Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Ana Milosavljevic Plays a Compelling, Intense Program at Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center, Serbian-American violinist Ana Milosavljevic treated what looked like a sold-out room to a performance that was as intense as it was subtle. Playing both solo and duet pieces, she showed off a meticulously expert command of the instrument’s intricacies, which made the drama of her occasional cadenzas or rapidfire solo flights all the more effective. She’d chosen a terrific program of recent works by composers from home or close to it, opening with Katarina Miljkovic’s 2008 piece White City, a portrait of a rather horizontal Belgrade. Playing along to a soundtrack of found sounds from the streets there along with loops of motifs she’d just played, she made it an early morning tableau. A playful, kaleidoscopic video played behind her: facades of buildings and public spaces were warped into a wraparound shape to appear as faces, one amusingly crossing its eyes again and again (was that city hall, maybe?). Milosavljevic’s astringent overtones mingled deftly with the atmospherics as the still, ambient tone poem unwound, a display of subtle dynamics and timbre shifts punctuated by terse phrases that moved hypnotically and dubwise through the sonic frame.

Like the first piece, it became hard to tell what was live or looped on the next one, Aleksandra Vrebalov’s The Spell II, and maybe that was the point. Based on an Eastern Serbian melody made famous by the female vocal group Moba, it was music to get lost in, playful swoops and acerbic staccato phrases in a sort of call-and-response with the playback of motifs that had appeared earlier, a seemingly endless series of minimalist permutations that managed to be both incisive and hypnotic. The showstopper was Milosavljevic’s own song without words, the title track to her new Innova cd Reflections, a duet with pianist Kathleen Supové. Milosavljevic explained beforehand that it’s an evocation of “sadness and hope all at once.” Together, the violinist and pianist gave its stunningly memorable, brooding Satie-esque changes an understatedly raw lyricism, depicting an incessant cycle of pain and disappointment while trying not to lose sight of something slightly brighter. It was absolutely devastating, finally rising to an approximation of a crescendo the third time through the verse but ending enigmatically. If there’s any justice in the world, someday it will be as well known as the Chopin preludes, whose intensity and emotional wallop it matches.

Milosavljevic returned to electroacoustic mode with the program’s final work, Svjetlana Bukvich-Nichols’ Before and After the Tekke, a slightly more vigorous piece that once again paired fluidly airy, steely motifs against a backing track including pulsing bass, breathing, running water and eventually a compellingly anthemic crescendo played by a small ensemble or approximation thereof. Watching Milosavljevic pair off against all of this was interesting; watching her alongside all of this live would have been vastly more so. Although it can be a disaster onstage, running water can also be great fun to work with!

November 11, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Grneta Duo+ at Bechstein Hall, NYC 5/27/10

The concert was billed as something of a wild and crazy night, but it was as much about the strength and intelligence of the playing and the compositions as it was about raw excitement. The Grneta Duo+ dedicate themselves to preserving the dual clarinet tradition, which isn’t as uncommon as it might seem, particularly in eastern Europe. Clarinetist Vasko Dukovski won first prize at the International Woodwind Competition at Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, which in the clarinet world is sort of the equivalent of being named guitarist of the year at jambase. His fellow reedman and Juilliard pal Ismail Lumanovski is one of the world’s foremost improvisers in any style of music, perhaps most notably with the New York Gypsy All-Stars. The “+” in the group is pianist Alexandra Joan, a perfect addition with her edgy intensity, confidently wide-ranging virtuosity and also a degree of gravitas. It’s not hard to imagine her in rehearsal: “C’mon, guys, let’s get serious.” As much as this was an evening of sophisticatedly tongue-in-cheek fun, there were just as many moments of flat-out, riveting power.

The trio opened with Bartok’s Romanian Dances, a suite of fairly simple themes that gave the clarinets plenty of opportunity to playfully blend and bend their tones. Dukovski and Joan would revisit a similar suite, Pablo de Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs later on, Dukovski airing out his upper register boisterously over Joan’s cantabile glimmer. The first of two world premieres, Gerald Cohen’s Grneta Variations very cleverly worked permutations of a cantorial theme (without any particular liturgical connotation, the composer explained beforehand). A recurrent fanfare with the clarinets grew with increasing degrees of disquiet, juxtaposed against a series of increasingly more comedic motifs; Joan handled her score’s tricky rhythms with a nimble aplomb worthy of Dave Brubeck.

Night at the Kafana, by Nicholas Csicsko was premiered by Lumanovski at Carnegie Hall last year. Interpolating several famous Balkan folk themes within a sometimes bracing, sometimes otherworldly architecture, it hinted at a dance, morphed into a big ballad and then a matter-of-factly nail-biting rondo that the duo of Lumanovski and Joan approached with a nonchalantly singleminded intensity.

Lumanovski then went off-program, leading Dukovski in an improvisation that awed the crowd: both clarinetists are Macedonian, so Dukovski was instantly, seemingly intuitively in on his bandmate’s sizzling, rhythmically dizzying flights, eventually moving from providing a pulse to join in the whirlwind of savage chromatic fun. The last two pieces were a study in contasts, Mohammed Fairouz’ Ughiat Mariam (another world premiere) stoically, stately and soulfully expanded on an understatedly brooding Arabic theme, while Serbian clarinetist/composer Ante Grgin’s Hameum Suite became a delightfully counterintuitive dialogue between two very distinct clarinet voices, Dukovski following Lumanovski’s most brilliantly blazing passage of the night with a suave deviousness, as if to say, “uh uh, that’s not how it’s done” and then picking up with the same lightning attack when least expected while Joan anchored the work with an unaffected plaintiveness. She’s a leading advocate of the music of George Enesco, and that influence could be felt strongly here.

May 29, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Boban i Marko Markovic – Devla: Blown Away to Dancefloor Heaven

Truth in advertising: Serbian brass legends Boban i Marko Markovic’s new album is a party in a box. The title, Devla, is an exclamation, sort of Serbian for OMG! Bandleader/flugelhorn player Boban Markovic and his trumpeter son Marko play blistering, rapidfire clusters of eerie gypsy harmonies, backed by accordion, clarinet and sometimes a real rhythm section, sometimes a synth and drum machine (the use of several different singers undoubtedly necessitated the use of multiple recording situations). Whatever the case, the power of the brass overshadows the occasional cheapness of the production [New Yorkers – if you wonder what they spin at Mehanata, this is it, you can take the party home with you now]. Most of the originals here are by Marko, and as a rule they are excellent, from an ominous, slinky vamp punctuated with astringent, microtonal reed solos, to the title track (a huge club hit – you’ve undoubtedly heard it if you’re into this stuff), to the machine-gun staccato of Hopa Cupa, to Kazi Baba with its mysterious bounce. A cover of a similarly bouncy Saban Bajramovic Balkan pop hit features a passionate, gritty vocal by Mustafa Sabanovic; Sofi Marinova’s vocal gives another dancefloor number a Madonna-goes-to-Sofia vibe. Of the low-key numbers, there’s a slow, stately swinging jazz orchestra tune with Cab Calloway-esque vocals by Ljubisa “Luis” Stojanovic – in Serbian. For those not familiar with the vernacular, the effect is bizarre yet heartwarming. There’s also a nice, soulful, expansively fluttering cover of an instrumental by Turkish clarinet god Husnu Senlendirici rearranged for brass. This album is intense enough to satisfy the most hardcore Balkan brass fan yet accessible enough to cross over to an international dance music audience: devla, this is fun!

January 13, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Beyond the Pale – Postcards

This is one of those great multistylistic Balkan-flavored bands which seem to be popping up all over the place. On their third excellent cd, Toronto-based Beyond the Pale (not to be confused with the Irish band of the same name) mix elements of klezmer, Eastern European folk and bluegrass for a completely original sound, alternately sizzling and haunting. String players Alekasandar Gajić and Bogdan Djukić and accordionist Milos Popović are Serbian; clarinetist Martin van de Ven is Dutch, bassist Bret Higgins and bandleader/mandolinist/cimbalom player Eric Stein (who also runs Toronto’s excellent Ashkenaz Festival) are Canadian: an unsurprisingly syncretic lot.

The dances here set frequently blazing, modern solos with an occasional rock edge flying over rustically-flavored melodies (Stein is particularly adept at this). There are two tangos, one more upbeat and intricate than the other, yet both share the clever interplay between instruments that pervades most of the album. There’s also a fluttery, heartfelt original arrangement of an old Jewish ngunim (liturgical melody) and a couple of noirish, klezmer/cabaret vocal numbers, one with a bracing cimbalom solo from Stein.

Katarina, with its staccato violin, bubbly clarinet and wistful accordion plays over some tricky changes, building to a nostalgic crescendo of strings. Gajic’s Back to the Beginning, written under the bombs in Belgrade is swinging but stark, with a jazzy, somewhat Jean-Luc Ponty-esque feel. One of the cleverest numbers here, Turkish Delight is actually a cover, a strikingly captivating, haunting reworking of a Levantine-inflected dance tune by 1950s schlockmeister/innovator Irving Fields originally released on the legendary cassette-only album of cruise ship instrumentals Melody Cruise Around the World. The album winds up with a darkly atmospheric accordion tune, a Balkan dance, a traditional doina and a brisk minor-key klezmer number. It’s fun, it’s pretty dark in places and you can even dance to much of this. Beyond the Pale have friends in high places (they played Theodore Bikel’s birthday party at Carnegie Hall); watch this space for New York dates.

August 11, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment