Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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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

CD Review – Tall Tall Trees

This is a bunch of New York jazz cats playing their own original take on country and bluegrass. It’s way better than that designation might imply. Banjoist/singer Mike Savino and drummer Mathias Kunzli comprise the rhythm section in innovative pan-Balkan string band Ljova & the Kontraband; guitarist Kyle Sanna arranged Jimi Hendrix’s Machine Gun for chamber orchestra, among other achievements, and bassist Ben Campbell plays with the Double Down Swing Band. In addition to the expert musicianship you would expect from a crew like this, Tall Tall Trees deliver funny, rustic original songs with an up-to-the minute satirical edge: these guys have a hair-trigger bullshit detector aimed straight at posers and status-grubbers.

Their best one is a truly universal anthem that anybody who’s ever worked for a living can relate to: “You don’t need this shit!” Savino pointedly reminds us. “In the middle’s the blues, and the end is the place you will likely be screwed.” There’s also the bluesy, rustic Appalachian-tinged The Ballad of Sallie Mae: the woman who done him wrong pressured him into signing on the dotted line, and now she’s got the house. And his student loan’s ninety days overdue. But all he can think of is the good old days. Similarly, Bubble Gum is an amusingly irreverent, banjo-spiced slap at commercialism: “Let me take a ride on the bottom of your shoes!”

The Spaceman in the song here is a fish out of water who just wants to go home – but if he can’t get off this planet, he’s willing to mate with an earthling. The songs are as diverse as the band members’ projects: among the rest of the tracks are a bouncy, sarcastic slide guitar boogie; a silly faux early 80s new wave ditty; a gently swaying, hypnotically swirling Stereolab-style number, and a hilarious, minutely detailed ballad about romancing the girl working the counter at the local Chinese takeout joint. It’s all a lot of fun: play this at a party and expect to see smiles and get plenty of “who are those guys?” Tall Tall Trees play Pete’s on Fri Aug 14 at 10.

August 12, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment