The highlight of many highlights of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival is this Saturday night, the 22nd at 7:30 PM when Romanian gypsy brass orchestra Fanfare Ciocarlia play their first New York concert of the decade – and their first in almost a decade – at the Schimmel Center at Pace University downtown on Spruce St. It’s expensive – $35 – but it’ll be worth it: tix are available at the box office and also online.
Fanfare Ciocarlia have a reputation for an explosive live show to rival Gogol Bordello. They’re the kind of band who battle other bands, talking trash and playing faster than anybody else. Their two most recent albums are a scorching live set from 2009 and a 2011 Balkan Brass Battle with the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar. And although both records are intense to the extreme, they’re also surprisingly subtle, musically diverse, and have a viciously sarcastic edge. The Brass Battle album’s most adrenalizing number is Suita a la Coibanas, where the horns play at warp speed – metal guitar shredders would be jealous of how fast, and how tightly they do it. And then they speed up, again and again – and with literally pinpoint precision, without hitting any clams! It’s a hardcore polka, which is what the groove turns into as it spins closer to going out of control but never does.
Serbian brass father-and-son team Boban and Marko Markovic add another level of slashing chromatic wildness, throughout a funky Balkan brass version of the James Bond theme, a noir cabaret take on Duke Ellington’s Caravan, lickety-split, bloodthirsty “Dances from the Monastery Hills” and couple of cruelly satirical spoofs of dance music, Disco Dzumbus and I Am Your Gummy Bear. The album ends with the menacing cumbia slink of Asfalt Tango – the song that launched a label.
The live record is just as intense. They vary the moods – it isn’t all just murderous chromatic vamps with one sizzling solo after another (although that’s a big part of the picture). And they also give the band a break with several quieter interludes, most of them humorous to some extent, whether a faux Cab Calloway take on Gershwin’s Summertime, or an irresistibly amusing version of Nicoleta, where they take a silly vaudevillian riff and use that as the basis for the entire jam. The interplay between the horns is intricate beyond belief, and the alto saxophonist – who swoops down out of nowhere and absolutely destroys an entire brass section on the second track, Ruseasca Lui Filon – has a slashing power to rival anyone in jazz. The band trades birdcalls on their signature anthem, Ciocarlia and wows the crowd with a series of dragstrip accelerations on the wryly titled Hurichestra. But the best part of the album is when they really hit their groove with a series of raw, snarling Balkan numbers and the intensity simply doesn’t let up, with plenty of room for soloing – even the band intros serve as a launching pad for pyrotechnics. This music isn’t for the faint of heart, but if adrenaline is your thing, Fanfare Ciocarlia are unsurpassed.