New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

32 Concerts in 32 Days: Day 12

Sunday might seem like a slow day for concerts, but that’s not necessarily true. A week ago Sunday, there was a glut of good 9/11 memorial shows. This past weekend, after a long and somewhat exhausting Saturday of bluegrass followed by the gypsy music show afterward at Drom, it was time to chill. And what better chillout music than a concert of classical organ music, in the lofty confines of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine? It’s a bit of a hike if you’re not in the neighborhood, especially if the 1 train is all messed up. But Sunday, everything was fine, especially when Ray Nagem stepped up to the console and delivered a gorgeous, semi-thematic, frequently hypnotic program.

I’ve been proselytizing for organ music ever since I saw my very first concert at Notre Dame in Paris. I can’t remember who the organist was without looking it up, but I’ll never forget the piece: Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm. Its theme is revenge, and it sold me for life. Since then, little by little, I’ve been introducing my friends to the organ repertoire and it tickles me somewhat to say that while most of them may not be as crazy about it as I am, everybody likes it. Maybe it’s all those low tonalities, which as you may know have a powerfully relaxing effect on the body – slower heart rate, lower blood pressure, the works. Nagem’s performance of the atmospheric pieces on this particular bill had a potently calming effect, beginning with the swirling finale from French composer Marcel Dupre’s Suite in F Major, following with three attractively tuneful, low-key “canon studies” by Schumann and then a delightful, unfamiliar piece, Arvo Part’s Annum per Annum (Year After Year). Bookended by long, sustained chords that faded the first time and then swelled gloriously on their way out, Nagem maintained a rapt, distant majestic feel throughout the subtly shifting ambience of the middle passages.

Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 537 for all you Bach fans out there) brought back a lush, hushed atmosphere until the fugue kicked in, picking up the energy level with its endlessly suspenseful volleys of call-and-response. After that it was back to rapt, starlit beauty with Louis Vierne’s classic Clair de Lune, an otherworldly lunar soundscape that almost imperceptibly turns warmer, more in the style of a lullaby (Vierne wrote one of those too – it’s great!).

Nagem ended on what seemed to be a somewhat devious note with John Philip Sousa’s Washington Post March. Even if you don’t know it by that title, you know it – it’s been a Sunday morning cartoon theme, and the melody for a whole bunch of playground jump-rope rhymes, since forever. It was as if Nagem did it on a dare – and with some imaginatively shifting textures, as it turned out. Cheesy as it is, it was still impressive seeing how he’d actually put the time into turning it into something more than sonic graffiti. Regular, free organ concerts at the Cathedral continue most Sundays at 5:15 PM sharp except for holidays: it’s always best to check the church’s site for updates before heading up to Harlem.

Roger Davidson Brings the Party to Drom

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without at least one trip to the New York Gypsy Festival. In its seventh year now, it might be the consistently best music series in this city – especially since it isn’t just limited to gypsy music. This year’s has included Eastern European jazz, gypsy punk, Macedonian fusion and flamenco funk, to name a few styles. And it’s still going on: with five more concerts left, the organizers are selling the remaining festival passes for $25, which at $5 per show is a ridiculous bargain, considering that these include a triplebill with A Hawk & a Hacksaw, Dark Dark Dark and Pillars and Tongues on the 28th at the Bell House and the 29th at Drom.

Is it sacrilegious to say that klezmer is great drinking music? If so, too bad. That’s what composer/pianist Roger Davidson and his all-star band played at their Gypsy Festival appearance at Drom last night. If the room wasn’t sold out, it was close to capacity, the crowd growing as the night went on. Minor keys, or for that matter waltz time, have seldom been so much fun. Davidson’s latest album On the Road of Life is his first adventure in klezmer, and like his bandmates, he’s expanding the style to incorporate other equally ecstatic styles: Russian, Hungarian and other European sounds from further west. As he told the audience, he feels like he’s part of a bigger picture, a constantly evolving tradition that he’s just happy to be part of. His band was as bracing and intense as you would expect from a group with Frank London on trumpet, Matt Darriau on clarinet, Patrick Farrell on accordion and Pablo Aslan on bass plus mandolin, cimbalom and drums.

Davidson REALLY likes 3/4 time, and he redeemed it, over and over again, although frequently those songs would suddenly burst into flames and go doublespeed or four-on-the-floor. The first opened dark and stately, the accordion carrying it until London’s trumpet took over with a jaunty ragtime flair. Darriau got a solo spot thrown at him, completely unprepared – and it might have turned out to be his best one of the night. Likewise, Davidson picked this spot for his best one of the evening as well, nimble and ecstatic, firing off a couple of furious glissandos up and down the keys at the end, clarinet and trumpet joining in a dixieland raveup. That got the party started.

Aslan took a lickety-split, rumbling bass solo for a couple of bars on the scurrying romp that followed, London blazing a path through the darkness on the slow, austere number after that. The trumpeter had introduced Davidson to The Lonely Dancers, which might have been the most unselfconsciously gorgeous tune of the evening, a Russian melody that they built to a lush, brooding majesty and then took down to just Aslan against the accordion and terse piano (the whole band was seldom playing all at once, so when they hit a swell, the effect was intense). Davidson gave a catchy, tiptoeing tune a funky edge before they took it doublespeed with the horns whirling; a little later, they did a particularly mesmerizing version of his nocturne Night Journey, its atmospherics finally punctured by Darriau’s blazing crescendo. They closed with the rapt, suspenseful Equal in the Eyes of God, a tricky, Serbian-inflected dance, then another one of those brooding waltzes with balalaika-ish mandolin, and finally Harvest Dance, whose wicked riff lingered long after the show had ended.

And as it turned out there was another act: London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, who are as wild and intense as you would think and don’t really need any press since they’re legendary in klezmer and Balkan circles. And at that point, sadly, there were other places to go and things to do.