Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubek Quartet with Simon Shaheen at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/5/09

In their New York debut, Iraqi-American trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar’s seventeen-piece Middle Eastern jazz orchestra the Two Rivers Ensemble were nothing short of transcendent. Since music in the Middle East goes back so many millennia, most attempts at melding jazz with music from the region have come out of the jazz arena. This particular ensemble comes at it from the opposite direction, layering a feast of tonalities from both hemispheres with the occasional jazzy flourish over a slinky, Levantine-style snakecharmer groove, at times evoking Mingus in their most darkly lush moments. The music was as hypnotic as it was otherworldly beautiful. ElSaffar began the show on santoor (a hammered zither that sounds almost identical to a kanun) before moving to trumpet and eventually vocals. The full orchestra, with trumpet, santoor, alto and baritone saxes, ney flute, trombone, guitar, upright bass, drums, percussion, vibraphone, kamancheh (spike fiddle), oud, lute and piano would come together as they reached a swell, but frequently there would be just a couple or small handful of musicians playing off each other intricately over the beat.

The first of their long pieces, which could be something of a suite, was a stately rollercoaster ride of dynamics, moving up and then down again with solos from bari sax and trumpet with starkly beautiful piano accents, fading down to the bass solo that would eventually start the next composition. That one had an even more otherworldly feel, caught somewhere in limbo between major and minor but resolving to neither, lit up by a gorgeous oud solo played against the beat and another by the guitarist, moving from the Levant to gently incisive, staccato blues. Guest vocalist Gaida – a pioneer and a star in her own right – contributed heartfelt, shimmering vocalese on a couple of the latter pieces, the last – a fanfare and the night’s most overtly jazzy number – in tandem with ElSaffar. Considering how fascinating the solo spots were, it would hardly be fair to single out only a few of the players, but it was also impossible to keep up with ElSaffar’s band intros at the end to figure out who was playing what. Of those, Michael Ibrahim’s straightforward ney flute and practically macabre zurna (Turkish oboe) playing, Vijay Iyer‘s wirewalking piano work and ElSaffar’s own microtonal trumpet were especially captivating. ElSaffar also has an intriguing project, Salaam, with his sister Dena – their auspicious new album comes out August 11, watch this space for a review. And just for the record, this is the culture that Dick Cheney, in his insatiable greed for oil, wanted to destroy.

Dave Brubeck is 89, so he can do whatever he wants. Yet the jazz piano icon remains as deviously shapeshifting and fascinating as ever. He and his quartet had just been in Washington where there’d been an Ellington festival going on, and since Duke is Brubeck’s hero they took a stab at Take the A Train and reinvented it with characteristic passion and nuance. As usual, they messed with the time signature – a couple of particularly poignant 6/8 passages led by the piano – when bassist Michael Moore wasn’t pushing it along with a growling, hypnotic power, or when alto player Bobby Militello wasn’t giving it a warm, sailing vibe. After they’d run through the head the last time, Brubeck added a cleverly playful little fugue between the left and right hands. Brubeck has always been more about substance and innovation than flash, so if he’s lost some speed, it hardly makes a difference: the swing, the ideas, the timing and the voicings are as vital as ever.

Swanee River got a similar treatment, shifting subtly from poignancy to exuberance, Militello leading the charge. It’s a Raggy Waltz was similarly, warmly expansive, Brubeck pulling out the hooks and then reassembling them, drawing in his bandmates when everything was back together. This group has been a Lincoln Center Out of Doors institution for over a decade, and among their notable concerts are a handful of collaborations with the extraordinary Armenian oud player George Mgrdichian. It was no surprise, then to see the equally extraordinary oudist/violinist/composer Simon Shaheen join them for a couple of numbers. He played oud on the first, a murky, atmospheric tune that didn’t really come together, and it didn’t help that Militello stepped all over him before finally realizing that he’d overswung, finally taking a seat after all that exertion. They closed with a spirited Take Five, Shaheen adding subtle textures and harmonies on violin in tandem with the sax. How they manage to keep that one fresh after all these decades is testament to both the song and the quality of the crew that played it last night.

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August 6, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

An Astonishing Debut from the Next World Music Star

Remember this name: Mavrothi Kontanis. You heard it here first. In a remarkably ambitious and even more remarkably successful display of musicianship, scholarship and archivism, oud virtuoso Kontanis is simultaneously releasing two brilliant albums of Greek songs, with a cd release show at Alwan for the Arts this Friday, June 13 at 9. The first, Sto Kafesli Sokaki is an alternately haunting and rousing collection of Greek, Turkish and Cypriot songs from the 1920s and 30s influenced by the influx of refugees from Turkey who brought their slinky shakecharmer music with them in the years after World War I. The second, the ironically titled Wooden Heart also includes a mix of sensationally good, vintage obscurities along with several equally superb original songs. While Kontanis’ core audience will obviously be those who speak the Greek and Turkish of the lyrics on these two cds, any adventurous listener, anywhere in the world will find each of them an irresistible melodic feast. It’s impossible to imagine anyone hearing one of these albums without wanting the other.

As a player, Kontanis has sensational chops: he’s in the same league as Simon Shaheen, but more terse, less inclined to wild excursions than meticulously plotted conspiracies among the notes. More often than not, he leaves it to the band to embellish the melodies, especially violinist Megan Gould, who serves as lead instrumentalist for the most part here since many of the songs on Sto Kafesli Sokaki are basically a duo between her and Kontanis. Clarinetist Lefteris Bournias – whose breathtaking, lightning-fast solo on Arapina, from the first cd shows off his scorching chops – with politiki lyra player Phaedon Sinis and somewhat ubiquitous percussionist Timothy Quigley (who propels the delightfully fun Chicha Libre) round out the cast.

Disabuse yourself of any preconceptions you may have about Greek music: this isn’t what you’d typically hear in your average taverna in Astoria on a Saturday night. Rather, it harkens back to the era just before the psychedelic, hash-smoking, politically charged music known as rebetika emerged in the Greek resistance underground in the late 20s and 30s. Both the originals and the covers on these two albums blend the hypnotic ambience of Levantine dance music with the often savage chromaticism of Turkish and gypsy music, set to a tricky, circular Mediterranean beat. Most of it is dark and pensive: highlights of the first cd include the viscerally anguished Armenita as well as Etsli Marika Dhehome, featuring a pointillistically incisive solo from Anastassia Zachariadou on kanun (a sort of Mediterranean zither, similar to the cimbalom, played with mallets to produce a pinging, staccato sound, like an amplified harpsichord but with more reverb). Ouzo is a deliberately maudlin number, Kontanis’ amusingly over-the-top vocal rendition of the narrator’s beer goggles (or, in this case, ouzo goggles) making them obvious even to non-Greek speakers.

Wooden Heart (referring to what an oud is made of) is where Kontanis’ heart is, an equal display of soul and chops. The opening cut, Wooden Kite soars and crescendoes imaginatively; Kontanis opens the shape-shifting, violin-fueled original Nikriz Longa with a thoughtful, incisive taksim (solo improvisation) as he does onstage with most of his material, including the following instrumental Ushak Saz Semal.

To Kontanis’ immense credit (at least to Western ears), it’s next to impossible to distinguish his originals from the archival gems on these albums (where he found them is anyone’s guess – and probably the equivalent of a doctorate worth of digging). For fans of great bands like Magges, Luminescent Orchestrii and the aforementioned Simon Shaheen’s older work, as well as anyone caught up in the gypsy music craze, both these cds are must-owns. What the Silk Road Ensemble was to the early zeros, Kontanis is to the later part of this decade, a master of many styles but most of all his own, for that reason one of the most exciting new artists to come around in the last several years.

June 10, 2008 Posted by | folk music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment