Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Thrills and Dynamism from the Transatlantic Ensemble at Steinway Hall

From this perspective, crowds at concerts have been even more sparse than usual since the election. Monday night at the new Steinway Hall just around the corner from the Town Hall, a surprisingly robust turnout for an early weeknight got to witness a thrilling, dynamic performance by the Transatlantic Ensemble: clarinetist Mariam Adam and pianist Evelyn Ulex, joined by a couple of similarly electrifying special guests, Lara St. John on violin and JP Jofre on bandoneon.

The group’s raison d’etre is to expand the range of serious concert music beyond the usual parade of dead white guys. Lots of ensembles are doing this, but few more excitingly than this semi-rotating cast. Adam got to treat the crowd with her joyous, technically challenging leaps and bounds as the group bookended the program with a couple of Paquito D’Rivera pieces, Benny@100 – a tribute to famed jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman – and a pulsing Venezuelan-flavored waltz.

In between, Ulex explored a similar dynamism and nuance. She’s one of the pianists Steinway selected to record for their digital player piano, the Spirio, which not only plays the notes but with a very close approximation of an individual player’s touch and phrasing. With the Spirio, you have your choice of your favorite music along with a variety of interpretations. If there’s no room in your apartment or your budget for such a big piece of equipment, the Steinway label has just put out the Transatlantic Ensemble’s new album Havana Moon – streaming at Spotify – whose release the group was celebrating.

The premise of the album, Adam revealed, was to celebrate the work of some of the group’s favorite composers from their global circle. The night’s biggest thrill ride was a tango by Miguel del Aguila, whom Adam described as “impetuous,” and she wasn’t kidding. Ulex attacked the tune with both graceful precision and unleashed passion as Adam provided cleverly dancing counterpoint, and St. John added her own high-voltage flurries and spirals. The group hit a similar peak later on when joined by Jofre for a rousing performance of his composition Primavera, which came across as more of a wild midsummer festival on the Argentinian pampa.

Del Aguila’s Silence, as Adam averred, was hardly silent: a requiem, it gave her the evening’s lone opportunity to cut loose in an anguished torrent of notes, and she made the most of it. The duo also elegantly parsed the subtleties of D’Rivera’s neoromantically-tinged Habanera, a wistful Roaring 20s Parisian waltz by Villa-Lobos and a surprisingly astringent, modernist lullaby by Jofre.

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November 19, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tango Mastermind Polly Ferman’s Global Festival Hits a Crescendo on the Upper East Side

Last night’s music and dance extravaganza at the 92nd Street Y, the centerpiece of the Shall We Tango festival – a celebration of global tango and tango-influenced sounds – started at 8, and there was still a floor full of dancers by the time the final band wrapped up at half past eleven. Organizer/pianist Polly Ferman created her own Histoire du Tango (to steal a title from the Astor Piazzolla book, richly and eclectically represented here), and this was a sweeping survey of every kind of tango. Tango as gangster music, boudoir music, serious concert music, ballet soundtrack, as part of the jazz spectrum, the classical repertoire and, arguably, the root source of all things noir: this show had it all.

There was graceful and often spectacular dancing by pairs assembled by the festival’s dance director, Karina Romero. Sometimes simply graceful, often sensationally athletic, the dancers showed off moves that would have been at home on an Olympic ice rink. Are the Olympians stealing those spirals, upside-down catch-and-release tactics and slinky motives from the tango world, or vice versa?

Ferman, a brilliant, witty, fiery performer and interpreter, played with a wicked precision and a cascading, volleying, relentless intensity in tandem with bandoneon legend Daniel Binelli, a frequent collaborator of hers. A little later, she brought out a quartet version of her all-female group GlamourTango, who celebrate women’s contributions to tango over the decades. The piano/bass/bandoneon/violin ensemble ranged from lively neoromanticism, to brassy swing behind a succession of singers, to balletesque themes and a little jazz, Ferman and her crew shifting through the idioms with effortless expertise. GlamourTango don’t seem to have any NYC gigs lined up, but lucky Milwaukeans can catch them at Latino Arts, 1028 S. 9th St. in Milwaukee on Dec 4 and 5; tix are $15/$10 stud/srs.

Bogota-based Quinteto Tango Leopoldo Federico – who take their name from the Argentine legend – aired out the Piazzolla songbook and other iconic material with a viscerally spine-tingling focus. Pianist Alberto Tamayo, violinist Miguel Angel Guevara, bassist Kike Harker, electric guitarist Francisco Avellaneda and bandoneonist Giovanni Parra stunned the crowd with a remarkably serious, moody, meticulous approach, Guevara taking the spotlight and making the most of it. The crowd gave them a standing ovation and wouldn’t let them leave without a couple of encores, the first of which sounded like a droll tango arrangement of the 1950s Big Bopper hit Chantilly Lace.

After a milonga which drew much of the audience out onto the floor to pair up while vintage, orchestrated 1950s sounds played over the PA, sizzling Venezuelan violinist Eddy Marcano and his seven-piece group leaped and bounded through a joyously animated set of folk-inspired jazz themes, bookending a darkly majestic take of Piazzolla’s iconic Libertango, anchored by the pianist’s haunting, hard-hitting, murky lefthand attack. The festival continues through Oct 15, with dance classes, milongas and a couple of shows at the Queens Theatre in the Park in Corona, across from where Shea Stadium used to be. The rest of the New York schedule of events is here.

October 12, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Transatlantic Ensemble Gives Their New Album a Mighty Launch

Monday night the Transatlantic Ensemble Imani Winds clarinetist Mariam Adam and German pianist Evelyn Ulex – teamed up with nuevo tango bandoneon virtuoso J.P. Jofre for one of those semi-private concerts that are all the rage now (it wasn’t closed to the public, but you either had to know someone or get on the guest list). As you would expect from musicians of this quality, much of it was transcendent. Jofre and Adam shared a fondness for bittersweet ambered tonalities, and there were plenty of those, each of the artists at the top of their game. This was the album release show for the ensemble’s new one and if this performance was any indication, it must be superb.

The concert opened auspiciously with a series of pieces for clarinet and piano, beginning with Adam’s french hornist bandmate Jeff Scott’s Toccata. Ulex drove it into increasingly stormy, dancing, Piazzolla-influenced territory with a distantly bluesy undercurrent, Adam shifting in a split second from a crystalline pensiveness to bright, lively upper-register cascades. The first of three Paquito D’Rivera numbers, Invitation al Danzon, was exactly as Adam termed it, “a wonderful, hipswinging kind of piece,” juxtaposing increasingly brooding cantabile balladry with jaunty clarinet flourishes.

Ulex then delivered a comfortably expansive, satisfyingly nocturnal Schumann diptych, Fantasietucke, Op. 73. By contrast, her take of Rodion Shchedrin’s Basso Ostinato – a real workout written for a piano competition, replete with wryly rapidfire etude-like interludes – was a battle, one that gave her innumerable opportunities to emerge triumphant with her fingers still intact.

Jofre joined the duo for the night’s most gripping moments, first with a rather epic, hauntingly memorable, angst-fueled mini-suite full of noir bustle, electric dynamic shifts, a long, suspensefully carnivalesque bandoneon solo and finally a sense of closure with a surprisingly still, calm ending, something completely unexpected in the wake of all the fireworks. The trio then romped through Jofre’s Primavera, an insistently rhythmic, appropriately vernal song without words. Adam and Ulex closed with two selections from D’Rivera’s Cape Cod Files (a commission from a festival there), an anxiously elegaic Piazzolla elegy and then a lighthearted but surprisingly sophisticated, modernist Benny Goodman homage full of tongue-in-cheek swing and boogie-woogie japes.

January 16, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pablo Aslan Tackles an Ambitious Task

It takes nerve to try to recreate a classic album. It takes more nerve to try to resurrect a bad one and transform it into something listenable. That’s what bassist Pablo Aslan and his quintet have attempted with their new album Piazzolla in Brooklyn: to take the songs from Astor Piazzolla’s notoriously failed attempt at tango jazz, Take Me Dancing, and redeem them. Some useful context: when Piazzolla made Take Me Dancing in 1959, America was at the height of the mambo craze. While there were some Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican artists – most notably Machito – who benefited from middleclass and upper middleclass America’s sudden embrace of Afro-Cuban dance music, most of the popular stuff was being made by gringo schlockmeisters or generic swing bandleaders who watered it down in order to appeal to a mainstream (and frequently racist) white audience. Obviously, that wasn’t Piazzola’s intention: being an insatiable eclecticist and cross-pollinator, he never met a collaboration he could resist – but this was one he should have, because there’s no doubt that he wouldn’t have minded if the album had become a hit. Good thing it didn’t – the tunes are nice, some of them on the breezy side for a tormented, brooding guy like him, but the album just doesn’t swing. Nobody’s on the same page, and for that reason the session has gone down in history as sort of Piazzolla’s Metal Machine Music, a trainwreck you can see coming a mile away.

Interestingly, Aslan – who, like Piazzolla, has made a career out of taking tango sounds to new and exciting places – opens this experiment with a Piazzolla tune that’s not on Take Me Dancing. La Calle 92, dedicated to the Spanish Harlem street where the composer lived for a time. It’s a triumphantly slinky mini-suite, moving slyly on the pulse of the bass, with Gustavo Bergalli’s vivid, noirish trumpet and the warily incisive piano of Abel Rogantini. It doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the album – it gets considerably darker and more suspenseful than what’s in store – but it’s a good start.

The first of the 1959 cuts here, Counterpoint, gets a dark, bristling bounce, stark bowed bass contrasting with the trumpet and Nicolas Enrich’s animated bandoneon: as Piazzolla may well have envisioned it, it’s more classical than jazz. Dedita, which Piazzolla dedicated it to his wife at the time, switches between tango and swing, with a casual, soulful solo from Bergalli, Rogantini adding an unexpected and delicious menace afterward, drummer Daniel Piazzolla (the composer’s grandson) reaffirming that with a goodnaturedly rumbling precision.

Laura, the old jazz standard, begins as bandoneon tune, somewhere in the netherworld between tango and jazz, the whole band – especially Aslan, whose gritty touch really nails the mood – hanging back just thisfar away from going over the edge. George Shearing’s Lullaby of Birdland, Piazzolla’s other choice of cover tune, follows as practically a segue and benefits from some amped-up drama and syncopated punch. As one would expect from the title, Oscar Peterson is a homage to the piano legend, and a showcase for surprising restraint and intensity from Rogantini, who just as much as Aslan serves as dark, purist Argentine anchor here over the younger Piazzolla’s wry Caribbean-inflected riffs. The ambitious, cosmopolitan musette-inflected Plus Ultra gets a characteristically incisive, blue-flame solo from Aslan; Show Off, true to its title, hints at the big band blaze that Piazzolla swung at and missed, hard, the first time around, but Enrich’s chill, rippling wee-hours lines keep it from crossing the line into kitsch. With its self-conscious, fussy riff, Something Strange is the weakest track here. They close with a bustling, relentless, absolutely triumphant take of Triunfal, where they finally take it deep into the postbop territory whose energy Piazzolla doubtlessly wanted to capture the first time around.

Interestingly, Aslan claims to have “systematically avoided” Piazzolla’s music until now, since it’s pretty much impossible to outdo the master. How cool it is that Aslan found something in the repertoire that he could surpass! This one’s out now on Soundbrush.

November 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 5/12/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #628:

Astor Piazzolla – Hommage a Liege

In putting this list together, we’ve tried to limit the number of albums per artist to one or two. Which with Astor Piazzolla is just plain absurd: there must be at least a dozen, maybe several dozen of his recordings that belong among the 1000 best albums ever made. Did the iconic Argentinian composer, bandleader, bandoneon player and inventor of tango nuevo put out one that stands over the rest? Frankly, no – they’re pretty much all good. We picked this dark, richly lush 1985 live album because A) Piazzolla plays on it and B) even though it doesn’t have any of his signature songs, like Libertango, it represents him well. Backed by two guitarists plus the Liege Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leo Brouwer, this is Piazzolla the classical composer rather than Piazzolla the pop tunesmith (he was both, and preferred to think of himself as the former). It’s two suites: first the epic triptych Concerto para Bandoneon y Guitarra (Intro, Milonga and Tango), then the four-part Histoire du Tango (does anybody besides us think it’s funny that the concerto is Spanish but the history is French?). This one is a musical portrait of how the style developed (with major contributions by the composer himself), from the whorehouse in 1900, to the Cafe 1930, Nightclub 1960 and Aujourd’hui (Today). If Piazzolla is new to you, get to know him via Piazzolla Radio streaming 24/7. Here’s a random torrent via musicaparalacabeza.

May 12, 2011 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

3 Leg Torso Do the Time Warp Again

Animals and Cannibals, the all-instrumental fifth album by Portland, Oregon’s 3 Leg Torso is of the year’s most enjoyably eclectic releases. Playfully, often psychedelically and amusingly blending elements of gypsy music, Belgian barroom songs, the baroque and jazz, the group is anchored by acclaimed violinist Bela R. Balogh and accordionist Courtney Von Drehle. T.J. Arko, Kyle MacLowry and drummer Gary Irvine take turns on the vibraphone, along with bass, tuba, weissenborn, piano and French horn. As the individual song titles indicate, they don’t take themselves particularly seriously (although they do the music): some of these pieces veer off into parody. Although the juxtaposition of the medieval and the modern here might seem jarring, it isn’t: this crew somehow makes it work.

The album opens with a swaying, 6/8 accordion tune with a lush string and vibraphone arrangement, a scurrying Balogh solo and a trick ending (a device that will recur here often). The tango standard Csardas, by Vittorio Monti is a joyous exercise in tempo shifts and doubletime. The cinematic, Brueghelesque The Life and Times and Good Deeds of St. Penguin – yup, that’s the title – works variations on a plaintive waltz with a tricky turnaround. Moving from a tv theme-style bounce to more complex, jazzy passages with incisive accordion and bluesy vibraphone, Toothless Cannibal winds up on the wings of another wailing Balogh solo. Driving Along with My Cow in My Volga could be a Spike Jones backing track, including a rustic Russian dirge, a blithe, tongue-in-cheek gypsy dance, and a bucolic waltz. And Von Drehle’s According to Chagall sounds suspiciously like a cumbia-tinged version of the Twin Peaks theme arranged for string band – it would make a great addition to the Chicha Libre catalog.

The mini-epic Bus Stop to Oblivion builds from rustic sentimentality to a wildly fusionesque stomp, violin blasting through a distortion pedal as the band roar their way out at the end. An original, Frailach #1 is a bracing klezmer raveup with a woozy bass solo and a deliciously long crescendo out of it. The album winds up on a pensive note with the cinematic theme The Last Dream. Somewhere there’s a contemporary black comedy set in a rainy Balkan milieu that needs this album for its soundtrack.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Thomas Piercy and Vilian Ivantchev’s Cafe Album

A collection of brilliant segues. For a casual listener, this is the perfect rainy day album, pleasantly pensive with a balance of melancholy and more upbeat material, especially toward the end. For more adventurous fans, it’s a smartly innovative concept that works all the way through. Clarinetist Thomas Piercy and acoustic guitarist Vilian Ivantchev link fourteen pieces together as a suite, beginning with the French late Romantics, taking a detour into the German baroque before following the gypsy path to Brazil and from there to Argentina, where the trail ends on a note that threatens to jump out of its shoes with joy. It’s a very subtly fun ride.

Having worked with both Leonard Bernstein and KRS-One, Piercy is diversely talented. He’s as strong in his upper register, with a buoyant, flute-like presence on Telemann’s A Minor Sonata, or soaring with bandoneon textures on the Piazzolla pieces here that close the album, as he is mining the darker sonorities of Bartok’s Roumanian Folk Dances suite, or Erik Satie’s Gnossienne or Gymnopedie No. 1. Ivantchev displays almost superhuman discipline, restraining himself to terse, rock-solid chordal work or precise arpeggios, with the exception of the Piazzolla where he gets to cut loose a little more – but not much. Ultimately, this album is all about connections, and the duo make them everywhere. Debussy’s Le Fille aux Cheveux de Lin (The Blonde Girl) follows so seamlessly out of Satie that it could practically be the same piece. Likewise, following the last of Bartok’s gypsy dance transcriptions with Villa-Lobos’ Modinha is so logical that it’s almost funny when you think about it. The duo close the album with two brief arrangements of songs by vintage Argentinan tanguero Carlos Gardel (Mi Manita Pampa and Sus Ojos Se Cerraron) into a stripped-down yet melodically rich version of Piazzolla’s four-part suite Histoire du Tango and then, seemingly as an encore, Jacinto Chiclana which ends the album on a note equally balmy and bracing. Piercy’s viscerally intuitive feel for the tension-and-release of tango lets the guitar hold things together this time, giving him a chance to launch into some quiet rejoicing. Piercy plays the cd release show for this album at Caffe Vivaldi on June 19 at 8:15 PM with his trio: live, they are considerably more boisterous.

June 15, 2010 Posted by | classical music, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Marta Topferova – Trova

Czech-born, New York-based chanteuse/songwriter Marta Topferova has carved herself out a niche as a first-class avatar of latin music. Her new cd Trova (a Cuban style, though she explores considerably more terrain here) is quite a change from the pensive melancholy that runs throughout much of her previous work. It’s a mix of oldschool latin styles with a Caribbean tinge, like something out of San Juan, 1955, recorded with her band at an old farmhouse outside Prague fresh off a European tour. The album features Topferova on guitar and cuatro along with big band leader Pedro Giraudo on bass, Aaron Halva on tres and accordion, Roland Satterwhite on violin and Neil Ochoa on percussion. It’s got a quiet joy that simmers and bubbles over once in awhile for extra flavor. Frequently, the star of the show here is Satterwhite (formerly with Jenifer Jackson and also Howard Fishman), whose imaginative, casually intense phrasing adds an unexpectedly biting edge to some of the quieter material. As is typical throughout the cd, its unexpected moments are subtle but compelling, as in the case of the infectious opening bomba, Juligan, a nocturnal street scene whose central character, a bum, turns out to be something completely different. And yet the same.

She follows that with an effervescent, percussion-driven dance tune, a stately, delicately pensive tango and a symbolically charged midtempo number rich with chordal jangle and gorgeous acoustic textures. Largo el Camino (The Long Road) winds along on a catchy, swaying four-bar hook and a couple of nice introspective tres solos, the latter closing the song on an optimistic note.

Descarga de la Esperanza (The Hope Jam) is hypnotic, like the Dead gone latin and acoustic. Madrugada (Dawn) is a pretty, sad waltz with a buoyant Satterwhite solo, one of those kind of songs that, thirty years ago, would have had record executives scheming over the prospect of a crossover international hit. Topferova saves her grittiest vocal for the tricky Argentinean changes of Entre a Mi Pago Sin Golpear (Come On Over and Don’t Knock), Satterwhite’s jovial fiddle adding contrast.

The cd winds up with the vividly lyrical La Amapola, inspired by a poppy native to Czech Republic, showcasing Topferova’s seemingly effortless ability to shift between styles; the dusky las Luciernagas (Fireflies) and an old bolero cover usually sung by a male vocalist. Topferova puts her own spin on it, a woman in an arranged marriage displaying quiet defiance. This album has the same kind of rustic quality that spurred the Bachata Roja Legends’ surprise crossover success and could just as easily resonate with anglo as well as latin audiences. Not bad for Czech expat for whom Spanish was a second language. She’s at Barbes on Jan 22 at 10.

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Rupa & the April Fishes at the Bell House, Brooklyn NY 11/13/09

Bay area band Rupa & the April Fishes had just played a couple of other New York City gigs in the previous week, yet nevertheless managed to bring an impressively energized crowd out to pack the Bell House in remote Gowanus, Brooklyn. In a cold drizzle, even. Rupa Marya, the band’s frontwoman goes for breathy, sensual atmospherics on the band’s new album Este Mundo (very favorably reviewed here on November 9) but in concert she showed off a bright effervescence to go along with it and the band roared along. These folks really pulled out all the stops – they know that people don’t just want to hear the album note for note, they want a party, a jolt of energy and they got every bit they could have hoped for. And Rupa Marya is all too aware of her charisma and makes the most of it. The upright bassist didn’t get to step out a lot – it’s usually a good thing when the band keeps the bass locked up tight with the drums – but when he got a solo, he made it a soaring, terse jazz horn line. Drummer Aaron Kierbel was a dynamo full of surprises, completely schooling opening act Nation Beat (a hard thing to do, by the way) when it came to soloing, blasting through a cheery yet ominous surf passage, otherwise maneuvering expertly through the ska and gypsy-rock numbers bringing the beat down to reggae as the songs went halfspeed, then leaping into doubletime again with unabashed relish.

Accordionist Isabel Douglass alternated between lush ambience and a whirlwind attack that showed off her blistering chops while the cellist would frequently carry the songs’ hooks, getting a surprising warmth out of his characteristically austere instrument. Marcus Cohen on trumpet contributed soulful blues, sly ska and full-throttle Balkan riffs over his frontwoman’s incisive rhythm (she started on acoustic before moving to a beautiful hollowbody electric).

Most of the songs were from the new cd, notably the shapeshifting Elephant, part stomping Parisian waltz, part Balkan reel steaming along on the pulse of the bass (well up in the mix, a pleasant change for a bull fiddle in a loud band). The gypsy inflections took center stage, but the band put their own indelible spin on them, twisting them into just about every dance beat you can find south of the border (including cumbia on one particularly soulful, swaying number, and their portentous tango they used to open the show on a note that was as mysterious as it was sensual). But the single best song of the night might have been a track from their first album, its ridiculously catchy, upbeat chorus pulling in several in the audience, then bursting into flame on the sparks flying from Cohen’s trumpet. As many other amazing concerts as New York has seen this year, this had to be one of the best: you’ll see it on our 20 Best Shows of the Year list when we put it up in December.

Nation Beat may have realized that they were never going to beat the headliner at the minor-key game, so they stuck to their happiest, most blissfully upbeat Brazilian songs along with a break for several innovatively rearranged covers of classic country numbers delivered with a cool yet heartfelt understatement by crooner Jesse Lenat. It wasn’t a bad set. Violinist Skye Steele – whose own stylistically uncategorizable quintet is 180 degrees from what he plays in this band, and is sensationally good – led the charge with a barrage of lightning-fast climbs and charges. But they didn’t deliver the transcendence they’re capable of (see our review of their show last summer on Roosevelt Island, featuring Brazilian singer Liliana Araujo – absent from this gig – leading the band through a much more stylistically diverse mix of ska, reggae and even a New Orleans-style march along with the Brazilian stuff). This wound up with a long, well-intentioned but ultimately pointless percussion jam where the band went down into the crowd in front of the stage – fun if you felt like joining in, but for those who didn’t it was more Tompkins Square than Rio.

November 22, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Concert Review: The Fourth Annual Main Squeeze Accordion Festival

Forget All Points West or Lolapalooza if it should ever get here again: diehard fans with sufficient stamina (and water supply- it was overcast but pretty hot most of the day over by the river) to hang in through all seven acts on the bill at Pier One on the Hudson were treated to what might be the year’s best single-day outdoor New York music festival. Considering how much of a comeback the small but mighty accordion has made over the years here in the US, there was a sense of defiance and triumph in the air.

The opening act, Musette Explosion is a tremendously good side project from accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri – they do this gig a few times a year when there’s time, and given how much fun everybody onstage was having, it’s something of a surprise they don’t do it more often. Backed by bass saxophonist Scott Robinson, they ran through an alternately haunting and bouncy mix of swing-inflected French and Belgian instrumentals from mostly the 1930s and 40s. The highlight of the set, as usual, was Jo Privat’s eerie La Sorciere (The Witch), Munisteri weaving his way into a ferocious tremolo-picked solo on banjo. A Holshouser original, Chanson Pop built to a lushly plaintive, unaffectedly dramatic Baroque-inflected anthem. This group usually plays with a tuba, but Robinson made a great fit: blazing solos aren’t something you expect from a bass sax, but this guy delivered, particularly on the opening number, Gus Viseur’s swaying Swing Valse.

Mexican norteno band Suspenso del Norte were next, seemingly a project of the Javier family of Queens: father Pablo on guitar and lead vocals with his twelve-year-old son on button accordion along with a second guitar and rhythm section. What they play is essentially Mexican country music, with the same kind of swinging backbeat as what used to come out of Nashville before it became the hometown of lame pop-rock about fifteen years ago. Mixing popular hits along with originals, they connected with the small expat contingent who’d come out to see them, the powerfully built young accordionist supplying effortlessly fast, soulfully bubbling leads.

Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet took the dance vibe into intense, wrenchingly passionate territory. With Del Curto on bandoneon, Gustavo Casenave on piano, Pedro Giraudo on upright bass along with an inspired cellist and violinist, they mixed originals and classics, from a stately, haunting version of the traditional Argentinian tango El Choclo to a fast yet lush take of the Piazzolla classic Libertango. Another Piazzolla composition, Michaelangelo #17 bristled with stormy bandoneon and string flourishes; an original, Emancipacion built suspense with a martial beat and some vivid interplay between piano and bandoneon, a device that Del Curto employed very effectively and evocatively through the set’s brooding ebbs and aching swells.

The Main Squeeze Orchestra were next: being the pet project of Walter Kuhr, proprietor of the Main Squeeze accordion center on Essex St., this is an annual event for the all-female twelve-accordion group. It was a characteristically playful, tongue-in-cheek yet also virtuosic and fascinatingly arranged performance. They got the schlock out of the way first – no matter how much you polish a turd, there’s not much you can do with the Eurythmics or Michael Jackson. “This is a happy song about love,” announced one of the women, taking a turn on vocals on an oompah version of the Joy Division classic Love Will Tear Us Apart. They reinvented Misirlou as a tango and Hava Nagila as a hora, seguing into a happy, upbeat wedding dance. The Kinks’ Demon Alcohol was as amusingly over-the-top as usual; they closed with their deliciously deadpan, full-length version of Bohemian Rhapsody. Maybe if we get lucky they’ll do Freebird next year.

Italian composer/accordionist Roberto Cassan and classical guitarist John Muratore followed with a fascinating, cutting-edge program that spanned from a couple of swinging yet pensive Piazzolla compositions originally written for guitar and flute, to a darkly expansive instrumental by a contemporary Cuban composer, two rousing Italian tarantellas and a long opening number with echoes of both Celtic music and bluesy Hot Tuna-style improvisation.

The big hit of the festival was Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica, who absolutely slayed with a wildly danceable set of merengue. Parra delivered lightning-fast rivulets on his button accordion, sometimes trading off with the band’s excellent sax player, who matched him note for note on some pretty crazy trills. Along with a harmony singer,  they had a rhythm section including congas, cajon and bass drum along with a five-string bassist who stole the show, punching in booming chords to bring a phrase to a crescendo, adding eerie atonal accents, liquid arpeggios and even some laid-back, unpretentious two-handed tapping when things got really sick. They took their time working in with a long intro, just accordion and the drums, then the bass hit a tritone and they went flying. La Mega Mafia Tipica’s merengue is party music, first and foremost: they don’t sing much except on the choruses. This set had a bunch of deliriously hypnotic two-chord jams, bass behind the beat for a fat, seductive groove. They’d shake up the rhythm in places, accordion and sometimes the bass playing three on four for an extended vamp. The last song of the set had a trick ending that took pretty much everybody by surprise: of all the bands on the schedule, only la Mega Mafia Tipica got an encore because nobody wanted the party to stop.

That Slavic Soul Party accordionist Peter Stan and his four-piece backing band weren’t anticlimactic speaks for itself. Stan is something of the Balkan Rick Wakeman, blessed with unearthly speed and fond of playing a lot of notes. This time out he had his son Peter Jr. on chromatic button accordion, playing much like his dad, along with violin, synthesizer usually supplying the basslines and somewhat minimalist drums. By now, it was late, the rain was picking up and everybody except the growing line of dancers in front of the stage seemed pretty exhausted. But it was impossible to leave. Stan plays the kind of modern Balkan dance music you hear at Mehanata, a slick feel made slicker by the artificial bass sound of the synth. But the tunes are relentless and often haunting. He soloed his way from country to country, from Romanian gypsy to klezmer. The band mixed it up, from the happy, upbeat Serbian pop song Nishka Banya to the stately, sweepingly ornate original instrumental Gypsy Soul Fantasy to several edgy dance numbers sung by guest vocalist Bato the Yugo. It was an appropriately bracing way to wind up the evening. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates by all these bands.

July 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment