Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Darkly Eclectic Composer Jay Vilnai Releases His Most Haunting Album

Guitarist Jay Vilnai is one of Brooklyn’s most individualistic, consistently interesting composers. Over the years, he’s led a fiery Romany-rock band, Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit and made acerbic chamber music out of Shakespearean poetry. He’s also the lead guitarist in another wild, popular Slavic string band, Romashka. His latest album, Thorns All Over – a collection of new murder ballads with text by poet Rachel Abramowitz, streaming at Bandcamp – is one of his best projects so far. In fact, it could be the most lurid, Lynchian indie classical album ever made. Vilnai is playing the album release show at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint on June 6 at 7 PM, leading a trio with violinist Skye Steele and singer Augusta Caso. Cover is $15.

The allbum’s Pinter-esque plotline follows a series of jump cuts. Likewise, the rhythms shift almost incessantly, enhancing a mood of perpetual unease. Vilnai layers eerily looping piano, desolately glimering tremolo guitar and evil, twinkling vibraphone up to a savage crescendo in the album’s opening track, The Lake: it’s all the more haunting for how quietly and offhandedly the narrator relates what happens along the shore that night.

Vilnai builds a skronky maze of counterpoint in tandem with Reuben Radding’s bass in A Woman or a Gun, a surreal mashup of what could be Ted Hearne indie opera, John Zorn noir soundtrack tableau and Angelo Badalamenti taking a stab at beatnik jazz.

“I took her to the dark forest to see if she would light the way,” violinist and singer Skye Steele intones over gloomy pools of piano, as the band make their way into The Forest. A chamber ensemble of Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Ben Holmes on trumpet, Katie Scheele on English horn, David Wechsler on alto flute build a gently fluttering tableau, a sarcastic contrast with the story’s ugly foreshadowing.

A ghostly choir – Quince Marcum, Laura Brenneman and Jean Rohe – join in an echoing vortex behind Steele’s stately angst in Heartbreak. Vilnai layers grim low-register guitar, coldly starlit piano and enveloping atmospherics in the title track, up to a squirrelly mathrock crescendo amd slowly back down: this love triangle turns out to be a lot stranger than expected.

The album’s macabre final diptych is The Night We Met: Noriega’s moody clarinet rises over creepy, lingering belltones, Vilnai’s minimalist guitar lurking in the background. It concludes as a glacially waltzing dirge. Count this as one of this year’s most haunting and strangest records: you’ll see it on the best albums of 2019 page here in December.

 

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May 27, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ansambl Mastika’s Second Album is Raw Adrenaline

Combining the raw power of gypsy punk with the precision of jazz, Ansambl Mastika’s new album Songs and Dances for Life NONSTOP is literally the best of both worlds. They call their sound the “new Balkan uproar.” It’s got the same instrumentation as the pop music currently coming out of the Balkans, but without the wanky fusion sound or stiff, robotic, computerized rhythms that plague so much of it. Reedman Greg Squared leads the band on clarinet and tenor sax, with unearthly speed and relentless intensity: his formidable chops obviously draw deeply on legends like Ivo Papasov and Husnu Senlendirici. The rest of the band displays a similar blend of ferocity and virtuosity. Ben Syversen – whose unhinged, assaultive noiserock/jazz album with his band Cracked Vessel was one of 2010’s best – plays trumpet, along with Matthew Fass on accordion, Joey Weisenberg on electric guitar, Reuben Radding on bass and Matt Moran on percussion. These are long songs, typically clocking in at seven minutes or more – more than anything, Ansambl Mastika haven’t forgotten that what they play is dance music.

The opening track, Zurlaski Cocek (a Greg Squared original) sets the stage for what’s to come. It begins with a suspenseful clarinet solo into a long, burning vamp, a triumphant solo from Syversen, and a big reggae-tinged crescendo roaring with bass chords that the clarinet finally launches into whatever’s out there past the stratosphere. They bring it down a little bit afterward with a biting, Cypriot-flavored traditional Greek medley with some interesting flamenco rhythms, stately ambience from Fass and distant menace from the clarinet again. The Turkish-themed march Mahkum Efe is something of an Istanbul street scene through the mist, with a powerfully building trumpet solo from Syversen. And the Slovenian Memede Zlatna Ptica has the feel of a classic, anchored by fat, crescendoing bass and a long, smoldering sax interlude.

A collaboration with the innovative all-female Brooklyn Bulgarian folk choir Black Sea Hotel, Ispukav Poema sets Ruzica Apostolova’s Macedonian lyrics to lushly otherworldly four-part harmonies that soar over a catchy, jangly turbo-folk tune. Nova Zemja is a brilliantly bizarre, eclectic mash-up of surf music, psychedelic rock and Serbian brass with a raga undercurrent: it might be the best song on the album. A dramatic, dark duo of Macedonian songs features some neat harmonies between Greg and Rima Fand (who has an exciting new project setting Frederico Garcia Lorca poems to music); a couple of Turkish numbers veer from wry wah funk to scorching, melisma-driven exhilaration. The album ends with an irrepressible psychedelic rock arrangment (with cautionary English lyrics) of the old folk song Dafina – watch out, the girl’s dangerous! – and a hallucinatory, shapeshifting version of the Greek To Spiti kai o Dromos. All this is as exhilarating as it is eclectic. It may only be February, but right now it’s the frontrunner for best album of 2011. Watch this space and see where it lands in December.

February 11, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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