Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Souren Baronian Brings His Agelessly Soulful Fun and Middle Eastern Jazz Gravitas Back to Barbes

Is Souren Baronian a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, there are guys younger and a lot less accomplished who’ve received that honor. No time like the present, people…while there still is such thing as the NEA.

Now in his eighties, the Armenian-American multi-reedman, percussionist and bandleader is absolutely undiminished as a soloist, one of the greatest pioneers and most soulful players in the history of jazz, let alone the Middle Eastern jazz  he’s made  a career in. He’s bringing the latest edition of his long-running Taksim ensemble to an intimate show at Barbes on August 10 at 10 PM; you should get there early.

A listen to Baronian’s 2002 album Ocean Algae – streaming at Spotify – offers a good idea of what he does in concert, and he still plays a lot of stuff from it live: it’s one of his best. Much as Baronian is known for unselfconscious depth and gravitas, he also has an often ridiculously surreal sense of humor, something that bubbles up when least expected. This album has three-quarters of Baronian’s original 1975 version of Taksim, including the rhythm section of bassist Steve Knight and drummer Mal Stein.

A funky clickety-clack groove underscores Out of Exasperation, which Baronian opens with a moody, spacious soprano sax solo before the oud and rhythm section kick in. The late, great Haig Magnoukian’s oud solo goes ratcheting over growly bass and drums while Baornian’s son Lee provides extra boom on the low end with his dumbek.

The seven-minute title track is a taste of the some of the liveliest stuff to come out of the ocean, the bandleader alternately jubilant and uneasy as the rhythms shift on a dime. Magnoukian switches out the slashing tremolo-picked clusters of the first song for rapidfire hammer-ons and a surgically slashing attack on the strings.

Gooney Bird, a big concert favorite, could also be called It Ain’t Got a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Oud – after Baronian’s done choosing his spots, veering between the blues scale and Middle Eastern modes, Magnoukian takes the song closer to Turkey with his jaunty pastoral picking. The wry, surfy drum turnarounds are a favorite trope.

Toxic Tonic, an almost thirteen-minute epic, contains everything from echoes of medieval English folk, to jaunty Lebanese pastorale passages, surrealistically altered blues riffage on the oud, a psychedelic drum interlude that would have made the Grateful Dead jealous, along with all kinds of delicious microtonal sax flutters and dives. There’s also a subtle joke early on that will have you pulling on your earbuds.

Five For Chick – a Chick Corea homage, it would seem – is a lot jauntier, at least until the senior Baronian takes it further into the shadows, veering between modes as Magnoukian grounds it with his spiky, machinegunnig riffage. Then he takes a poignantly searching, rapidfire oud taksim into the aptly titled Conversation, the bandleader switching to kaval (wood flute), Magnoukian eventually edging everybody out.

Jubilee is the album’s catchiest and most upbeat track, a shuffling mashup of New Orleans second line and dusky levantine influences with a tastily bustling oud/percussion interlude. Baronian’s moody duduk (wooden oboe) improvisation leads into Desert Wind, another concert favorite with its catchy, circling clarinet riffs, subtle echo rhythms and one of his most poignant solos here.

11th Hour is a lot more carefree than its title implies, although Magnoukian brings in some unease, at least until a completely unexpected south-of-the-border detour. Jungle Jive is the most joyously warped number here, the band taking it methodically further east out of a dixieland-flavored jazz waltz. The band follows a similar tangent on the final cut, Time & Time Again. from Knight’s uneasily bending bass intro through Magnoukian’s tensely suspenseful solo to an intertwining oud/sax conversation. This album is as rich as it is long, and it’s very long. Onstage, Baronian hasn’t lost any stamina either.

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August 8, 2017 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Le Trio Joubran Salute Their Late Collaborator Mahmoud Darwish With an Unforgettable, Intense Performance at the Lincoln Center Festival

There were innumerable long passages in Palestinian oud-playing brothers Le Trio Joubran’s multimedia performance last night at the Lincoln Center Festival that were absolutely shattering. Time stood still. When did Wish You Were Here, the stark, haunted dirge that the trio began with, end? After five minutes of hushed, bereaved minimalism, or closer to thirty? Realistically, it was on the shorter side, but it left a vast impact.

Yet moments like those were balanced by others that were ridiculously funny. Which ultimately came as no surprise, considering that the show was a homage to the group’’s late collaborator and countryman, poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Darwish saw himself as an exile. His childhood village was one of the hundreds bulldozed to make room for Israeli settlers in the wake of the 1948 war. In a country the size of South Carolina, that makes an awful lot of refugees. He returned as an adult, eventually joining the Palestinian government’s inner circle but then withdrawing, disillusioned: he had no tolerance for the hypocrisy of politics. Widely considered to be the voice of the Palestinian people, his richly ironic, fiercely proud, relentlessly defiant work speaks to anyone estranged from their home, physically or otherwise.

Darwish died in 2008: for the last twelve years of his life, Le Trio Joubran were his backing band and musical sparring partners. To play along with his recorded voice must have been a considerable emotional challenge for them, but this time they didn’t let on. Darwish was ailing when he made those recordings, but his voice was virile, supremely confident and as nuanced as his words, simultaneously projected in Arabic and English translation above the stage.

One of the group’s signature tropes is to play in unison with a flurrying, precise, tremoloing strum, a sepulchrally fluttering low-string section with an ancient resonance deeper than any western orchestra could achieve. They did that a lot, especially in the most somber passages. But the three oudists also lept, and bounded, and exchanged jaunty riffs, sometimes with an Andalucian flair, most notably in response to an innuendo-packed erotic poem ripe with surrealistic, irresistibly hilarious Freudian imagery.

The rest of the music was a dynamically shifting mirror for the poetry: Darwish zings you with a one-liner, then delivers a gutpunch. Fate and luck are fickle, at best, indelibly illustrated via excerpts from his epic The Dice Player. One of his characters misses his flight because he’s not a morning person, a good thing because it would have crashed with him onboard. In Darwish’s world, two things that make life worth living are invaders’ fear of memories, and tyrants’ fear of songs.

Samir Joubran played a slightly larger model than the instruments in the hands of his two younger brothers, Wissam and Adnan, taking the lowest descents of the night. Drummer Youssef Hbeisch began with a somber, boomy beat on daf frame drum and then moved behind a full kit, which he played with hands, maintaining a muted, subtly colored pulse – at least until a solo where the three brothers encircled him and added their own playful beats. They’d revisit that on the encores – after a warmly rousing singalong, Samir and Wissam played basslines on Adnan’s oud in perfect unison with their brother’s briskly chromatic, dancing lines. It’s impossible to imagine a concert by a single band in New York in 2017 any more riveting or thrilling than this.

This year’s Lincoln Center Festival is a wrap, but Lincoln Center Out of Doors – this city’s most consistently surprising and eclectic free concert series – is in full swing. Angelique Kidjo makes an appearance (but not singing her own material) on August 2; on August 3 at7:30 there’s a Bollywood music-and-dance extravaganza out back in Damrosch Park that looks enticing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

July 30, 2017 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Timeless Middle Eastern Jazz Icon Souren Baronian at the Top of His Game in Montreal

One of the most rapturously gorgeous, unselfconsciously soulful albums released over the past year is Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, by ageless multi-reed sage Souren Baronian’s Taksim. It’s a high-quality archival release that goes back a few years. Now in his eighties but absolutely undiminished  – his performance at Golden Fest this past winter was mind-blowing – he’s the reigning patriarch of Middle Eastern jazz. Here he plays soprano sax, clarinet, kaval flute and also percussion.

Baronian opens the set with a brooding but kinetic soprano sax melody, adds a few swirls as his son Lee Baronian’s dumbek flickers, then the late, great Haig Magnoukian’s oud goes sprinting over Paul Brown’s terse bass and Mal Stein’s similarly emphatic drums. The song is Gooney Bird – Baronian’s titles tend to be on the colorful side.

The bandleader’s rapidfire chromatic runs alternate with incisive blues riffage and flashes of bop as Magnoukian digs in with a bassline of his own; then the senior Baronian goes in a jauntier direction echoed by the band as the oud drives them to a lickety-split crescendo out.

These songs are long; there’s a lot going on here. The second track is Ocean Algae – look out, this stuff is ALIIIIVE, and possibly psychotropic! Strolling, then marching, then scampering, the sax’s airy precision sometimes brings to mind an Armenian Paul Desmond until Baronian brings his achingly intense microtones into the picture as Magnoukian and the rhythm section scramble for shore.

Magnoukian opens the next number, Floating Goat, with a solo taksim, switching out the fast and furious tremolo-picking for an expansive, spacious but no less edgy attack. Then the band launches into a phantasmagorical, Monkish strut until Baronian’s sax pulls them into slightly sunnier, more straightforward territtory over a pouncing 7/8 groove. Magnoukian’s spiky, pointillistic waves fuel an upward drive until the drums and percussion provide a hilariously rude interruption.

Baronian’s pensive clarinet gives a moody, subtle latin tinge to the slinky, midtempo Rayhana, a feast of low-midrange melismatics. His poignant, windswept solo is arguably the album’s high point, echoed with similar expansiveness and gravitas by Magnoukian.

Switching from clarinet to kaval, Baronian and Magnoukian take 8th Sky further south toward Egyptian snakecharming terrain as the rhythm section percolates, peaking out with a fervent Rahsaan Roland Kirk-ish solo. The album winds up with the bustlingly chromatic Time and Time Again, Magnoukian’s bristling solo handing off to Baronian’s sax, which dips and dances to a joyous conclusion. Is Souren Baronian a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, we should start a petition – while the NEA still exists.

If you’re looking for the album online, good luck – however, it is available at s shows, and when he’s not on the road, Baronian typically makes Barbes his home base. And there’s a more recent, similarly magical Manhattan show from last year up at youtube as well.

July 5, 2017 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Two Rivers, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Geroges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Kaseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.

June 15, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Raptly Tuneful Middle Eastern-Flavored Pastorales From Surface to Air

It would have been fun to see Surface to Air at Barbes last night. The trio – guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, who rarely plays acoustic, alongside bassist Jonti Siman and tabla player Rohin Khemani – also doesn’t play out much either. Their sparse, warmly tuneful, hypnotically intriguing album is available as a name-your-price download from Bandcamp.

The opening track is aptly titled Simple: built on an elegantly catchy rainy-day minor-key theme played with meticulous touch by Goldberger, it centers around a kinetic tabla rhythm. Heysatan is even more spare, Goldberger’s gentle, purposeful, catchy tune again centered around the rhythm section’s steady anchor. Siman’s similarly easygoing bass intro is a clever fake: as the briskly saturnine, Palestinian-tinged theme unwinds, it sounds like an acoustic sketch for a David Lynch soundtrack set in the most war-torn territory in Gaza. Siman’s drone anchors a suspenseful interlude that Goldberger spins and spirals out of with hints of Django Reinhardt.

The slow, somber Odalisque is sort of a bolero counterpart to a Trio Joubran-style Middle Eastern dirge. Matanzas is Goldberger’s platform for using a catchy, melancholy flamenco-inflected theme to set up a swoopy, morose bass solo. With its steady sway, Arcana follows a steadily crescendoing folk noir tangent that brightens as it goes along.

The Sleep in Your Eyes opens with a dusky, sepulchral improvisation, builds to a spare, galloping pulse and then recedes back to spacious, pensive solo guitar. The final track is the ballad Waltz for Celia, the closest thing to postbop here, spiced with the occasional levantine or south Asian riff over rather ominous low-end percussion, with a gracefully uneasy bass solo.

Is this Middle Eastern music? Sure. Indian music? Rhythmically, yes. Jazz? Why not? Download this delicious disc and decide for yourself. Thanks to Barbes for booking this fantastic band, who otherwise would have flown under the radar here. Goldberger is in constant demand in New York as a sideman and plays with a ton of groups, notably violinist Dana Lyn’s psychedelic, ecologically themed Mother Octopus outfit.

February 8, 2017 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

January 12, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, dance, drama, experimental music, gypsy music, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock 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

Kinan Azmeh’s Somber New Song Cycle Draws a Sold-Out Crowd at Symphony Space

In a chat with the audience after their sold-out show at Symphony Space last night, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach explained that their great childhood ambition had been to busk in the Istanbul subway, since their Damascus hometown didn’t have one. It was a humbling revelation from two extraordinary musicians whose work defies category – and has still not been been performed in a duo arrangement on an train platform anywhere in Turkey.

Azmeh also revealed that in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, he found himself so overwhelmed that he didn’t write any music for a full year. Since then, the Yo-Yo Ma collaborator has made up for lost time: just in this past year alone, this blog has caught him playing lively Middle Eastern flavored jazz, intricately conversational improvised music and ominous, war-themed soundscapes. This concert was the album release show for his latest cycle, Songs for Days to Come, commissioned by pianist Lenore Davis, impresario of the popular Upper West Side St. Urban concert and literary salon series. She and Azmeh’s fellow Damascus expat, soprano Dima Orsho, filled out the quartet to perform the raptly brooding, sometimes harrowing five-part suite in its entirety. Each song was preceded by the recorded voice of each of the five expat Syrian poets whose original Arabic words Azmeh had set to music.

The news that the last remaining hospital in the beseiged city of Aleppo had been destroyed in a bombing raid may have fueled the musicians’ steely resolve and acute sense of anguish. The poems – by Lukman Derky, Mohammad Abou-Laban, Hazem Al-Azmeh, Liwaa Yazji and Adnan Odeh – speak of abandonment by god (or sheer disbelief), allude to wartime horrors, solitude, alienation and loss. The most gripping of all, by Odeh, was a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where the narrative itself is blown to bits. It was the one moment during the concert where Azmeh went to the deep well of classical Arabic maqamat for gracefully plaintive Levantine melody.

Beyond that, tensely still, sustained passages rose to angst-fueled codas and then returned groundward. Davis played Azmeh’s artful, elegaic bell-tone, Mompou-esque motives and muted inside-the-piano accents with a wounded, resonant restraint matched by rapidfire, circular lines. Likewise, Orsho moved effortlessly between a muted calm – most vividly during one of the early numbers, evoking a Syrian singer killed by a knife to the throat – and soaring operatics. Azmeh’s clarinet alternated between rippling, uneasy balletesque passages and a mournful sustain while Abou-Afach anchored the music in austere washes of sound. Like the rest of Azmeh’s work, it’s informed by but hardly limited to a Syrian idiom. That there was such an engaged, multicultural audience assembled to witness this concert, at a time in New York when live music is often no more than a meme for grubbing for status, speaks well for the people of this city.

The Songs for Days to Come album – streamng at Spotify – is the first in a series commissioned by Davis, with a second volume planned for the spring of next year.

November 20, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ensemble Fanaa Play a Mesmerizing Debut at Barbes

“Is this your debut as a trio?” Balkan multi-reedman Matt Darriau wanted to know. “Yeah,” his multi-reed colleague Daro Behroozi admitted. The two had just duetted on a hard-hitting, insistently hypnotic take of Mal Waldron’s Fire Waltz, their rare two-bass clarinet frontline backed by a robustly perambulating rhythm section. The packed house at Barbes roared with appreciation. Think about it: a jazz trio improvising on original themes inspired by Middle Eastern and North African traditions packed a club in New York City this past Tuesday night. No matter what the corporate media would like you to believe, this is how miraculously un-gentrified and multicultural certain pockets of Brooklyn still remain.

Fanaa basically means “lose yourself.” In their debut, Ensemble Fanaa played music to get seriously lost in. They opened with bass player John Murchison on gimbri, a North African ancestor of the funk bass. He switched to upright bass later in the set, concentrating more on holding down the groove rather than squeezing microtonal ghosts out of the western scale as the rest of the band, particularly Behroozi, was doing. The rhythms in general were tight and slinky, although the meters were sophisticated and often very tricky – it was easy to count one of the North African numbers in 7/8 time, harder to figure out where the others were going. Which was just part of the fun.

Drummer Dan Kurfirst eventually took a long solo interspersing rimshots with a relentlessly misterioso, boomy prowl along the toms, worthy of Tain Watts or Rudy Royston. Then later in the set he matched that intensity on daf (frame drum). Behroozi held the crowd rapt with a seemingly effortless command of melismatic microtones on his alto sax. The night’s most rapturous number brought to mind the paradigm-shifting pan-Levantine jazz of Hafez Modirzadeh. Otherwise, the influence of Moroccan gnawa music was front and center, driven by Murchison’s kinetically trancey pulse. The trio closed by bringing up guest Brandon Terzic on ngoni for the night’s bounciest, most upbeat yet similarly mystical number. The trio are at Rye Restaurant, 247 S 1st St in Williamsburg on September 7; it’s a short walk from the Marcy Ave. J/M stop. And Kurfirst is playing a similarly, potentially transcendent duo  set on August 10 at 6 PM with brilliant oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis at the Rubin Museum of Art; the show is free with paid admission.

July 28, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence in the Face of War and Conflict from Kinan Azmeh’s City Band

This week is Global Week for Syria. Over seventy artists around the world are performing to help raise awareness and help the citizens of war-torn Syria. Brilliantly individualistic Syrian-born clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh contributed to the cause with a matter-of-factly transcendent show last night with his City Band – acoustic guitarist Kyle Sanna, bassist Josh Myers and drummer John Hadfield – at National Sawdust.

Last week at Spectrum, Azmeh and guitarist Erdem Helvacioglu played a harrowing duo set of cinematically crescendoing, ominously enveloping themes meant to depict the trauma of life under repressive regimes. This performance was far more lively but had Azmeh’s signature, direct, purposeful melodicism, simple riffs with artfully elegant orchestration set to kinetically shapeshifting grooves. The most spare material had an Andalucian feel: imagine the Gipsy Kings but with trickier meters, depth and unpredictable dynamics in place of interminable cheer. The slowest numbers were the most traditionally Middle Eastern-flavored; the most upbeat featured purposeful solos from everyone in the band, drawing as deeply on psychedelic rock as they did jazz.

The opening song set Azmeh’s moody low-midrange shades over sparse guitar and bass, then picked up with an emphatic flamenco-tinged pulse, Sanna’s judiciously exploratory solo bringing to mind Jerry Garcia in “on” mode until Azmeh took over and sent it sailing through an insistent, crashing crescendo.

The second number, by Myers, had echoes of Eastern European klezmer music as well as Mohammed Abdel Wahab and spiraling flamencoisms. Sanna contributed an austere, catchy tune that built enigmatic variations on what could have been an Elizabethan British folk theme, his guitar rising from plaintive, Satie-esque spaciousness to tersely energetic single-note lines.

Little Red Riding Hood, inspired by a cruelly aphoristic, recent Syrian poem, evoked the lingering shock and angst of wartime displacement. November 22, inspired by Azmeh’s first experience of an American Thanksgiving weekend, looked back with a mix of nostalgia and longing to places and eras erased by bombs and combat. Sanna set up Azmeh for a wild upward swoop and then flurries of suspenseful microtonal melismas. on a shapeshifting anthem meant to evoke the wildness and unpredictability of Syrian village wedding music. They closed by debuting a somber, pensive new song that Azmeh said he’d only written a couple of days previously. dedicated to the small town in the green belt outside of Damascus where Azmeh had spent a lot of time as a kid and which until very recently had been under siege, with barely any access to food or supplies. Azmeh’s next performance is in San Antonio on May 15 to kick off his US/European tour.

April 18, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment