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.

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

Wild Intense Middle Eastern Grooves from Shusmo

Shusmo’s new cd Mumtastic is pure adrenaline – it’s one of the most exhilarating albums of recent years. Frontman Tareq Abboushi plays long, relentlessly intense, serpentine solos on his buzuq (the Palestinian bouzouki); it’s interesting to hear tenor saxophonist and zurna flutist Lefteris Bournias – a Coltrane/Papasov-class powerhouse- as a sideman rather than centerstage, firing off endless volleys of chromatics like he usually does. There are other bands who sound a little like Shusmo (Arabic for “whatchamacallit”) – the NY Gypsy All-Stars, and psychedelic Greek rockers Annabouboula come to mind – but this group’s sound is different. Abboushi’s concept is to bring a purist, classical sense of melody to Middle Eastern dance music, while bringing danceable rhythms to classical melodies. Some of this is  sort of punk Middle Eastern classical music, some of it is closer to acoustic surf music. Either way, it’s pretty amazing.

The opening cut is the biggest stunner here, a Turkish tune which if you’re sitting down will get you dancing in your seat. It kicks off with a wickedly ominous, catchy hook on Abboushi’s buzuq, with the same kind of ringing resonance as a twelve-string guitar. Bournias’ zurna flutters against the beat, or shadows Abboushi, whose first solo becomes a scorching flurry of doublestops and tremolo-picking. The second track, The Time It Takes sounds like a stately baroque arrangement of an old English folk tune until the chromatics come in, and then the drums, and then they’re off, with a nonchalantly hard-hitting sax solo. Georgina +2 pulses along on a tricky Kurdish rhythm, Dave Phillips’ bass and Zafer Tawil’s percussion trading off and playing against the buzuq, which eventually takes a deliciously long crescendo up. True to its title, Traveling is a cinematic epic, Abboushi’s expansive narrative balanced by Bournias’ bracing, sometimes anguished, nebulously insistent passages.

Samba for Maha, another cinematic one, doesn’t stay samba for very long – it’s something of a neighborhood piece, with dogs barking, surfy drum breaks and moody sax. A trickily rhythmic showcase for Tawil along with drummer Hector Morales, Rasty George segues into the first of a handful of vignettes that slowly fades out. The funky Batayak has a swaying rai-rock vibe and a thicket of lighting tremolo-picking from Abboushi, followed by a brief joujouka interlude with the zurna wailing mournfully. The centerpiece of the album is The Wall, a long, pensively surreal journey that’s the closest thing to jazz here, with an aptly sensitive guest spot by quartertone trumpeter Amir ElSaffar. It’s meant to illustrate the effect of the wall erected in Israeli by anti-Palestinian extremists, to further perpetuate the apartheid that exists there – and yet, some are undeterred by it, others actually managing to enjoy what it leaves in its wake (including the wreckage of Palestinian homes, as much of a playground as you’ll find nearby). With a quiet ache, it reaches for resolution but never finds it.

The album winds up with Pickles, moving once again from European baroque stateliness to a biting Middle Eastern dance and then back again, and the clapalong wedding dance Dal’Ona – the only vocal number here – Bournias finally cutting loose with his most acidically intense solo of the entire session. Shusmo play Joe’s Pub on June 23 at 9:30 PM – if this is your kind of thing, and you’re in town, you’d be crazy to miss them. They’re also at Cornelia St. Cafe at 8:30 on July 7.

June 17, 2011 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo – Zakopane

Satoko Fujii is one of those people who seems to record everything she plays – in her case, that’s a good thing. Methodically if not particularly calmly, Fujii has become over the past 25 years simply one of the most important composers of our time: she gives new meaning to the term “panstylistic.” Her own Libra Records imprint has most recently released Gato Libre’s delicious new gypsy-jazz concoction; a surprisingly tuneful if crazily noisy one from her free jazz outfit First Meeting; a typically vivid one by her small combo Ma-Do, and this album by her colossal fifteen-piece Orchestra Tokyo. She first made a big-band splash with her Orchestra New York back in the late 90s: this effort finds her similarly out-of-the-box but considerably different, Kelly Churko’s evil, chicken-scratch guitar skronk frequently adding a snarlingly jarring undercurrent very evocative of Arto Lindsay back in his DNA days. Fujii loves paradoxes and studies in contrasts: as usual, there are plenty of them here, some of them very funny. This ensemble is piano-less, Fujii working exclusively as conductor.

The cd opens with variations on a big bluesy rock riff with boisterous solos from Takao Watanabe’s trumpet and Hakuregumo Nagamatsu’s trombone. The characteristically paradoxical Desert Ship runs a lush, pensively cinematic minor key theme, husband and longtime collaborator Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet a barely caged elephant plotting a quick getaway – and then they’re off on the wings of Sachi Hayasaka’s completely unhinged soprano sax. The third track, Zee, sets gritty, trebly noise-guitar beneath lush, swaying orchestration into a woozy yet disturbed Toshihiro Koike trombone solo. The amusing early morning barnyard ambience of Sakura builds to a rubato, overcast early summer atmosphere, individual voices filtering in and out.

Tropical Fish is even funnier, Ryuichi Yoshida’s baritone sax sprawling and content until the food enters the tank, Koike following in the same vein – and then the rest of the fishes join in a tango that goes from stately to Mingus-esque noir to Jerry Goldsmith cartoonish. The title track works contrasts: a spacious bowed bass intro by Toshiki Nagata against a couple of blasts from the orchestra, then some Bill Frisell-on-mushrooms guitar from Churko that doesn’t take long to go completely unhinged and noisy against big, suspenseful orchestration. The most suspenseful cut here, actually is Trout, a rousing detective theme that’s actually a tribute to a good meal – it must have smelled really good in the kitchen! – Kunihiro Izumi adding a deliciously Middle Eastern alto solo worthy of Lefteris Bournias. They end on a boisterously satirical note, the horns taking a sentimental theme completely over the top with weepy vibrato. As with Fujii’s 2006 live album with her New York orchestra, this one’s going to end up on a lot of best-of lists at the end of this year. New York audiences may not get a chance to see this band, so this album may be as close as you ever come. Fujii, however, gets around (she used to be here a lot more than she is now); watch this space for NYC dates.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Astonishing Debut from the Next World Music Star

Remember this name: Mavrothi Kontanis. You heard it here first. In a remarkably ambitious and even more remarkably successful display of musicianship, scholarship and archivism, oud virtuoso Kontanis is simultaneously releasing two brilliant albums of Greek songs, with a cd release show at Alwan for the Arts this Friday, June 13 at 9. The first, Sto Kafesli Sokaki is an alternately haunting and rousing collection of Greek, Turkish and Cypriot songs from the 1920s and 30s influenced by the influx of refugees from Turkey who brought their slinky shakecharmer music with them in the years after World War I. The second, the ironically titled Wooden Heart also includes a mix of sensationally good, vintage obscurities along with several equally superb original songs. While Kontanis’ core audience will obviously be those who speak the Greek and Turkish of the lyrics on these two cds, any adventurous listener, anywhere in the world will find each of them an irresistible melodic feast. It’s impossible to imagine anyone hearing one of these albums without wanting the other.

As a player, Kontanis has sensational chops: he’s in the same league as Simon Shaheen, but more terse, less inclined to wild excursions than meticulously plotted conspiracies among the notes. More often than not, he leaves it to the band to embellish the melodies, especially violinist Megan Gould, who serves as lead instrumentalist for the most part here since many of the songs on Sto Kafesli Sokaki are basically a duo between her and Kontanis. Clarinetist Lefteris Bournias – whose breathtaking, lightning-fast solo on Arapina, from the first cd shows off his scorching chops – with politiki lyra player Phaedon Sinis and somewhat ubiquitous percussionist Timothy Quigley (who propels the delightfully fun Chicha Libre) round out the cast.

Disabuse yourself of any preconceptions you may have about Greek music: this isn’t what you’d typically hear in your average taverna in Astoria on a Saturday night. Rather, it harkens back to the era just before the psychedelic, hash-smoking, politically charged music known as rebetika emerged in the Greek resistance underground in the late 20s and 30s. Both the originals and the covers on these two albums blend the hypnotic ambience of Levantine dance music with the often savage chromaticism of Turkish and gypsy music, set to a tricky, circular Mediterranean beat. Most of it is dark and pensive: highlights of the first cd include the viscerally anguished Armenita as well as Etsli Marika Dhehome, featuring a pointillistically incisive solo from Anastassia Zachariadou on kanun (a sort of Mediterranean zither, similar to the cimbalom, played with mallets to produce a pinging, staccato sound, like an amplified harpsichord but with more reverb). Ouzo is a deliberately maudlin number, Kontanis’ amusingly over-the-top vocal rendition of the narrator’s beer goggles (or, in this case, ouzo goggles) making them obvious even to non-Greek speakers.

Wooden Heart (referring to what an oud is made of) is where Kontanis’ heart is, an equal display of soul and chops. The opening cut, Wooden Kite soars and crescendoes imaginatively; Kontanis opens the shape-shifting, violin-fueled original Nikriz Longa with a thoughtful, incisive taksim (solo improvisation) as he does onstage with most of his material, including the following instrumental Ushak Saz Semal.

To Kontanis’ immense credit (at least to Western ears), it’s next to impossible to distinguish his originals from the archival gems on these albums (where he found them is anyone’s guess – and probably the equivalent of a doctorate worth of digging). For fans of great bands like Magges, Luminescent Orchestrii and the aforementioned Simon Shaheen’s older work, as well as anyone caught up in the gypsy music craze, both these cds are must-owns. What the Silk Road Ensemble was to the early zeros, Kontanis is to the later part of this decade, a master of many styles but most of all his own, for that reason one of the most exciting new artists to come around in the last several years.

June 10, 2008 Posted by | folk music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark Mesmerizing Intensity: Mavrothi Kontanis at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 4/14/08

The Barbes website billed them as “probably the best Greek ensemble around,” high praise from a generally reliable source. For once, putting cynicism on hold paid off: Mavrothi Kontanis and his spectacular backup band are the real deal. With gypsy music the flavor du jour (let’s hope it becomes the flavor du siecle), all the other hauntingly danceable Mediterranean and Balkan genres, from klezmer to Levantine dance music, are picking up the spillover and the result lately has been an abundance of excellent bands from all of these styles playing more New York shows for English-speaking audiences. In an era dominated, at least in the mainstream, by prissy indie rock and bellowing corporate grunge drivel, this is an encouraging development. Let’s hope it continues.

By stroke of sheer good fortune, at least from a spectator’s point of view, this was the band’s last show with Anastassia Zachariadou, their phenomenal kanun (a sort of cross between a zither and a cimbalom) player who was leaving for Greece the next day. Perhaps for this reason, the band was especially charged up. Or maybe this is just the way they play every time out. Kontanis, the frontman, played oud while singing in both Greek and Turkish. Megan Gould provided eerie sheets of sound on violin, percussionist Timothy Quigley provided a fluidly swinging, hypnotic beat and clarinetist Lefteris Bournias brought a breathtakingly ecstatic, Coltrane-esque intensity to the music.

The band opened inauspiciously with an original, an instrumental about kites (why is it that kites inspire some of the most insipid songs ever written? Kites Are Fun, anybody? And triple bonus points if you were ever tortured by Private Lightning and actually remember who they were). But they turned up the flames after that and kept them burning for the rest of the show. The next instrumental, also an original, began with a long, ominous, slowly crescendoing solo from Zachariadou and she kept it going for all it was worth, holding both the audience and her bandmates rapt with amazement. They built it slowly, the violin doubling the oud, later adding the first of several blazingly fast, intense, microtonal clarinet solos from Bournias.

Kontanis explained how the next tune, Ouzo, a drinking song from the late 1920s reflected its narrator’s “beer muscles,” as he put it. This one sounded nothing like the song by the same title that the wildly popular New York Greek revivalists Magges have made their own; rather, the drunk in this rather dark tune lets it all hang out, shamelessly: in ouzo veritas. The rest of the set was was one haunting, mesmerizing rembetiko song after another (rembetiko, or rebetika, is a darkly psychedelic style with eerie Turkish and Middle Eastern influences that originated in the Greek resistance underground in the 1920s). Kontanis would often open a song with an improvised intro (or taksim, as it’s called in Arab music) on his oud, Bournias and Zachariadou bringing the songs to a flying crescendo with several lightning-fast solos. As Kontanis explained, one of them was a lament sung from the point of view of a man rejected by a woman because he’s not rich enough for her blood – his response is that what he has, money can’t buy. Another took the opposite point of view, a suitor calculating what he can buy – in a lyrical tour through the neighborhoods of 1930s Athens – with his bride’s money. Kontanis finally closed the show tersely with a quiet, brief, somewhat unsettling sketch.

If dark chromatic melodies don’t scare you off, if you don’t think that people who listen to music from other cultures are “weird” – then again, you wouldn’t be reading this if you did – get to know this amazing band. The only drawback about this evening was that it wasn’t possible to stick around to see Chicha Libre play what promised to be a typically energizing, danceable show afterward.

April 15, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment