Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Brooding, Darkly Fascinating Balkan-Inspired Sounds from Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell

Ben Holmes has a distinctive, soulfully purposeful voice on the trumpet. He plays with Ty Citerman’s Bop Kabbalah, Russian Romany party band Romashka and the funky Brooklyn Qawwali Party, among others, and on the jazz side with his quartet featuring trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, bassist Matt Pavolka and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. Holmes also has a pensive, often haunting new duo album, Gold Dust, with brilliant accordionist Patrick Farrell. The two are playing the release show on June 7 at 8 PM at Barbes.

Much as Farrell has supersonic speed and is one of New York’s great musical wits, and Holmes tends to play tersely, with plenty of gravitas, the album doesn’t have the kind of dichotomy you might expect. Most if not all of the music here is on the somber side, and the duo lock into that mood. They open the album with a purposefully stripped-down, lithely dancing arrangement of a stately Shostakovich piece. From there they take their time building the catchy, klezmer-tinged Black Handkerchief Dance from a dirge, Farrell using every inch of register at his disposal, from keening highs to murky lows, up to a more triumphantly bouncy pulse.

The next number is a suite. Holmes and Farrell exchange warily spiraling leads and contrapuntal riffs as it opens, then Farrell anchors a grey-sky theme with an airily otherworldly, Messiaen-esque ambience, then the duo pick up the pace and make a rustically off-center Balkan dance out of it. The Shostakovich tune that follows it is all about distantly ominous foreshadowing punctuated by uneasy cadenzas.

Zhok, a brooding Balkan waltz, makes the most of a stripped-down arrangement, first with the instruments trading off and then intertwining up to a big crescendo. A New Mammon is similarly moody, a grey-sky Balkan pastorale, something akin to the Claudia Quintet without the drums taking a stab at Eastern European folk. From there they pick up the pace with a jaunty Erik Satie ragtime waltz and then go back into pensively subdued territory with Peace, whose calm ambience can’t hide a lingering unease, building suspensefully from spacious solos from both instruments to a rather guarded optimism.

From there they pick up the pace again with Honga, its tricky, Macedonian-flavored shuffle beat, animated tradeoffs between instruments and intricately ornamented trumpet leads. The final track, Romance, blends oldschool jazz balladry with a more modernist feel, Farrell leading the way. A lot of people are going to like this album, fans of jazz and classical as well as Balkan and Middle Eastern music.

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June 4, 2014 Posted by | classical music, gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Terse, Tuneful Cinematics from Ljova & the Kontraband

[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily, which has appropriated the Balkan and Slavic sounds this blog covered for years]

Is there a more cinematic composer working today than Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin? It would seem not. Like all film composers, he’s called on to portray every emotion and every possible scenario within a very short time frame, which informs his writing beyond the world of film as well. His latest album, No Refund on Flowers, with his string ensemble the Kontraband is considerably more stripped-down and a lot closer to those shapeshifting cinematics than the group’s boisterous, lushly orchestrated, absolutely brilliant 2008 debut, Mnemosyne. Which is to say that its charms are somewhat more subtle. Its title is a wry reference to a sign in the window at Ljova’s corner deli, Sing & Sing Market at 96th and Columbus Ave. He distinguishes himself with a devious wit along with his nonchalantly sizzling chops on the viola and fadolin along with accordionist Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Vocals are  by Ljova’s wife, the crystalline, brilliant singer Inna Barmash. What’s most obvious from the first few bars of the dancing opening track, Sam I Am, is how much fun this band is having. Who would have expected the tangoesque (Ljova is a GREAT tango composer) interlude, or the Russian chromatics thrown in for good measure, or the way the band lets the suspense linger without any resolution?

The Blaine Game, a tightly wound, shapeshifting romp centered around a fluid accordion riff was written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop between jazz workshops, Kunzli’s rattle doing a fair impersonation of an espresso machine. Barmash – frontwoman of the deliriously fun Russian/Romany band Romashka – sings the John Jacob Niles version of Black Is the Colour, with a tender, crystalline resonance and some spine-tingling high notes, maxing out the torch factor over what’s essentially a tone poem until it goes all psychedelic and eerie. It has very little in common with the old English folk song.

The swaying nocturne Yossik’s Lullaby portrays one of Zhurbin’s sons as the more serious of the two; his brother Benjy gets a joyous bounce with operatic echoes and a big crescendo. Likewise, Mad Sketchbook, a NYC subway tableau, grows cleverly from a catchy circular theme to frenetic clusters and then back. The centerpiece of the album is By the Campfire, a sadly pulsing, chromatically-charged waltz, with a creepy, explosive, crashingly noisy interlude, Barmash sliding up and leading the band into a raging march. The lyrics – which Barmash translated from a 12th century German poem – echo a sadly universal theme: “Lies and spite rule the world, law is dead, truth is poisoned – the wisdom of our age teaches theft, deceit and hate. ” The album winds up with a pulsing waltz that builds on a riff from Mahler.

May 26, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ljova & the Kontraband Play Smart, Fun Music for Kids and Their Parents Too

Kinetically shapeshifting, stunningly eclectic Slavic string ensemble Ljova & the Kontraband played two shows Sunday evening at the National Opera Center, one for the kids and one for the adults. What was most striking was that even as bandleader/viola virtuoso Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin kept a mostly kindergarten-and-under audience attentive and often wildly involved – the perimeter of the room quickly becoming a proto-moshpit – he and the band never dumbed down the material. Nor did they condescend to the children: no babytalk, no “LLLEEETTT’SSS TTTAAALLLKKK IIINNN SLOOO- MOOO.” He challenged the kids, and bantered with them, and they rose to the occasion. As it turned out, one of the girls quickly identified his instrument as not being a violin. Another kid wanted to know why Zhurbin had switched to viola at age twelve after seven years playing the violin. “I like a lower sound,” he explained. “All the high notes on the violin made me want to freeze!”

You think an American kid can’t dance in 7/8 time? You didn’t see the five-and-unders having a ball with it at this show. “You can count to seven, right?” Zhurbin grinned, and it sure looked as if they did. What was funny, and maybe predictable, was how the girls (a slightly older demographic here) hung toward the front and watched, and took it all in, and responded eagerly to Zhurbin’s dry wit while the boys thundered around the room, amped from the steady boom of Mathias Kunzli’s frame drum, Jordan Morton’s nimble, trickily syncopated, richly dynamic bass, Patrick Farrell’s torrential, often seemingly supersonic accordion volleys and Zhurbin’s own dancing, constantly metamorphosizing viola lines. What was almost as cool was how the parents let the kids run free: no helicoptering, no mom in hot pursuit with bottle of hand sanitizer or baby wipes. Then again, it makes sense to assume that fans of this band would make cool parents. And they were down with the wrly edgy cinematics of Bagel on the Malecon and the uneasy yet tongue-in-cheek bouncy-house rhythms of Love Potion, Expired and the rest of a largely upbeat set while the herd ran amok

The second set was for the parents, the kids moving to an adjacent room for a set by a similarly lively group, vintage French pop revivalists Banda Magda. And it was a opportunity, as Zhurbin explained, to get more subtle and even more eclectic, showcasing a handful of tracks from the band’s excellent new, second album, No Refund on Flowers, as well as a few older crowd-pleasers and lots of pretty intense new material. This group has commissioned a lot of new material via Kickstarter (food for thought for other bands), and they played a few of those, notably a surprisingly stately, carefully considered wedding waltz for an older Vermont couple who never had a chance for a first one since the husband had to rush off to World War II.

They also romped through the deviously shifting metrics of Sam I Am – a dedication to an Upper West Side character from Zhurbin’s Columbus Avenue neighborhood – as well as a haunting Transylvanian theme, a dizzyingly polyrhythmic dance, and a broodingly stunning version of the old folk song Black Is the Color, Zhurbin’s wife Inna Barmash bringing the lights down with her plaintive vocals while Farrell switched to piano and met her intensity head-on, note for note. They closed with the similarly poignant, imploringly crescendoing Mnemosyne, the title track from the band’s previous album, Barmash leading the rising waves of angst. It was a far cry from the delirious dance party they’d just given the kids and testament to the ability of this group to switch gears in a split second and make it seem completely natural. Then again, if film music is your stock in trade, as it is with this band, that’s second nature.

May 13, 2014 Posted by | concert, gypsy music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Stunning Black Sea Music Summit at the Met

Billed as Strings of the Black Sea, yesterday’s show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art lived up to the boast made by the organizers’ emcee beforehand: it truly was a landmark concert. It was a New York Eastern European music summit, sort of the Black Sea equivalent of those early 60s Rolling Stones Revues with short sets from a nonstop parade of icons like Howlin’ Wolf, Ike & Tina Turner, Otis Redding et al. The emcee wished aloud for a series of full-length concerts by each of the individual performers here next year, a wish that deserves to come true. As with Debo Band at Joe’s Pub on Friday, there was incongruity in seeing most of them rip through one adrenalizing dance number after another in front of a relaxed, comfortably seated crowd in the museum’s sonically superb Rogers Auditorium. But the audience was energized; the ripple of excitement after it was finally over was impossible not to connect with..

Christos Tiktapanidis got the party started, solo on politiki lyra fiddle (also known as a kemence). What he casually introduced to the crowd as slow was fast and what was fast was lightning-fast, a bracing display of fingerboard wizardry, all split-second doublestops, through a crescendoing opening taqsim (improvisation), a stark levantine dance and a happier number that lept from 5/8 to 7/8 time. Beth Bahia Cohen and Ahmet Erdogdular followed with a brief duo set on the Turkish tanbur lute: she bowed hers, holding it upright like a fiddle while he played his guitar-style with a pick. The two doubled each others’ lines effortlessly through another opening taqsim, stately songs from the 18th and 19th centuries, a rapidfire dance by Cohen on kemence and then an inspired, chromatically charged dance number sung by Erdogdular, who’s rightfully earned acclaim as one of Turkey’s foremost exponents of highly ornamented traditional Ottoman singing.

Julian Kytasty brought the lights down with a somber, haunting solo performance on the wide-bodied Ukrainian bandura, a sort of cross between a concert harp and a lute that frequently took on the incisively pinging, staccato tone of a qanun or a cimbalom. He began with a rueful number sung from the point of view of a dying warrior, encouraging his young protege to pick up where he fell. He explained that the blind minstrels who’d traditionally played this repertoire had been brought to extinction in the Stalinist terror of the 1930s. “Singers are never popular with the powers that be,” Kytasty reminded, in a song that “could be straight out of today’s headlines,” a brutally cynical number detailing how truth gets trampled underfoot and thrown into prison while lies are held high for all to see, to be celebrated by the status quo. His dynamically-charged, virtuosic picking took on a flamenco edge on another lament that he managed to fingerpick while simultaneously tapping out a beat on the body of the instrument.

Nikolay Kolev played solo on the Bulgarian gadulka fiddle, an instrument which has grown many additional strings over the last century: his has fourteen, including the resonating, sympathetic ones. He immediately took the intensity to redline, on a couple of wild, hypnotic, rhythmically tricky minor-key dance tunes, a ruthlessly, fluidly efficient romp in the Middle Eastern hijaz mode that began with yet another taqsim and an anthemic tune in 6/8 that vividly and uneasily bridged major and minor without quite being either. The final act paired violinist Nariman Asanov, one of the foremost (and few) Crimean Tatar fiddlers in the US, with ubiquitous and characteristically energetic, witty accordionist Patrick Farrell (who seems to pop up on practically every first-rate Balkan music bill in town, and leads the absolutely hilarious, unique Stagger Back Brass Band). With a singlemindedness that made it seem as if they’d played together for years, they slowly fanned the embers of a violin taqsim over an accordion drone until they were blazing and then romped through a brief series of fiery, minor-key dances, one with a wickedly catchy klezmer feel. Farrell finally got to solo as Asanov held the rhythm down and made the most of it. The entire crew, minus Kytasty (who needed a chair and mysteriously wasn’t provided with one) encored with a simple, memorable Anatolian folk tune, seemingly a tea drinking anthem, Erdogdular’s unamplified vocals soaring over the song’s darkly tinged, chromatic four-bar hook. The next concert in this series is at the Ukrainian National Home on September 25 at 7 PM featuring the North American debut of Ukrainian sensations Tecsoi Banda.

September 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Romashka and the New York Gypsy All-Stars at le Poisson Rouge, NYC 4/11/09

This was kickoff night for the New York Gypsy Festival, 2009, taking last fall’s week of delirious fun at Drom to the next level. While this year’s festival will also take place sometime in the fall, the promoters will be putting together monthly shows in preparation for the big event and this was the first. And it was a mobscene, but a comfortable one, a sold-out room full of unpretentious, multi-ethnic twentysomethings, a throwback to Saturday nights at Mehanata ten years ago with not a single $500 bedhead haircut or pair of Elton John-sized glasses anywhere in sight. These people just came from all over to party. Nobody was disappointed.

 

Among New York gypsy bands, Romashka are second in popularity only to Gogol Bordello. They took the stage minutes after eleven, opening their too-brief, barely forty-minute set with a dark, lushly beautiful version of the Roma anthem Djelem Djelem highlighted by the haunting strings of violinist Jake Shulman-Ment and Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s viola, trumpeter Ben Holmes adding a plaintive solo after the second verse. Frontwoman Inna Barmash – recently reviewed here in a rare duo show with Zhurbin, her husband, at Small Beast at the Delancey – once again teased and then riveted the audience with her voice. Like all the best dramatic singers, she only goes for the kill when absolutely necessary. In this case, she waited until the band’s last song, an alternately hushed and frenetic, noir cabaret-tinged number before cutting loose with an astonishingly powerful blast of vocalese.

 

Otherwise, the band alternated between bouncy, upbeat dances, a tricky Balkan trumpet tune and a torchy Russian tango as well as some even darker material which proved to be the most captivating. Barmash told the crowd that one of those tunes was their “Russian nightmare song,” as the band added tongue-in-cheek horror-movie flourishes during its slow introduction, then going up and down and finally ending with a big burst of sound from the tuba. Their big, enthusiastic crowd wanted an encore but didn’t get one.

 

Which was ok because the New York Gypsy All-Stars were on next. This time out the Drom house band brought their A-game, not only because they had a full house but also because the iconic Selim Sesler – billed as “the Coltrane of the clarinet” – was scheduled to play with them. Their frontman, clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski is an extraordinary player in his own right, leading the group through a blistering series of haunting dance numbers and a couple of one or two-chord jams that the players used to show off their sizzling chops. This time around bassist Panagiotis Andreou stayed within himself, then playing a fiery horn line when the time came to introduce the next number. Kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi added a dark, spiky and spicy intensity. Then they brought up Sesler and the crowd went wild – how refreshing to see a bunch of American kids screaming for a balding, middleaged Turkish guy. It was a summit meeting, absolutely fascinating to witness, especially listening to the contrasting timbres of the two clarinetists when they doubled each others’ lines. Sesler has dazzling speed but maintains a confident, round tone that made a vivid contrast with Lumanovski’s restless, burning style. The effect was even more striking when the two alternated solos. Coltrane he may not be (Miles Davis is the more obvious comparison), but he is unquestionably a talent who should be far better known here than he is.

 

The “legendary trumpeter of the klezmer underground,” as the promoters aptly billed Frank London, may have played earlier, or later (it was pretty much pandemonium upstairs, with the line all the way around the block); it was impossible to tell. It would come as a shock to find out that his set had been anything short of outstanding as well. By two in the morning, the crowd hadn’t thinned, still bopping to the pan-Balkan Mehanata-style mix that the dj was spinning, but for those who’d been running around to concerts and galleries all day, it was time to call it a night.

April 15, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Goran Alachki at Drom, NYC 1/20/09

If people in New York were celebrating the Obama inaugural, they were doing it in private. Tuesday night downtown was dead. You know you’re in a depression when a cult artist like Goran Alachki plays a rare New York show at one of the best clubs in town and the place isn’t sold out: it may have been a cold night, but the Macedonian accordionist/composer is a star on the Balkan circuit, and for his fan base here, a live gig is a big deal. But Alachki didn’t let it phase him. He was here to celebrate, and if the club had let him, he would have played all night, turning the crowd who did show up into a sea (ok, a little pond) of bouncing, twirling bodies and ripping through one devilishly tricky dance after another until the pickup rhythm section assembled for this gig was clearly out of gas.

 

Alachki plays with sensational speed and a crisp, staccato attack much more like a horn player than a keyboardist. It’s a unique style, and he’s made it his drawing card, firing off volley after volley of perfectly articulated notes rather than (with the exception of the twenty-minute partita that began the set) any lengthy chordal excursions. Most of his exhausting, almost two-hour set was dance material, the songs typically beginning with a bright major-key interlude before descending in a split second into darker, Middle Eastern timbres. The Balkans are where a multitude of compelling styles, with Spain beckoning in the distance on one end and Asia minor on the other, came together over the centuries, the eerie glimmer of Turkey and the Middle East sometimes in the background, sometimes completely taking over the melody. Some of what Alachki and his remarkably tight, talented backing unit – clarinetist Bajsa Arifovska, Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar bassist Reuben Radding, and percussionist Seido Salifoski – played would have been perfectly at home in an Egyptian movie from the 50s. Other songs had a mournful, deliberatedly paced klezmer feel. Still others had a Mediterranean sunniness, if only til the tempo shifted and suddenly the sky darkened.

 

As aggressive and adrenalizing a player as Alachki is, the night’s biggest crescendos all belonged to Arifovska. Although what they were playing was obviously composed through, there was a great deal of improvisation going on. As a clarinetist, she plays with a dark, wary, full tone, very often doubling the accordion lines. But when she got the chance to go out on her own, she brought the sound to redline. On several occasions, she rode out an insistent wail until the rest of the band could only play along and wait for the fever pitch to subside, for her to come down out of the stratosphere. She also played electric piano on a few songs, as well as bass drum. Alachki also impressed with a song he played on four-string lute (another big star turn for Arifovska).

 

After about an hour of instrumentals (including a marvelously witty cameo by Stagger Back Brass Band accordionist/bandleader Patrick Farrell), Alachki brought his wife Adrijana up to do vocals and it wasn’t long before she had the crowd line-dancing in perfect time: while many in the audience were clearly not Macedonian speakers, she went for a few singalongs and managed to pull in the crowd at every turn. Then she went out for a smoke, and the band went back to instrumentals. For those who might regret missing this show, no worries, this same band is playing Hungarian House, 213 E 82nd St. on 1/23 at 8 for $12.

January 21, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Ljova and the Kontraband – Mnemosyne

As richly captivating as it is innovative, the only problem this New York band’s mostly instrumental debut cd poses is one of categorization. There’s a jazz rhythm section, accordion and layers of strings and melodies here that veer between classical, Russian dances, klezmer and Balkan traditional songs, many with a decidedly cinematic feel. All this should come as no surprise since frontman/violist Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin is a Russian-born composer who gets a lot of film work. In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne is the arch-muse and goddess of memory; there is also a river in Hades named Mnemosyne which serves as the opposite of the Lethe (from which dead souls were supposed to drink to forget their past lives).  While there’s certainly an otherworldly quality to some of this, most of it has an inspired improvisational vibe. This is a very playful group. There’s a great deal of communication and jousting between members, passing the baton, running relays and jumping out from behind things unexpectedly, and it sounds like everyone is having a great time.

 

The cd’s first cut, Mathias, seems to be a barnyard scene, opening with samples from a chicken coop and building to fast dance featuring Patrick Farrell’s accordion before an almost bop breakdown. The stately, accordion-driven title track features Ljova’s wife Inna Barmash (frontwoman of the wild Balkan party band Romashka) singing a nostalgic lyric by late 19th Century poet Trumbull Stickney, her voice ringing out with characteristic bell-like clarity up to big, lushly orchestrated crescendo. Walking on Willoughby effectively captures a bustling walk through downtown Brooklyn – or Paris, since Farrell approaches it as a musette, bassist Mike Savino walking a brisk 6/8 beat.

 

The most cinematic of the cuts here, Love Potion, Expired is a frenetic dance tense with anticipation that becomes evocatively furtive. Koyl (Yiddish for “bullet”) is a mournful, vengeful ballad sung by Barmash with some gorgeously restrained trumpet work from Frank London over a bed of strings and accordion ambience. The next two cuts, How Easily I Get Lost and Less both have something of a hypnotic afrobeat feel. The cd’s single best number is Untango, Uli Geissendoerfer’s piano’s vivid and rain-streaked with guest accordionist William Schimmel providing a perfect backdrop. There’s also a slow, percussive, haunting instrumental as well as a brisk klezmer dance, a mélange of latin and Balkan with a clever musical quote, and even a showtune (albeit one which doesn’t do the band or its singer justice). Live, the band definitely picks it up a notch, and has a considerably larger repertoire than this cd alludes to. If the members can find sufficient time to keep this band active – they’re all involved with other, excellent projects – the Kontraband’s ceiling is enormously high. They’re fun enough to win over the Gogol Bordello crowd, while their prodigious chops and imaginative genre-bending will draw in all the Kronos Quartet fans. Discover them before they’re samizdat. Ljova and the Kontraband’s next gig is Dec 13 at the Stone.

November 4, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment