Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence in the Face of War and Conflict from Kinan Azmeh’s City Band

This week is Global Week for Syria. Over seventy artists around the world are performing to help raise awareness and help the citizens of war-torn Syria. Brilliantly individualistic Syrian-born clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh contributed to the cause with a matter-of-factly transcendent show last night with his City Band – acoustic guitarist Kyle Sanna, bassist Josh Myers and drummer John Hadfield – at National Sawdust.

Last week at Spectrum, Azmeh and guitarist Erdem Helvacioglu played a harrowing duo set of cinematically crescendoing, ominously enveloping themes meant to depict the trauma of life under repressive regimes. This performance was far more lively but had Azmeh’s signature, direct, purposeful melodicism, simple riffs with artfully elegant orchestration set to kinetically shapeshifting grooves. The most spare material had an Andalucian feel: imagine the Gipsy Kings but with trickier meters, depth and unpredictable dynamics in place of interminable cheer. The slowest numbers were the most traditionally Middle Eastern-flavored; the most upbeat featured purposeful solos from everyone in the band, drawing as deeply on psychedelic rock as they did jazz.

The opening song set Azmeh’s moody low-midrange shades over sparse guitar and bass, then picked up with an emphatic flamenco-tinged pulse, Sanna’s judiciously exploratory solo bringing to mind Jerry Garcia in “on” mode until Azmeh took over and sent it sailing through an insistent, crashing crescendo.

The second number, by Myers, had echoes of Eastern European klezmer music as well as Mohammed Abdel Wahab and spiraling flamencoisms. Sanna contributed an austere, catchy tune that built enigmatic variations on what could have been an Elizabethan British folk theme, his guitar rising from plaintive, Satie-esque spaciousness to tersely energetic single-note lines.

Little Red Riding Hood, inspired by a cruelly aphoristic, recent Syrian poem, evoked the lingering shock and angst of wartime displacement. November 22, inspired by Azmeh’s first experience of an American Thanksgiving weekend, looked back with a mix of nostalgia and longing to places and eras erased by bombs and combat. Sanna set up Azmeh for a wild upward swoop and then flurries of suspenseful microtonal melismas. on a shapeshifting anthem meant to evoke the wildness and unpredictability of Syrian village wedding music. They closed by debuting a somber, pensive new song that Azmeh said he’d only written a couple of days previously. dedicated to the small town in the green belt outside of Damascus where Azmeh had spent a lot of time as a kid and which until very recently had been under siege, with barely any access to food or supplies. Azmeh’s next performance is in San Antonio on May 15 to kick off his US/European tour.

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April 18, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Middle Eastern Jazz Alchemy at the Asia Society

Four brilliant and individualistic musicians brought a riveting confluence of very disparate traditions to the cutting edge of 21st century Middle Eastern music Saturday night at the Asia Society. The world premiere of Sound: The Encounter featured Iranian bagpiper/reedman Saeid Shanbehzadeh played wry extrovert to Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub‘s unwavering intensity while percussionist Nagib Shanbehzadeh (son of Saeid) served as linchpin for the project, supplying grooves that were alternately slinky, stately and downright funky. Eclectic Philadelphia-based oud virtuoso Kenan Adnawi also made intricately ornamented and sometimes haunting contributions throughout the show. The material was a fascinating and esoteric mix of traditional vamps, pulsing original jazz and a lively, intoxicatingly swirling blend of the two.

The backstory is that Rajoub and the elder Shanbehzadeh first encountered each other at the 2011 Shanghai World Music Festival, where each checked out the other’s show and realized that they should collaborate. Another random encounter on a Paris street jumpstarted a series of rehearsals, which followed over Skype. In developing their material, the bandleaders found considerable common ground, especially that each of their styles has a Bedouin influence, although that nomadic people’s music is sung in Farsi in Iran and in Arabic in Syria.

The players’ individuality rapidly emerged: Shanbehzadeh senior danced, cavorted, whirled and played his bagpipe (which looked like a headless, inflated sheep) on his head, Hendrix style. Rajoub’s steely focus and steady gravitas matched with the sometimes somberly booming, sometimes hypnotically undulating, sometimes rapidfire percussion. Rajoub spent much of the show in the moody low registers of his tenor sax, playing what were essentially baritone lines with a spare, sober clarity while his reedman partner switched from bagpipe, to double-reed flute, to goat’s horn on the last number in the set with a shivery, trilling microtonal approach that brough to mind Moroccan jajouka music. His instruments supplied the lion’s share of the microtones that typically define Middle Eastern music; Rajoub’s attack was typically limited to the occasional bluesy, jazzy melisma.

The Shanbehzadehs hail from the port city of Bushehr in southern Iran, so it made sense that they’d open with a traditional fisherman’s song, which they turned into a subdued go-go groove with the bagpipe keening over it. Rajoub brought an absolutely noir slink to a brooding Rumi love poem; a bit later, they juxtaposed cool tenor sax against ecstatic flutework for an even more stark contrast, to illustrate another Rumi poem that could loosely be translated as “drunk on god/drunk on love.” Rajoub and Adnawi teamed up for an intricate, lively, conversational duo improvisation for soprano sax and oud. After inspiring plenty of spontaneous clapping and singing along, the trio encored with a rather radically reanimated but no less swinging take on the opening number, encompassing what were doubtlessly centuries of music while adding their own devious wit and energy.

December 9, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maqamfest – 2012’s Best Concert So Far

The first weekend after New Year’s in New York is the booking agents’ convention a.k.a. APAP, and most of the shows put on for conventiongoers are also open to the public. Because the artists performing are all auditioning for at least theoretically lucrative gigs, they’re usually at the top of their game. As a result, some of the year’s most extraordinary bills, and extraordinary performances, happen here, and this past weekend was no exception. While Winter Jazzfest on Saturday night and then Globalfest on Sunday – both part of the convention – had their moments, the best show of the weekend was the first annual Maqamfest at Alwan for the Arts.

The maqam trail, with its otherworldly microtones and eerie chromatics, stretches from northern Africa to central Asia, and across the Mediterranean to the Balkans. In a spectacularly successful attempt to cover as much ground as possible, the organizers assembled a diverse program including music from but not limited to Egypt, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and many points in between. Organizer Sami Abu Shumays – virtuoso violinist and leader of the first act on the bill, Zikrayat – took care to point out that while each group drew on centuries, maybe millennia of tradition, each added their own individual vision to the music. Middle Eastern cultures don’t typically differentiate between classical, and folk, and pop music as westerners do, anyway: over there, music is music, pure and simple.

In introducing the program, what Shumays omitted, maybe out of modesty, is that the players on the bill were not only some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians outside the Middle East: they’re some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians anywhere in the world. They make their home at Alwan for the Arts downtown, where a vital, cutting-edge scene has evolved. What the Paris salons of a hundred years ago were for classical, the 52nd Street clubs were for jazz in the forties and fifties and what CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s, Alwan for the Arts is for music from the Middle East now. Unsurprisingly, the acts on the bill each brought classical purism, jazzlike improvisation and some punk rock fearlessness too.

The most traditionally-oriented group was Safaafir. A trio led by Alwan music honcho Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena (virtuoso of the jowza fiddle and leader of the considerably different but equally exciting Salaam), Safaafir play hypnotically rhythmic, centuries-old Iraqi court music and folk songs. The band name means “coppersmiths” in Persian, which is fitting because that’s what the ElSaffars’ grandparents, and their parents before them, did in the Baghdad marketplace. For all the stateliness and split-second precision of the music, Safaafir gave it a jolt of energy, sometimes with a bounce, sometimes with an insistent attack courtesy of percussionist Tim Moore, locked in with the graceful arcs of the fiddle and Amir ElSaffar’s precise lines on santoor dulcimer (and also occasional, unaffectedly exuberant trumpet). Some of the songs had a trancelike, Indian tinge while others allusively referenced modes from the other side of the Euphrates.

The most western-sounding performance was by Gaida and her band. Many of the musicians on the program made multiple appearances, Amir ElSaffar playing torchy muted trumpet in this group along with the night’s most popular musician, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, with George Dulin on piano, Jennifer Vincent on bass, Zafer Tawil on oud and Hector Morales on percussion. The Syrian-born chanteuse has a minutely nuanced, warmly breathy delivery that looks back to iconic singers like Fairouz and Warda; like many of the instrumentalists over the course of the evening, she began a couple of songs with quietly spectacular, microtonally melismatic improvisations. Behind her, the band shifted effortlessly from bossa nova, to urbane saloon jazz, to vintage habibi singalongs and the most dramatic, impactful number in her all-too-brief set, a darkly apprehensive piano-driven ballad that evoked the more ambitious cross-pollinations of legendary Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers forty years ago.

The set that was the most cinematic (which happens to be the title of the band’s latest album) was delivered by Zikrayat (Arabic for “memories”). Their speciality is classic Egyptian film music from the 50s and 60s, along with originals that update this lush, slinky genre. This particular incarnation of the band featured Shumays accompanied by Abboushi, ney flute player Bridget Robbins, bassist Apostolis Sideris and percussionists Johnny Farraj and Faisal Zedan. Meanwhile, a trio of bellydancers twirled and dipped in front of them, managing to pull off a neatly choreographed balancing act without anyone in the tightly packed, sold-out crowd getting bumped. Through a trickily shapeshifting Mohammed Abdel Wahab mini-epic, a fetching Umm Kulthumm ballad delivered masterfully by guest singer Salma Habib, and another soulful number featuring young crooner Salah Rajab, the instruments blended voices and wove a magical tapestry of melody over beats that were as slinky as they were hypnotic. At the end, they abruptly switched from plaintive elegance to a stomping, ecstatically rustic, jajouka-ish folk tune that managed to be both ancient yet absolutely modern as it pulsed along with the percussion going full steam.

Maeandros, unlike what their name might imply, don’t meander: their oud-based Greek music is straightforward, soulful and frequently dark. Their connection to the rest of the acts on the bill is that they favor bracing Arabic maqams via music from the underground resistance movement in the 1930s as well as originals with the same kind of edgy intensity. Frontman Mavrothi Kontanis is a world-class oudist and a strong singer who conveys drama and longing without going over the top, but he’s a generous bandleader, leaving the spotlight mostly to violinist Megan Gould – whose pinpoint, precise, microtonal inflections wowed the crowd – along with clarinetist Lefteris Bournias. Bournias may not be a household name in the United States, but he’s one of the most sought-after reedmen in the world, especially in his native Greece, a truly Coltrane/Papasov-class soloist. Predictably, it was his rapidfire, flurrying, judiciously incisive soloing that stole the show, supersonic speed matched to an intuitive feel for where to employ it. The band’s set built an undulating, cosmopolitanally nocturnal ambience much as Zikrayat had done, Kontanis opening one number with a long, achingly crescendoing improvisation and ending the set with a brief, upbeat song featuring some blistering tremolo-picking.

With its funky rock rhythm section and electric bass, Abboushi’s genre-smashing band Shusmo – with Abboushi, Morales, Dave Phillips on bass and Zafer Tawil on percussion – rocked the hardest, covering a vast expanse of sonic terrain, from an understatedly scorching, intense take on an apprehensive Turkish folk melody, to a brief detour into stately western baroque, to hints of jazz, all with a purist, levantine undercurrent. With Bournias’ clarinet salvos bursting out alongside the clank of the buzuq and the hypnotic rhythmic pulse, they evoked another great New York group from ten years earlier, the Dimestore Dance Band, except with Arabic tonalities. Bournias used a long one-chord vamp to cut loose with his most feral, wailing solo of the night, Abboushi also wailing a lot harder than he had as a sideman earlier, particularly through a long, very welcome taqsim where like Bournias, he expertly spun furious clusters of chromatics spaciously and suspensefully, choosing his spots. As the clattering, rumbling grooves shifted unpredictably from funk, to rock, to less predictable tempos and then back again, the intensity was relentless.

The show ended with the Alwan Music Ensemble: Shumays, Abboushi, Farraj, Tawil (now on eerily reverberating qanun), Amir ElSaffar on both trumpet and santoor, George Ziadeh on oud and Cairo Opera star Ahmed Gamal on vocals, making his U.S. debut. It seems that Gamal had other things in mind than the set list Abboushi had come up with: with a little humming and a few cues beforehand, it was amazing to watch the band create a lush arrangement on the spot behind Gamal’s smooth but powerful baritone crooning and breathtaking microtonal inflections (where European opera is all about bombast, Arabic opera is built on subtleties). Gamal sang to the women in the crowd and then got everyone singing and clapping along with a joyous mix of swaying, popular Egyptian standards. Even after more than five hours of music, the crowd was ready for more: as ElSaffar had predicted before the show began, it was impossible to feel tired at this point.

January 10, 2012 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Gaida at BAM Cafe, Brooklyn NY 5/7/10

Syrian/American chanteuse Gaida’s new album Levantine Indulgence made a big splash in Middle Eastern music circles when it came out in March. Last night’s show made believers out of a largely local crowd that didn’t know what to make of her for the first few songs, but by about halfway through she had them dancing, clapping along and responding with an uninhibited joy. She’s a star on the way up. Fairouz is her big influence, but like Fairouz she doesn’t limit herself to one style – she’s taking emotion-drenched Middle Eastern art-song and pushing the envelope with it. Backed by a shapeshifting sextet including jazzy pianist George Dulin, upright bassist Jennifer Vincent (also of Pam Fleming’s all-female quartet) and acoustic guitarist Arturo Martinez along with sensationally good oud, percussion and buzuq players, Gaida delivered the songs in a crystalline high soprano that ranged from disarmingly coy to wrenchingly intense.

They started out with a jazz feel, sort of a habibi blues with distant echoes of Fairouz, a pensive story of unrequited love backed by just piano, guitar and bass. Gaida brought in the whole band for a swaying version of the levantine bossa nova of Illak Shi, taking the first of several vocalese improvisations with a melismatic attack that was as nuanced as it was poignant and on this song, downright heartwrenching.

A slow buzuq taqsim led into the slinky levantine anthem Dream, another cut from the new album, followed by the sly, metaphorically laden Almaya, the tale of a guy following a girl carrying her full bucket home from the village well. A couple of the songs had distinct latin tinges: an old Lebanese number from 1950 featuring some eerie, distantly glimmering piano from Dulin that wound up with understated menace as the outro wound down to just piano and guitar, and a scurrying, tangoish shuffle featuring another intense vocalese interlude. They also debuted a hypnotic, pensive new song written in rehearsal a couple of days before, frenetic buzuq trading off artfully versus casually strummed guitar and then vice versa. They wound up the set on a high note with a brisk, bouncy Yemeni song, the serpentine, anthemic Ammar (another standout track on the new cd) and encored with a standard that made yet another showcase for Gaida’s matter-of-factly plaintive, resonant vocal presence.The crowd wanted more but didn’t get it – and then joined the line for the cd table.

May 8, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge

Sometimes the Rough Guide albums have funny titles (how about the Rough Guide to Blues Revival, released in…2009?!?) For those of you who are wondering what on earth this one could be, good news, it’s not really a lounge album at all. Rather, the Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge is a compilation of some of the most interesting, cutting-edge, genre-blurring Middle Eastern flavored music from around the globe, along with some gorgeously familiar traditional sounds. As with the other Rough Guides over the past year, this one is a twofer including an excellent bonus cd by Algerian gypsy-rai songwriter Akim El Sikameya and his band.

If you’re a fan of this kind of stuff, the compilation will stretch your ears. The huge Lebanese hit Al Guineya by Ghazi Abdel Baki that opens it sounds like Leonard Cohen in Arabic, a tango with balmy sax, tasteful fingerpicked minor-key acoustic guitar and Abdel Baki’s sepulchral vocals. Hymn of the Sea by Palestinian chanteuse Rim Banna is slinky trip-hop with accordion and upright bass, evocative of a Stevie Wonder hit from the 70s. Lebanese oud virtuoso and longtime Marcel Khalife sideman Charbel Rouhana contributes Ladyfingers, a violin-and-oud instrumental like the Gipsy Kings. Arabic chanteuse Soumaya Baalbaki is represented by a beautiful habibi jazz song, followed by Emad Ashour’s solo cello taqsim, bracing, intense and in a maqam (scale) that’s not stereotypically Arabic.

Ishtar, of Alabina fame has a characteristically gypsy-inflected levantine dance-pop tune, contrasting mightily with trumpet innovator Amir ElSaffar’s almost bop-jazz instrumental and its boisterous conversation between his quartertone trumpet and a low-register ney flute. Mohamed Sawwah offers a murky piano-and-vocal ballad; there’s also Middle Eastern inflected Cuban son by Hanine y Son Cubano, an Iraquicized oud version of Johnny Guitar by the late oud legend Munir Bashir; the haunting, lush Jordanian harmonies of Dozan; a tersely fiery bouzouki solo by Mohamed Houssein, and Azzddine with Bill Laswell doing a gypsy melody as Morroccan trip-hop with spacey vocoder vocals!

The Akim El Sikameya cd is worth owning by itself and makes a nice bonus. The obvious comparison is Manu Chao, El Sikameya drawing on the native Algerian trip-hop rhythm with frequent gypsy guitar or accordion accents and more modern touches like oud played through a chorus box on the first track, and downtempo, loungey electric piano on another. They start one song out with what’s essentially Egyptian reggae, quickly morphing into a brisk gypsy dance; the later part of the album features some absolutely chilling, beautiful violin work. Another strong effort from the Rough Guide folks, who have really been on a roll lately and should definitely be on your radar if you’re a world music fan.

March 17, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Gaida – Levantine Indulgence

Syrian-born chanteuse Gaida’s debut cd has been highly anticipated in world music circles: for once, it’s a release which lives up to its hype. Her high, versatile voice with just the hint of a jazzy, smoky edge draws comparisons to Natacha Atlas, and like Atlas, she proves equally captivating not only at the levantine ballads intimated by the title, but also bossa nova and rock. What’s most notable is how she and the group behind her shift between styles, often mingling jazz and Brazilian motifs within a traditional levantine framework. As much as there may be tears close to her eyes, as she puts it, on many of these songs, there’s also joy and exuberance. When she became part of the scene at New York’s music mecca Alwan for the Arts, a who’s who of expatriate Middle Eastern musicians assembled around her. The band on the album is extraordinary – credits include Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and santoor, Bridget Robbins on ney flute, Johnny Farraj on riq, Tareq Abboushi on buzuq and Zafer Tawil on oud, qanun and percussion. In fact, the album’s title track may be its most disarmingly beautiful, a taqsim (improvisation) with Gaida’s fetching vocalese surrounded by wary qanun, percussion and even a terse upright bass solo.

The cd begins with a classic Mohammed Abdel Wahab style Egyptian ballad featuring ney flute and characteristically vivid trumpet accents from ElSaffar. Ammar picks up the pace with insistent buzuq and oud chords and a triumphantly ululating choir of women’s voices – and even a little piano for extra spice. Gaida’s most wrenchingly intense vocal here is on the imploring habibi jazz ballad Khaifa Uhibuka, which segues into a slinky levantine number featuring qanun and oud. There’s also a haunting piano-based European-style art-rock song (with Arabic lyrics), a swaying, upbeat one-chord groove number, a straight-up bossa song, and the majestic anthem Bint Elbalad, wrapping up the album with intense, darkly soulful solos from buzuk and trumpet once again. You’re going to see this on a whole lot of “best-of” lists at the end of the year, including ours. Gaida plays the cd release show on 3/21 at 6:30 PM at le Poisson Rouge, advance tickets are an absolute must because the show will sell out.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Layali El Andalus Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/1/08

Tonight the standing-room crowd in the little back room at Barbes were treated to the single best concert we’ve seen so far this year. It was a passionate, fascinating show. Performances by musicians who play traditional Arab music as expertly and emotionally as this group did tonight usually cost upwards of $50 at places like Symphony Space. Led by Moroccan singer/oud player Rachid Halihal, the all-acoustic sextet played a mix of mostly traditional dance numbers spanning the Arab world, including songs from Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and, obviously, Andalusia. With its extremely sophisticated counterpoint and microtonal scales, this stuff isn’t easy to play, but Layali El Andalus made it seem effortless. Interpolating a few sunnily upbeat, happily nostalgic numbers within a set of what was otherwise long, frequently hypnotic songs based on the haunting chromatic scale, it was a rare treat to witness a performance like this in such an intimate setting.

The setup of the band – oud, quarter-tone accordion, flute, violin and two percussionists – echoes the small combos used by pioneering composers like Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Said Darwish. Many of the songs they played tonight are popular standards, often lavishly orchestrated: one doesn’t often get to hear this material stripped down to its basics. Often, the band would pick up the tempo at the end of the song, flute player Daphna Mor letting out an eerily triumphant trill as the crescendo would rise to a peak. The individual musicians, including Bruno Bruzzese on violin, Uri Sharlin on accordion, and two percussionists, all got to take extended solos, unanimously proving to be terse, incisive, thoughtful players: this group doesn’t waste notes. Halihal is something of a ham: while re-tuning his oud after each song, he’d improvise on the next song’s melody until everything was on key. His attempts to get some audience participation going met with mixed results. Though he tried strenuously to get the men and women in the crowd to sing a call-and-response with each other on one number, this fell flat – perhaps they didn’t understand, or they were simply unfamiliar with what’s actually a common device in traditional Arab music. But by the end of the show anyone with enough room on the floor to dance (or at least sway a little bit) was doing that while clapping along ecstatically. The best-received song of the night was a richly melodic version of the original Ya Rayyeh (Let’s Party), best known to today’s listeners as French-Algerian rocker Rachid Taha’s signature song. They closed with a rather sentimental song that was somewhat jarring, considering the ecstatic intensity of their other material. But no matter. Layali El Andalus’ next show is Sunday, March 9 at 8:30 PM at Drom NYC, 85 Avenue A between 5th and 6th Avenues, and world music fans would be crazy to miss it.

March 3, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment