Raya Brass Band Kicks Off 2012 With an Explosive New Album
Stars of the Brooklyn Balkan underground, Raya Brass Band have an exhilarating, eclectic new album, Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders just out. They’re playing the album release show this Saturday night, January 7 at Drom on what might be the year’s best bill with No BS Brass, Malian griot Cheick Hamala Diabate, Smokey Hormel’s soulful western swing band, and Chicha Libre, the Peruvian-style surf band who might be the only act in town who rival Raya Brass Band for sheer fun factor. If you’re here, you should go to this, it’s only ten bucks (they’re also at Golden Fest for considerably more on the 13th and 14th).
The album transcends both the Balkan and brass labels: what they play is otherworldly jams for people who like to dance. The tracks are programmed much like a typical Raya concert: a big, blazing, funky chromatic two-chord vamp to get the dancers spinning, a bunch of even more intense numbers, a little comic relief and finally another long, only slightly less blistering, more spacious theme to send everybody home in a good mood. Typically saxophonist/clarinetist Greg Squared and trumpeter Ben Syversen will blast through a song’s hook in tandem before taking off on a long solo or two while accordionist Matthew Fass adds texture and ambience, Don Godwin’s tuba lays down a fat, pulsing groove (no cheesy “blat” sounds here) and drummer EJ Fry rattles and booms and clicks, making it seem like 10/4 or 21/8 are the most effortlessly natural dance rhythms ever invented.
As you would expect from a gypsy band, the tunes are bracing and biting, ominous and sometimes verging on the macabre with the sax or trumpet blasting through long chromatic runs over wary minor chord changes. But not all the album is that scary. There’s the Cellphone Song, which seems to be an Eastern European-style parody of the singsongey quality of your typical factory ringtone; a bouncy, circuslike, buffoonish number; Sufijski Cocek, a spot-on, tongue-in-cheek side trip to Bollywood; and a happy, upbeat Greek dance that morphs into a trippy one-chord vamp that they take their time building, hypnotically.
But the best tracks here are the minor-key scorchers. The big crowd-pleaser is Hasapikos, a somewhat defiantly blithe march that they eventually take doublespeed, and then even faster. A smoldering anthem, Arkabarka has the closest thing to a rock melody here, Syversen following an offhandedly chilling, microtonal sax solo by bringing it a little lower and then adding wry textures with a mute before sprinting back to the stratosphere. The album’s lone quiet number, Melochrino, begins with a brooding sax taqsim and works its way to a memorably bitter crescendo. Tavernitsa, a tricky Greek-flavored dance by Syversen, sets Greg Squared’s effortlessly fluid, lighting-fast volleys against the trumpeter’s more deliberate, then counterintuitively explosive firepower. And some of the album’s most intense moments come during the Middle Eastern-tinged Cucek Na Sudahan, tense sustained passages alternating with unhinged ferocity. Greg Squared is a disciple of Ivo Papasov and deserves mention alongside the Bulgarian icon: his speed and command are so strong that he makes his solos look easy. Syversen has speed to match, and an eclectic style that draws on his experience playing noiserock (in his own group Cracked Vessel) and jazz improvisation. Only a week into the new year, and we already have a great album: if the rest of this year is only half as good as this, 2012 will still be amazing.