New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

A Magical Pauline Oliveros Chorale That Every Musician Should Sing At Least Once

If you think that group improvisation is challenging for an instrumentalist, try doing that as a vocalist – along with about hundred and twenty other singers. Friday afternoon at the Cloisters, WQXR’s Nadia Sirota led a determined ensemble of college kids, tourists and at least one proprietor of a music blog through two performances of Pauline Oliveros’ 1971 improvisational chorale Tuning Meditation, the shorter of which will be broadcast on Sirota’s Meet the Composer.

The intimate sonics and medieval polished marble ambience of the Fuentidueña Chapel there made for a choice of venue that did justice to the composer who fine-tuned the concept of deep listening. Beyond a few gaggles of college-age friends, it didn’t appear that any of the singers knew each other. While it also wasn’t clear what percentage of the participants were trained or had performing experience, many of them, especially the women, turned out to have strong and expressive vocal range. Having been in the audience at what might have been Oliveros’ final New York performance – a lustrously crafted, largely improvisational set in Fort Greene in 2015 where she played accordion alongside members of International Contemporary Ensemble – there’s no question that she would have found this experience validating.

The instructions for the piece – an etude, essentially, designed to build listening and collaborative skills – were very simple, Sirota explained. You take a deep breath – in both senses of the word – then you hit a pitch of your choice (and hopefully maintain it). Your second note matches one sung by one of your choirmates; your third is a pitch that has not been used before. Barely a minute elapsed before the slowly but methodically shifting blend of voices had combined to produce just about every note that a human voice can reach.

The music itself was enveloping, and otherworldly, and often absolutely magical, in both an unselfconscious and very self-conscious way. The latter became a central issue because the singers started out rather tentatively, no one ever reaching for the rafters throughout about twenty-five minutes worth of music. But in the context of this performance, cutting loose and belting wouldn’t have worked.

Which was a challenge, as anyone who’s ever fronted a band, or sung in a choir, or harmonized around a guitar or a piano would realize. It’s one thing to stay on key while you’re projecting; it’s another thing to hold a long tone quietly. But everyone was game, and stayed focused to the point that a rhythmic cycle developed, the echoey mist of notes contracting toward a center and then expanding outward.

What was it like to be part of the choir? It was hard work, not only singing alongside some terrific voices, but matching their pitches and resonances. Ironically, it was more daunting to find a rhythm within the music’s elegant sway than if there had been a steady beat to follow. It was also easy to get hopelessly lost: was that last note supposed to be a new one, or a match for somebody else’s? After awhile, it became hard to keep track. As the improvisation went on, higher pitches began to stand out, as women in the crowd became more expressive – or had run out of lower notes. This resulted in extra sparkle and lustre – and also created the need for balance on the low end.

Which is a biased argument. If you buy the premise that low registers should be utilized whenever feasible – a stereotypical bass player-like point of view – that development opened up plenty of space for extra anchorage in the bass clef. Which is where the opportunity to cheat and go off script proved irresistible. If you manage to catch Sirota’s broadcast and hear a long series of simple, long-tone variations on the E below middle C during the last five minutes or so, let’s hope they’re on key. If not, you know who to blame.

As a participant, what was the takeaway? Oliveros’ etude is everything she meant it to be, a great exercise in listening, and vocal control, and being a good bandmate in general. It’s worth repeating, especially if your own creative music is limited to playing an instrument. Any group of people can do this, anywhere: the glorious natural reverb of an old stone chapel is a luxury option.

While this performance certainly qualified as microtonal, trying to sing microtonally turned out to be anything but easy. An internal autotune kicked in, along with a tendency to resolve to a nearby pitch. Clearly, to paraphrase Wadada Leo Smith, the tyranny of the key of C runs deep. So here’s a variation on Oliveros for the microtonally-challenged:

1. Take a deep breath and exhale the note of your choice.

2. Choose a pitch just a hair lower or higher than your neighbor’s, but not a sharp or a flat in the western scale. It could be a halftone, or a quartertone, or something more shady. And hold it!

3. Take that note you just sang and sharp it. 

4. Repeat steps 1-3!

Jim Allen Brings His Edgy, Metaphorical, Sardonically Purist Songwriting to a Rare Fort Greene Gig

The sound guy was drunk by the time Jim Allen hit the stage at around eight. That was back in 2003 at a long-gone Williamsburg hotspot, the Blu Lounge. Surprisingly, the building’s still standing. The first-floor venue space is a liquor store now.

When the sound guy’s girlfriend showed up, the two chatted and made out through most of the set. Until the encore, where Allen reinvented the old ELO radio hit Don’t Bring Me Down as a stark blues. By the second verse, the sound guy was bugging out.

That same year Allen put out his Wild Card cd (which is still available and streaming at Spotify). Tim Robinson’s neo-cubist front cover art is a black-and-white afterwork street scene: the joker in the deck has his jacket open enough to reveal some color. The back covers shows Allen out behind what appears to be one of the far west warehouses on 28th Street, Liberty Island out of focus in the distance behind him. The cd booklet photo captures Allen curbside, sitting in what’s left of a refrigerator with the door ripped off. Loaded images for a guy who’s made them his stock in trade for a long time.

In the years past, Allen has not been idle. Most recently, he’s fronted a fantastically catchy retro new wave band, Lazy Lions. And his solo work, which is sort of akin to a hybrid of Graham Parker and Dale Watson, is stronger and more lyrical than ever. Allen loves double entendres, aphorisms both old and brand-new, and litanies of images that weave a yarn, often a grim one. Where is this clever, often hilarious wordsmith and tunesmith playing tomorrow night, Jan 22? City Winery, or maybe the Rockwood,, right? Nope. The Beacon, a gig he’s more than earned over the years? No. He’s playing at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Fort Greene. As a bonus, Tim Simmonds – who’s fronted both Captain Beefheart cover band Admiral Porkbrain as well as his own tight new wave/powerpop band, the Actual Facts – plays afterward at 9.

Listening back to Allen’s fourteen-year-old album reveals how well it’s stood the test of time. The best song on it is The Verdict. It’s a slow country ballad set in a courtroom. The narrator’s on trial for being stuck on some girl, and Allen makes it apparent that he’s going to get what he deserves. Which is what, exactly? The answer’s too good to give away. The album’s worth owning for that song alone – it’s a genuine classic.

The rest of the album’s good too. It begins and ends with metaphorically-charged commentaries on the elusive nature of fame. “You can keep your crown if it’s the thorny one,” Allen bristles on the opening number, King of the Jews; he doggedly plans on finding a “hidden spring” early on in the gospel-tinged final song, No One for Me. In between, Marc Rubinstein supplies honkytonk piano and bluesy, swirly organ, Steve Alcott’s pedal steel soaring over the purposeful pulse of drummer Barbara Allen, Pemberton Roach reminding why he’s one of the alltime heroes of new wave bass.

Allen follows with the simmering swamp blues I’ll Need You Then – as in “when the shit has well and truly hit the fan” – a showcase for his soul-infused baritone. There are a pair of murderous anthems. The first is A Little Bit of Love, where Allen encourages a down-and-out rival to go find Jesus, because “Maybe you can room with him.” The second, A Thousand Ways, is every bit as spot-on:

Chain him to a desk and share each week for forty hours
It won’t be long befor you have to send his family flowers
…or make him black and put him in the City of New York

There’s also the zydeco-tinged workingman’s lament Where the Heart Is; the Rockpile-style shuffle Black Black Sea; Blue Neon Light, which is Allen’s Swinging Doors; the drony, psychedelic Looking At You; the brooding, ominous, delta blues-flavored It Might As Well Rain, a big fan favorite at shows; and the jauntily snide blues Little Green Circles. Allen’s back catalog is consistently strong, but this might be the most solid one of the bunch, start to finish.

Paula Matthusen and Terri Hron Bring Sounds to Get Lost In To the Lower East Side

Like most composers these days, Paula Matthusen gets commissioned to write for all sorts of projects, from film and video to dance. Maybe for that reason, her latest album Pieces for People – streaming at Spotify – is very eclectic. Much of this you could call ambient; minimalism works too. It’s a clinic in how to have maximum fun with getting all sorts of different textures out of a single note or simple phrase. If you’re around this weekend or just back from the march on Washington and need to chill out, Matthusen and woodwind player Terri Hron are doing an electroacoustic set at Spectrum at 3 (three) PM on Jan 22. It’s a fair bet that they’ll do some of the material from the album, and there’s a reception afterward. Cover is $15.

The opening number, Sparrows In Supermarkets, features Hron’s playfully flitting lines reprocessed and spun back as a percussion instrument of sorts; as the piece goes on, it develops into a warmly enveloping Brian Eno-esque soundscape. James Moore plays the distantly Asian-tinged, microtonal Limerence solo on banjo: as with the previous piece, Matthusen uses an echo effect as a percussion track. It builds to a toweringly hypnotic peak in the same vein as much of Moore’s work with the Dither guitar quartet.

Jamie Jordan provides tenderly nuanced, melismatic vocalese on The Days Are Nouns, backed by Mantra Percussion‘s echoey, vibraphone-fueled resonance. The first half of a diptych for the Estonian National Ballet, AEG (movements III & IV) features pianists Kathleen Supové and Yvonne Troxler mingling uneasy, loopy, increasingly insistent piano phrases. Vocalists Molly Shaiken and Tiit Helimets exchange droll spoken-word nonsequiturs in English and Estonian over backward-masked long-tone motives in the second part.

Organist Wil Smith plays another Eno-esque diptych of sorts, Of Architecture and Accumulation, a feast of timbres: airy, keening, smoky and distorted, and subtly oscillating, gently spiced with ominous close harmonies. Then Smith pulls out all the stops for a mighty, strolling, slo-mo fugue before winding down gracefully.

Wim Boerman conducts the Orkest De Ereprijs playing Corpo/Cage. A funny rainscape sequence and playful variations on brassy loops eventually get mashed together, more or less: it’s the album’s most epic track. The final piece is the elegaic In Absentia, Troxler’s broodingly spaced, plaintively plucked phrases over violinist Todd Reynolds‘ atmospherics. Turn on, tune in, get lost.

Smart, Cutting-Edge Tunesmithing at Manhattan’s Most Comfortable Listening Room

Much as the world of singer-songwriters has shrunk, in the wake of the death of the big record labels – call it a market correction – Manhattan still has a great listening room for solo acoustic acts and small string bands. That venue is the American Folk Art Museum, just a few steps from the uptown 1 local to 66th Street, across the triangle from Lincoln Center. Their mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series starts at 5:30 on the nose, goes to about quarter after seven and spans the world of folk music, from vintage Americana, gospel and blues to bluegrass, original songwriters and sounds from all over the world. That’s why this blog picked the museum as Manhattan’s best venue for 2016.

Jessi Robertson, with her harrowing narratives of angst and despair and her otherworldly, soul-infused wail, is the star of the show there on Friday the 29th. She’s a surprisingly funny performer for someone whose music is so dark and intense. She’s as captivating as the three best acts to play the space over the past few weeks: Joshua Garcia, Dina Regine and Anana Kaye.

Garcia held the crowd rapt throughout his brief set there last month. He has a flinty, clipped vocal delivery that’s bluesy without being cliched. He sounds like a throwback to the artists from the 1950s who influenced Dylan, but whom Dylan couldn’t quite figure out how to copy, at least vocally speaking. Along with a handful of populist anthems and nostalgic character studies, Garcia’s most riveting song was That’s the Way You Drop a Bomb. Told from the plainspoken perspective of one of the the crew of the Enola Gay, Garcia nailed every detail, right down to the pilot’s admonishment not to watch the explosion on the ground, the mushroom cloud or the firestorm afterward. Except that Garcia’s crewman had a conscience.

Dina Regine is best known as one of the pioneers of EDM, but her songwriting is vastly more interesting. On that same bill, she played solo acoustic on guitar, unselfconsciously making her way through a fearlessly populist set that made a great segue with Garcia. Shadowy vamping post-Lou Reed grit stood alongside warmly familiar retro 60s soul and doo-wop tunes, everything anchored in Regine’s background as a daughter of the Queens projects in the 1970s. She’s reputedly working on a new album which, if this set is any indication, promises to be just as eclectic and relevant as her last one.

Last week, Anana Kaye opened the night flanked by a couple of guys on rhythm and lead guitar. With her raccoon-eye makeup and circus rock outfit, she looked the part, but she transcends the theatrics of that cubculture (that’s a typo, but it works, right?). As a pianist, she really has a handle on uneasy, cinematic voicings that sometimes reach lurid, bloodcurdling depths. The best song in her tantalizingly brief set was Down the Ladder, a cruelly haunting desperation anthem. The most playful was Blueberry Fireworks, an aptly surrealistic shout-out to a gradeschool-aged friend with a vivid imagination. The more low-key material in her set reminded of Tom Waits while her upbeat, carnivalesque numbers reminded of a strummy, guitar-driven, lyrically infused Rasputina or female-fronted World Inferno. Kaye’s next gig is on Feb 15 at 8 PM at LIC Bar in Long Island City.

Lush, Lavishly Ambitious Big Band Jazz With Miho Hazama & M-Unit at Lincoln Center

Pianist/organist/conductor Miho Hazama writes big, blustery, fearlessly energetic big band jazz themes. Her music is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word: sophisticated, individualistic and innovative. There’s no one in the world who sounds like her. She loves dynamics – despite the heft of her compositions, half the time only half of her band, or even smaller subsets of the group, are playing. She loves bright, catchy hooks, and her material is obviously a ton of fun to play: a good percentage of New York’s top big band jazz talent comprise her epic large ensemble M-Unit. They have a gig at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Jan 25, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is pricy, $30, but this group is worth it. It’s good to see such an interesting band getting a chance to play to a more or less captive audience.

It was a lot of fun to catch the group playing one of the series of midday shows at another midtown spot, at St. Peter’s Church on the east side, back in August. Coventional wisdom is that musicians don’t really wake up til the sun goes down, but the group was a the top of their game despite the relatively early hour. Their first number, Mr. O opened with momentary pageantry from the strings, then quickly gave way to a clustering piano theme beefed up by the ensemble, then down to a bustling, bouncing alto sax solo over the rhythm section. Hazama’s chart gave the group a chance to have fun throwing big, bright splashes of color against the sonic canvas, piano adding a solo that rose to breathless, towering heights. A yakuza gangster undercurrent added devious suspense.

They followed with an enigmatic piano theme over a syncopated clave beat, vibraphone carrying the melody over a lustrous backdrop with hints of both Russian Romanticism and cheery 70s Philly soul, hitting another suspensefully rippling piano-and-rhythm-section interlude before the piece rose again. Like her colleagues Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck, Hazama loves unorthox pairings of instruments: this one featured bass clarinet in tandem with violin.

The string quartet opened the number after that, then backed as a moody flugelhorn solo quickly turned into a clever Rodgers and Hart quote. As the strings rose toward the end, a sense of melancholy and longing developed, increasing as the music dipped to the strings and piano. That’s typical of how counterintitively Hazama works.

Maybe predictably, Hazama’s earliest composition on the bill followed the set’s most trad, swinging trajectory. The most ambitious was the title track to her lavishly brilliant 2012 debut album Journey to Journey, anchored by a tensely circling piano riff while individual voices shifted in innumerable directions, an uneasily dancing alto sax solo in the center of it all. The group dipped to a charming, balletesque exchange of pizzicato strings, then rose to a vintage 70s soul riff and an explosive outro.

There was plenty of other material on the program, but that’s where the recorder ran out of juice. And it was hard to hear the band intros to keep track of who was playing what in the boomy church basement space. That won’t be a problem in the plush sonics at Lincoln Center.

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.

The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.

The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.

Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!

Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.

It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.

A Hauntingly Allusive New Album and a National Sawdust Show From David Smooke

David Smooke explains the premise of his fantastic, eclectic new album,  Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – streaming at Bandcamp – as being an exploration of “unreal landscapes that sonic events can evoke.” Smooke takes his title from a series of grimly allusive training dioramas in the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s Office. As troubled, picturesque, cinematic music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this in 2017. As a demo reel, this album should score Smooke  a long list of clients in film and video if he wants the commissions. He and several of the ensembles on the album – including the mighty Peabody Wind Ensemble, a stormy chamber group comprising brass, winds and percussion, are playing the album release at 7 PM on Jan 22 at National Sawdust. Advance tix are $25.

Smooke’s axe is the toy piano. He ranks with Phyllis Chen as one of the few people to get the absolute max out of that improbable instrument. The album opens with the title composition, a concerto for toy piano and the big ensemble. It’s a real showstopper: if you ever wondered what a toy piano sounds like while being tortured, this will open your eyes. Horrified Bernard Herrmann tritone cadenzas punctuate thunderous swells from the brass, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and the toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.

The second number is Transgenic Fields, Dusk, played solo with characteristically detailed attention by pianist Karl Larson. It’s a mashup of Debussyesque clusters, understatedly kinetic Andriessen clock-chime phrases and long, stygian, tentatively stairstepping Messiaenic passages: a reflection on baby raptors turning into big ones someday, maybe?

The album’s most twisted moment is A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, sung with deadpan Tourette glee by Jefffey Gavett against the marionettishly dancing winds of his indie chamber ensemble Loadbang. Some Details of Hell, an orchestration of a Lucie Brock-Broido poem, is delivered with knifes-edge stateliness by chamber group Lunar Ensemble with some dramatic flights to the upper registers by soprano Lisa Perry. As the epic Down Stream methodically unravels, Smooke becomes an increasingly dissociative one-man anvil choir, his toy piano over calm, distant drones.  Michael Parker Harley’s multitracked bassoons build an increasingly bubbly, allusively nocturnal tableau in 21 Miles to Coolville, the album’s final cut. What a deliciously dark late-night playlist.

Saturday Night at Golden Fest: Best Concert of 2017, Hands Down

Game plan for last night’s big blowout at this year’s Golden Fest was to see as many unfamiliar bands as possible. That wasn’t difficult, considering that there were more than sixty Balkan and Balkan-influenced acts playing five different spaces in about eight hours at Brooklyn’s magnificent Grand Prospect Hall. The way things turned out, it was fun to catch a few familiar favorites among a grand total of fifteen different groups. Consider: when the swaying chandelier hanging over Raya Brass Band looks like it could crash on top of them at any second, and sax player Greg Squared has launched into one of his signature, supersonic volleys of microtones and chromatics, and singer Brenna MacCrimmon is belting at full throttle over a machinegunning beat, there’s no resisting that. You just join the line of dancers, or step back, take a hit of tequila  – or whatever your poison is, this is a party – and thank the random chance that you’re alive to see this.

If you’re hell-bent on being a counterintuitive concertgoer, you can kick off the evening not with the fiery brass music that the festival is best known for, but with something along the lines of the brooding Romany and klezmer guitar folk of charismatic singer Zhenya Lopatnik’s four-piece acoustic band, Zapekanka. Their set of Romany laments, drinking songs, and a folk tune that foreshadowed Django Reinhardt turned out to be a lot more bittersweet than the Russian cheesecake whose name they’ve appropriated.

It was good to get a chance to see Niva – kaval player Bridget Robbins, tamburists Corinna Snyder and Kristina Vaskys and tapan drummer Emily Geller – since they don’t play out as much as they used to, considering their members are busy with other projects. This was a recurrent theme throughout the festival. A straw poll of informed participants picked percussionist Jerry Kisslinger as king of the night, so to speak: he was scheduled to play with seven different groups, jams not included. He wasn’t part of this band. The quartet joined voices for about a half an hour of ethereal close harmonies over hypnotically circling rhythms, a mix of Macedonian dances and tunes from just over the Bulgarian border, even more lavishly ornamented with bristling microtones. Meanwhile, the circle of dancers in the upstairs Rainbow Room – much smaller than the venue’s magnificent ballroom – had packed the space to almost capacity.

Driven by Gyorgy Kalan’s austerely cavorting, rustically ornamented fiddle, the trio Fenyes Banda kept the dancers going with a mix of Hungarian and Transylvanian numbers. As raw and bucolic (yet at the same time very musically sophisticated) as that group was, it’s hard to think of an ensemble on the bill more evocative of a get-together in a village square in some distant century than Ta Aidhonia. The mixed choir harmonized in a somewhat subdued, stately set of Thracian dances, backed only by bagpipe and standup drum. The dancers didn’t quite to know what to make of this in the early going, but by a couple of songs in they were back out on the floor.

By half past eight, it was finally time to make a move downstairs for the mighty Kavala, who played a considerably more contemporary update on late 20th century Macedonian brass music, propelled by electric bass and drums. Trubas bubbled and blazed through fiery chromatic changes until finally, practically at the end of the set, star tenor sax player Lefteris Bournias took one of his signature, wildfire, shivery solos. Back upstairs, Ornamatik took a similarly electric sound further into the 21st century, the music’s fat low end anchored by nimble five-string bassist Ben Roston and frontwoman/trombonist Bethanni Grecynski. Their slinky, shapeshifting originals brought to mind Brooklynites Tipsy Oxcart (who were also on the bill, and deserve a shout for their incendiary, stomping set of mostly new material at Barbes Thursday night).

While the Roma Stars entertained the dancers in the big ballroom with woozy P-Funk synth in addition to the brass, ageless Armenian-American jazz sage Souren Baronian held the Rainbow Room crowd rapt. The octogenarian reedman’s most mesmerizing moment came during a long, undulating modal vamp where he took his clarinet and opened the floodgates of a somberly simmering river of low-register, uneasily warping microtones. And then suddenly lept out of it with a hilariously surreal quote – and the band behind him hit the chorus head-on without missing a beat. As far as dynamics and judiciously placed ideas and unselfconscious soul go, it would be unfair to expect other musicians to channel such a depth of feeling.

Although two of the acts afterward, Eva Salina and Peter Stan, and tar lute player Amir Vahab’s quartet, came awfully close. While his singer bandmate reached gracefully for angst and longing and also unrestrained joy, Stan was his usual virtuoso self. At one point, the accordionist was playing big chords, a rapidfire, slithery melody and a catchy bassline all at the same time. Was he using a loop pedal? No. It was all live. That’s how the duo are recording their forthcoming studio album, reason alone to look forward to it. Vahab’s wary, panoramic take on classic Persian and Turkish sufi themes, and his gracefully intense volleys of notes over twin percussion and otherworldly, rippling kanun, continued to the hold the crowd spellbound

By this time in the evening, many of the dancers had migrated to an even higher floor for the blazing, often completely unhinged and highly improvisational South Serbian sounds of the Novi Hitovi Brass Band. By contrast, Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band rose to the challenge of following Raya Brass Band’s volcanic set with a precise, wickedly intricate performance of their own all-original material, complete with their shoutalong theme song to close on a high note. Trumpeter/bandleader Sam Dechenne’s command of microtones and moody Balkan modes matched Greg Squared’s devastating displays of technique, if in a somewhat more low-key vein.

Hanging in the smaller rooms for most of the night while the biggest names on the bill – organizers Zlatne Uste and trumpeter Frank London’s klezmer ensemble on the top end – entertained a packed house in the ballroom, reached a haunting peak with  a vivid, hauntingly serpentine, all-too-brief set of Syrian exile anthems and lost-love ballads by levantine ensemble Zikrayat. Frontman/violinist Sami Abu Shumays led the group through this alternately poignant and biting material, the night’s furthest divergence from the Balkans into the Middle East, with his usual sardonic sense of humor and acerbic chops.

Finally, at almost two in the morning, it was time to head down to the main floor for the night’s pounding coda, from the night’s most epic act, massive street band What Cheer? Brigade. At one point, it seemed as if there were as many people in the group, gathered onstage and on the main floor as there were dancers, all romping together through a handful of swaying brass anthems that were as hypnotic as they were loud. The group’s explosive drumline had a lot to do with that. By now, the tequila was gone; so was a pocketful of Turkish taffy and Lebanese sesame crunch filched from one of the innumerable candy bowls placed around the venue by the organizers. Although everybody had been on their feet all night long, the remaining crowd looked like they really could have gone until dawn if the music had kept going. As the party did: a couple of rounds of ouzo and Souren Baronian classics on the stereo at a friends’ place up the block turned out to be the perfect way to wind down the best night of the year, musically speaking.

Night One of Golden Fest 2017: A Darkly Danceable Feast

It’s four in the morning as this is being written. Opening night of this year’s Golden Fest – the annual gathering of Balkan bands from around the world in Kensington, Brooklyn’s majestic, old-world Grand Prospect Hall – ended riotously about three hours ago with stomping, original brass band West Philadelphia Orchestra. Tonight is the big megilla, which starts at six, and tickets are still available. If you can afford to, go. It’s probably the best concert you’ll see this year in New York, maybe anywhere.

The overall experience last night was also old-world, in all the best ways. Eighty-year-old grandmothers danced with twenty-year-old dudes and gradeschool kids from what appeared to be every corner of the globe. Through five nonstop hours of music, the circles of line-dancers kept expanding, to the point where those who weren’t dancing either had to join the line or step off the dance floor. It was amazing how well about half the audience had the steps down cold, many of which are in meters considered to be very odd – at least from a rock or hip-hop point of view. The other half of the crowd were obviously somewhat mystified, but couldn’t resist joining the line and bouncing along. There were no judgments and lots of impromptu learning going on. And the music was sublime, as it has been since the festival was launched twenty years ago.

The most lustrously beautiful solo of the night came early, during a dance lesson: one of the truba players from Zlatne Uste, the original gangstas of New York Balkan bands, was responsible. The most dazzling display of technique, among hundreds of those, was the wild series of glissandos from West Philadelphia Orchestra trumpeter Koofreh Umoren. Their sousaphone player, Jimmy Parker, has terrifying chops as well, at one point taking an intro that hit notes that big fat low-register horns aren’t supposed to be able to reach, not even close. That beast of a band made a good headliner: in a short, barely half-an-hour onstage, they finally gave the night’s younger contingent the chance to cut loose to a pretty much straight-up 4/4 beat after an evening of the hypnotic kinetics that started a little after seven. Although a grandmother who looked about seventy was having plenty of fun taking a circle of oldsters down, down, down: how do you say “rock lobster” in Serbian?

Triage is the name of the game here. Tonight’s show features literally scores of bands on four separate stages: you can see a little of everybody, or focus on your favorites from around the world. Last night was a chance to hear four of the most exciting American – or mostly American – groups in the field, along with a goosebump-inducing opening act from Bulgaria. Zurla oboe virtuoso Milo Destanovski led that ensemble, Novi Maleshevski Zurli, through an otherworldly, booming vortex that was as ancient-sounding as it was sophisticated, both rhythmically and melodically. Like most of the music of the Romany people, Destanovski’s group plays microtonally, building an acidic mist that often brought to mind Moroccan jajouka music, rising high over a looming, stygian tapan drum pulse. Right from the start there were dancers out there, and they knew what to do.

The mighty, almost twenty-piece Zlatne Uste have been playing and writing their own rat-a-tat cocek dances and ominously resonant minor-key epics since the 80s. This is their festival, and this was their moment to remind everybody that their music is just as memorably eclectic as their collective address books are vast. A big Romany anthem was the centerpiece of a dynamic mix of acerbically chromatic minor key romps and an unexpectedly blithe, bouncy closing number, the band in the center of the dance floor, the eye in a growing storm of dancers.

Pontic Firebird – #bestbandnameever, right? – took the stage for what might have been the most expansive set of the evening. Jerry Kisslinger’s standup daouli drum and Paul Brown’s muscular bass kept a tight but slinky grip on the tricky tempos, beneath the serpentine lines of Adam Good’s oud and frontwoman Beth Bahia Cohen’s soaring, often searing microtonal violin. Then Good went down on the floor, switched to bass and anchored the similarly intense, even more microtonally magical sounds of Bulgarian band Cherven Traktor, fueled by gadulka fiddler Nikolay Kolev’s uneasy leaps and his wife Donka Koleva’s robust, elegantly ornamented vocals against Belle Birchfield’s spiky bandura lute and Zlatne Uste maven Michael Ginsburg’s sturdy tapan beats. Each of these acts will return in various spaces throughout the hall tonight: see you in the Rainbow Room at around 6:30!

Aurelio Brings His Irresistible Garifuna Grooves to Lincoln Center Next Week

This coming Thursday, Jan 19 at 7:30 PM there’s a killer dance party at the atrium space at Lincoln Center just north of 62nd Street. And it’s free. Over the past year and a half or so, these more or less weekly, sometimes more frequent shows have really caught on, and you have to get there a little early to get a seat – sometimes simply to get in. While crowds here are large and enthusiastic, security never lets the space reach the point where it’s cramped and there’s no room to move around. If you get there in time this Thursday, you will be golden, because the artist onstage is Aurelio.

Aurelio Martinez fronts the Garifuna Soul Band from La Ceiba, Honduras. They play Garifuna coast music that often sounds like bachata at doublespeed, although it has many other flavors, like pretty much all styles from that part of the world. There are echoes of roots reggae in the long vamps, and sometimes in the beats when it slows down, but it’s not reggae. Same deal with the salsa influence. Most of it is upbeat and irresistibly fun, although Aurelio’s band uses a lot of dynamics.

The last time this blog was in the house at an Aurelio show, it was the spring of 2015 downtown at the World Financial Center atrium where the Bang on a Can Marathon used to be held. Aurelio plays with the same kind of bright, stinging acoustic guitar tone – almost like a twelve-string – that’s typical in bachata. And he’s fast, firing off one long spiral after another. Sometimes he did that in tandem with his sensational lead guitarist, who shifted between joyous, bucolic Veracruz folk-tinged licks, Cuban-influenced interludes, starry reverbtoned psychedelia and on a couple of numbers, built an uneasy, echoey, dub-tinged atmosphere. That made for a striking contrast with all the scampering dance tunes, bringing to mind Burning Spear at his darkest and most Ethiopian-flavored in the mid-70s. Which makes sense in context: the Garifuna people have retained much of the African culture their ancestors brought with them after being kidnaped by 18th and 19th century slavers.

Surprisingly, despite all the props he gets for his chops, Aurelio only took a couple of solos, leaving the lengthy guitar breaks to the lead player. As the show went on, there were a couple of points where the band took it down to just the percussion section, which really got the crowd going. Aurelio’s bassist delivered a scrambling, nimbly melodic pulse that was the closest thing to classic salsa dura that anyone in the group was playing. The bandleader interacted with the crowd a lot; there was some “por ahi, por alla” type stuff, occasionally juxtaposed with some surprisingly dark, considerably more low-key, almost noir moments. If Aurelio hasn’t changed his steez in the eighteen months since this concert, the Lincoln Center show ought to be much the same.