Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ljova & the Kontraband: Playful Fun and Riveting Intensity at Symphony Space

In an email the day before his show last night at Symphony Spaace, composer/violist Ljova Zhurbin described his ensemble the Kontraband as being “wry, fierce and ready.” Which is a considerable understatement, given that their set  included several eclectic, evocative film pieces; a lullaby; western Ukrainian klezmer songs; a couple of jazzy gypsy numbers; a brand-new rock anthem; and a ukulele-style arrangement of a Mahler symphonic theme for solo viola. Zhurbin happens to be one of the world’s foremost violists; there isn’t a symphony orchestra or string quartet that wouldn’t be happy to have him. But he’d rather write film scores and lead this dazzlingly cosmopolitan string band, this time out featuring accordion virtuoso Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and drummer/percussionist John Hadfield energetically and expertly filling in for the band’s Mathias Kunzli.

They opened with Blaine Game, a hypercaffeinated, trickily rhythmic, shapeshifting romp written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop in between jazz workshops that Zhurbin had been invited to teach there. They followed with Plume, a pensively swaying, lushly crescendoing atmospheric piece written for a documentary film about a World Cup competition for homeless European soccer players a few years ago. Then they launched into Love Potion, Expired, a boisteriously leaping, amusingly picturesque gypsy dance written, Zhurbin explained, when he was “moonlighting” in the gypsy band Romashka and had designs on the band’s frontwoman. Unlike the song’s storyline, this one ended well: the two ended up marrying, and with that, he brought his wife Inna Barmash to the stage for a series of intense, often harrowing klezmer numbers. Barmash is gifted with a diamond-cutter soprano; how subtly yet powerfully she weilds it is viscerally breathtaking to witness. They began with a sad waltz done as a duo between the couple, a vengeful dirge titled Koyl (Yiddish for “bullet” – you can guess the rest) and a couple of bitingly expressionistic, minor-key settings of poetry from across the ages. The most gripping of those was an early medieval German poem (retranslated wonderfully from Russian by Barmash) which commented caustically on a decline of civility and civilization that, as Zhurbin alluded, potently echoes our own era.

Not everything they played was that intense. Zhurbin brought out a couple of songs inspired by his two sons. Benjy, the oldest, got a playful, deviously joyous, bouncing number – if this portrait is accurate, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. His brother Yossi got a steady, more serioso song in the form of a lullaby, but with an amusing ending.

After the absolutely ridiculous Mahler theme and a darkly majestic, brand-new art-rock anthem, they wrapped up the set with the title track to the Kontraband’s absolutely brilliant 2008 album, Mnemosyne. It’s an increasingly angst-driven exploration of self-imposed exile: Barmash delivered goosebumps with her spun-silver wail as she took it all the way to the top of the final crescendo over Farrell’s rapidfire rivulets, Savino’s steady, incisive pulse and Zhurbin’s richly plaintive melodicism.. Zhurbin’s next New York show is with bassist Petros Klampanis’ excellent gypsy-flavored jazz group at Drom on Oct 11 at 7:30; the Kontraband will be at the Brooklyn Museum on  January 5 at 5 PM.

Advertisements

October 5, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, gypsy music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ljova’s New Cinematic Album – A Movie for the Ears

Virtuoso violist and film composer Ljova’s new album is a lot like the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack, but more emotionally diverse and ultimately not as dark. A cinephile since childhood, he includes pieces here which have appeared over the last couple of years in films by Francis Ford Coppola, James Marsh, Lev Polyakov and several others. Fans of gypsy music are probably wondering if this is the new Romashka album – well…no, although that charismatic and equally eclectic gypsy band is featured pretty spectacularly on side one (Ljova has arranged the album with a happy A-side, and a more brooding B-side that ends rather hilariously). It’s literally a movie for the ears: that these vignettes and longer set pieces stand up as well as they do without the visuals testifies to how strong they are. Ljova’s signature ironic humor is in full force here, although the strongest cuts are the darkest ones. Many of these scenes clock in at under two minutes, even less than one in several cases.

On many of these tracks, Ljova plays an invention he’s recently popularized, the famiola, a hybrid six-stringed viola whose tonal capabilities surpass those of a guitar. As a result, his own multitracked soundscapes take on an unexpectedly lush, orchestral sweep. Being Russian by birth, it’s no surprise that he tends to favor minor keys, although the stylistic range of these instrumentals (and a handful of vocal tunes) is amazing: a couple of bluegrass numbers (including one lickety-split romp with Ljova backed by Tall Tall Trees); several moody, classically-tinged set pieces; a stately baroque minuet that turns absolutely creepy a second time around; and an anxiously crescendoing theme that very cleverly morphs into something far less stressful in the hands of Romashka clarinetist Jeff Perlman. And guest guitarist Jay Vilnai imbues the most gripping track here, a noir tableau titled Midnight Oil Change, with a distant but ever-present Marc Ribot-style menace.

As varied and enjoyable as all these are, it’s the gypsy music that’s probably going to be uploaded the most: a big, climactic, triumphant scene; an expansive, trickily rhythmic anthem; a fragment of an old Ukrainian song delivered with chilling expertise by Romashka frontwoman (and Ljova’s better half) Inna Barmash; and a blithe, jazz-tinged theme that also goes completely creepy when they reprise it. And Ljova had the good sense to put a genial, Gershwinesque stroll in the hands of this band rather than doing it as chamber music, a choice that pays off deviously the first time around and absolutely diabolically the second. Put on headphones (not those stupid earbuds), close your eyes, watch the crazy characters in motion. Ljova’s next gig is with his folks, Russian song icons Alexander Zhurbin and Irena Ginsburg at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 on Jan 15, advance tickets are very highly recommended.

January 3, 2012 Posted by | classical music, gypsy music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit – A New Song

Exciting stuff.  In addition to playing guitar in boisterous NYC gypsy dance hellraisers Romashka, Jay Vilnai also leads this adventurous, innovative group. Its underpinnings are gypsy and Balkan music, but there’s a lot more to it than that: Ljova and the Kontraband, with their Russian, classical and jazz influences are a good comparison, although Vilnai’s songs are all instrumentals and with the guitar have more of a jagged, careening feel. Another good comparison is pan-Balkan juggernaut Ansambl Mastika, although Vilnai’s music has a less improvisational focus. This stuff is all about crescendos: pretty much everything eventually builds to some kind of big coda or whirling cauldron of sound, but it’s about how they get there, the fanning of the flames as much as the inevitable big blaze. Like many of the great blues guitarists (Matt Murphy particularly comes to mind), Vilnai plays a lot of horn lines and with the distortion on, giving him an incisive edge that stays just thisfar from total Balkan savagery, the effect is intense. While many of the songs here are very fast and fiery, nobody’s wasting any notes, a welcome touch. 

 

The title track jumps in, dizzying and polyrhythmic, ominous washes of distorted guitar building to a biting solo replete with evil chromatic percussive intensity. That feel recurs dramatically from time to time throughout the cd. The second cut, Serpent Dance is authentically serpentine, winding, twisting and jazzy. The sarcastically titled Lento evokes Ljova & the Kontraband, pretty pastoral violin from the reliably excellent Skye Steele followed by edgy rumbling guitar into a jazzily expansive solo that gets all pretty and anything but lento!

 

The bouncily stark Jasmine kicks off with cello and resolute 8th-note guitar, growing darker as Vilnai goes up the scale. And then there’s a frenetic, out of breath clarinet solo from the band’s reed man, Greg Pickard. Tabur, with its tricky, rattling rhythm under ambient strings builds to a typical crescendo and a nice bass solo as the string section goes crazy in a whirling cauldron of noise. The cinematically-tinged Marketplace morphs from a pretty much straight up Bulgarian dance, casual and midtempo into a sizzling Balkan guitar solo followed by a more astringent one by Steele. The most overtly jazzy number here, Circe features Vilnai getting all frenetic yet precise in something of an Allan Holdsworth mode followed by some playful eeriness from Pickard, the spaces between the notes just as ominous as what’s being played. Arguably the best song on the cd, Shelter Me Beneath Thy Pinion gets going with an ominous buildup, whirling strings, cymbals and some understatedly slashing chordal work from Vilnai into a completely savage Middle Eastern jazz/metal solo, another wild crescendo with the strings screaming and then a long, strange, atmospheric outro. If the band is half as good live as they are on this cd they must be amazing in concert. Watch this space for NY area live dates.

April 29, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment