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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Masters of Persian Music in NYC 2/18/10

A characteristically transcendent performance by one of the world’s greatest ensembles in any style of music. Classical music from Iran is almost inextricably linked to lyrics and poetry and for that reason its instrumentals are songs without words. Likewise, the voice serves as an instrument in the ensemble, joining the interplay as much as it leads it. Like any other established style of music, Persian music has its devices and tropes passed down through the ages: over there they call them gushehs. Over here we call them riffs.

Last night at NYU’s Skirball Center, the Masters of Persian Music played two riveting, practically hourlong suites full of them, the first an improvisation, the second composed pretty much all the way through. The jam, said kamancheh (spike fiddle) player and composer Kayhan Kalhor, was dedicated to a friend who’d just lost a family member. For this set he played a darkly resonant five-string kamancheh alongside his fellow luminary and longtime bandmate Hossein Alizadeh on jangly, clanging shourangiz lute. The two began slowly, mournfully, climbing to what became a funeral march, working the tension between two adjacent notes into an apprehensively memorable, interlocking four-note theme (a westerner might say that the whole thing, both sections of it, was a one-chord jam, and in a sense they’d be right). Kalhor alternated cello-like low-register ambience with rapidfire upper-register work, frequently tapping out percussion or notes high on the fingerboard and making the most of his signature echo effect, bowing with less and less pressure until the notes seemed to be coming back under their own power. Meanwhile, Alizadeh’s right hand was a whirlwind of ferocious fingerpicking. They finally built to a raga-inflected dance, Alizadeh firing off a series of descending progressions that would have been right at home in the Ravi Shankar songbook. And then it was over. The second part of the jam grew more hopeful, rising to a majestic, heroic anthem pulsing along on Kalhor’s insistent low notes. It had a happy ending.

The second part of the show segued between compositions by both Kalhor and Alizadeh (both of whom had switched to smaller, more rustic instruments, in the latter’s case a traditional tar lute) and brief solo passages for kamancheh, tar and the sonorous nay flute of Siamak Jahangiry. Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh, a star pupil of Persian vocal legend Mohammad Reza Shajarian, lent his alternately sepulchral and frenetically ornamented baritone to lyrics by several noteworthy poets: Nima Youshij, Shafi’i Kadkani, Abou Said Abou Kheyr, Akhavan-e Sales, Molavi and Salman Savoji. Here the interplay and the riffage took centerstage when the vocals didn’t, Alizadeh introducing many of them and then returning sometimes several minutes later with their variations. There was plenty of call-and-response, as well as everyone including Nourbakhsh echoing or working their own version of another’s phrasing. With the additional low end provided by Fariborz Azizi’s bass tar and Pezhham Akhavass’s tombak frame drum, it was as if Alizadeh had been freed from carrying the rhythm and could now, as one would say in rock vernacular, “play leads.” Seamlessly and spiritedly, they made their way through a stately tribute to hope against all odds – out of self-preservation, no doubt, the group steered clear of anything that could be construed as overtly political – to a cynical anthem about hypocrisy, a swaying drinking song and a couple of hypnotic, circular anthems, the second closing the show with the whole group singing and playing its series of hooks in perfect unanimity. The sold-out crowd wouldn’t settle for giving them just one standing ovation – after getting another relatively brief mesmerizingly catchy, swaying number as an encore, they wanted more. Kalhor, clearly game, raised his eyebrows and looked around at his bandmates. Then the house lights went up.

Masters of Persian Music’s Spring 2010 US tour continues on Feb 19 at the Sanders Theatre in Boston; 2/20 at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland; 2/23 at Symphony Center in Chicago; 2/26 at the Ferst Center for the Arts in Atlanta and concluding on 2/28 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Adventurous listeners in these cities would be crazy to miss them.

February 19, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Monika Jalili – Elan

This might be the best world music album of the year, a frequently haunting, unabashedly romantic collection of popular acoustic songs from Iran from the era before the mullahs took over after the fall of the Shah in 1979 (to call what happened there a revolution is revolting). New York-born Monika Jalili comes from a musical theatre background, which makes sense when you hear her clear, minutely nuanced soprano, to which she’s expertly added the trademark ornamentation of Iranian classical song, using a delicate vibrato which often trills off at the end of a phrase for emphasis. The songs, mostly dating from the 60s and 70s, combine the austere microtonality of traditional Iranian music with the vivid emotionality of French chanson and a lush Mediterranean romanticism. Jalali sings in Persian and Azeri as well as English and French on two songs. The musicianship is equally nuanced and haunting: for this album, her second collection of songs from Iran, she’s enlisted the extraordinary New York-based oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis as well as his bandmate Megan Gould on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Riaz Khabirpour on acoustic guitar, Marika Hughes on cello and Silk Road Project percussionist Shane Shanahan. To call their performance inspired is an understatement.

Jalili communicates an intense sense of longing on the opening track, Ghoghaye Setaregan (Dance of the Stars), a jangly cosmopolitan ballad in 6/8 with incisive violin. Arezooha (Wishes) evokes 60s French folk-pop with sparse violin and cello behind Jalili’s subtle vocals. Gonjeshgake Ashi Mashi (Little Sparrow) is not a Piaf tribute but an upbeat take of an old folksong, done anthemically with some stirring oud work by Kontanis and the string section.

Ay Rilikh (Separation) is masterfully evocative, Gould’s violin dark and distant with reverb, a chilling contrast with Jalili’s warm interpretation. The upbeat, happy medieval folk dance Evlari Vaar (To Bemaan) has an almost Britfolk feel; by contrast, Biya Bare Safar Bandim (Let’s Be on Our Way) has a slightly Asian tinge, especially on the vocals. Kontanis’ oud holds it to the ground as Gould’s violin soars skyward, Jalili following in turn and then adding some spectacularly flashy vocalese at the end.

Peyke Sahari (Messenger of Dawn) builds to a crescendo with a haunting three-chord descending progression at the end of the verse, illuminated by a beautiful string chart that grows more insistent. The mood turns in a considerably brighter direction with the coy, percussive, bolero-ish Bia Bia Benshin (Come Sit by Me), Kontanis and Gould again taking brief but memorable turns on the bridge. The cd ends with its best song, the darkly swaying, dramatic Ay Vatan (Oh, My Homeland):

Freedom’s here, not in the distance
Oh, my land…
You’re the hero, oh this madness
Oh, my land,

Jalili wails delicately over Kontanis’ eerily swooping oud riffs. The ensemble takes it out with an elegantly fluttering, understatedly chilling conclusion. With the people of Iran uniting against the repression of the past thirty years, there could not be a more auspicious time for this album to come out: the anthem for the next real Iranian revolution could be on it. Watch for this high on the list of the best albums of 2009 here at year’s end.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

CD Review: Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider – Silent City

Kayhan Kalhor is having a hard time doing anything wrong right now: pretty much everything the renowned Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player touches turns into something magical. Like most of his contemporaries, Kalhor delights in cross-cultural collaboration, and this latest cd, created with inventive string quartet Brooklyn Rider is typical. Brisk, bracing, exhilarating and often wrenchingly haunting, it’s a spectacularly successful achievement. It’s less an attempt to blend East and West than simply a collaboration between friends. Kalhor – founder of the Dastan Ensemble, Ghazal Ensemble and Masters of Persian Music –  has two lengthy compositions here, playing kamancheh and also santur (a four-string lute) on his own darkly rustling retelling of the Persian flight myth, Parvaz. Fascinatingly arranged by maverick violist/composer Ljova, its recurrent refrains slowly builds, inexorably gaining intensity..

 

The cd opens with a vividly evocative traditional piece, Ascending Bird, an imaginative musical rendition of the same myth that Kalhor explores in Parvaz. The piece begins with the strings bristling with anticipation and urgency before taking flight over the rapidfire strumming of guest setarist Siamak Aghaei. At this point, for all intents and purposes, it becomes a rapidly, fascinatingly shapeshifting acoustic rock song. The album’s centerpiece is its title track, a Kalhor composition, perhaps the most intense and emotionally wrenching work he’s written to date. It’s a dead-accurate portrayal of the aftereffects of shock on the human psyche. An evocation of Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Hallabjah, it begins almost inaudible with a faint hum that only gradually grows into a wash of numb atmospherics. Slowly, the city’s residents make their way back, piecing together whatever may be left of their families, their lives and their memories. Running their instruments through a delay effect, both individually and in unison, the group create a hypnotic, echoey, otherworldly ambience that goes on for minutes on end: this is a long piece, clocking in at around thirty minutes. Only at the end does the melody erupt in raw outrage, and when it does, it ranks with Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 49th Psalm or Elvis Costello at his most excoriating as a potent expression of despair followed by fury. Even if it is much quieter.

 

The cd’s final piece Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged begins stately and atmospherically before growing to a lively dance with what could be an attractively major-key pre-baroque English folk melody rearranged for strings: Henry Purcell, anyone? Based on a 16th century verse by the Turkish poet Fuzuli, its theme is crazy love: interestingly, while the players attack the melody with considerable abandon, it never gets completely out of control.

 

Perhaps because of the diversity of the performers’ backgrounds, this cd sounds neither particularly Middle Eastern nor American. Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider just might have created a a new genre here: dark ambient modernist Persian-American classical, for lack of a better term. It’s accessible enough to appeal to mainstream classical fans, although more adventurous listeners will undoubtedly spin this over and over. To completely appreciate it, headphones are an absolute necessity. Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyably pioneering cds of the decade.

September 9, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment