Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence and Joy with Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes

Every year here, sometime in December, there’s a list of the best New York concerts from over the past twelve months. Obviously, it’s not definitive – nobody has the time, and no organization has the manpower to send somebody to every single worthwhile concert in this city and then sort them all out at the end of the year.

But it’s an awful lot of fun to put together. Legendary Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian has a way of showing up on that list just about every year, and he’ll be on the best shows of 2018 page here, too. This past evening at Barbes, he and his Taksim ensemble – Adam Good on oud, son Lee Baronian on percussion, Mal Stein on drums and Sprocket Royer on bass, tucked way back in the far corner – channeled every emotion a band could possibly express in a tantalizing fifty minutes or so onstage. Surprise was a big one. There were lots of laughs, in fact probably more than at any other of Baronian’s shows here over the past few years. There was also longing, and mourning, and suspense, and majesty and joy.

Baronian came out of Spanish Harlem in the late 40s, a contemporary of Charlie Parker. Considered one of the original pillars of Near Eastern jazz, as he calls it, Baronian immersed himself in both bebop and what was then a thriving Manhattan Armenian music demimonde. In the years since, he literally hasn’t lost a step. Much as he can still fly up and down the valves, and played vigorously on both soprano sax and clarinet, his performances are more about soul than speed and this was typical. Some of his rapidfire rivulets recalled Coltrane, or Bird, but in those artists’ most introspective and purposeful moments. And neither dove headfirst into the chromatics to the extent that Baronian does.

He opened with a long, incisively chromatic riff that was as catchy as it was serpentine – a typical Baronian trait. Good doubled the melody while Royer played terse low harmonies against it, the percussion section supplying a solid slink. Baronian’s command of Middle Eastern microtones is still both as subtle and bracing as it ever was as he ornamented the tunes with shivery unease as well as devious wit.

Throughout the show, he’d often play both soprano and clarinet in the same tune, then put down his horn and play riq – the rattling Middle Eastern tambourine – while other band members soloed. The night’s two funniest moments were where he led them on boisterous, vaudevillian percussion interludes with as many cartoonish “gotcha” moments as there was polyrhythmic virtuosity.

Where Baronian made it look easy, Good really dug in and turned a performance that, even for a guy who’s probably one of the top half-dozen oudists in New York, was spectacular. Brooding, ominously quiet phrasing quickly gave way to spiky, sizzling tremolo-picking, pointillistic volleys of sixteenth notes and a precise articulation that defied logic, considering how many notes he was playing. Getting the oud sufficiently up in the PA system helped immeasurably – oud dudes, take a look at this guy’s pedalboard, for the sake of clarity and a whole lot more.

The night’s best number also happened to be the quietest and possibly the most epic – considering how many segues there were, it sometimes became hard to tell where one tune ended and the other began. Baronian played this one on clarinet, looming in from the foghorn bottom of the instrument’s register and then rising with a misty, mournful majesty. As the song went on, it took on less of an elegaic quality and became more of a mystery score. Royer’s spare, resonant groove, Stein’s elegant rimshots, the younger Baronian’s otherworldly, muted boom and Good’s shadowy spirals completed this midnight blue nocturne.

They picked up the pace at the end of the show, taking it out with a triumphant flourish. On one hand, that Baronian chooses Barbes to play his infrequent New York gigs (he’s very popular in Europe) is a treat for the cognoscenti, especially considering how intimate Brooklyn’s best music venue is. But if there’s anybody who deserves a week at the Vanguard or Jazz at Lincoln Center, it’s this guy.

Watch this space for upcoming Baronian Barbes gigs. In the meantime, Good is playing one of his other many axes, guitar, with slashing, careening heavy psychedelic band Greek Judas  – who electrify old hash-smuggling anthems from the 30s and 40s – tomorrow night, Sept 8 at Rubulad. It’s a lo-fi loft space situation with a Burning Man vibe – fire twirlers, space cake and absinthe could be in the picture. Cover is $10 if you show up before 9; email for the Bushwick address/info.

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September 7, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Phenomenally Tuneful, Catchy New Middle Eastern Jazz Album From Multi-Instrumentalist Gordon Grdina

There’s a consensus among many musicians that if you can play one stringed instrument, you can learn to play them all if you put in the practice time. Gordon Grdina is persuasive proof: he’s as much of a force on the guitar as he is on the oud. And these days, when he’s not on tour, he’s become a welcome addition to the New York jazz scene. He’s got a couple of very different, very enticing gigs coming up. Tonight, June 14 at 8 he’s at Happy Lucky No. 1 Gallery with Marrow, his oud-driven Middle Eastern jazz quartet with Hank Roberts on cello, Mark Helias on bass and Hamin Honari on Persian percussion. Then this Saturday night, June 16 at 8 Grdina leads his more western-inflected guitar band with Oscar Noriega on reeds, Russ Lossing on piano and Satoshi Takeishi on drums at Greenwich House Music School. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

Grdina has new albums with both bands as well. To say that one is edgier than the other is a hard call, attesting to the unhinged intensity the guitar quartet is capable of – especially live. It was pretty hair-raising to catch that latter ensemble doing what was essentially a live rehearsal in the middle of nowhere in Bed-Stuy a few weeks back. Grdina’s latest album with that group, Inroads, is streaming at Bandcamp. The latest Marrow album, Edjeha – Farsi for dragon – isn’t officially out quite yet. And it’s nothing short of extraordinary, genuinely pushing the envelope in terms of how far an artist can take both Middle Eastern maqam music and American jazz.

As Edjeha gets underway, Grdina takes a sparse, incisive approach to the misterioso opening cut, Telesm, almost imperceptibly building to a series of scrambling clusters as Honari keeps a muted, funereal frame drum beat going. Then Roberts builds a plaintive solo as Helias and Honari run a hypnotic groove that eventually hits a triumphant scamper. It’s closer to Levantine classical music than is it to postbop swing.

Helias takes a turn in deliciously suspenseful mode to introduce Idiolect, an insistent, anthemic Middle Eastern jazz epic that veers into waltz time for a bit, both the bassist and cellist having unselfsconscious fun mining the microtones for all the unsettled intensity they’re worth, up to a joyously otherworldly Roberts solo.

Grdina rises out of a broodingly exploratory taqsim to a circling, stabbing theme in the album’s title track, Roberts taking an emphatic, steady solo as the group spin the central riff behind him. The deceptively catchy Bordeaux Bender juxtaposes Grdina’s spare oud against similarly terse bowed strings, intimating at a casual stroll but never quite going there.

The wyrly titled Wayward begins with a darkly haphazard improvisatory interlude before Honari leads the band through a series of grinningly machinegunning motives; then they bustle along with a devious, marionettish pulse, Roberts again jumping at the chance to give it a coda. Grdina’s plaintive intro to Full Circle is a pretty radical contrast, echoed by Roberts; then Grdina completely flips the script with his genial ballad phrasing. The album’s final number is Boubacar, a surrealistic mashup of Mali, boogie and stark 19th century country blues, a shout-out to the great Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore.

Whether you consider all this jazz, Middle Eastern music, both, or a brand-new style that Grdina’s just invented, this is one of New York’s best bands, bar none. And this is one of the half-dozen best albums released this year so far in any style of music.

June 14, 2018 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Riveting, Poignant Suite of North African Jazz Nocturnes at Lincoln Center

With the New York premiere of their new Abu Sadiya suite last night at Lincoln Center,the trio of multi-reedman Yacine Boulares, cellist Vincent Segal and drummer Nasheet Waits played what might have been the best single concert of 2018. Methodically and poignantly tracing most of its breathtaking peaks and haunted valleys, the three held the crowd rapt through a constantly shifting series of variations on ancient Tunisian stambeli themes.

Like gnawa, stambeli has origins in ancient sub-Saharan animist music brought north by slaves. Until the Tunisian revolution just a few years ago, it had been suppressed and become largely forgotten. It is stark, hypnotic and has an often otherworldly beauty. And since it relies so heavily on improvisation, it’s fertile source material for jazz.

In the course of working out logistics, Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal – one of New York’s few genuinely visionary impresarios, who programmed the night – had sent Boulares the Rumi poem Where Everything Is Music. Boulares told the crowd how moved he had been, particularly by the conclusion, Rumi’s ultimate view of music as divine:

Open the window in the centre of your chest
And let the spirits fly in and out

It was clear from the first few somber, mystical washes of sound from Segal, Boulares’ plaintive, spacious soprano sax lines and Waits’ whispery cymbals that everyone was on that same page.

The Abu Sadiya myth may be a prototype for Persephone. As Boulares explained, the moon kidnaps Sadiya; her dad journeys through the desert, then tries to capture the moon by holding a barrel of water under his arm to catch the reflection and then bargain for Sadiya’s return. Beyond resuscitating the spirit of stambeli, Boulares’ intention is to redeem Sadiya herself. “It’s a very masculine story,” he told the crowd – Sadiya is more of a pretext for male heroism than full-fledged character.

As the suite took shape, Segal alternated between spare, trancey arpeggios, sepulchral bowing, ominous modal vamps and frequent detours into propulsive low-register gnawa riffage. Often if was as if he was playing a sintir – no other cellist has such an intense and intuitive grasp of North African music as he does

Throughout the night, Boulares ranged from forlorn, airily resonant phrases to judicious crescendos up to Coltrane-like flurries capped off by the occasional triumphant cadenza. He and Segal often switched roles, from carrying the melody line to running low, hypnotically looping riffs. This was most striking when Boulares switched to bass clarinet, taking over the low end in one of the gnawa-influenced interludes. Behind them, Waits muted his snare and toms, rattled the traps a little, took a couple of misterioso prowls along the perimeter and finally hit the launching pad with a methodically climbing solo where it sounded as if he was playing a couple of congas. It’s rare that a drummer tunes his kit with such attention to the material, particularly as troubled and angst-fueled as this is.

The three, particularly Boulares, used lots of space – and also the reverberating sonics of the Lincoln Center atrium space – mysteriously well  They gave each other just as much breathing room. Contrasting with the distantly phantasmagorical quality of the music – the moon in this myth is a real pierrot lunaire – was how incredibly catchy so many of the central riffs turned out to be. The suite’s second part opened with a very close approximation of the Rick Wright organ motif that opens Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. A bit later, Segal’s concentrically arpeggiated circles brought to mind Serena Jost’s melancholy art-rock. And Waits’ subtle shifts in, out of, and around waltz time were delectably fun for listeners as well as his bandmates.

The final segment was a portrait of Sadiya, revisiting the vast sense of abandonment that opened the night but rising with flickers and flares to cast the missing heroine as indomitable, just like her dad. They wound it down to a Saharan expanse of dusky dune ambience at the end.

The trio’s next stop on their current tour is tonight, April 20 at 7:30 PM at the Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine St. in Philadelphia; cover is $20. The next free concert at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is also tonight, at 7:30 PM with salsa dura band Eddie Montalvo y Su Orquesta, featuring alums from some of the Fania era’s greatest 1970s Nuyorican bands. The earlier you get there, the better.

April 20, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center: A Haunting, Ceaselessly Shapeshifting Vision of the Future of Piano Jazz

Playing to a rapt, sold-out, mostly under-30 crowd, Beirut-born pianist Tarek Yamani opened his Lincoln Center concert last night with an a cumulo-nimbus chordal crescendo and then took the band spiraling and rippling through a long, chromatically slashing series of variations on a hundred-year-old Egyptian classical melody. Bassist Sam Miniae danced between the raindrops as drummer Jean John boomed and rattled the rims, Yamani parsing the passing tones in the minor scale for every fraction of intensity he could find. From there the music rose and fell, sometime hypnotic, sometimes with an elegant neoromantic gleam, to a long, insistent peak. It was like witnessing peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences.

Yamani’s distinctive style is a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz, with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove as well. It’s no surprise that Yamani gravitated toward jazz, considering that khaliji sounds have more African swing than Levantine sway. It wouldn’t be outrageous to call the self-taught pianist and composer Beirut’s (and now New York)’s answer to Vijay Iyer.

Even so, it was impossible to predict how funky the night’s second number, Hala Land – a Nordic Latin Middle Eastern swing prelude of sorts – would get, from John’s irrepressible shuffle as Yamani teased the crowd with an easy resolution he wasn’t going to give in to anytime soon before pinwheeling and then icepicking through a subtly shifting series of Arabic modes. Yamani revealed afterward that although the melody is considered iconically Lebanese, its origins are actually Turkish. “It’s like falafel – it doesn’t really matter,” he grinned.

The night’s third number was an original in 10/8: “If you’d like to count, please do, but do it silent,” Yamani deadpanned. The blend of catchy Afro-Cuban acerbity, Middle Eastern otherworldliness and emphatic, punchy, ceaselessly shifting meters made sense considering that the pianist is also the author of a popular book on polyrhythms. Miniae ran circles and pounced, John gave it bounce and strut.

Ashur – named after the “Egyptian god of sex,” Yamani smiled – was a friendly, methodically crescendoing, wickedly memorable Kind of Blue-style theme and variations that John kicked off hard. Then Yamani completely flipped the script with an expansive take of Lush Life, subtly pushing it further and further toward the Middle East but finally opting for energetic wee-hours postbop lyricism. Then he launched into a tireless, grittily insistent arrangement of paradigm-shifting Egyptian composer Said Darwish’s workingman’s anthem The Melody of the Movers, circling and rippling over the rhythm section’s propulsive swing. 

The trio closed with a cantering detour toward Cuba and then a glisteningly jubilant melody that Yamani explained is claimed by pretty much every culture throughout the Levant. It was amazing how light and seemingly effortless Yamani’s touch remained after all the evening’s exertion.

Auspiciously, this concert was booked not by Lincoln Center but by their Student Advisory Council, whose agenda is to make the world of the arts in New York “a more inclusive and accessible space,” and help discover new talent who might be flying under the radar. Challenged to find an act worthy of the venue, third-year Juilliard percussion student Tyler Cunningham won the competition by suggesting Yamani after seeing the pianist listed on a bill at National Sawdust, where a friend works.  A specialist in symphonic percussion, the personable, articulate Cunningham gravitates toward postminimalist composers like Marcos Balter but has the kind of eclectic taste required in a field where he’s going to be asked to play outside the box more often than not. Cunningham also has a revealing interview with Yamani up at The Score, Lincoln Center’s online magazine.

The next show at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just south of 63rd St. is this March 29 at 7:30 PM with Portuguese fado-jazz crooner/guitarist António Zambujo. The show is free; the earlier you get to the space, the better.

March 24, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, 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

Haunting Lebanese Pianist Tarek Yamani Revisits a Classic New York Concert at Lincoln Center This Friday Night

Suppose you could see the guy who played on the best live bill of 2014 – for free. Would you go? You have that option when Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani plays this Friday, March 23 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just south of 63rd St.

Yamani opened a marathon evening of music from across the Middle East at Alwan for the Arts in January of 2014, officially called Maqamfest, known informally as the Alwan-a-thon. Here’s the report originally published here the following day.

“…Yamani kicked off the night with a richly eclectic mix of brooding Middle Eastern themes and blues-infused bop. While he didn’t deliberately seem to be working any kind of overtone series with the piano – it can be done, especially if you ride the pedal – he proved to be a magician with his chromatics and disquieting passing tones. Bassist Petros Klampanis supplied an elegant, terse, slowly strolling low end while drummer Colin Stranahan nimbly negotiated Yamani’s sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring rhythmic shifts. The trio wove a tapestry of gorgeous chromatic glimmer through a couple of romping postbop numbers to a haunting, starkly direct piano arrangement of a theme by Said Darwish, considered to be the father of modern Middle Eastern classical music. The trickiest number in their set was the title track to Yamani’s album Ashur (the Assyrian god of death). Stranahan got the dubious assignment of carrying its cruelly challenging, almost peevish syncopation, but he ran with it and nailed it.”

Yamani has done a lot since then, notably his 2017 Peninsular album, whose influences span from Cuba to Oman.  You can bet this blog will be in the house for the Friday, show which could rank among 2018’s best as well. And it’s free – you just have to get there a little early to get a seat.

March 18, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, world music | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Bring Their Dynamic Reinventions of Songs From Across the Jewish Diaspora Uptown Next Week

Violinist Lara St. John is the kind of musician whose presence alone will inspire her bandmates to take their game up a notch. Case in point: last summer in Central Park, where she played a picturesque, lyrical, alternately tender and soaring version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. And this wasn’t with the kind of big-name ensemble St. John is accustomed to playing with: it was a pickup group. St. John’s dynamic focus may well have jumpstarted the group’s harrowing interpretation of Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga suite, a narrative about a 1950s British nuclear experiment in Australia gone horribly wrong.

St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz revisit that intensity and relevance with their program this March 14 and 15 in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession at 550 W 155th St in Harlem. The show is sold out – in order to get tickets to this popular uptown attraction, you need to get on their mailing list, who get first dibs before the general public and will often gobble them up. This isn’t a cheap experience, but if you look at it as dinner and a concert, it’s a great date night (it’s big with young couples). There’s an amuse-bouche and wines paired with the program: supplies are generous, there’s always a vegetarian choice and the choices of vintage can be a real knockout. And the sonics in the intimate but high-ceilinged stone space are as magical as you would expect.

Next week’s program is drawn from St. John’s most recent album with Herskowitz, wryly titled Shiksa, streaming at Spotify. It’s a collection of imaginative and sometimes radical reinterpretations of haunting melodies from across the Jewish diaspora and Eastern Europe by a wide variety of composers, as well as by the musicians themselves.

Among the album’s fourteen tracks, the Hungarian folk tune Czardas is reinvented as a scampering mashup with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Variaiuni (Bar Fight) is an old Romanian cimbalom tune as St. John imagines someone careening through it in the Old West. St. John learned the lickety-split klezmer dance Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn from iconic violinist Alicia Svigals, while composer Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of the wildfire Romany dance Ca La Breaza is based on Toni Iardoche’s cimbalom version. And she picked up the elegant Romany jazz tune Kolo in a bar in Belgrade.

The most poignant track is the Armenian ballad Sari Siroun Yar, which gave solace to composer Serouj Kradjian and his family growing up in war-torn Lebanon. The most wryly clever one is Herskowitz’s jazz version of Hava Nagila, in 7/4 time. St. John also plays an expressive suite of solo ladino songs arranged by David Ludwig, along with material from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Hungary. It will be fascinating to witness how closely she replicates the material – or flips the script with it – at the show next week.

March 8, 2018 Posted by | folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar Refines His Majestic, Transcendent New Middle Eastern Jazz at NYU

Why would anyone want to see the same band play the same piece more than once? For starters, there are always plenty of surprises when Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound make their way through Not Two, the visionary multi-instrumentalist/composer’s 2017 suite. From this perspective, was a third time a charm? On one hand, it’s hard to imagine a more transcendent performance of this lavish, titanic work than the album release show in the financial district last June, where they played the whole massive thing. On the other, their show last night at NYU’s Skirball Center was plenty rapturous…and uproariously fun.

Much of the suite is absolutely harrowing, but ElSaffar has a devastating, deadpan wit, and this time out he was in a particularly good mood. A Chicagoan by birth, he was clearly psyched to bring the band back, “Fishtailing all the way,” from a deep-freeze midwestern tour.

What they play is a new kind of music, based on Middle Eastern maqam modes and microtonal scales, but with majestic, sometimes ominous, often stormy group crescendos which draw on the bandleader’s time in Cecil Taylor’s improvisational big band. Although Not Two – whose title speaks to the pitfalls of manichaean thinking – is a fully composed score, ElSaffar will shift gears and call on any number of soloists depending where the seventeen-piece orchestra is going in the moment.

By comparison to the suite’s live debut at Lincoln Center in April of 2015 and then the epic album release show, this one was shorter and seemed more concise. Although much of it is brooding, even shattering, the whole group seemed to be stoked to be off the road and back on their home turf. Maybe as a consequence, solos all around seemed more animated as well – with the exception of tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen’s two long, methodically suspenseful upward tangents while the band coalesced in a somber grey mist behind him.

The crowd gave their most breathless applause for cellist Naseem Alatrash, whose elegaic, mournfully circling solo early in the suite refused to cave in to any kind of easy resolution. Likewise, he and ElSaffar’s violist sister Dena – leader of the similarly paradigm-shifting, somewhat smaller ensemble Salaam – held the audience rapt with their poignant dialogue a little later on.

Percussionist Tim Moore anchored the suite’s most haunting segment, Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son) with a chillingly echoing, funereal thump on frame drum as the group slowly swelled in an invocation of longing and loss. On the other side of the emotional equation, it turned out that the title of Penny Explosion looks back to ElSaffar’s childhood, when he and his sister would fill a jar with pennies – and then dump them on a tile floor, to max out the reverb.

Mohamed Saleh was charged with delivering a handful of the evening’s most pensively resonant solos, both on oboe and english horn. To his left, JD Parran took over the lows on bass sax and also joined the hazy ambience on clarinet. Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal took two of the night’s most acerbic, intense, chromatically slashing solos; guitarist Miles Okazaki remained in even more low-key, terse mode.

Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz reveled in the opportunity to fire off endless volleys of microtones while pianist John Escreet punctuated the rings and ripples with an exploratory precision. Oudists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh built a devastating rustle, eventually joined by buzuq player Tareq Abboushi and bassist Carlo DeRosa, as the night’s vertigo-inducing final number, Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, built steam through several surreal variations on themes from throughout the suite. Drummer Adam Cruz, clearly psyched to get the chance to step in, gave the music a spring-loaded swing. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan’s stygian bubble was a river of sound all its own, underground.  Driving the highest peaks and most poignant lulls, the composer began with stately ripples on his santoor, rose eventually to blisteringly aching volleys on trumpet and also sang in an impassioned, microtonal baritone.

At the end, they flipped the script with a vaudevillian encore that had everybody laughing out loud: comic relief wasn’t such a bad idea after the intensity. ElSaffar’s next show with this ensemble is on March 3 at 8 PM at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach; cover is $25/$20 stud/srs.

February 11, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

January 28, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Todd Marcus Orchestra Play a Riveting, Epic Set at Smalls

Last night Smalls was packed for the New York debut of the Todd Marcus Orchestra’s new Middle Eastern jazz suite In the Valley. Much as the band onstage was cooking, these people had come to listen. Bass clarinetist and bandleader Marcus gets a mighty sound, bigger than you would expect from a nine-piece outfit. Part of that stems from Marcus’ use of the whole sonic spectrum, Gil Evans-style. The other is how much gravitas he builds in the lows, best exemplified by the punchy contrapuntal interweave during the first set’s towering final number, Horus, Marcus teaming up with trombonist Alan Ferber against the highs: Troy Roberts’ tenor sax, Brent Birckhead’s alto and Alex Norris’ trumpet, pianist Xavier Davis hitting the midrange hard.

Marcus’ compositions draw a pretty obvious comparison to Amir ElSaffar’s work. But Marcus relies more on chromatics than distinctly microtonal melodies, and typically employs the traditional jazz model featuring individual soloists instead of pairings of musicians or seesawing between contrasting frequencies. And as formidable as Marcus’ orchestra is, it’s smaller than ElSaffar’s current huge ensemble: if ElSaffar is the Red Sea, Marcus is the Nile.

Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, and the suite draws heavily on his recent travels there. The group opened with the towering, cinematically suspenseful, chromatically pulsing title track, inspired by the Valley of Kings, featuring long, methodically crescendoing solos from Norris and Roberts. The night’s most colorful number was Cairo Street Ride, a depiction of a crazy cab negotiating what Marcus called “controlled chaos.” Rising from a bustling thicket of voices, the music straightened out with a jaunty bounce and eventually an irresistibly funny interlude where the cab’s engine revs up, then the driver shifting through the gearbox. People still drive stickshift in Egypt!

Ferber got to add some wry, Wycliffe-style humor of his own in the next tune, The Hive, the bandleader finally adding a rapidfire, spiraling solo of his own over the band’s lustre. The brooding ballad Final Days built artful variations on a somber stairstepping riff anchored by Jeff Reed’s bass. And the closing epic was a real showstopper. Drummer Eric Kennedy took a regally tumbling solo against Davis’ eerily circling piano loops as it gained momentum, Marcus launching into the most wildly gritty, intense solo of the night before the jousting at the end kicked in. Chamber Music America, who commissioned this piece, got plenty of bang for the buck. And that was just the first set.

You’ll see this on the best concerts of 2017 page here later this month.

December 4, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments