The New York Gypsy All-Stars Bottle Their Magic
The New York Gypsy All-Stars’ new album Romantech was worth the wait: it’s been a good five years since they did a studio recording. As you might expect, this is a good approximation of their incomparable, sizzling live show: in a city full of exciting bands, they are one of the best. As you might also expect from a band with members from Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Manhattan and Brooklyn, what they play is modern-day gypsy music, like what you’d hear in a club in Sofia or Istanbul, with electric bass and keys behind the lightning-fast, adrenaline-rush attack of clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski and kanun (Middle Eastern dulcimer) player Tamer Pinarbasi. Who knew that this project, originally put together as a house band for the first New York Gypsy Festival by impresario Serdar Ilhan, would still be thrilling crowds almost ten years later?
The title track takes a bouncy traditional tune and after a lusciously ringing Pinarbasi intro, fills it with spicy, lickety-split clusters of chromatics. Rather than indulging in Dave Matthews-style funkdaddy cliches, bassist Panagiotis Andreou swoops up elegantly and holds the notes, anchoring the song as Lumanovski spins and dives acrobatically, rising to a warily shimmering microtonal crescendo at the end of a verse. They segue into the steady, swinging Smiles, by Lumanovski, Jason Lindner’s distorted keys mimicking an electric guitar, Lumanovski sailing apprehensively over elegant kanun until the two join forces. Lumanovski’s blistering solo here is just one of many: to say this is a feast of scorching reedwork is an understatement.
Pinarbasi’s Cross Winds is more balmy yet also more moody, Lumanovski negotiating the thicket of tricky rhythm with uncanny ease, Pinarbasi adding suspense as they take it down to just the kanun and up again. Another one of his compositions, Revival is a darkly swaying, polyrhythmic anthem juxtaposing biting kanun with drummer Engin Gunaydin’s steady groove and Lindner’s lush Dr Dre. synth textures. A Lumanovski original, Balkan Bollywood is basically a hypnotic two-chord jam, banjolike kanun against a swaying backbeat and an elegant conversation with Lumanovski as it winds out.
The album’s only cover, Orhan Gencebay’s Sen Sev Beni (Ciftetelli) manages to be laid-back and biting all at once, with a murderously fast, unhinged solo by Lumanovski (one of the world’s most effortlessly exhilarating players on any instrument) contrasting with the precision of the kanun and Lindner’s Bernie Worrell-ish synth. Live in concert, it’s a real showstopper and even more intense than this version. Another big audience hit is the traditional Macedonian tune Butchers, this version including an unexpected salsa piano solo, Lumanovski reaching for heights that eventually deliver stinging layers of overtones as he takes it to a sudden false ending. Pinarbasi’s funky NY9 features Lumanovski at his most aching, packed with circular breathing, ominous atmospherics and a torrential rainstorm of a kanun solo. Outcry, another Pinarbasi tune, builds from a wary, Middle Eastern flavored solo clarinet improvisation to a slinky groove anchored by Andreou’s smartly boomy chromatics, Lindner matter-of-factly buildling a long launching pad for the kanun and clarinet to spiral away from deliriously, ending on an unexpectedly majestic note. The album ends winds up with Lumanovski’s EZ-Pass, a vivid motorway scenario. A cynic might say that the band made this because they needed more merch to sell at shows: if that’s the case, they’ll run out of these sooner than later. In the meantime, this is your chance to grab it before it ends up on every music blog’s best-of-2012 list. The New York Gypsy All-Stars make Drom their home base: watch this space for upcoming shows.