the archives of a collector from Istanbul. We listened to more than a thousand recordings, some being so seriously old that you can hardly catch the melody. Some songs contain the whole melodies of the folk songs, some partial, and some I’ve written completely.

 

Sertab:  We had to play around with some of the melodies to adapt them into English language. Every language has its own musicality. Melodies modified themselves a little bit with the English lyrics.

 

LC: The cd opens with an Al DiMeola cover? Demir, are you responsible for this?

 

Demir: Yes! We asked Al DiMeola if he would play three songs in the album and then Mike Stern and I played one the songs before he came to the studio, and it sounded good. So while Al was on the way to the studio, I came up with the idea to open the album with a two-guitar piece and have Al DiMeola play both. I finished the piece just before he came in to the studio and I handed over the notes to him. Sometimes your heart and mind becomes one and you accomplish things that you couldn’t be able to if you have a very close deadline. Of course when he played it, it’s magic, it turns into music!

 

LC: The jazzier stuff on the cd carries a great deal of familiarity – it seems that you two grew up with jazz. True or not?

 

Demir: I studied jazz part-time in college in Ankara, Turkey and then some more in Hollywood. Honestly, jazz never has been my “real thing.” I know the idea, some of the things I write might fall close to the genre but real jazz performers play them and make it into real jazz. When I perform them, they come out mostly blues or rock. On the other hand I like listening to jazz.

 

LC: Nothing But to Pray is my favorite on the album. It’s especially haunting. What are the origins of this song, and what have you added to the original?

 

Sertab: I applied my own singing style to the melody. I wanted it to sound unique without falling into any style or category.

 

Demir: I harmonized the melody in away that I believe fit with the story line. I felt like I was creating a context where the event was happening. It’s really strange when you harmonize a melody that doesn’t have any. The melody begins to change meaning with different harmonies. Maybe some other person would use different harmonies and the whole thing would mean something else. To give a literal example – a bird was flying before the sunrise; a bird was flying before the sunrise over the silent battlefield…you know what I mean? The setting changes the meaning.

 

LC: What does your song Shehnaz on Shiraz mean?

 

Demir: The original name of this song is Sehnaz Longa. Sehnaz is a female name. Longa is a certain instrumental style in Ottoman music where instruments play fast passages in unison, roughly. I thought I’d swing this melody and harmonize it and put walking bass lines and improvisations in it. When I started swinging it I thought “Oh Shehnaz must be drunk!” Then I fantasized about a beautiful harem lady who’s getting drunk and dancing. She would be drinking wine and the wine would be a shiraz. So, that’s the story…Shehnaz on Shiraz!

 

LC: Will someone be doing real live Turkish ebru waterpainting via projection onstage at your Summerstage show like you have at your club concerts?

 

Sertab:  Unfortunately not at the Summerstage, because we will be playing in daylight and the projection doesn’t work…

 

LC: The bill you’re playing on is amazing, some of the most innovative and important artists in Turkey playing together for the first time in New York – is this an everyday kind of program in Turkey or would it be as special an event there as it is here?

 

Sertab: There are only a small number of festivals in Turkey, and they are mostly rock festivals. Normally this lineup is one that you couldn’t come across with. This is also an unusual situation for Turkey.

 

Demir: I have always liked MFO and I know them personally. Great guys besides being great musicians. It’s gonna be my first time sharing the stage with them at an event. I knew Husnu before he made his solo career. He plays clarinet incredibly but not a lot of people know, I actually witnessed this in one of my TV music recordings that he plays the trumpet in such a way that I’d never heard. He plays Turkish music on trumpet!

 

LC: Will this be like a bunch of old friends hanging out, or do you the various bands involved – MFO, Hüsnü Senlendirici etc. – all travel in different circles?

 

Sertab: Well, we are living in New York now, half the year, so we’ll walk to the event from our home in Upper West Side. We were at a dinner last night with everyone but everyone travels separately I think. Half of MFO isn’t here yet. When we get together, it’s a lot of laughing and great times!

 

LC: Anita Baker’s coming to town, is that something you’d be into, or way too mainstream for you?

 

Demir: I would love to see her but I’ll be in Turkey. July 27th right?

 

LC: Yeah. That was a trick question actually.

 

Sertab: It is actually too mainstream for me but I always like to listen to high class performance singers.

 

Painted on Water play Central Park Summerstage this Saturday as part of the “Turkish Woodstock” festival Istanbulive with Turkish rock legends MFO, iconic clarinetist Hüsnü Senlendirici and the NY Gypsy All-Stars. Doors are at 3, admission is free and early arrival is extremely recommended.

June 25, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Zlatne Uste and Raya Brass Band at Drom, NYC 6/13/09

Big party at Dracula’s castle last night, were you there? Alone in a darkened room, The Count? Not exactly. While not quite the mobscene that the NY Gypsy Festival’s show at le Poisson Rouge was last month, the big Balkan brass band concert last night was well-attended and deliriously fun. It was something of a juxtaposition of the old guard and the young lions of the thriving but still largely under-the-radar New York Balkan underground. The dancing started before the bands did, the dj spinning an auspiciously diverse, pan-global mix of Mehanata-style stuff while a line formed and circled the room, growing longer by the minute. Then Zlatne Uste took the stage. The nine-piece Balkan brass juggernaut – four horns, trumpet, tuba, drum and two saxes – were the first of the New York Balkan brass bands, dating from way back in 1983. Their name means “golden lips,” definitely a boast, but they back it up. “Most of us are older than you are,” their trumpeter somewhat proudly told the crowd. A guy in the crowd kept yelling for them to play his favorite song, the Goran Bregovic hit Kalasjnikov. “Not now!” a fellow partyer grinningly advised. “They always do that later.”

They opened with their darkest number of the night, basically a murky two-chord chromatic dance vamp and then another that was even simpler, serving as a chassis for some darkly intense soloing from the trumpet and sax. Most of the songs were instrumentals, although several band members sang on the vocal numbers, sometimes sharing a line or trading off.  A few were marked by a noticeable shift, opening somewhat wary, the staccato pulse of the horns then growing bouncier and more carefree. As their long, exuberant set went on, the sea of dancers grew, through a bouncy, happy number in 4/4, a bracingly soulful cocek dance and several with far trickier, syncopated rhythms that didn’t phase the dancers a bit. One of the guys in the band sang a drinking song (rakia, the potent Balkan apple brandy featured prominently). The crowd – a diverse mix of expats and Americans – was clearly psyched to hear what were obviously some old favorites. As predicted, they finally did Kalasjnikov, a lickety-split vocal number, one of the horn players leading the crowd in an exuberant “one, two, three, OPA!” to wind up the chorus.

After a lengthy break, Raya Brass Band came out of the back room and secured a spot on the floor, quickly encircled by not one but two lines of dancers. There’s been a buzz about this band lately and it’s well-deserved. Where Zlatne Uste got the party going, these guys took it up a notch. Their sound is looser, far darker and they threaten to fly off the hinges at any second: this band is all about adrenaline, taking the intensity as high as it can go and then adding something on top of that. Clarinetist and sax player Greg Squared – also of the equally intense, somewhat more diverse Ansambl Mastika – is a pyrotechnic player in the Ivo Papasov mold, delivering an endless series of long, careening, wildly flurrying clarinet solos packed with lightning-fast melismas. On the sax, he backed off only a little. Yet it was his achingly terse, minimalist clarinet solo toward the end of the set that was the most intense of all. Trumpeter Ben Syversen is a kindred spirit, blazing through the songs’ eerie Middle Eastern scales while accordionist Matthew Fass (also of Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar) held things together as much as he could, ominously and atmospherically. Sometimes the band would all blast through the same repetitive riff as an ensemble, otherwise barrelling along with the fat, undulating groove of the tuba and drum as trumpet, sax or clarinet cut loose, the songs going on for minutes on end without respite. Eventually, two of the women from the Brooklyn Balkan a-capella quartet Black Sea Hotel (who have a sensationally good debut album just out) joined in and belted a few choruses

By 2 AM, the drunk munchies were kicking in, and the kitchen was still serving food. By the way, these NY Gypsy Festival events are a surefire way to get away from tourists and trendoids. Tourists, if they knew this stuff existed, would think it’s weird and scary (a lot of it is); trendoids, if they knew anything about it, would ridicule it as declasse. There’s nothing more populist than when the band is on the dancefloor and either you’re in the band or you’re unable to escape being drawn into the joyous vortex of dancers around them.

Raya Brass Band is at Mehanata on 6/25 at 9; the 6/27 Turkish Woodstock at Central Park Summerstage at 3 featuring Mazhar-Fuat-Özkan, Painted on Water with Sertab Erener & Demir Demirkan plus the NY Gypsy All-Stars with iconic clarinetist Hüsnü Senlendirici is not to be missed, and afterward the organizers have kept things going with an afterparty at City Winery, Senlendirici playing with the Brooklyn Funk Essentials and more from the Gypsy All-Stars. Is this turning out to be a good summer or what?

June 14, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment