Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Deep African Blues Roots in Cutting-Edge Jazz in the West Village This Week

“When I first heard gnawa music, I heard the blues, and jazz, and the Black church,” Randy Weston explained to the sold-out crowd at the New School Tuesday night. The ageless piano sage has made a career of taking jazz back to its ancient African roots and then reinventing them, first inspired by his father and later while living in Morocco, where he immersed himself in innumerable North African folk and classical music styles. Currently artist-in-residence at the university, he brought along his pal Abdellah El Gourd along with a trio of energetic, impressively athletic dancer-percussionists from his group Dar Gnawa of Tanger for an insightful, sometimes trance-inducing, sometimes raptly transcendent performance of both traditional material and some of Weston’s best-loved compositions.

The percussionists supplied a hypnotically polyrhythmic clickety-clack backdrop with their pairs of cast-metal qraqab castanets while El Gourd grounded the music in low, circling, propulsive phrases on his three-string gimbri lute – one of the earliest ancestors of the funk bass. While Weston didn’t mention that particular lineage, he took care to explain that the qraqabs are a descendant of something considerably more disturbing: handcuffs. Centuries ago, in the Berber lands, prisoners in chains would use them to communicate in code.

Since gnawa music continues to serve several roles in the community – as rhythmic backdrop for mass celebration, spiritual ritual and physical healing, among other things – it’s no surprise that the vocals, delivered robustly by El Gourd an the rest of the group, have a mantra-like quality. In conversation with El Gourd along with a younger countryman and New School student, Weston revealed that the music also has a synesthetic connection – different individuals, different songs and even riffs are associated with different colors. Weston took some obvious relish in being someone whose color, predictably, turned out to be blue.

And the blues, along with their ancient, more lingering and slowly unwinding roots, were everywhere in Weston’s solo pieces, which he played in between numbers by the Moroccans. Night in Medina, he told the crowd, was inspired by a trip to the bustling Tangiers marketplace he frequented during the day but hesitated to visit after dark: “You know, bring from Bed-Stuy!” he joked. Awash in hushed, low-register, moonlit resonance, saturnine modes and allusive Middle Eastern phases, Weston slowly pulled good-natured postbop out of it. Likewise, he closed the performance with a regal, judiciously crescendoing take of Blue Moses, joined slowly and then joyously by the rest of the group as it unwound out of a gently rhythmic trance groove.

Speaking of the blues, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger has a connection with them that goes deeper than most. His brand-new live album, Pivot, comprises two lengthy explorations of Bukka White classics. Last night at Smalls, he made another live recording with his quartet, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Ian Froman on drums. After Preminger and the group had stayed pretty much within themselves, playing their cards close to the vest, very puristically as they do on Pivot, it was a real rush to watch them finally jump and spiral out of control with a pretty wild free interlude late in the set. They went back to dusky and evocative and tersely melodic with their closing number, Mississippi John Hurt’s I Shall Not Be Moved, Palmer anchoring the sound as Froman built toward a steady hailstorm, Preminger finally cutting loose and wailing to the rafters, making the song’s title all the more ironic. Let’s hope this one makes it onto the record as a pure, unedited thrill.

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October 15, 2015 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trippy Persian and Global Grooves From SoSaLa

The new album Nu World Trash by SoSaLa a.k.a. Iranian-American saxophonist Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi and his brilliantly assembled ensemble is so eclectic and trippy that it defies description, a woozy blend of dub, Middle Eastern music and American jazz. Producer Martin Bisi expands his own inimitable vision with dark, Lee “Scratch” Perry-inspired psychedelic sonics as the group slips and slinks through grooves with roots in Morocco, Ethiopia, Iran, Jamaica, Japan and the south side of Chicago circa 1963. That’s just for starters.

The opening track is characteristic. Titled Ja-Jou-Ka, it’s ostensibly Moroccan, but it could also be Ethiopian, right down to the biting, insistent, minor-key riff and galloping triplet rhythm that emerges from A swirling vortex of low tonalities right before the song winds out with echoey sheets of guitar noise, Ladjevardi’s elegantly nebulous tenor sax lines managing to be wary and hopeful at the same time. Ladell McLin’s guitar and Piruz Partow’s electric tar lute combine for a distant Dick Dale surf edge on Nu Persian Flamenco, a catchy, chromatically-charged surf rock vamp with echoey spoken word lyrics by Ladjevardi. Classical Persian music is inseparable from poetry, so it’s no surprise that he’d want to add his own stream-of-consciousness hip-hop style: “Work like a dog, what for? I need something to cheer me up,” this clearly being it.

With a rather cruel juxtaposition between gentle guitar/flute sonics and samples of agitated crowd noise (and a crushing assault by the gestapo a little later on), Welcome New Iran looks forward to the day when the Arab Spring comes to the Persian world (it’s only a matter of time before it comes to the U.S., too!). A traditional song, Kohrasan begins with a pensive taqsim (improvisation) on the tar and then launches into a bouncy modern gypsy-jazz vamp: it seems to be an illustration of a fable. Vatan Kojai (Where Is My Country) morphs from a swaying, soaring rai vamp into a wailing guitar dub interlude, while Happy April Fool’s Day veers from off-kilter jazz, to Ethiopiques, to biting contrasts between McLin’s abrasive noise and Sylvain Leroux’s fula flute.

The onomatopoeic (say that three times fast) NY’s Sa-Si-Su-Se-So sets Massamba Diop’s hypnotic talking drums agains swirling sax effects and wah funk guitar over a hypnotic Afrobeat groove driven by bassist Damon Banks and drummer Swiss Chris. Sad Sake makes atmospheric acid jazz out of a Japanese pop theme; the album ends with the swaying, funky Everyday Blues, a gritty workingman’s lament: the guy starts every day with a coffee and ends it with a “small bottle of beer,” and he’s had enough (although a bigger beer might help). Eclectic enough for you?

March 8, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Malika Zarra’s Berber Taxi Whisks You Away

Growing up in France, chanteuse Malika Zarra had to downplay her Moroccan Berber roots. Here she celebrates them. It’s a quiet, rapt celebration: imagine Sade’s band if they’d relied on real rhythm rather than that annoying drum machine, and you’ll have a good idea of what her new album Berber Taxi, just out on Motema, sounds like. Blending the warmth of American soul music with tricky North African rhythms, intricately yet tersely arranged, jazz-inflected melodies and lyrics in Berber, Arabic, French and English, Zarra has carved out a niche for herself which manages to be completely unique yet very accessible. She’s got an excellent, pan-global band behind her, including keyboardist Michael Cain (fresh off a potently lyrical performance on Brian Landrus’ latest album), guitarist Francis Jacob, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wirht, oudist/percussionist Brahim Fribgane and violist Jasser Haj Youssef. All but two of the songs here are Zarra originals.

The quiet blockbuster here is Amnesia. Sung in French, it fires an offhandedly scathing, vindictive, triumphant salvo at a racist politician (Nicholas Sarkozy?) over a hypnotic Afrobeat pop tune as Joni Mitchell might have done it circa 1975, balmy verse followed by a more direct chorus. Your time is over, Zarra intimates: all the kids behind you are playing the djembe. Leela, by Abdel Rab Idris, is a gorgeous, sparse update on a Fairouz-style ballad with rattling oud, austere piano and gentle electric guitar – it wouldn’t be out of place in Natacha Atlas’ recent catalog. Kicking off with Zarra’s trademark resolute, nuanced vocals, Tamazight (Berber Woman) is the closest thing to North African Sade here, right down to the misty cymbals on the song’s hypnotic bridge, and the fetching call-and-response with the backing vocals on the chorus.

The title track pairs a reggaeish verse against a jaunty turnaround, Zarra throwing off some coy blue notes – it’s a vivid portrayal of the search for love in a distant place. Zarra’s casual, heartfelt vocalese – she doesn’t scat in any traditional jazz sense – carries the terse, gently imploring Houaira, and later, No Borders, an instrumental by Ba featuring some clever harmonies between bass and voice. Sung in French, Issawa’s Woman pensively recalls a woman watching her fantasy and reality diverge, Cain’s spacy, reverberating electric piano ringing behind her. Other tracks, including the knowing ballad Mossameeha and the breezy Mon Printemps, give Zarra room to cajole, seduce and show off a genuinely stunning upper register. It’s worth keeping in mind that even in the age of downloading, Sade’s Warrior album sold in the megamillions. As the word gets out, this one could resonate with much of that audience as well. Zarra plays the cd release show for the album with her band at the Jazz Standard on April 19, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Qadim Ensemble at Zebulon, Brooklyn NY 4/1/10

Bay Area orientalists the Qadim Ensemble are a bunch of American musicians with a passion with seemingly every style from the Middle East and northern Africa. As their show at Zebulon last night reaffirmed, that passion translates vividly in concert. This time out the group was a quartet, Gari Hegedus taking the most intense solos of the night on saz (a beautifully jangly Turkish lute) and oud, Rachel Valfer Sills doubling on oud and vocals, ney flute player Eliyahu Sills and master percussionist Faisal Zedan on riq (frame drum) and other instruments. They go more for a a slinky, often haunting, trance-inducing sound than they do flat-out ecstasy, with thoughtfully constructed improvisation between instruments along with warmly methodical, crescendoing solo passages. Together they created a magic carpet of shifting timbres and textures, the melody often beginning on the flute, then moving to the saz and then the oud. The ney player and oud player harmonized on a couple of numbers; Hegedus played with a graceful intensity over the oud’s soulful pulse and the otherworldly allusions of the flute while Zedan provided a hypnotic beat. One of the highlights of the night was a Turkish number about a guy trying to entice a girl over so he can play saz for her – she stands him up. The ney was first to state the melody, followed by the oud, and when the time came, Hegedus made sure that girl or no girl, the saz was going to turn in a good solo. Rachel Valfer Sills’ poignantly full-bodied vocals imbued the quieter numbers with considerable gravitas; later, the ney player opened a “Moroccan country music” tune, as they called it, with an expansive, blue-sky taqsim that built slowly into a bouncy rai beat. And then the band segued into a much trickier number that finally faded away mysteriously. In case you wish you hadn’t missed this one, they’re at Nublu on April 4 at 8.

April 2, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Orchestra of Tetouan’s Auspicious New York Debut

Tetouan is sister city to Tangiers, and is historically connected with Granada across the water since this is where many Spanish Muslims and Jews fled the terror of the Inquisition. And they brought their music with them. In a concert that was heaven for early music fans, the Orchestra of Tetouan made their New York debut at Judson Memorial Church in the West Village a memorable one. Their repertoire is medieval Andalusian suites, eleven of which survive. With oud, violin, viola, kanun (hammered zither), tar (tambourine) and darbouka (hand drum), the six-piece ensemble ran through lengthy excerpts from four of them, taking up the better part of two hours and engaging what looked like a sold-out crowd enthusiastically when the pace picked up. From the audience response, much of the lyrically-driven material (sung rousingly and passionately in Arabic) has considerable cultural resonance.

What does it sound like? Like Palestrina with Middle Eastern instruments – no surprise that the adventurous revivalists Gotham Early Music co-produced the concert. The earliest Andalusian music has a definable western feel without the otherworldly overtones and chromatics that have come to characterize pretty much everything radiating from Jerusalem outward for the last several centuries. With a stately sway, pulsing along with the bassy boom of the darbouka, the group would go up from a central key for few steps in the major scale, then back down again and then work around the theme introduced by a brief instrumental overture. Polyphony and antiphony were joyously abundant. The group’s not-so-secret weapon is eighteen-year-old violinist/singer Brahim Idrissi, whose powerful baritone and impressive range dominated the mix. Oudist/bandleader Mehdi Chachoua, a leading Moroccan music scholar, took all of one taqsim (solo) all night and limited his embellishments to a few subtle slides. Likewise, kanun player Hicham Zubeiri’s taqsim could have been a Renaissance-era English reel if given a more straight-up rhythm.

Throughout the Arabic-speaking world, poetry is accorded a vastly higher space in the literary pantheon, and likewise far more of a role in daily life (the day that Bush invaded Iraq, the #1 bestseller there was a book of poetry). From the point of view of a non-Arabic speaker, the passion and longing voiced by all six singers translated viscerally, aided substantially by translations supplied in the program notes. The group concludes their American tour with shows tonight and tomorrow in Bloomington, Indiana; watch this space for upcoming NYC appearances.

September 25, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brooklyn’s Best-Kept Secret

Back in the days before myspace, this was often how you learned about shows: some guy would stand outside a venue after the band had finished and the crowd was exiting, feverishingly handing out cards for another similar show elsewhere. Word of last Saturday’s show reached Lucid Culture HQ via the program notes given out at the scintillating solo oud performance by Zafer Tawil and then George Ziadeh at Barbes last Friday. As it turned out, the Brooklyn Arts Council had been promoting a monthlong Arab music festival at venues throughout New York, which Friday’s show had been a part of, and as much as fun as it undoubtedly would have been to have seen more of these events, it was still great fun to catch the tail end of the festival.

Arab music is Brooklyn’s best-kept secret. Arab culture as it exists today is vastly more musical and literate than corporate-driven American culture, and the Arab diaspora throughout New York swarms to events like these. Saturday night at Alwan for the Arts downtown, it was mostly the diaspora that showed up and packed the hall, although there were other communities represented. Essentially, the program was Arab country music. “These days, you get mostly Levantine dance music and Egyptian pop,” the woman from the BAC told the crowd. “Not that that’s a bad thing!” She was right: this was a brilliantly assembled bill featuring seldom-heard music from across the Arab world, from outside the cities. The night started with singer Naji Youssef and his band, playing a passionate set of Lebanese standards including songs by the “voice of Lebanon,” Wadie el Safi. There’s a darkness and melancholy in a lot of this, and Youssef, with his soaring baritone and his supporting cast, brought out all of it. Maurice Chedid played oud, reminding of how much fun it was back in the day when he was essentially the house band at the Hosri family’s somewhat legendary Cedars of Lebanon throughout the decade of the 90s.

The next act was Yemeni expatriate Ahmed Alrodini, playing oud and backed by two percussionists, doing a fascinating set of music from across Yemen. Most Yemenis in New York hail from around the capitol, Sana’a, but Alrodini comes from the seacoast, thus, his repertoire is somewhat more diverse. He opened with a “habibi” song, imbued with considerable sadness and longing before changing tempos in an instant toward the end of the song and turning it into a dance number. After that, the group did a Hindi love song (the area has a sizeable South Asian population) with more of a hypnotic feel, followed by a brief but rousing drum interlude where they boisterously showcased the area’s various rhythms. They closed with a complex, intriguing pastoral number, Alrodini’s split-second timing and seemingly effortless tremolo-picking as energizing as it was throughout the rest of the show: he’s a spectacular player to watch.

The evening’s final act was essentially a bass-and-drums unit. Southpaw Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Abdel Rahim Boutat played the loutar, a four-string acoustic bass and sang, accompanied by two percussionists. Strangely, the drummers were playing what looked to be modern drum heads that weren’t locked down, producing a shivery rattling throughout the show that may not have been intentional. In the corner of the room, a drunken reveler was clapping and singing along: “Go to the middle!” Youssef encouraged him. Genius: the crowd where the guy had been holding a party for one could hear the music again, and now the band had a dancer up front with them. In his all-too-brief set, Boutat frequently sang the same lines he played on his instrument, running through a set of Moroccan mountain music. It’s more melodic and Arab-inflected than the hypnotic, afropop-inflected music usually found elsewhere in Morroco. With the dancer bouncing around up front, the crowd was energized and so was the band. They opened with a haunting, hypnotic number, then another in a similar vein featuring the percussion toward the end, then brought the night to a rousing crescendo with their third song. Bass and drums never sounded more melodic or more interesting, as the crowd seized on the counter-rhythm and clapped along. The hypnotic yet ecstatic party ambience continued through the end of the show.

Even if you don’t speak a word of Arabic, concerts like these are a great introduction to what could become a lifelong addiction: the calendar at Alwan for the Arts is a good place to start.

April 2, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Layali El Andalus Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/1/08

Tonight the standing-room crowd in the little back room at Barbes were treated to the single best concert we’ve seen so far this year. It was a passionate, fascinating show. Performances by musicians who play traditional Arab music as expertly and emotionally as this group did tonight usually cost upwards of $50 at places like Symphony Space. Led by Moroccan singer/oud player Rachid Halihal, the all-acoustic sextet played a mix of mostly traditional dance numbers spanning the Arab world, including songs from Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and, obviously, Andalusia. With its extremely sophisticated counterpoint and microtonal scales, this stuff isn’t easy to play, but Layali El Andalus made it seem effortless. Interpolating a few sunnily upbeat, happily nostalgic numbers within a set of what was otherwise long, frequently hypnotic songs based on the haunting chromatic scale, it was a rare treat to witness a performance like this in such an intimate setting.

The setup of the band – oud, quarter-tone accordion, flute, violin and two percussionists – echoes the small combos used by pioneering composers like Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Said Darwish. Many of the songs they played tonight are popular standards, often lavishly orchestrated: one doesn’t often get to hear this material stripped down to its basics. Often, the band would pick up the tempo at the end of the song, flute player Daphna Mor letting out an eerily triumphant trill as the crescendo would rise to a peak. The individual musicians, including Bruno Bruzzese on violin, Uri Sharlin on accordion, and two percussionists, all got to take extended solos, unanimously proving to be terse, incisive, thoughtful players: this group doesn’t waste notes. Halihal is something of a ham: while re-tuning his oud after each song, he’d improvise on the next song’s melody until everything was on key. His attempts to get some audience participation going met with mixed results. Though he tried strenuously to get the men and women in the crowd to sing a call-and-response with each other on one number, this fell flat – perhaps they didn’t understand, or they were simply unfamiliar with what’s actually a common device in traditional Arab music. But by the end of the show anyone with enough room on the floor to dance (or at least sway a little bit) was doing that while clapping along ecstatically. The best-received song of the night was a richly melodic version of the original Ya Rayyeh (Let’s Party), best known to today’s listeners as French-Algerian rocker Rachid Taha’s signature song. They closed with a rather sentimental song that was somewhat jarring, considering the ecstatic intensity of their other material. But no matter. Layali El Andalus’ next show is Sunday, March 9 at 8:30 PM at Drom NYC, 85 Avenue A between 5th and 6th Avenues, and world music fans would be crazy to miss it.

March 3, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment