Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Early Morning Blaze From the Uncategorizably Brilliant Klazz-Ma-Tazz

Pianist Ben Rosenblum hit a sharks-teeth minor-key spiral, echoed with slithery precision by bandleader and violinist Ben Sutin. Meanwhile, bassist Mat Muntz dipped and swayed, a monster truck spring at peak tension crossing a ravine in some remote Chernobyl forest. Behind them, drummer Tim Rachbach worked tense variations on a clave groove as guitarist Rafael Rosa held back, deep in the shadows, saxophonist Elijah Shiffer waiting for his moment. That would come about fifteen minutes later. At this point, it was about quarter to noon on Sunday morning.

The album release show by Sutin’s phenomenal band Klazz-Ma-Tazz transcended a lot of things, including but not limited to genre specificity and time of day. While Sutin’s compositions and arrangements draw deeply from the vast well of classic Jewish folk music from east of the Danube, they’re hardly limited to that. What they play is jazz, but it’s also dance music. You could also call it film music, considering how deeply they can plunge into noir. But they didn’t stay there, or anywhere, for long.

Musicians tend not to be morning people. But watching this band blaze through two ferocious, sets made it more than worthwhile to sit there glassy-eyed after spending most of the previous evening at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Interestingly, Sutin launched his epic Letting Go suite, from the band’s new album Meshugenah, just two songs in. Its allusive, chromatically electriified rises and falls foreshadowed the feral but expertly orchestrated intensity they’d save for the second set, veering from panoramic desertscapes to hints of samba and some Cuban flair.

Shiffer’s moment was a coda. Before then, he and Sutin had built a briefly heated conversation, but even that didn’t hint at what the saxophonist had up his sleeve. Working his baritione to what seemed the top of his register, he dropped it and reached for his alto. The choreography wasn’t perfect, but the effect was irresistibly fun as he went for the jugular…then put it down, picked up the bari again and took that big horn to heights nobody expected, or probably imagined were possible. Sure, it was a show-off move: to see somebody actually pull it off at such an early hour was really something else.

Sutin told the crowd that Sunrise, Sunset was one of his alltime favorite songs, then reinvented it as lush, plaintive, latin-tinged syncopated swing, a Lynch film set somewhere in the Negev. His version of In Odessa pounced and charged, possibly mirroring Putin-era terrorism there, Rosenblum’s bittersweet accordion holding its own against the stampede.

The second set showcased the band’s sense of humor as well as how feral they can get. Muntz’s quasi-Balkan dance Cyberbalkanization had a relentless, tongue-in-cheek faux EDM whoomp-whoomp beat, Sutin and Shiffer trading terse, acidic phrases overhead. From there they ranged from brooding and mournful to cumulo-nimbus ominousness in their version of Tumbalalaika, segueing into a majestically careening, turbocharged take of the classic Misirlou – but without much in the way of surf.

They saved the guest rapper and singers for the end. Sheyn Vi Di Levone is best known as a schmaltzy ballad, but singer Astrid Kuljanic worked its coy internal rhymes for all it was worth, the band making perfectly decent, uneasy midtempo swing out of it. Then guest Zhenya Lopatnik opened their version of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön with a suspenseful, moody rubato vocal solo before the band swung it, hard. Thank You, from the band’s sizzlingly good debut album, was one of the closing numbers, awash in slashing modal riffs and shifting meters. That the band managed to play one of the best shows of 2018 so far, so early in the day, speaks for itself. Sutin’s next gig is a low-key trio show tomorrow, April 11 at 7 PM at Sidewalk. 

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April 10, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

March 19, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Potentially Paradigm-Shifting Series of Women Performers at the New School

In conversation with the audience and performers at her potentially paradigm-shifting new series Women Between Arts at the New School yesterday, singer/actress/impresario Luisa Muhr contemplated the complexities of branding interdisciplinary works. How do you market something that resists easy categorization? Maybe by calling it what it is: outside the box. Considering the turnout, there definitely is an audience for what might be the only interdisciplinary series focusing on women performers whose work encompasses so many different idioms in New York right now.

When Muhr springboarded the project, she’d assumed that Women Between Arts would be one of at least five or six ongoing programs here. But this seems to be the only one at the moment – If there’s another, would they please identify themselves, because they could be doing very important work!

Dance on the same program as storytelling? Sure! Writer/choreographer Allison Easter wryly remarked that audiences at dance performances don’t mind being talked to. Her piece on the bill featured dancers Tiffany Ogburn and Paul Morland subtly and then explosively tracing Easter’s spoken-word narrative about a couple of American college girls intent on thwarting a would-be rapist on a train winding its way through the Alps.

Klezmatics violinist Lisa Gutkin proved to be the ideal headliner for a bill like this. Born and raised in a secular Jewish family in Sheepshead Bay, the songwriter/actress revealed an insatiably curious worldview that mirrored her sizzling musical chops, via excerpts from her one-woman show. Likewise, part of her eclectic background stems from the demands of being a highly sought-after sidewoman. Irish reels? OK. Tango? Si! Klezmer? No problem! She grew up with that culture, inspired by her immigrant grandmother, who would hitchhike upstate to her bungalow where she’d book artists like Pete Seeger to entertain her garment worker friends.

And Muhr illustrated her own, similarly eclectic background with wistful projections, a subtly humorous dance piece and poetry, following her own Greek immigrant great-grandmother’s journey as a refugee from Istanbul to Vienna. In pushing the boundaries of diverse idioms, a program like Muhr’s has the potential to spur the growth of new synapses for both audiences and performers.

The next Women Between Arts performance features songwriter Jean Rohe, choreographer Sasha Kleinplatz, brilliant carnatic violinist Trina Basu, singer/actress Priya Darshini and Brooklyn Raga Massive tabla player Roshni Samlal on January 7 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St.

November 13, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, dance, drama, experimental music, folk music, Literature, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, poetry, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One of 2016’s Best Albums: Klazz-Ma-Tazz’s Epically Haunting Lynchian Klezmer Jazz

Violinist Ben Sutin‘s Klazz-Ma-Tazz are one of those fantastic bands that defy categorization. Their new album Tangibility – streaming at Bandcamp – is part noir jazz, part klezmer, part Balkan and Middle Eastern music. Any way you look at it, it’s one of the year’s best.

The album’s opening diptych has two spine-tingling, shivery cascades, one from the violin and one from alto saxophonist Elijah Shiffer, bookending a gorgeously lush, bittersweetly swaying, cinematically suspenseful theme from Ben Rosenblum’s darkly crushing piano, Grant Goldstein’s languid Lynchian jazz guitar and a hypnotic groove from bassist Mat Muntz and drummer Matt Scarano. This has got to be one of the three or four best songs released this year – what a richly cinematic way to draw in a listener, right off the bat! That the rest of the album isn’t anticlimactic testifies to the consistently cinematic quality of the tunes and the musicianship.

The funky, syncopated Thank You is driven by a circular piano hook; Sutin’s chromatic violin takes it into more acerbic, haunted Balkan flavored territory, followed by a steady slowly crescendoing sax solo overhead, spikily clustering piano and then Muntz’s bass running the riff as the piece grows more uneasy.

The title track slides toward jazz waltz territory out of an uneasily syncopated piano intro fueled by Sutin’s enigmatic, allusively chromatic lines, with expansive, carefully allusive, crescendoing solos form piano and then sax. Then he bandleader goes leaping and spiraling; if Jean-Luc Ponty had a thing for the Middle East, it might sound something like this.

Icy, uneasy violin and sax rise and dance over an icepick piano-and-drums backdrop as Tbilisi gets underway, a mashup of Bahian jazz with a jauntily triumphant sax-violin conversation midway through, the band artfully hinting at straight-up swing but not quite going there. Sutin takes a piercing, suspenseful solo over a murky, turbulent piano backdrop to open the groups cover of Miserlou, which they first parse as practically a dirge: it’s arguably the most original take of the song anybody’s recorded in recent years, and at well over eleven minutes, it’s probably the longest too. Even when the guitar comes in, it’s a lot more Balkan psychedelia than surf, an explosive vamp midway through packed with searing violin and sax work.

Listen closely and you can hear echoes of Ellington’s Caravan in the unsettled tumble of Speak the Truth. A brief, austere guitar-and-accordion passage introduces Kluez, the album’s elegaically pulsing, mysterious final cut, an ominously twinkling Twin Peaks set theme with hints of blues and late 50s Miles Davis amidst the nocturnal glimmer. An extraordinary effort from a truly extraordinary, inimitable group who deserve to be vastly better known than they are.

December 21, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Terse, Tuneful Cinematics from Ljova & the Kontraband

[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily, which has appropriated the Balkan and Slavic sounds this blog covered for years]

Is there a more cinematic composer working today than Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin? It would seem not. Like all film composers, he’s called on to portray every emotion and every possible scenario within a very short time frame, which informs his writing beyond the world of film as well. His latest album, No Refund on Flowers, with his string ensemble the Kontraband is considerably more stripped-down and a lot closer to those shapeshifting cinematics than the group’s boisterous, lushly orchestrated, absolutely brilliant 2008 debut, Mnemosyne. Which is to say that its charms are somewhat more subtle. Its title is a wry reference to a sign in the window at Ljova’s corner deli, Sing & Sing Market at 96th and Columbus Ave. He distinguishes himself with a devious wit along with his nonchalantly sizzling chops on the viola and fadolin along with accordionist Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Vocals are  by Ljova’s wife, the crystalline, brilliant singer Inna Barmash. What’s most obvious from the first few bars of the dancing opening track, Sam I Am, is how much fun this band is having. Who would have expected the tangoesque (Ljova is a GREAT tango composer) interlude, or the Russian chromatics thrown in for good measure, or the way the band lets the suspense linger without any resolution?

The Blaine Game, a tightly wound, shapeshifting romp centered around a fluid accordion riff was written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop between jazz workshops, Kunzli’s rattle doing a fair impersonation of an espresso machine. Barmash – frontwoman of the deliriously fun Russian/Romany band Romashka – sings the John Jacob Niles version of Black Is the Colour, with a tender, crystalline resonance and some spine-tingling high notes, maxing out the torch factor over what’s essentially a tone poem until it goes all psychedelic and eerie. It has very little in common with the old English folk song.

The swaying nocturne Yossik’s Lullaby portrays one of Zhurbin’s sons as the more serious of the two; his brother Benjy gets a joyous bounce with operatic echoes and a big crescendo. Likewise, Mad Sketchbook, a NYC subway tableau, grows cleverly from a catchy circular theme to frenetic clusters and then back. The centerpiece of the album is By the Campfire, a sadly pulsing, chromatically-charged waltz, with a creepy, explosive, crashingly noisy interlude, Barmash sliding up and leading the band into a raging march. The lyrics – which Barmash translated from a 12th century German poem – echo a sadly universal theme: “Lies and spite rule the world, law is dead, truth is poisoned – the wisdom of our age teaches theft, deceit and hate. ” The album winds up with a pulsing waltz that builds on a riff from Mahler.

May 26, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ljova & the Kontraband Play Smart, Fun Music for Kids and Their Parents Too

Kinetically shapeshifting, stunningly eclectic Slavic string ensemble Ljova & the Kontraband played two shows Sunday evening at the National Opera Center, one for the kids and one for the adults. What was most striking was that even as bandleader/viola virtuoso Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin kept a mostly kindergarten-and-under audience attentive and often wildly involved – the perimeter of the room quickly becoming a proto-moshpit – he and the band never dumbed down the material. Nor did they condescend to the children: no babytalk, no “LLLEEETTT’SSS TTTAAALLLKKK IIINNN SLOOO- MOOO.” He challenged the kids, and bantered with them, and they rose to the occasion. As it turned out, one of the girls quickly identified his instrument as not being a violin. Another kid wanted to know why Zhurbin had switched to viola at age twelve after seven years playing the violin. “I like a lower sound,” he explained. “All the high notes on the violin made me want to freeze!”

You think an American kid can’t dance in 7/8 time? You didn’t see the five-and-unders having a ball with it at this show. “You can count to seven, right?” Zhurbin grinned, and it sure looked as if they did. What was funny, and maybe predictable, was how the girls (a slightly older demographic here) hung toward the front and watched, and took it all in, and responded eagerly to Zhurbin’s dry wit while the boys thundered around the room, amped from the steady boom of Mathias Kunzli’s frame drum, Jordan Morton’s nimble, trickily syncopated, richly dynamic bass, Patrick Farrell’s torrential, often seemingly supersonic accordion volleys and Zhurbin’s own dancing, constantly metamorphosizing viola lines. What was almost as cool was how the parents let the kids run free: no helicoptering, no mom in hot pursuit with bottle of hand sanitizer or baby wipes. Then again, it makes sense to assume that fans of this band would make cool parents. And they were down with the wrly edgy cinematics of Bagel on the Malecon and the uneasy yet tongue-in-cheek bouncy-house rhythms of Love Potion, Expired and the rest of a largely upbeat set while the herd ran amok

The second set was for the parents, the kids moving to an adjacent room for a set by a similarly lively group, vintage French pop revivalists Banda Magda. And it was a opportunity, as Zhurbin explained, to get more subtle and even more eclectic, showcasing a handful of tracks from the band’s excellent new, second album, No Refund on Flowers, as well as a few older crowd-pleasers and lots of pretty intense new material. This group has commissioned a lot of new material via Kickstarter (food for thought for other bands), and they played a few of those, notably a surprisingly stately, carefully considered wedding waltz for an older Vermont couple who never had a chance for a first one since the husband had to rush off to World War II.

They also romped through the deviously shifting metrics of Sam I Am – a dedication to an Upper West Side character from Zhurbin’s Columbus Avenue neighborhood – as well as a haunting Transylvanian theme, a dizzyingly polyrhythmic dance, and a broodingly stunning version of the old folk song Black Is the Color, Zhurbin’s wife Inna Barmash bringing the lights down with her plaintive vocals while Farrell switched to piano and met her intensity head-on, note for note. They closed with the similarly poignant, imploringly crescendoing Mnemosyne, the title track from the band’s previous album, Barmash leading the rising waves of angst. It was a far cry from the delirious dance party they’d just given the kids and testament to the ability of this group to switch gears in a split second and make it seem completely natural. Then again, if film music is your stock in trade, as it is with this band, that’s second nature.

May 13, 2014 Posted by | concert, gypsy music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Another Good Reason for the NEC to Celebrate

The New England Conservatory – the Juilliard of Boston – is always finding reasons to celebrate. What a bunch of party animals. This year their excuse is the 40th anniversary of the school’s contemporary improvisation program, springboarding a series of New York concerts that continue tonight starting at 7 at Barbes with Matt Darriau, Frank London, Ashley Paul, Mat Maneri and many others and winding up with an extravaganza on March 23 at 8 at Symphony Space with an enticingly eclectic jazz bill including Ran Blake, Dominique Eade, John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet, Sarah Jarosz and Anthony Coleman among others.

Last night at Symphony Space, the theme was Today’s Jewish Music: From NEC to the Downtown Scene, which is very specific. For years, a thriving  klezmer/jazz community here relied heavily on the NEC for a wealth of talent, most of which is still active. Most of the NEC alumni artists on this particular program, including pianists Coleman and Hankus Netsky, multi-reedmen Darriau, Greg Wall and Marty Ehrlich, violinist Deborah Strauss, guitarist/cantor-in-training Jeff Warschauer, bassist Jim Whitney and drummer John Mettam would have packed Tonic ten years ago.  Clarinetist Michael Winograd and chanteuse Lily Henley represented for newer generations, the former most notably with a thrilling, trilling, rapidfire solo clarinet improvisation and the latter with a torchily nuanced, murky duo with Coleman on a klezmer soul ballad.

A quintet that also included Darriau, Ehrlich and Winograd opened with a long, lingering, Steven Bernstein-ish partita on an old cantorial theme fueled by Coleman’s noirisms and Mettam’s artful shifts from clave to waltz time. They closed with a moody tango that kicked off with an intricately energetic, spiraling duel between Darriau (now on bass clarinet) and Ehrlich. In the night’s wildlest improvisational moment, Ehrlich’s spine-tingling microtonal clarinet swirls paired off against Coleman’s deviously resistant staccato. The  Strauss-Warschauer Duo made elegant acoustic art-rock out of the Jewish prayer for the new month, then a little later Warschauer sang an affectingly aching, irony-drenched solo version of the Mordechai Gebirtig klezmer classic Avremi the Pickpocket. Coleman reprised it and reshaped it as a haunting Middle Eastern vamp and then jaunty hi-de-ho jazz. One suspects that many of these suspects will be back at Symphony Space in a couple of days: tickets are still available.

March 21, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alicia Jo Rabins Comes Forward About Bernie Madoff

Eclectic violin virtuoso and composer Alicia Jo Rabins – formerly of Golem and currently with Girls in Trouble – has put together an intriguing new show titled A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. She debuted it here in New York Thursday night at Joe’s Pub. It’s billed as an attempt “to investigate the intersection of mysticism and finance, the inevitability of cycles, and the true meaning of wealth.” Hot on the heels of a sold-out show (the next one is also at Joe’s Pub on Thursday, Nov 15 at 7), Rabins was gracious to answer a few loaded questions about it:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Kaddish is something we say for the dead. Is Bernie Madoff dead?

Alicia Jo Rabins: Yes, Kaddish is the prayer for the dead – and it’s also, extremely rarely, used to mark excommunication, when a person becomes “dead” to the community, as in that amazing scene in the Jazz Singer. So I’m playing with that meaning and also with the idea of mortality – Madoff’s, and our own.

LCC: Do you find it particularly reprehensible that Madoff deliberately chose to victimize other Jews?

AJR: Well, in the piece I mention that these kinds of schemes are often referred to as affinity scams because people prey on those from their own community, taking advantage of the natural sense of trust that exists between people from a similar background. So – reprehensible, yes, and extreme – but surprisingly not uncommon.

LCC: In your research, how many of the main characters in this did you talk to? Madoff himself? Harry Markopoulos? Any of the SEC people? I remember how the Madoff family did a huge amount of PR for damage control, and then they disappeared, or tried to. Did you talk to any of them?

AJR: I decided not to approach the Madoff family because I wanted to maintain some sense of objectivity and distance from the central players in the story, and to look at it from the perspective of the supporting players – a lawyer defending the victims from clawbacks, an FBI agent on the case, a financial risk officer at a bank who advised against investing with Madoff and was initially rebuked.

LCC: Lurid as the scandal was, Madoff doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly interesting guy. He had a lot of stuff, and flaunted it, and that’s about all he seemed to be interested in. Or is there more to him than that?

AJR: I was actually interested in the many reports I read that Madoff did not particularly flaunt his wealth – in the rarified world of hedge funds, he was relatively modest  – still absurdly wealthy, but not particularly showy about it. Apparently that actually led people to trust him more. Learning that was one of the things that drew me deeper into the complexities of the story.

LCC: Considering that the biggest ponzi schemer of all time was once head of the NASDAQ stock exchange, what does this portend? How many other Madoffs are there out there? Or is it ultimately just one big casino?

AJR: I heard this question so many times in my research – people saying “Isn’t the whole stock market a giant ponzi scheme anyway?” I certainly don’t have the answer, but I think it’s an important question for America at this moment.

LCC: To what degree are we all implicated in this – for buying into the system that tolerates and even abets criminals like Madofff, or for foolishly believing that the system would thoroughly police itself?

AJR: I couldn’t agree more – if one can agree with a question. And I would add, how does this sort of belief or faith in capitalism tie into our spiritual condition as a nation at the moment? To what degree are we responsible for one another? These aren’t just theoretical questions. Should people making millions from stock trading have to contribute towards the health care of people making ten dollars an hour? Should higher education be subsidized for those who can’t afford it? I stay out of the political angle in this piece and focus more on the spiritual questions, but really, it’s all the same.

Alicia Jo Rabins plays A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff at Joe’s Pub this coming Thursday, Nov 15 at 7 PM: $15 tickets are still available as of today.

November 10, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pitom Shreds With Ominous Majesty

Guitarist Yoshie Fruchter’s band Pitom’s new instrumental album Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes, just out on Tzadik, blends Israeli stoner metal with surf music, gothic rock and ancient Hasidic ngunim. Ostensibly a reflection on Yom Kippur, if there’s anything to atone for here, it should be for not making the album longer – and it is a long one to begin with. Here bassist Shanir Blumenkranz (also of Pharaoh’s Daughter) serves as their Lemmy, propelling much of this with a roaring chordal attack, alongside Jeremy Brown on violin and Kevin Zubek on drums. Fruchter has an individual and impressively tasteful style for a genre where florid is the norm: he roars, squalls and skronks but also cuts his chords up into juicy pieces that he offers up like a lion tamer determined to get the best out of the beast. The melodies bristle and wail, charged with eerie chromatics and Middle Eastern tonalities along with the metal riffage and slowly careening psychedelic licks.

The first song is a flamenco-tinged stomp with guitar that ranges from theremin-ish to Dick Dale-ish, set to a pounding Nine Inch Nails beat. After that, they deliver a sludgy bulldozer waltz driven by distorted bass chords and an apprehensive violin solo, Fruchter screaming in wildly to ambush Brown’s stately lines. The third track is a Maidenesque, chromatic gallop with scrapy violin/guitar textures and a watery, dambuster Leslie speaker guitar solo. With slyly growling twin guitars over a gritty bass groove, the fourth track builds to a genuinely anguished crescendo, Blumenkranz wailing with a dirty, distorted tone over Fruchter’s clanging, echoey, menacing chordal fragments.

Motorhead goes to a Jewish wedding and dances in 14/4 through a pungent cloud of guitar/violin smoke on the fifth cut; the sixth is a creepy, low-key spiderwalk. The seventh starts out with a gorgeously plaintive klezmer melody that grows menacing, then hits a grand guignol interlude straight out of early Queen, then back to the menace again. Track eight amps the rustic, wounded beauty higher, with a slow Peter Gunn-style interlude and variations. On the next cut, a frantic Balkan chase scene collapses and gets all Sonic Youth before reassembling and scurrying off again – and then they hit a noisy bridge with an early 70s style bluesmetal solo peeking out from behind the gnashing and thrashing. They close with another klezmer melody, this one done as 80s psychedelic rock a la the the Raybeats or Slickee Boys, and the majestic concluding cut featuring alternatingly intense guitar and violin solos over the murk beneath. Fans of intelligent, artsy metal bands from Junius to Iron Maiden will love this stuff. Pitom play the cd release show for this one at Rock Shop in Gowanus on Monday May 2 at 9 or so with the excellent, eclectic Gutbucket opening at 8. The bands are also bringing food for everybody.

April 28, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Geoff Berner’s Pyrrhic Victory Party – One of the Year’s Best

Cynical, insightful, hilarious and iconoclastic, Canadian klezmer rocker Geoff Berner comes off as sort of the Eugene Hutz of current-day Jewish music. After wrapping up his Whiskey Rabbi trilogy, Berner made this ferocious, fearless latest one, Victory Party, with Canadian Jewish music maven Socalled. Berner is ironically more of a throwback to oldschool klezmer than any of the klezmer revivalists: in the days of the pogroms, klezmers (Jewish musicians) tended to be hellraisers, outcasts not only in society as a whole but often within their own culture as well, and Berner seems to embrace that fate as he calls bullshit on pretty much everyone who deserves it. This is a hell of an album, and ironically, though the music is more retro, less punk than his previous stuff, his vision is more fearlessly punk than ever.

The album gets off to a low-key, cynical start with the title track, a pyrrhic victory where the narrator journeys through a nightmare past “the charred remains of the orphanage, past the dogshit and corpses” to what poses for a party. “I knew we were right on the brink of our best years,” Berner remarks flatly. At his site, he explains that the song was inspired by the true story of a death camp survivor who “returned to Berlin to reclaim his bar. He paid German musicians to play klezmer tunes while he slowly drank himself to death.” Michael Winograd’s sarcastically blithe clarinet lights up the bouncy Jackie the Pimp, which offers an Iceberg Slim-style look at the downside of the profession. Wealthy Poet chronicles the ways the guy will help his girlfriend escape the oppressors, finally by giving her some matches so she can burn off her fingerprints at the border, the violins of Diona Davies and Brigitte Dajczer snarling and smoldering overhead.

The famous Yiddish-American protest song Mayn Rue Platz is transformed into a gorgeous duet with otherworldly vocals from Chinese-Canadian siren/erhu player Lan Tung. I Kind of Hate Songs with Ambiguous Lyrics is self-explanatory, and an instant classic, a song that needed to be written; Dalloy Polizei – a reworking of a hundred-year-old Russian Jewish folk tune – commemorates the murder of Ian Bush, shot from behind in police custody in Houston, British Columbia after being arrested for having an open container of beer. And with Berner’s accordion driving a cruelly amusing, deadpan, rustic shtetl-style cover of Canadian girlpunks the Sluttards’ I Am Going to Jail, he finds the commonalities between centuries of persecution of Jews, and centuries of persecution of nonconformists of all kinds.

A brutally sarcastic techno song, Oh My Golem explores the cruel irony of how the original, idealistic concept of Zionism was appropriated by genocidal, anti-Palestinian wingnuts in Israel. There’s also a plaintive, sad version of the waltz Cherry Blossoms, and a woozily slinky epic titled Rabbi Berner Finally Reveals His True Religous Agenda that pokes fun at religious cults. Savagely aware, catchy and contemptuous, this is refusenik rock at its best. Watch for this on our best albums of 2011 list at the end of the year if any of us are still alive to compile it.

March 26, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment