New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

The Up-and-Coming Verona Quartet Bring a Vivid Program to MOMA Summergarden This Sunday

Among urbane hot-weather New York traditions, nothing beats a trip to MOMA Summergarden on a Sunday evening. The thematic programming that they used to have here has given way to a more eclectic series of acts. Doors open at 6 on the 54th Street side; the music starts at 8 and getting there on time is always a good idea. This Sunday, July 23, the auspicious young Verona Quartet, who got their start at Juilliard just a year ago, play US premieres by a global cast of contemporary composers: Japan’s Teizō Matsumura, Costa Rica;s Alejandro Cardona and Poland’s Elżbieta Sikora. Admission is free.

The quartet’s concert last month at WNYC’s Greene Space was a showcase for their close emotional attunement and versatility. The only questionable choice they made was the sequence of works. On one hand, it makes total sense to open with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 7 and then follow it with Ravel’s String Quartet in F, which is more physically taxing. And maybe the group didn’t want to send the crowd home on a down note – although the Ravel concludes enigmatically. Whatever the case, the program packed a wallop,

The Shostakovich is one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. It’s a requiem for the composer’s first wife, who left him, then he persuaded her to come back, then she left him again for keeps. As the quartet portrayed her, she was graceful and elegant…and fatally flawed. “If only…:” Is the central theme. Violinists Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violist Abigail Rojansky and cellist Warren Hagerty channeled that with a spare, poignant intensity, from its elegaic, balletesque introduction, through moody circles foreshadowing the danse macabre and eventual, sepulchral defeat that followed – and itself foreshadowed the hunted grimness of the composer’s next quartet.

Their performance of the Ravel was fueled by precise gearshifting between idioms – written on the cusp of late Romanticism and early Modernism, you can hear Cesar Franck’s calm amidst the Parisian bustle, but also Debussy’s Eureka moment when he saw the  gamelan for the first ttime.  The quartet simmered the balmy lustre in the opening movement, then made a meticulous, surgically precise run through the sharp, emphatic pizzicato of the second movement and the carnivalesquely waltzing variations that followed.

It was on the third movement that they really dug in. Ravel wrote this piece very generously – everybody gets time in the spotlight, and this is where the viola and cello get called on to lead the trail out of a revisitation of the summery first movement as it takes a turn in a far darker direction, and Rojansky and Hagerty both rose to the occasion. Likewise, Hagerty didn’t hold back as he anchored the shivery flurries and uneasy, often aching waltz of the concluding movement. The material this Sunday is completely different, but it’s fair to assume that the quartet will go just as deeply into it.

The Mary Halvorson Octet at the Vanguard: This Month’s Can’t-Miss New York Jazz Show

Mary Halvorson’s first set of a weeklong stand with her octet last night at the Vanguard danced and pulsed with outside-the-box ideas and some of her signature, edgy humor. Yet this was far more of a dark, troubled, often mesmerizing performance: music to get lost in from one of the three best jazz guitarists in the world at the top of her game. She and the band will be at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM tonight, July 19 through the 23rd; cover is $30.

Halvorson’s not-so-secret weapon in this latest edition of the band is pedal steel player Susan Alcorn. Predictably, she adds pastoral color, notably with the lonesome whistle-stop riffs in the night’s opening couple of numbers. But Halvorson also employs the steel to beef up the harmonies, an analogue for high reeds or brass to make the unit sound much larger than it is.

And while she and Alcorn shadowed each other and blended what became eerie, Messsiaenic tonalities, most audibly with the astringent close harmonies of the opening number, this isn’t a vehicle for Halvorson’s fret-burning…or so it seems. This is about compositions…and quasi-controlled chaos. It’s hard to imagine a less trad band playing this hallowed space.

Although the night’s most chilling and memorable number was a world premiere, its brooding Gil Evans/Miles Davis lustre following a distantly furtive path upward and outward, buoyed by the four-horn frontline of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, alto sax player Jon Irabagon, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik. The premiere right after that had more of the bubbly, jagged syncopation of the earlier part of the set, but with a restless late 50s Mingus bustle.

Old West ghost-town motives mingled with chattering, racewalking horns as Halvorson icedpicked her way through with a biting mix of digital delay and what sounded like an envelope pedal. Yet her most memorable spots were the slow, dying-quasar oscillations of an intro midway through the set, awash in reverb…and the allusively gritty clusters of the night’s closing number, Fog Bank, where she finally rose out of a mist left to linger by Alcorn and Garchik.

Drummer Ches Smith has so many different rolls, he should open a bakery: he and Halvorson have a long association, and she let him have fun with his usual tropes on hardware and repurposed cymbals. Pairings were smartly chosen and vivid, between Smith and Finlayson, or Smith and Laubrock, or bassist Chris Lightcap cantering and straining at the bit to fire up the horns. All this and more are possible throughout the week, a stand with potential historic significance. You snooze, you lose.

An Insider Look at This Year’s Amazing Accordion Festival at Bryant Park

The annual accordion festival at Bryant Park continues with a couple of amazing shows tomorrow, July 19 at 6 PM and then the grand finale, which starts at 5 on Friday the 21st with the haunting Lebanese sounds of the Bil Afrah Project ,with Gregorio Uribe headlining and leading a wild celebration of Colombian Independence Day at 9 PM.

If you’ve spent any time at the festival over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed a tall blonde woman calmly making her way across the park, taking lots of pictures and getting lots of hugs from accordionists. She always seems to have a Mona Lisa smile on her face. Then again, you’d be smiling too, if you ran an accordion festival.

That irrepressible impresario is Ariana Hellerman, who’s also the publisher of the indispensable Ariana’s List of free summer concerts and events all over New York. Backstage Sunday night at the Innov Gnawa show on the Upper West Side, Hellerman shared some history and some secrets:

New York Music Daily: First, I just want to say thanks for finding so much sonic bliss, and sharing it with us. I think your festival should be a yearlong event. Any hope for making it longer this year?

Ariana Hellerman: I have ideas, but nothing is set in stone – yet. Stay tuned!

But in general, my work is around making arts accessible to people and I get most pleasure from producing in public space – parks, plazas, etcetera. Because of winter weather, it becomes more difficult to work in these places. I’m beginning to think about public spaces that exist indoors. If anyone has ideas, I’m always open.

NYMD: How do you find these people? Other than googling “accordionist NYC”?

AH: I have a few sources. Before I was invited to help design this series, Bryant Park had lone accordionists strolling around the park once a week. The Park had about fifteen people on their roster. When I came on board with the “Accordions Around the World” idea – and with the hopes of making the series more of a destination for the park -, I brainstormed all the local accordionists I knew in New York. Because my interest is mainly music from around the world, I tried to think of all the bands I knew who had accordion – and there were quite a few. In addition, I racked the brains of others and scanned the webpages of some of my favorite venues and festivals – Barbes in Brooklyn and the annual Balkan music festival, Golden Fest were amongst the lot.

In 2013, the first year of this incarnation of the series, I was able to find thirty additional accordionists. I continue to do this type of research regularly so that we can be more inclusive of new styles and musicians. But because the series is becoming more of a destination, many people have begun to reach out to me. Over the last five editions, my list has grown to 470 accordionists!

NYMD: Does you own personal taste in accordion music include tango, cumbia, klezmer, Middle Eastern, tarantella, Celtic, cajun and jazz?

AH: Yes. While I like some genres more than others, my priority is sharing culture. Even if my ears don’t agree with the sound, I continue to be inclusive because this is “Accordions Around the World” and we want as many styles of music represented in the series.

NYMD: I always find myself having to explain to people why I think the accordion is one of the three coolest instruments in the world – the oud and the church organ being the other two. Do you find yourself having to do the same sort of thing? What do you tell people?

AH: When I tell people I curate an accordion festival, I’m usually met with a “Really????,” followed by a surprised or disgusted look, and then a sheepish giggle. My usual spiel in response is: “You know, when Americans usually think of the accordion, they think of polka, Lawrence Welk, and yesteryear kitsch. But, in many parts of the world, it’s one of the most important instruments to convey the sound of the region. And in New York, we are lucky to have access to many of these cultures.” And then I outline the cultures.

I also think the accordion is cool because it’s an instrument of immigration, migration, and connections. You can hear similar sounds in Cajun music – which traveled from Quebec to Louisiana with obvious French influence prior – and forró from the northeast of Brazil. Many immigrants from all over Europe – Italian, German, Jewish, Polish, etcetera – came to the US in the late 19th/early 20th century and brought their music forms with them. This continues today with more recent immigrant communities such as Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Accordion usually sparks conversation and each week in the park, I almost always hear “You know, my grandfather/grandmother/father/mother/aunt/uncle played the accordion.” I like that many people of very different backgrounds have a personal connection to the instrument.

NYMD: Can you give us a capsule history of the Bryant Park Accordion Festival? How did it start? You’ve been doing it for four years now….

AH: Dan Biederman, the president of Bryant Park, took a trip to France and stumbled upon an accordionist in a park and was enchanted. Since Bryant Park has Parisian elements, the experience made him want to create a similar, serendipitous experience. For a few summers, a accordionist would stroll around for a few hours. It was nice, but people weren’t coming to chase after the lone musician.

I have a blog, arianaslist.com, where I share free cultural events in New York. Many people in the field read the blog since I write about their events and because I provide ideas on how to make the arts more accessible to audiences. In spring of 2013, Ethan Lercher, the executive producer of Bryant Park Presents, their cultural arm, contacted me. He had read one of my blog posts that described my experience at the Festival Vallenato in Valledupar, Colombia. I had just come back from living in Colombia and had attended a festival of Vallenato music, a Colombian genre that focuses on the accordion. He asked, “what do you know about accordion?” He wanted to make the accordion more prominent in the Park’s programming. My response was, “I don’t know that much but what fascinates me about the instrument is how it’s played in so many cultures.” From there, we began to explore the idea of “Accordions Around the World.”

NYMD: Are you happy with how the festival has gone this year, with rescheduling and all?

AH: It’s been wonderful. This is the first season that we’ve had our “Accordion Picnic” format for the entirety of the series. In the past, the audience and passer-bys were invited to stroll around to see accordionists play two-hour sets in different pockets of the park. This year, the accordionists come to the audiences: each accordionist plays a 15 minute set before another comes in. This way, if an audience member sets up shop in one location, they will hear eight styles of music over the two hour span. There are also six stations around the park so people can “chase” the music or artist they would like to hear.

Since we’re eager to provide a good experience for audience members, Bryant Park provides blankets to borrow, encourages picnics, and even sells alcoholic beverages that can be consumed on the lawn. It’s lovely and we’ve noticed an uptick in attendance.

NYMD: Yeah, I should say. Another thing I want to mention is that there’s no sonic competition with shrieking alarms on city buses. And it’s also a lot easier now that you don’t have to chase the accordionist.

AH: With this format, the artists are also able to engage with the other accordionists, and see other styles of music on the accordion. My secret hope is that I’m sparking relationships between accordionists ,and new, exciting projects will come from this!

NYMD: What highlights do you have to share? I’ve seen so many great acts – Rachelle Garniez, Simon Moushabeck ,Guillermo Vaisman,,Melissa Elledge , so many others. Who have you seen that really floored you this year?

AH: We have incredible artists in the series. I can’t choose one! They’re all near and dear to my heart. In this moment, the Brazilian artists in this series really stand out: I love Felipe Hostins who is from Santa Catarina, Brazil. He grew up playing polkas, which was the main accordion music in his hometown in the south of Brazil. Today he is helping to lead the forró movement in New York. Vitor Gonçalves has been playing choro, an instrumental genre which originated in 19th century Rio de Janeiro, his hometown. As a trained jazz musician, he also incorporates a lot jazz into his sets. Eduardo de Carvalho lives in Newark and has mainly played restaurant gigs to date. He is ready for a bigger stage with his incredibly strong sertanejo and forro. Rob Curto grew up in a Sicilian family but spent many years living in Brazil. Today he shares his blend of bluegrass and forró with us. These four players are so incredibly strong. But again, we have so many incredible artists in these series. If we had time, I would tell you about each and every one!

NYMD: Can I ask you, you’re a pianist. Why aren’t you an accordionist, you obviously love the instrument so much…and it’s a lot easier to take an accordion with you when you move. I realize also that this isn’t a fair question, you could ask me the same thing and I wouldn’t have a really good answer for you…

AH: Accordion never even seemed to be an option while I was studying classical piano. And now I’m a music appreciator more than a musician. Though because I know so many accordionists, it has crossed my mind to take up lessons and to become (or more likely, fail at becoming) the singer-songwriter-rockstar I am in my dreams. 

NYMD: You lived in Colombia and Argentina. To what degree did that influence your accordion fixation?

AH: Obviously living in Colombia became the inspiration for this series, as you know. And while I knew tango and the bandoneón – the free reed instrument played for tango – before living in Argentina, I was introduced to chamamé, a folk music genre from northeast Argentina, while living there. It is a fusion of Guaraní  – the indigenous population from this part of the world –  Spanish, German, Polish, and Ukrainian music. There were a lot of Eastern European immigrants to this region in the early 20th century. I’m thrilled that we have our first chamamé artist, Guillermo Vaisman in the series this season.

NYMD: Do you have a desert island accordion song? Or album? Or accordion song you’d want somebody to play at your wedding?

AH: No. Though I just stumbled upon a short clip I recorded of Felipe Hostins from last week’s edition and I’ve been listening to it on loop. He says its his original composition called “Minh’alma” (My Soul) and it’s chamamé – our artists are obviously inspired by all forms of music! It’s so good.

While I love accordion and I can identify when the music is really good, for me, this is about sharing culture with the people of New York. My work is all about creating live performance opportunities for artists and audiences alike. I get joy from seeing these connections made and the joy it brings others.

NYMD: What’s your alltime favorite accordion concert?

AH: Our Accordions Around the World Festival is always a highlight, obviously. But outside of the performances I curate… I always love Lila Downs and we’re lucky to have her accordionist, George Saenz in our series!

NYMD: Just saw her at Prospect Park at the end of last month. Amazing. Nice work getting him!

AH: Another experience that comes to mind – when I was in Argentina, one of my colleagues connected me to Chango Spasiuk, who is one of the most famous musicians down there, who is known for chamamé. He picked me up in a limo, along with his bandmates, and I got to watch his whole show from backstage. The experience was pretty cool!

NYMD: Tell me about closing night on the 21st, this Friday.Is this a bunch of debuts? Has the Bil Afrah project ever played anywhere elase before? How about Peter Stan’s new band? It’s gonna be amazing!

AH: The Bil Afrah Project has performed before but not in a setting that can yield this large of an audience – in past years, we’ve had about four thousand people. It’s very exciting. We’ve put the word out to the Lebanese and Arab community and we hope they will come out. Ziad Rahbani is one of the most important and known composers from the Arab World, son of the famous Fairuz.

Peter Stan’s Zlatni Balkan Zvuk is brand new and will be debuting at the Festival. In talking with Peter – of Slavic Soul Party fame – I asked him if he ever played traditional Serbian music since SSP is more of a jazz/funk Balkan brass group. He told me he didn’t think there would be a market for it. After he shared more information and shared examples of Balkan wedding music, I chose to disagree! All of the musicians in this group are from the Balkans  – including Peter’s son who is also an accordionist! – and have been rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. I’m really excited to welcome them, and was happy to provide the opportunity to Peter to be a bandleader for the first time. Given how amazing Peter is, I know this is just the beginning for them. 

A Long, Strange, Psychedelic New York Week, Part Two

In two parts – part one is here

After seeing Cameroonian singer Blick Bassy‘s unexpectedly psychedelic New York debut at Lincoln Center Thursday night, it was fun to wind up the evening at Barbes with a whole set by cinematic Venezuelan-American psychedelic instrumental trio Los Crema Paraiso. After taking their time loading their loop pedals, they played most of their newest album, De Pelicula to projections of segments from 1970s Venezuelan films: a road movie, a comedy and maybe a documentary or two.

When they do their all-instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond, they usually play the whole monstrosity – this time the crowd got just the short version. Bittersweetly summery highway themes, frenetic volleys of tremolo-picking from guitarist José Luis Pardo, slinky and emphatic basslines from Bam Bam Rodriguez and the shapeshifting rhythms of drummer Neil Ochoa were mostly live, although both Pardo and Rodriguez’s pedals kicked in with some simple harmony lines or hazy textures from time to time, as their bouncy chamame rock themes unwound. At the end, they played their cover of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World, and finally, after having sufffered through that atrocity more than once before, it made sense – as theme music for a montage of banana republic dictators and their crimes. In this band’s hands, it became a horrible song about horrible people.

Saturday afternoon, it was even more annoying to miss almost all of psychedelic latin soul stars Chicano Batman’s set at Central Park Summerstage. The same thing happened with Roy Ayers’ set on Sunday  too. Both acts ended up going on an hour ahead of schedule, and a lot of people who showed up were disappointed. Five minutes of Bardo Martinez’s magic-carpet organ textures against Carlos Arévalo’s similarly kaleidoscopic guitar were tantalizing to the point of being painful.

And while it’s impossible to hate on Los Pericos – the Argentine ska-reggae crew has been around for thirty years and sound better now than their records from the 80s – it was also impossible to get out of sulk mode for them. Their tunes are catchy, their choruses go to more interesting places than most current roots reggae acts do, and just when it seemed they were about to get bogged down in a vampy, simplistic rut, they finally hit a grey-sky, Steel Pulse-ish minor-key groove. But all that was no substitute for the group originally schedued to headline this bill.

Back at home base Barbes on Saturday night, singer Chi-Chi Glass provided solace in the form of an unselfconsciously psychedelic solo set that she opened with a segment from an Albeniz piano suite. From there she built a synth-and-cajon suite of her own based on a Peruvian folk theme, sang a revolutionary folk tune in Quecha and finally encored with a haunting setting of a Maya Angelou poem, part noir cha-cha, part classical tone poem, part eerie art-rock.

A Long, Strange, Psychedelic New York Week

In two parts

It’s been a psychedelic week. Any week can be psychedelic if you’re in the right frame of mind, it’s just that this one had music to match the surrealism of the dream state that’s been a daily reality for Americans since the election. Over the past several days, the former’s made it a lot easier to get through the latter.

Blick Bassy’s latest album is spare and pensive, offering no hint of how trippy and magnetic his live show would be. Introducing the Cameroonian singer in his New York debut at Lincoln Center Thursday evening, impresario Jordana Phokompe was clearly stoked to have finally booked him here after seeing him play at Womex a couple of years ago. It was worth the wait.

Colorfully and loosely garbed, red goggle shades perched on his head (he never put them on), he was a much more forceful and magnetic presence than his rather gentle and austere recent work would indicate. And the performance was infinitely more psychedelic. That Bassy would sing in his native vernacular – one of more than 250 languages, many of them endangered, spoken in his country – added to the enigmatic ambience. Yet emotional content, at least at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, were distinct, especially in a wrenching lament, and the long mini-suite of love songs that ended the show, his cat-ate-the-canary croon a dead giveaway.

For most of the set, he played banjo, fingerpicking it judiciously rather than frailing the strings bluegrass-style. Toward the end, he picked up what looked like a child’s model Telecaster  and fingerpicked intricate, rippling, kora-like upper-register phrases in a spiny, open tuning

That his trio would have such unorthodox instrumentation, let alone that trombonist Johan Blanc and cellist Clément Petit would put on such a wall-bending display of extended technique, raised the surrealism factor several notches. Blanc was in charge of atmospherics with his low, looming phrases, often playing through a loop pedal or switching to a mini-keyboard and mixer. At one point, he ran Bassy’s vocals through the keyboard and built a harmony line with them as he sang. Of course, Blanc could simply have sung that harmony part himself, but the strange effect would have been lost

Petit is Bassy’s not-so-secret weapon. There were a few places where he held down somber, ambered sustained notes, or threw off a jaunty glissando or two, but mostly he plucked out basslines. As intricate as they grew, Petit never got too busy, often fattening the sound via an octave pedal which sent his cello down low into a rabbit hole where cellos usually can’t go. And he didn’t limit his lines to blues or rock. Like the bandleader, he spiraled through some kora-like phrases, and for a second even evoked the otherworldly bounce of Moroccan gnawa trance music.

Bassy is a diehard fan of plaintive, intense American blues iconoclast Skip James, so it was no surprise that the highlight of the show turned out to be after some amusing stage shtick, where Bassy looped a couple of bars from an old James record and then played variations that took the song straight back to its African roots.

The next show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center is this Thursday, July 20 at 7:30 PM with a relevance much closer to home: Brooklyn-based, Gil Scott-Heron influenced Brooklyn hip-hop duo Quincy Vidal. The show is free, so getting to the space on time is crucial. 

After the Blick Bassy show, it was great fun to catch a whole set by cinematic psychedelic trio Los Crema Paraiso across the river. You can find out what happened in part two, here. 

Charming Disaster Bring Their Richly Detailed, Creepy Art-Rock to Joe’s Pub

Singer and ukulele player Ellia Bisker fronts uneasy existentialist soul band Sweet Soubrette – known for their delicious retro 60s horn charts – and also leads careening careening Balkan punk street group Funkrust Brass Band. She also harmonizes menacingly with guitarist Jeff Morris in Kotorino, who mash up latin noir and phantasmagorical circus rock. Lately, Morris and Bisker have been busiest in their duo project Charming Disaster, New York’s noir supergroup. As you would expect from a crew who specialize in murder ballads, suspense pervades their uneasily tuneful, richly arranged art-rock and parlor pop narratives. Sometimes they can be playful, other times downright macabre. Their latest album, the aptly titled Cautionary Tales, is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing Joe’s Pub on July 20 at 8 PM. Cover is $15.

While Charming Disaster typically tour as a duo, the album features some familiar faces from the Kotorino talent base, including bassist/drummer Don Godwin (better known as the world’s funkiest tuba player, from Raya Brass Band) and a brilliant string section of violinist Marandi Hostetter and cellist Noah Hoffeld. ]

The opening track, Sympathetic Magic, rises out of a stately web of guitar, uke and clever vocal counterpoint, a carefully detailed S&M scenario between two unlikely participants. No spoilers here.

Snake Bit is a concert favorite and one of their loudest songs, a snarling garage-psych anthem with a little latin and late Beatles flavor. Some of Charming Disaster’s charm is how Morris and Bisker trade off playing the villlain and victim roles, and this is a prime example.

With its blend of spiky Britfolk and prime 70s Bowie glam, Selene & Endymion is just as guitarishly ferocious, proof that dating a goddess isn’t all it’s made out to be. “When you’re asleep, sleep with one eye open,” the two harmonize at the end. They go back to mythology a little later on and further north with the grisly, apocalyptic Ragnarok. part Byrds, part Cheap Trick at their punkest.

Phosphorescent Lilies is a primo Bisker soul number, a swaying, allusive, blackly funny tale of medieval sacrifice. The Dylanesque folk-rock waltz Little Black Bird follows a surrealistic Brothers Grimm-style tangent. Days Are Numbered, an irresistibly funny mashup of Black Sabbath and lush chamber pop, is a spy story, at least on the surface, an apt tale for a surveillance state in the age of big data.

With its waltzing horror-movie music-box piano and danse macabre strings, Infernal Soiree is the closest thing to Orphan Jane grand guignol here. Awash in distant reverb, the starkly elegaic What Remains is the album’s best track, the shadow image of the frantic couple cleaning up the evidence in an earlier Charming Disaster gem, Deep in the High, from the duo’s debut album Love, Crime & Other Trouble. The final cut here is the grimly metaphorical, ineluctably waltzing String Break Song, Is this 2017’s best album? it’s one of them.

Good news on the Kotorino front, too – they’ve got a new album pretty much in the can, and an expected 2018 release date.

High-Voltage African and American Sounds From Central Park to the River

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.’s first song this past evening at Central Park Summerstage was Expensive Shit. As a literal, graphic condemnation of wretched capitalist excess and status-grubbing, it has few equals. Fela Kuti’s son and principal heir to the family Afrobeat legacy probably spat the word “shit” more times during the roughly ten minutes it took for the band to bubble and rise and finally bring the relentless underlying vamp to a close, than any other act has done at this venue in many years.

Kuti has been fortunate to sidestep the kind of brutal repression his father faced, but he’s no less fearlessly political. His second song, a defiantly triumphant pro-ganja anthem with a fervent refrain of “Lemme see your lighters,” was a red herring. The younger Kuti shares his dad’s withering sarcasm. He welcomed the audience into the era of fake news – “News that’s for profit,” he explained – by reminding that Nigerians knew all about it before it became part and parcel of White House correspondence. A little later on, introducing African Dreams – a broadside against western cultural imperialism – he snidely commented that “Conscious capitalism doesn’t exist.”

Leading an endlessly undulating fourteen-piece band, he took a quick turn on piano and then showed off a bracing, bitingly metallic tone and a no-nonsense, modally tinged sensibility on alto sax. The percussion section emerged stealthily from a quiet thicket and grew toward a stampede as the brass blazed, the electric piano rippled and the two guitars – one a tenor model for extra upper-register tingle – ran jaggedly circling melodies along with a similarly purposeful bass player, throughout what would become an unexpectedly abbreviated set.

Many people in the crowd – especially those who showed up to see the advertised headliner and consequently missed the guy they came for – were surprised not to see Roy Ayers headlining. He’s certainly earned that respect. He also didn’t get much more than three quarters of an hour onstage, leading his four-piece band through expansive takes of Red, Gold and Green, Everybody Loves the Sunshine and finally, Searchin’.

While he saved his most high-voltage playing for a long solo with Kuti’s band, the iconic vibraphonist who more or less invented noir psychedelic soul put on a clinic in purist, seat-of-the-pants tunesmithing, whether with endless volleys of bluesy triplets, rapidfire chromatics or playing against the beat. His band stayed pretty much on low-key, glimmering point, although they lost the crowd when they went off into warpy keytar spacerock and a snapping, popping, faux Bootsy bass solo. They won them back again with a tight drum solo where the guy behind the kit played the whole thing one-handed, then with both sticks behind his back, finally flipping them forward over his shoulders, and kept going without missing a beat.

Hometown opening act Underground System justified the ambition of sharing a bill with two more-or-less iconic acts through the afternoon’s longest set, a mix of original Afrobeat with a more straight-up funk tune or two and also a whirling Italian womens’ rights anthem. Frontwoman/flutist Domenica Fossati really worked up a sweat with her dance moves; if she was a sheik, her last name would be Yerbouti. Guitarist Peter Matson and keyboardist Colin Brown pinged and rippled and threw off a few clouds of toxic noise, drummer Yahoteh Kokayi and percussionist Lollise Mbi held the beast to the rails while the horn section – including baritone saxophonist Maria Christina Eisen and trumpeter Jackie Coleman – smoldered and sputtered and bassist David Cutler ran simple, emphatically circling riffs that would have made Fela proud. Their high point was the brassy Rent Party, something Fossati said the band knew a little something about. From there they segued into their most ominous, dynamically shadowy number of the afternoon.

Afterward, many faces n the crowd went west to the Hudson, where Innov Gnawa – the only Moroccan drum-and-bass trance band in this hemisphere – played what amounted to the afterparty. In more than ten years of concerts at Pier One at 70th Street and the river, it’s impossible to think of another show that had so many people dancing, from toddlers to oldtimers.

And they did that to ancient animist and Muslim themes originally dating from thousands of years ago in sub-Saharan Africa, sung in Arabic to the hypnotic pulse of sintir bass lute and cast-iron qraqab castanets. This was a slightly smaller subgroup of the band, Moroccan master Hassan Ben Jaafer taking turns with his similarly agile protege Samir LanGus riffing on the low strings. Some of the songs worked a tension between octave notes, others bounced and swayed along with crescendoing call-and-response choruses. As the night went on, Ben Jaafer subtly introduced all sorts of tricky polyrhythms and suspensefully allusive chromatics hinting but never quite crossing into Egypt.

Qraqab player Amino Benyalmani sauntered into the dancing melee midway through the show and taught everybody some snazzy moves, complete with a split-second squat in the middle – and by the end of the show, a lot of people had all that pretty cold. Innov Gnawa’s next gig is at Prospect Park Bandshell this Friday night, July 21 at 7:30 PM where they’re opening for wildly popular, microtonal psychedelic Malian band Amadou & Mariam. The next show at Summerstage is tomorrow night, July 17 where 90s noiserock icons and occasional cinematic soundscapers Yo La Tengo hit at around 8. Be aware that there’s an opening act; doors at 6 for those not willing to take chances.

A Powerful, Spellbinding, Paradigm-Shifting Asian Art-Song Evening Tonight at the Lincoln Center Festival

From singer Gong Linna and the Bang on a Can All-Stars‘ new album Cloud River Mountain, it seemed that last night’s release show at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival would have been all about the drama. Sure, there were plenty of spectacular peaks from the fearless Chinese singer and her American backup band, but there were equal amounts subtlety and dynamics in a mix of distinctly Chinese-flavored and just as distinctly western material written by Lao Luo and the Bang on a Can organization’s three-headed monster: Julia WolfeMichael Gordon and David Lang.

There’s just as much of a campy thread through Chinese theatre music as there is in its western counterparts, but Linna doesn’t go there – at least not for this show, anyway.  Varying her delivery from a breathtaking, gale force attack to meticulous, hushed melismas, she held the crowd rapt.

Many of the songs were based on the Asian pentatonic scale: some vividly incorporated the blues scale as well. yet many of them eschewed any kind of Asian reference. The lyrics, mostly in Chinese, were taken from the work of the poet Qu Yuan, whose wild imagery, evocations of river gods and spirits and sun falling out of the sky raise the question of whether ganja had made its way north from India by the third century BC. If not, opium definitely had.

They opened with Luo’s suspensefully vamping, allusively chromatic, crashingly crescendoing Darkness and Light, Linna swooping up and down, the band echoing her; then drummer David Cossin’s 7/4 stomp kicked in. Part ancient Chinese theme, part Mars Volta and part Iron Maiden, maybe, it gave Linna a chance to fake out the crowd with her nuance and a couple of false endings as cellist Ashley Bathgate and clarinetist Ken Thomson flickered and swiped behind her.

Gordon’s When Yi Shot Down the Sun turned out not to be a fiery metal tune but an uneasily waltzing, lyrical pastorale lowlit by washes of guitar, cello and clarinet. Lang’s The Lady in the Moon opened in the same portentous vein as the concert’s first number, awash in resonant guitar, stark cello and clarinet and quickly rose to dramatic heights even as the band held back, bluesy Moody Blues art-rock riffs interspersed with Linna’s high-powered insistence.

Shivery, microtonal low-midrange ambience kicked off Luo’s The Lord in the Clouds, finally punctuated by a stygian piano accent from Vicky Chow. To the band’s infinite credit, they resisted the urge to take the hammering melody completely over the top into grand guignol, choosing achingly tense Asian ambience until a final anguished, hammering conclusion.

Wolfe’s Into the Clouds built slowly and hazily to a hydroponic bluesmetal guitar solo from Mark Stewart, Jimmy Page juxtaposed with Thomson’s crystalline pastoral clarinet colors. Water Mountain, an instrumental co-write by all four composers blended Chow’s harplike piano cascades with soaring clarinet, echoey psychedelic guitar and guest Nie Yunlei’s sheng, a sort of supersized Chinese harmonica. building to a triumphantly cantering cinematic theme.

Linna held nothing back in Gordon’ s insistently pulsing River, played with impressive terseness by the band. Luo’s River Earl was a slight return to pastoral shades and trick endings before a bittersweet chorus, the most vivid and darkly cinematic art-rock number of the night. Linna finally rose out of the haze with a fevered, anguished wail

Tilted, by Julia Wolfe was awash om suspenseful atmospherics and creepy melismas from  Linna. The group built David Lang’s Girl with Mountain ever so slowly – remember, it takes a long time to climb a mountain – reaching terrified, majestic heights anchored by Chow’s steady, jabbing piano. They encored with the wildfire, galloping syllabication of  Luo’s Mountain Spirit The show repeats tonight, July 15 at 8 PM at the Lynch Theatre at Fordham Law School, 524 W 59th St. west of 10th Ave. $25 tickets are still available; if you can find a train to get you into Manhattan tonight, you would be crazy to miss this.

Cutting-Edge Vocal Jazz Tunesmithing with Singer/Composer Annie Chen at Cornelia Street Cafe

Annie Chen’s music is as individualistic as it is ambitious –  and it is very ambitious. Being one of the few Chinese-American jazz singer/bandleader/composers out there might have something to do with it. Her show last week leading a first-rate quintet at Cornelia Street Cafe was a revealing and often riveting glimpse at how much she’s grown both as a writer and singer in the last couple of years.

Chen loves contrasts, and cinematic narratives, and bright, translucent themes that she takes to a lot of unexpected places. She has a soul-infused voice with a little vibrato trailing off for effect in places. English is still relatively new to her, but she sings as an instrumentalist and doesn’t let linguistic challenges get in the way. There’s a persistent if distant angst in a lot of her work, counterbalanced by her friendly, charismatic presence and sardonic sense of humor out in front of the band.

Chen vocalized enigmatically against a spiky, circling Marius Duboule guitar figure as the opening diptych Mr.Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning got underway, then introduced an understatedly triumphant crescendo over a swaying, subtly samba-tinged groove that eventually launched a sailing Nathaniel Gao alto sax solo with a terseness to match Chen’s own bobbing melody. Polyrhythmic pairings between drummer Deric Dickens and Duboule’s jagged clang over bassist Michael Bates’ increasingly dark, dancing drive brought the song home.

Chen slowly launched into Orange Tears Lullaby with a low, moody resonance over another circular guitar intro, Gao adding peppery phrases against the beat, then mirroring Chen’s brooding atmosphere as the rhythm section kicked in with an incisive, propulsive vamp.

Next was Chen’s own arrangement of the big 1980s Taiwanese pop hit Gan Lan Shu (Olive Tree), a bittersweet peasant-in-the-big-city tale, toyed with the rhythm, her nuanced mezzo-soprano delivery ripe with anticipation but sobered by reality. Her own composition Leaving Sonnet also channeled mixed emotions: longing for home but hope for the future in new surroundings. A harried, stairstepping vocal theme gave way to a calmer pulse colored by the sax, rising and falling in and out of an uneasy waltz.

The one standard on the bill was a moody, languid but emphatic interpretation of the ballad You’ve Changed, Chen underscoring how much of a kiss-off anthem it is. Duboule is a big fan of Chinese tea, and the author of a tea-inspired suite. His composition Tie Guan Yin turned out to be a clinic in lavish chords and pastoral splashes over a simple blues pattern steamed up by Dickens’ cymbals. Chen, a tea drinker herself, endorsed how aptly the song conveys the experience of drinking deep and savoring the flavor.

The group closed with the best song of the night, Ozledim Seni, Chen’s flurrying vocal riffage over Duboule’s broodingly kinetic, Balikan-infused guitar echoed by Gao’s eerie modalities as the rhythm expanded. Jazz anthems don’t usually get this catchy or intense. Chen is somebody to keep your eye on; watch this space for upcoming shows.

Pokey LaFarge Brings His Ruggedly Individualistic Americana to Williamsburg Tonight

Last night in between sets at Bowery Ballroom the PA played Los Mirlos’ creepy, otherworldly version of Sonido Amazonico, which is both the national anthem of cumbia and sort of the Peruvian equivalent of Take Five. A little later, the song was Don Gibson’s 60s country-pop hit Sea of Heartbreak. Both perfectly foreshadowed a deliriously fun show by rugged Americana individualist Pokey LaFarge and his fantastic seven-piece band.

On one level, what LaFarge plays is retro to the extreme, a mashup of early 50s hillbilly boogie, western swing, hot 20s jazz, vintage New Orleans soul, honkytonk, Tom Waits, Tex-Mex, mambo and a little southwestern gothic and noir bolero for deliciously dark contrast. On the other hand, there’s no one in the world who sounds like LaFarge: he’s taking a bunch of well-worn, familiar styles and creating something brand spanking new.

His band is amazing. Drummer Matthew Meyer energized the crowd with a pummeling Wipeout interlude. Bassist Joey Glynn drew a lot of chuckles with a punchy solo that quoted both the Who and the Violent Femmes. Midway through the set, LaFarge explained that he’s hardly the only good songwriter in the band, then left the stage for a smoke break or something. So banjo player Ryan Koenig switched to electric guitar and played one of the night’s best numbers, a gorgeously rueful oldschool honkytonk song about smalltown anomie titled This Main Drag (or something close to that).

Saxophonist Ryan Weisheit switched from alto to smoky baritone, to maybe tenor – it was hard to see through the crowd. Trumpeter Luc Klein played all sorts of wry effects with his mute. And lead guitarist Adam Hoskins adrenalized the audience with axe-murderer volleys of tremolo-picking, masterfully precise bluegrass flatpicking and fiery blues.

The songs really ran the gamut. With his matter-of-fact baritone, LaFarge doesn’t overemote. He added a little twang on the country numbers, and took a few Roy Orbison slides upward in one of the sad ballads, but he doesn’t try to sound like anybody else. And he only took a couple of guitar solos, but he made those count. A lot of the material was from LaFarge’s latest album Manic Revelations, including the title track, an unapologetic populist anthem, and the more upbeat but even more savage Silent Movies, a jauntily swinging nonconformist manifesto for an age where the performer onstage is reduced to a pretext for the selfie clusterfuck on the floor. Just so you know, there was none of that at this show.

Something in the Water – a subtly gospel-infused portrait of a hoosier chick who “drinks malt liquor for lunch and dinner,” and Manic Revelations, the title track to LaFarge’s previous album – went over well with the crowd, a refreshingly muiti-generational, multicultural mix of typical 99-percenter New Yorkers.

The band did Actin’ a Fool closer to subterranean homesick Dylan than the oldtimey swing of the album version. One of the night’s high points was a slowly crescendoing, blue-flame take of the flamenco-infused waltz Goodbye Barcelona. After LaFarge brought the lights down with a muted solo fingerpicked version of the cautionary ballad Far Away. “They’’ll lure with their eyes, and trap you with their thighs,” LaFarge intoned. He wound up the set with a rapidfire take of the triumphantly scampering Drinking Whiskey.

The encores were just as energetic and businesslike: an Allen Toussaint/Lee Dorsey soul-shout, and a choogling cover of Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell. They’re doing this again tonight at around 10 at Rough Trade. If you want a rare asshole-free night out in that neighborhood, this is it. Tix are $25 at the door and worth it.