Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: The Fourth Annual Main Squeeze Accordion Festival

Forget All Points West or Lolapalooza if it should ever get here again: diehard fans with sufficient stamina (and water supply- it was overcast but pretty hot most of the day over by the river) to hang in through all seven acts on the bill at Pier One on the Hudson were treated to what might be the year’s best single-day outdoor New York music festival. Considering how much of a comeback the small but mighty accordion has made over the years here in the US, there was a sense of defiance and triumph in the air.

The opening act, Musette Explosion is a tremendously good side project from accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri – they do this gig a few times a year when there’s time, and given how much fun everybody onstage was having, it’s something of a surprise they don’t do it more often. Backed by bass saxophonist Scott Robinson, they ran through an alternately haunting and bouncy mix of swing-inflected French and Belgian instrumentals from mostly the 1930s and 40s. The highlight of the set, as usual, was Jo Privat’s eerie La Sorciere (The Witch), Munisteri weaving his way into a ferocious tremolo-picked solo on banjo. A Holshouser original, Chanson Pop built to a lushly plaintive, unaffectedly dramatic Baroque-inflected anthem. This group usually plays with a tuba, but Robinson made a great fit: blazing solos aren’t something you expect from a bass sax, but this guy delivered, particularly on the opening number, Gus Viseur’s swaying Swing Valse.

Mexican norteno band Suspenso del Norte were next, seemingly a project of the Javier family of Queens: father Pablo on guitar and lead vocals with his twelve-year-old son on button accordion along with a second guitar and rhythm section. What they play is essentially Mexican country music, with the same kind of swinging backbeat as what used to come out of Nashville before it became the hometown of lame pop-rock about fifteen years ago. Mixing popular hits along with originals, they connected with the small expat contingent who’d come out to see them, the powerfully built young accordionist supplying effortlessly fast, soulfully bubbling leads.

Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet took the dance vibe into intense, wrenchingly passionate territory. With Del Curto on bandoneon, Gustavo Casenave on piano, Pedro Giraudo on upright bass along with an inspired cellist and violinist, they mixed originals and classics, from a stately, haunting version of the traditional Argentinian tango El Choclo to a fast yet lush take of the Piazzolla classic Libertango. Another Piazzolla composition, Michaelangelo #17 bristled with stormy bandoneon and string flourishes; an original, Emancipacion built suspense with a martial beat and some vivid interplay between piano and bandoneon, a device that Del Curto employed very effectively and evocatively through the set’s brooding ebbs and aching swells.

The Main Squeeze Orchestra were next: being the pet project of Walter Kuhr, proprietor of the Main Squeeze accordion center on Essex St., this is an annual event for the all-female twelve-accordion group. It was a characteristically playful, tongue-in-cheek yet also virtuosic and fascinatingly arranged performance. They got the schlock out of the way first – no matter how much you polish a turd, there’s not much you can do with the Eurythmics or Michael Jackson. “This is a happy song about love,” announced one of the women, taking a turn on vocals on an oompah version of the Joy Division classic Love Will Tear Us Apart. They reinvented Misirlou as a tango and Hava Nagila as a hora, seguing into a happy, upbeat wedding dance. The Kinks’ Demon Alcohol was as amusingly over-the-top as usual; they closed with their deliciously deadpan, full-length version of Bohemian Rhapsody. Maybe if we get lucky they’ll do Freebird next year.

Italian composer/accordionist Roberto Cassan and classical guitarist John Muratore followed with a fascinating, cutting-edge program that spanned from a couple of swinging yet pensive Piazzolla compositions originally written for guitar and flute, to a darkly expansive instrumental by a contemporary Cuban composer, two rousing Italian tarantellas and a long opening number with echoes of both Celtic music and bluesy Hot Tuna-style improvisation.

The big hit of the festival was Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica, who absolutely slayed with a wildly danceable set of merengue. Parra delivered lightning-fast rivulets on his button accordion, sometimes trading off with the band’s excellent sax player, who matched him note for note on some pretty crazy trills. Along with a harmony singer,  they had a rhythm section including congas, cajon and bass drum along with a five-string bassist who stole the show, punching in booming chords to bring a phrase to a crescendo, adding eerie atonal accents, liquid arpeggios and even some laid-back, unpretentious two-handed tapping when things got really sick. They took their time working in with a long intro, just accordion and the drums, then the bass hit a tritone and they went flying. La Mega Mafia Tipica’s merengue is party music, first and foremost: they don’t sing much except on the choruses. This set had a bunch of deliriously hypnotic two-chord jams, bass behind the beat for a fat, seductive groove. They’d shake up the rhythm in places, accordion and sometimes the bass playing three on four for an extended vamp. The last song of the set had a trick ending that took pretty much everybody by surprise: of all the bands on the schedule, only la Mega Mafia Tipica got an encore because nobody wanted the party to stop.

That Slavic Soul Party accordionist Peter Stan and his four-piece backing band weren’t anticlimactic speaks for itself. Stan is something of the Balkan Rick Wakeman, blessed with unearthly speed and fond of playing a lot of notes. This time out he had his son Peter Jr. on chromatic button accordion, playing much like his dad, along with violin, synthesizer usually supplying the basslines and somewhat minimalist drums. By now, it was late, the rain was picking up and everybody except the growing line of dancers in front of the stage seemed pretty exhausted. But it was impossible to leave. Stan plays the kind of modern Balkan dance music you hear at Mehanata, a slick feel made slicker by the artificial bass sound of the synth. But the tunes are relentless and often haunting. He soloed his way from country to country, from Romanian gypsy to klezmer. The band mixed it up, from the happy, upbeat Serbian pop song Nishka Banya to the stately, sweepingly ornate original instrumental Gypsy Soul Fantasy to several edgy dance numbers sung by guest vocalist Bato the Yugo. It was an appropriately bracing way to wind up the evening. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates by all these bands.

July 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Katya Grineva – Love and Fire: The Dances

The latest album by self-described Romantic pianist and Carnegie Hall favorite (she’s playing there on June 12 at 8 ) Katya Grineva is a treat for fans of canonical 19th century favorites, proudly idiosyncratic and unabashedly individualistic. Grineva was seemingly born to play the Romantics, wringing plenty of angst and longing out of a mix of familiar standards, Piazzolla classics and a perhaps predictably but aptly emotional take of the Ravel Bolero. On both the Chopin Mazurka in A Minor and the Waltz in E Minor, she mines the dynamics for heart-tugging shifts that stop just this side of overwrought – yet, by contrast, she lets the Albeniz Tango breathe for itself, a smart move. Granados’ Planera Spanish Dance is likewise allowed to shimmer and gleam, at a tastefully stately pace.

Most impressively, it’s the Piazzolla that best draws out Grineva’s intensity. Adios Nonino, a requiem written right after the death of the composer’s father, is stoic yet wrenching. An abbreviated arrangement of the sprawling crazy-love anthem Balada Para Un Loco is considerably more blazing and percussive than the original, and Grineva careens through its louder passages like a woman possessed, after which Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dances makes a perfect segue. The Bolero alternates between slinkiness and impatience, a nice contrast to see in a piece where some performers find none at all.  

Grineva’s Carnegie Hall show this week is billed as a family-friendly event, lots of familiar standards by Debussy, Satie and Chopin and others delivered with characteristic verve: bring a 15-year-old friend, family member or someone who looks hopelessly underage, and they get in free with your paid admission.

June 9, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Maria Cangiano Sings Piazzolla at Drom, NYC 12/17/08

“We know nothing about classic tango here,” deadpanned Brooklyn-based chanteuse Maria Cangiano, and the crowd was instantly in on the joke. With her big, powerful contralto and a vibrato that she commanded with effortless ease, Cangiano was seemingly born to sing the Piazzolla songbook that she explores on her new cd. Wednesday night at Drom, she delivered a mix of iconic and obscure Piazzolla with dramatic intensity and a feel for the material that bordered on telepathic. But as much heavy lifting as there was going on, Cangiano saved her most dramatic flourishes, including a surprisingly impressive upper register, for those few moments where she had to take a crescendo and then deliver another one on top of that.

 

Cangiano’s inspired backing band changed shape as the show went on, with keyboards, bandoneon, violin, guitar, and upright bass in addition to two percussionists alternating between some of the songs. It didn’t take her long, just one song, before she left the world of tango for an obscure, straight-up pop ballad, airy, slow and somewhat skeletal as it built to a matter-of-factly eerie four-note coda. The following song dated from early in the great Argentinian composer’s career, morosely contemplating the thought of suicide at 6 AM after the party’s run its course.

 

The high point of the night was the haunting, anguished lament Ciudades (Cities), Cangiano insistent and imploring throughout its bitter refrain, love evaporating amid the inexorable passage of time and the immutability of the buildings towering overhead. She finally shook off the slinkiness of the earlier part of the set and took flight on a track from the 1965 collaboration album between Piazzolla and Jorge Luis Borges, the guitarist coloring the song with some warmly sparse acoustic slide work. Her version of El Sur (Going South) was perfectly paced, gently building from wistful and homesick to towering magnificence. They closed with a rare candombe given considerable fire and bounce by the two percussionists, the guitarist switching to electric and fueling the song with some swooping jazz lines.

Oddly, the only miss of the night was an instrumental, Libertango, the Piazzolla classic everybody knows, which sputtered along with exaggerated staccato. The song’s about freedom through dance, but this particular dance never found a place to stand and start to sway. Maria Cangiano’s next New York show is at half past noon at the Blue Note on Jan 25, two sets for the relatively low price of $25.

 

December 19, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Best Piazzolla in New York?

Always a hotly debatable question. On Monday afternoon, there couldn’t have been anything better. Should anyone claim that Argentinan bandoneon player and bandleader Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) wasn’t one of the greatest composers of alltime, the trio of Thomas Piercy (clarinet), Masataka Odaka (upright bass) and Claudine Hickman (piano) reaffirmed that brilliantly throughout their afternoon performance at St. Paul’s Chapel.

Throughout his career, Piazzolla was torn between two worlds, classical and traditional Argentinian tango. While living in New York as a boy he took piano lessons and discovered the joys and pleasures of Bach; later, in the 1940s, having returned to Argentina and established himself as a player and songwriter, he ventured deeply into jazz, incorporating that as well into his own unique vision. Perhaps because he had one foot in what was then considered pop culture, and the other in the all-so-serious world of classical music, Piazzolla’s music is stormy, often downright anguished. Most of his greatest works are in dark minor keys replete with tense, riveting crescendos and all sorts of drama, the ominous, flamenco-inspired beat always driving it on. The trio of Piercy, Odaka and Hickman brought out all of this but also the sunnier, jazzier side of the great composer in what was essentially an impressively inclusive overview of Piazzolla’s career.

Because Piazzolla was such a genre-bender, his music has been arranged for all different types of configurations, from rock bands (notably Big Lazy) to full orchestra to fusion jazz. Piercy’s often mournful clarinet, flying over Hickman’s tasteful, understated piano and Odaka’s insistent, pulsing bass brought out every bit of melody in the program. Because Piazzolla liked a big, lush sound, playing his bandoneon – a German accordion – with a full orchestra roaring behind him, tunes were occasionally subsumed beneath lavish arrangements. The opposite was the case here. The trio ran through the angst-driven, somewhat death-obsessed Oblivion, the misnamed Tango del Diablo (which begins with a big eerie cadenza before quieting down and building very subtly), Le Grand Tango (a beautiful, overtly classical mini-suite from late in Piazzolla’s career) and one of Piazzolla’s most popular and catchy compositions, Solitude, with confidence and sensitivity to even minute emotional shifts. They closed the almost hourlong program with his 1960s composition, the darkly and somewhat modernistic Tango Six, the somewhat wistful, classically-inflected Angel’s Tango and finally the surprisingly optimistic, jazzy Invierno Porteno (Winter in Buenos Aires). The crowd – a mix of retirees and office workers on their lunch break – were spellbound. If Piercy’s planned upcoming recording of Piazzolla works is anything like this, it’ll be amazing.

April 3, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments