New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: January, 2014

David Krakauer Reinvents Oldschool New York Movie Music Downtown

David Krakauer is one of the most exhilarating clarinetists in town. His career spans the worlds of klezmer, classical music and jazz. His shows fronting the band Klezmer Madness in the 90s are legendary. He’s also New York to the core. His forthcoming album The Big Picture celebrates New York-centric film music from across the ages, a mix of well-known and obscure treasures, recorded with a killer band. He also has an intriguing residency coming up at the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown at 36 Battery Place (just north and west of Battery Park) beginning on Jan 29 and continuing on Wednesdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM through the month of February. Krakauer and a characteristically diverse lineup including Rob Schwimmer on keyboards, Sara Caswell on violin, Sheryl Bailey on guitar, Mark Helias on bass and John Hadfield on drums will be backed by original films by Light of Day and Cutting Room Films, turning the musicians-play-to-the-celluloid paradigm on its head. Tix are very pricy – $35, or $30 for students and seniors – but Krakauer’s preview of the program last month with a trio was characteristically and auspiciously invigorating.

One of the new album’s high points is Krakauer’s austerely waltzing, nocturnal take of the Ralph Burns interlude titled The Family, from the 1974 Lenny Bruce biopic, Lenny. Another is Honeycomb, the psychedelically funky, early 70s Herbie Hancock-style theme from Barry Levinson’s Avalon, written by Randy Newman. How do you do Body and Soul and make it fresh? Turn it into a slinky noir clarinet feature and swing it from a hint of a waltz to a Lynchian sway over the pulse of Jim Black’s cymbals.

Among the other tracks on the album, there’s also a nonchlalant Parisian accordion waltz titled Keep It Gay that goes doublespeed with a droll lickety-split vaudevillian flair. La Vita E Bella begins airily and moves to a warmly bossa-flavored groove lowlit by Adam Rogers’ guitar. Krakauer, Rogers and violinist Jenny Scheinman make a surprisingly upbeat, anthemic, Celtic-tinged dance out of the Love Theme from Sophie’s Choice.

Moving to the Ghetto starts as a grudging solo clarinet theme over a muted accordion backdrop and builds to an aching dance, then turns the haunting melody over to Scheinman and Rogers, who make lingering art-rock out of it. The band creates nonchalant wah funk out of Si Tu Vois Ma Mere, takes a tongue-in-cheek, sotto vocce march through a familiar Prokofiev theme, makes surf rock out of an even more familiar Fiddler on the Roof vamp and ends the album with Wilkommen, which moves from a nocturne into a swinging romp in seconds flat.

Everything here serves more or less as a launching pad for Krakauer’s swirling, crescendoing, sometimes achingly intense, sometimes subtly witty clarinet solos. The only dud here is a turd from the Barbra Streisand catalog that even this all-star cast can’t polish. These album tracks are just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of where Krakauer can take them. You’ve got more than a month to check all this out in a spacious, sonically superb auditorium.

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The Dog Society Go Fetch Beatles Themes

Brooklyn band the Dog Society really, really likes the Beatles. Which isn’t exactly a bad thing. They’re sort of a New York version of Oasis, taking pilfered licks from the Fab Four catalog and making anthemic stadium rock out of them. Their latest album Emerge is streaming at their Bandcamp page. They’re bringing their dramatic, catchy singalong sound to Drom at 8 PM on Jan 28; cover is a modest $10.

The album’s production and playing are tasteful and terse. Their frontman’s voice sometimes edges toward a faux British accent; lyrics are more or less beside the point. The opening track, Being Here is sort of acoustic Led Zep meets Oasis, a slowly swaying anthem with a tasty blend of jangly acoustic and electric guitars. A Good Friend starts out with a bouncy From Me to You pulse and then rocks it out. The Fuse Before works a cachy, insistsnt acoustic-electric Rubber Soul groove with a gloomy lyrical edge
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Scraped juxtaposes a spacious, echoey verse against a scorching Helter Skelter chorus, an attempt at a portrait of madness. From there the band segues into Pink Sun, a mashup of Strawberry Fields and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Oasis style. With its droll woodblock rhythm and quavery, processed vocals, Shade Grown is a darkly White Album-esque folk-pop anthem that seems to be about something that you would expect to find growing in the shade. The album’s catchiest track, Suffer a Smile, slinks along brightly, like an outtake from Someting Else By the Beatles with hints of country and a latin-flavored groove.

Spoken Word is not a poem but swirling, swaying anthem that’s closer to the 90s than anything else here. The band follows a brief three-chord acoustic tune with  Daymare, which makes a towering spacerock anthem out of Phil Spector pop changes. They keep the theme going with more of a glamrock feel through the vintage Bowie-ish Spaceboots; the album winds up with Salt, a soul vamp that would blend in well on Abbey Road. Let’s see – what are we missing? A Hard Day’s Night, maybe? On one hand, there’s no denying how catchy this band’s hooks are; on the other, a cynic could say that those hooks have been catchy for half a century.

A Tasty Bluegrass/Janglerock/Irish Blend from Chamomile & Whiskey

Central Virginia band Chamomile & Whiskey play a unique mix of newgrass, high-voltage Irish folk music and jangly rock.  Their album Wandering Boots is streaming at their Reverbnation page; they’re at Rock Shop on Jan 24 at 11 PM for a $10 cover,

The album’s opening track, Blue Ridge Girl is a briskly pulsing electric bluegrass tune with incisive mandolin and a surprisingly austere solo from fiddlet Marie Borgman. Dirty Sea veers back and forth between a darkly lively Irish reel with fiddle and whistle, and a backbeat country anthem. It’s cool to hear those sounds together, considering how much of a source one is for the other.

Impressions. another clanging electric bluegrass shuffle, has a similarly gorgeous, lush blend of electric guitars, banjo and fiddle. Long Day works a two-chord Just My Imagination vamp that rises on the chorus with more sweeeping strings, frontman Ryan Lavin channeling mid-60s Dylan with a brooding unease. Buckfast Tuesday is sort of an acoustic You Can’t Always Get What You Want – except that in this crazy tale, the band of burglars does.

The alhum’s title track makes fiery, anthemic punkgrass out of a doomed, minor-key country blues theme. They keep the edgy intensity going with the bitter anthem Sara Beth, which might be about a murder, or just a metaphorical one. Inverness, a purposeful, propulsive train song, sets Lavin’s surreal narrative over eerie, muted, staccato fiddle and more delicious layers of guitar: “Saw your face on a train, over on a seat by the windowpane, you were bettng races on the beads of rain.” he intones, and it just gets more surreal from there. The album winds up with the ominous, minor-key, swaying noir blues Second Lullaby, a booze-drenched singalong. This band has so much going for it: smart original tunesmithing, interesting cross-genre pollination and richly textured sonics that should come across well through Rock Shop’s excellent PA.

An Unbelievably Cool Playlist of Rare Rediscoveries from Peru

The Peru Maravilloso compilation sends a shout-out to the people of the nation that invented punk rock (largely unknown, but true) and the joie de vivre that that fueled the amazing music that kept that country’s citizens going through decades of repression under murderous dictatorships. Although there are some iconic bands and songs on this album, most of the tracks, dating from the 60s and 70s, are obscure and previously unavailable outside Peru. As you might expect, the majority of the tracks fall under the the broad category of chicha, the deliciously psychedelic blend of American surf music, Colombian cumbia and indigenous Peruvian flavors. But there’s also salsa, funk grooves, a track that sounds like a movie theme, and chicha band Los Ecos outdoing the Beatles on the surfy instrumental Me Siento Feliz, which you might know better as I Feel Fine. To call this a wild ride is a considerable understatement. The whole thing is streaming at Tiger’s Milk Records’ Bandcamp page.

The best song here is Los Zheros’ haunting beautiful Para Chachita, a slide guitar-driven shuffle that sounds more Russian than Peruvian (if you listen closely, you can hear the rhythm guitarist run out of gas as the song nears the end). Paco Zambrano y su Combo’s Meshkalina is a surreal, creepy treat: over a slinky minor-key East LA lowrider groove, Zambrano recounts how “We were having fun even though we were dying,” in good English.  Zambrano got his start in Amazonian legends Juaneco y su Combo, represented here by the reverb-drenched La Cumbia Del Pacurro, the late Noe Fachin playing ominously meandering lead guitar over droning, keening Farfisa. Toro Mata, by Lucia De La Cruz‘s orchestra, has a Vegas noir intensity, its flamenco riffs making the rounds of the entire ensemble, from the strings to the Spanish guitar to the piano and funeral organ.

El Zambito Rumbero, by Manzanita y Su Conjunto is another tasty, darkly reverberating psychedelic cumbia treat, the lead guitarist building suspense with his rattling tremolo-picking. Félix Martinez y sus Chavales’ La Gallina is a briskly bitter kiss-off to an unfaithful woman. The closest approximations of American surf rock here are El Chacarero, by Los Gatos Blancos, which is sort of Dick Dale airlifted to the jungle, while Los Fabulosos en Onda, by Aniceto y sus Fabulosos blends woozy tropicalia into what could be a loping Lee Hazelwood southwestern gothic theme.

Los Orientales’ catchy, clanging Bailando en la Campiña works a chicha tune around a droll car-horn riff, while Pedro Miguel y sus Maracaibos’ Piraña puts reverb-drenched trumpet front and center. John Benny y Los Ribereños’ Trinan las Golondrinas builds hypnotically from guitar salsa to an unexpectedly scrambling, frenetic guitar solo out.

Lucho Neves y su Orquesta’s early 60s Mambo de Machaguay is a famous cumbia that gets covered by a lot of bands; their original version is a catchy, simple mambo vamp with gusts from the brass and tumbling piano over a tight groove. On the salsa side, there’s a track by Chango y su Conjunto that swaps in a couple of electric guitars in place of the usual piano, and Zulu’s insistent, brass-heavy macho seduction theme Sueño de Amor. Not only is this a great playlist, it’s a valuable piece of history – and make you want to get to know these bands better. Or take a trip to Lima or Pucallpa with an empty packing crate.

Psychedelic Cumbia Legends Juaneco y Su Combo’s Feral First Two Albums Available for the First Time Outside Peru

In 2008, Barbes Records released the first collection of recordings by Juaneco y Su Combo ever issued outside of the strange and hitherto obscure band’s native Peru. Beginning in the late 60s, Juaneco y Su Combo were pioneers of a surreal, viscerally psychedelic blend of surf music, acid rock, Peruvian folk tunes, Colombian grooves and Cuban dances, which became known as chicha. The corn beverage whose name became attached to the music is sort of the Peruvian equivalent of malt liquor: the ghetto intoxicant of choice. Used as an adjective, it connotes exactly that: “ghetto.“ The chicha revolution in Peru mirrored what was happening at the same time with roots reggae in Jamaica or with turbo-folk in the Balkans: electric instruments and American rock influences transforming the local flavors. That, and planeloads of ganja.

Among the scores of amazing bands – Los Destellos, Los Mirlos, Los Wremblers and Los Diablos Rojos, among others –   playing chicha (or “cumbia sicodelica”) during its peak in the 70s, Juaneco y Su Combo were among the strangest and most feral. They dressed in Shipibo Indian costumes – a radical and considerably dangerous look to adopt, considering how brutally persecuted that population had been from the days of the conquistadors through the dictatorship of Juaneco‘s era. With keening Farfisa organ, tinny electric guitars and bass, the band mixed and ripped coastal Afro-Cuban chants, rustic mountain melodies, hypnotic jungle beats and spiky, glimmering, eerily reverberating surf riffage. Now, the Vital Record has made Juaneco y Su Combo’s first 1970 singles and ep, plus their 1972 full-length debut available for the first time ever outside of Peru as an eighteen-track anthology titled The Birth of Jungle Cumbia. These rare sides – remastered from collectible vinyl since the original masters were lost long ago – capture the band at their wildest, before any producer had the chance to tone down their sound.

As with most chicha bands, their songs are mostly instrumental: the band chants a chorus – usually about a girl, or partying, or local mythology – or somebody exclaims, “Tasty!” and that‘s about it. The occasional out-of-tune guitar, crunched chord or missed beat only adds to the raw spontaneity of the music, obviously recorded live and probably without any second takes. The top end of the Farfisa distorts a lot, and you can hear the engineer tweak levels or even the master volume on the fly.

The band’s de facto frontman, lead guitarist Noe Fachin, was a visionary tunesmith, but as a musician he wasn’t always the witch doctor he was reputed to be. If only he’d practiced more, or hadn’t gotten so stoned before he went into the studio for these sessions: one of the reasons Juaneco’s early material sounds so feral is because Fachin’s lead lines can be so unhinged, losing his grip on his incessant, signature hammer-ons and pull-offs, or wandering away from the beat. While he proved capable of playing with a lot more focus, ultimately we’ll never know what he could have become because on May 2, 1977, he and five of his bandmates were killed in the second horrible plane crash to hit their native Puycallpa in six years. Bandleader Juan Wong Popolizio- who wasn’t on that plane – had lost two family members earlier in an even more horrific crash on Christmas Eve, 1971, which in a cruel stroke of irony the band memorializes in one of the more subdued numbers here.

The first dozen tracks are the 1972 album. A vamping clip-clop groove illustrates the story of an Amazonian centaur woman being chased by the devil, who whips her for being promiscuous. Fachin makes primitive fuzzbox rock out of birdsong, then on the next track staggers his catchy minor-key vamps while Juaneco tells a “negra linda” how much fun his cumbia is. The Farfisa echoes Fachin’s lead lines in very close counterpoint for one of the album’s coolest effects on Me Voy Pa’ Trompeteros: “I’m heading up to oil country,” essentially, a shout-out to regional pride.

Bassist Walter Dominguez contributes a bouncy, cheery number about a pretty palm fruit vendor along with a dedication to his daughter Karina that’s part Byrds, part proto-salsa. This band listened very eclectically: there are echoes of the Ventures’ Out of Limits on Perdido en El Espacio and go-go music on Bailando con Juaneco. The bandleader plays roller-rink organ over a scampering cumbia beat on Rosita y Las Avispitas (Rosita and the Hornets), and also contributes the slow, haunting, bolero-tinged vocal number El Forastero (The Stranger), sung passionately by guiro player Wilindoro Cacique.

The material from the 1970 sessions is a lot more interesting, more melodically complex, closer to rock than electrified Peruvian folk or cumbia, and Fachin is on top of his game even if the boomy sonics aren’t up to the level of the album from two years later. The lead guitarist’s deviously matter-of-fact, spiraling solo slowly pans from left to right and back on Sirenita Enamorada (Mermaid in Love) and he adds a dark chromatic edge to his phrasing on Guajira Loretana. Juaneco’s La Incognita is the most Cuban-flavored track here, followed by the aptly spritely La Danza Del Yacuruna (Dance of the Evil Water Spirit).

The final two tracks comprise the band’s first single. Romance Shipibo (the b-side) is darkly psychedelic folk-rock with a clattering Peruvian groove. And while Fachin’s happy-go-lucky shuffle Aguita de Manantay might bring to mind a babbling brook, the tributary in question was actually fetid and disgusting. Since Juaneco lived nearby, this was a band joke. Oh yeah – you can dance to everything here, in fact you’re supposed to.

After the second plane crash, Juaneco regrouped with the remaining members, although their sound changed considerably. The band is still active in Peru, with Cacique still on lead vocals. Where can you hear this amazing stuff online? Ummm…there isn’t much of anything at the album page, but there are a couple of tracks at the publicists’ site.

A Supremely Good Surf Album by the Reigning Monarchs

Surf music may be a lot of fun, but there’s always been a dark underside to the style, from Dick Dale wailing away at ominous Middle Eastern themes, to the perennially popular horror surf of bands like Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion. The Reigning Monarchs don’t play horror surf, strictly speaking, but their music is evil. The two-guitar frontline of Greg Behrendt and Boston powerpopsters Letters to Cleo’s Michael Eisenstein fires off reverberating, snarling, menacing chromatic riffage over the hard-hitting rhythm section of bassist David Hawkins and drummer Blair Sinta. Their debut album Black Sweater Massacre is streaming all the way through at their site.

Much as their sonics are retro – vintage-sounding guitars, reverb everywhere, pummeling surf drums – the Reigning Monarchs have an original and distinctive sound. For one, they use horns (Tower of Power’s Lee Thornburg on valve trombone, flugelhorn and trumpet and Eugene Toale on sax) to raise the dramatic effect on several of the tracks here. They also blend in elements of styles that didn’t exist until surf music was already retro. The brief opening track, It Might be the Perfect Now mixes surf and dreampop, a strangely effective hybrid they revisit later with the absolutely hilarious, tongue-in-cheek Tanya Donnelly. The brass first seems like it’ll be a distraction, but it works like a charm to raise the disquiet on the deadly biker rock theme Murder Your Summer, Eisenstein’s funeral organ whirling over Behrendt’s hammering menace. Likewise, Steakhouse Blues is a Lynchian low-rent Vegas roadhouse number with wild, unhinged tremolo-picking and a tricky false ending: it reminds of Beninghove‘s Hangmen.
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The album’s title track is a blistering noir tune, like a classier, more cinematic Ghost Scorpion, or a bollywood band doing surf.  It’s Always Gonna Rain works a backbeat cinematic highway theme, building to a crescendo where the two guitarists throw jangly phrases at each other before returning to a cynical Old West ambience. The intense, explosive Thuggery is sort of a Peter Gunne Theme for the teens, with a slashing, off-the-rails guitar solo midway through. Swamp Thing follows a cinematic path from bright and jangly to ominously lingering and then picking up the pace with a gallop.

Frankenstein Ska begins as awfully slow ska and ends as reggae, with noisy references to the Balkans and dub in between. Moto Guzzi rips the old pop standard A Taste of Honey, while the menacing, marching Roll the Tanks evokes Laika & the Cosmonauts at their most savagely sarcastic. The album ends with Bood Red Metal Flake, bookending more reggae with lurid chordal splashes and a squirrelly, flanged guitar solo. It’s early in the year, but we have a strong frontrunner for best album of 2014.

Globalfest 2014: Esoterica Rules

Globalfest, the annual celebration of high-energy, danceable music from around the world, grew out of the yearly booking agents’ convention. Youtube may have made live auditions obsolete, but every year the talent buyers for cultural centers across the country, along with the agents for a seemingly nonstop onslaught of global acts, still get together for an all-expenses-paid Manhattan party on the company tab. What’s most auspicious about this past Sunday’s edition of the festival at Webster Hall was the number of kids and random New Yorkers of all ages in the crowd. The booking agents drank hard and schmoozed: none of them seemed to be the least bit interested in the music. The kids, on the other hand, packed the main room for dramatic Bollywood pop revivalist orchestra the Bombay Royale, explosive Kiev folk-punk ensemble DakhaBrakha and even more explosive Romany brass band legends Fanfare Ciocarlia before cramming the downstairs space for darkly fiery Arizona desert rockers Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta.

What’s happened is that there’s been a sea change among audiences, and among young people. Hard to believe as this may seem, thirty years ago it was considered weird for an American to like reggae – unless you were of Jamaican heritage. Forget about the kind of ridicule you might have faced if, perish the thought, a classmate discovered that you’d been sending oodles of money through the mail for limited-edition, low-budget vinyl pressings of Ukrainian folk or Romany brass music – or, if you were really lucky, you’d found a fellow weirdo who’d let you make cassette copies from his or her secret stash. People were troglodytes back then, weren’t they?

The Bombay Royale’s 2012 album You Me Bullets Love is a psychedelic blend of classic 60s-style Bollywood dance numbers spiced with surf and garage rock. This show  – the dramatic eleven-piece Melbourne, Australia band’s New York debut – found them taking their sound forward another ten years into the disco era with a lot of new material. Period-perfect as they sound, all their songs are originals. Singers Shourav Bhattacharya and Parvyn Kaur Singh – decked out in snakeskin suit and sari, respectively – slunk and spun, traded coy glances and wry pouts while the four-piece horn section, led by alto saxophonist Andy Williamson, blasted behind them.

They opened with a cinematically marching blend of Bollywood and spaghetti western, with the first of pyrotechnic keyboardist Matt Vehl’s many surreal, woozy synthesizer solos. Bhattacharya and Singh duetted on a surfy minor-key number, showed off some dance moves to a swaying bhangra beat and then went deep into anthemic funk. They followed that with Bobbywood, a number that sounded a bit like an Indian disco version of the Rocky theme mingled with brooding cinematics. Trumpeter Ros Jones ended up taking the first of many of the night’s chilling, chromatic solos; a little later, Williamson animatedly traded licks with Singh’s vocals on a creepy downtempo ballad.

It’s hard to think of another band writing songs that mix chromatic Dick Dale surf with Indian-spiced go-go vamps. Their sitar player wasn’t audible for much of the show, but ended up adding a surreal, bluesy solo on one of the later songs. Bass player Bob Knob’s chords loomed ominously underneath a couple of the harder-edged, surf-oriented tunes,  guitarist Tom Martin switching in a split-second from a twangy, reverb-toned attack to scratchy funk lines. The crowd roared for an encore; they didn’t get one.

Word was that it had taken the intervention of a U.S. Senator to assure visas for all four members of DakhaBrakha (Ukraininan for “give-and-take”), but the effort was worth it. They drew the most applause of all the bands on the bill. Their percussion-heavy sound is balanced by the eerie, high, close-harmony vocals of drummer/singer Olena Tsibulska, keyboardist/percussionist Iryna Kovalenko and cellist Nina Garenetska. The band’s lone male member, Marko Halanevych, also sang and contributed on both percussion and garmoshka (a small Ukrainian accordion). Garenetska started by plucking out funky pizzicato bass but before long she was firing off long, growling, raspy, sustained lines punctuated by macabre swoops and dives. Likewise, their set followed an up-and down trajectory, beginning with a wary marching feel with apprehensively insistent vocals, then a trio of creepy dirges before growing louder and more assaultive. Their funniest moments had a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop flavor. The most intense song in their set built explosive give-and-take interludes between ominous drums, ghostly vocals and snarling cello, sinking to a rapt, sepulchral interlude before rising to a pummeling outro. They wound up with a silly but very well-received spoof of cheesy electronic dancefloor beats.

The pride of Romania, eleven-piece Fanfare Ciocarlia were tight and fast beyond belief. The world’s most exhilarating Romany brass band has a precision to match their outrageous tempos, and chops that most American jazz players can only dream of. The four-man backline of a tuba and three slightly higher-pitched trubas played a looming, ominous introduction for their clarinetist, who then launched into wild volleys of shivery chromatics before the rest of the band came on to join in the hailstorms of rat-a-tat riffage.

They’d stop and start, sometimes taking a song doublespeed and then doublespeed after that, other times switching between soloists in a split second. One of the truba players came to the front about midway through the show and added a rapidfire solo of his own. They began with a single standup drummer, then added another for extra firepower. One of the more senior of the four trumpeters sang a couple of ballads, or at least parts of them, before the rest of the orchestra blasted them into the ozone. Hurichestra, true to its name, became a launching pad for a series of abrupt accelerations that were almost exponential: that any horn player can play so fast yet so fluidly defies the laws of physics. They traded birdcalls on a relatively brief take of their signature anthem, Ciocarlia, then teased the audience with droll Balkanized versions of Duke Ellington’s Caravan (which they probably learned from the Ventures) and St. James Infirmary.

Downstairs, Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, backed by bass, drums, keyboards and a lot of pre-recorded stuff, played simple, low-key darkwave that, she said, was influenced by Siouxsie & the Banshees as well as Egyptian pop. The night ended with the feral southwestern gothic energy of Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, who put pretty much every other desert rock band to shame. The brass-fueled Tucson group pounced on a couple of noir-tinged, ska-punk flavored songs to open the show, then Mendoza put down his acoustic guitar and played surreal, macabre organ over a funereal bolero sway. From there they hit a lively, upbeat Tex-Mex groove that took a turn in a much more menacing spaghetti western direction when least expected, followed by an early Santana-esque psychedelic rock epic with long, space-reverb interludes for both organ and slide guitar.

The lead guitarist took an even longer, more murky, echo-drenched solo later on, then lit up a couple of more familiar southwestern gothic themes with some chilling slide work as memorable as anything Friends of Dean Martinez ever recorded. A long, slinky, pitchblende cumbia groove might have been the highlight of the night, although a similarly brooding, low-key bolero that might have been Mendoza‘s version of Besame Mucho was right behind. Addressing the audience in Spanish, singer/percussionist Salvador Duran explained that out in Tucson, or Nogales, where Mendoza comes from, everything is up for grabs: banda music, rancheras, cumbia, rock, you name it. They closed the set with a rapidfire return to a darkly shuffling border rock theme. This was Mendoza’s first New York show as a bandleader, hopefully the first of many.

Maqamfest 2014: Maybe This Year’s Best NYC Concert…Again

The theme for this year’s Maqamfest Friday night at the Financial District music mecca Alwan for the Arts was the influence of Arabic music beyond the Fertile Crescent. This year, festival creator, Alwan music impresario and trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar teamed up with the Center for Traditional Dance and Music to book an exhilarating evening that underscored the dynamic connection between music from the Middle East and eastern Europe.

As the night began, it was almost comical to see how the oldsters took over the venue’s lower-level auditorium while the all kids went two flights up to catch rubabist Quraishi’s hypnotically pointillistic Afghan folk and fusion-tinged originals. Downstairs, Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani kicked off the night with a richly eclectic mix of brooding Middle Eastern themes and blues-infused bop. While Yamani didn’t deliberately seem to be working any kind of overtone series with the piano – it can be done, especially if you ride the pedal – he proved to be a magician with his chromatics and disquieting passing tones. Bassist Petros Klampanis supplied an elegant, terse, slowly strolling low end while drummer Colin Stranahan nimbly negotiated Yamani’s sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring rhythmic shifts. The trio wove a tapestry of gorgeous chromatic glimmer through a couple of romping postbop numbers to a haunting, starkly direct piano arrangement of a theme by Said Darwish, considered to be the father of modern Middle Eastern classical music. The trickiest number in their set was the title track to Yamani’s album Ashur (the Assyrian god of death). Stranahan got the dubious assignment of carrying its cruelly challenging, almost peevish syncopation, but he ran with it and nailed it.

Next on the bill downstairs was luminous Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina, with her austere, meticulously nuanced, often heartwrenching original arrangements of Balkan and Romany folk songs and hits from the 60s. Upstairs, the kids were treated to a slinky, irresistibly fun set by Mitra Sumara, who played lush and frequently slashing Iranian pop and disco hits by Googoosh, Laila Farouhar and others, mostly from the early to mid 70s. Frontwoman Yvette Perez sang with a clear, resonant, sometimes seductive, sometimes angst-ridden tone: as she put it, all these songs were about impossible love. Keyboardist Jim Duffy fueled the most intense number of the set with his funereal organ lines, turning it into an undulating Persian take on Procol Harum. Bassist Sam Kulik held down a fat, often hypnotically minimalist low-end pulse beneath Bill Ruyle’s ringing, otherworldly santoor lines and guitarist Julian Maile’s insistent riffage, propelled by a swaying twin-percussion dancefloor groove. They ended the set with a biting, funky Zia Atabi number from southern Iran. At this point, the sounds of the band had filtered down to the lower level and much of the older crowd had filtered up to see what they were missing.

Sazet Band followed in the upstairs space. The Bronx-based crew are a huge attraction in the expat Romany community and took the energy a notch  higher. As their set began, with the band’s alto sax/clarinet frontline firing off machinegun riffage over an explosive twin-drum dance beat and a keyboardist playing generic fusion reharmonizations of Balkan chords through a cheesy synthesizer patch, was this going to turn out to be Macedonian Van Halen? As it turned out, no. Alto saxophonist Romeo Kurtali is a protege of Bulgarian legend Yuri Yunakov, and played with a similarly fluid, maybe even more breathtakingly fast attack than his mentor while clarinetist Sal Mamudoski made an even more aggressive foil with his raw, aching, fire-and-brimstone crescendos. Meanwhile, a technical malfunction had taken the synth completely out of the mix: it wasn’t missed. This reduced the band to just the horns and the drums, taking the sound back in time thirty years or more as they raced through whirlwinds of chromatically bristling doublestops, trills and microtones. Then they brought up a couple of guys to sing. By now, dancelines had formed along the side and in the back, and those who weren’t on their feet were bopping in their seats.

Downstairs, the evening wound up on a historically rich note with a set by the Alwan Ensemble, an all-star lineup of some of the foremost musicians in the New York Arabic diaspora. Their purpose – other than hanging out and drinking tea and other stuff, as ElSaffar grinningly alluded – is to trace the connections between classic Arabic sounds from Syria, Egypt and Iraq. ElSaffar began on santoor, later switched to trumpet and often played both in the same song, along with Zikrayat violinist Samy Abu Shumays, Zafer Tawil on qanun, Georges Ziadeh on oud and a couple of percussionists. Everybody got to to solo or start a number with an expansive, pensive taqsim, and everybody sang, including the audience. The group started matter-of-factly with a rustic Syrian pastorale, followed by a haunting, stately Iraqi suite of sorts told from the point of view of a guy whose girlfriend/dalliance leaves town with her caravan, the stricken narrator pondering whether or not to implore the leader to turn the entourage around and come back to town. Tawil sang a moody Zakariya Ahmad song originally done by legendary 1950s Egyptian chanteuse Laila Mourad; they closed with another Ahmad song from the catalog of Egyptian legend Um Kulthumm, a singalong in every sense of the word from the title to how the group and the crowd brought it to life, ending the show on a high note.

Maqamfest only comes around once a year, but the artists play around town frequently. The Alwan Ensemble make the venue their home base and have a long-awaited debut album due out later this spring; watch this space for news of an album release show.

Avi Fox-Rosen and Raya Brass Band Slay at Rock Shop

“Love is a word you use so you don’t hurt the feelings of the ones who like to say it more than you,” Avi Fox-Rosen sang nonchalantly, without a hint of sarcasm, over a bouncy, singalong, pseudo-theatrical pop tune, early in his album release show Thursday night at Rock Shop. “Love is as suspect as me,” he added later on. That’s Fox-Rosen in a nutshell. He’s sort of akin to Elvis Costello with better guitar chops. Both are purist pop tunesmiths with an encyclopedic bag of licks and ideas. But where Costello goes for lyrical gymnastics and umpteen levels of meaning, Fox-Rosen tells sardonically and sometimes grimly funny, aphoristic stories, and slips you the shiv when you least expect it. For example, the organ soul song that opened the set, So Fucking Happy: the implication is that this may be the only time in the guy’s life that he’s not miserable.

That song is sort of the title track to Fox-Rosen’s December album, his final release in a year that saw him put out an album a month (all up at his Bandcamp page as name-your-price downloads). That he actually pulled off this feat is impressive in itself; that the material he released was so strong catapulted him to the top of the Best Albums of 2013 page here. He’d pulled an excellent band together for this show – a melodic, eclectic basssist, the similarly diverse and tasteful Chris Berry on drums and Dave Melton channeling 60s soul grooves on organ and electric piano: these guys really get Fox-Rosen’s incessant references to decades of rock history.

The night’s second song was Baby, a twinkling lullaby from February’s ep that poked fun at the lure of returning to the womb: Fox-Rosen drew plenty of laughs from its “Suck and shit and sleep” mantra. On album, Fox-Rosen’s apprehensive playground narrative Ugly Duckling begins as a cabaret tune – this time, the band made fluid new wave out of it until they took it doublespeed into creepy, snarling, guitar-fueled circus rock territory. “The other ducks didn’t give a fuck, Brother Duck cursed my rotten luck,” Fox-Rosen intoned, deadpan and cool. But this little duck turns out to have unexpected bite.

College had a similarly tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, Fox-Rosen bemoaning his “worthless degree in esoterica” and the fact that living at home with the ’rents doesn’t exactly compare with studying in Paris. He kept a low-key but corrosive political edge going – “Are you proud to be American?” he challenged over faux-celebratory Huey Lewis-style 80s anthemic radio rock, Melton taking an lush, swirly organ solo.

Then Fox-Rosen shifted gears, showing off some impressively creepy surf rock chops and took a searing, intense, noisy solo on Everybody Dies, the most macabre song of the evening, Melton adding the occaasional jarring slasher-flick riff. They lost the crowd on the song after that – sometimes Fox-Rose’s satire can be so subtle that it’s hard to tell when he’s being serious or not, or a mixture of both. But he got everybody’s attention with the savage God Who Lives in Your Head, who’s a real sourpuss, watching you like a spycam and digging up as much dirt as he can.  He closed with Where Is My Parade, underscoring the song’s twisted carnivalesque side, a snide spoof of rockstar (or wannabe rockstar) narcissism. Fox-Rosen is at Bar Chord, 1008 Corteyou Rd. (Stratford/Coney Island Ave.), in Ditmas Park on Feb 6 at 9.

Afterward, Raya Brass Band gathered on the floor in front of the stage rather than on it, drew the crowd in and then played their asses off. “Do you do originals as well as covers?” a woman in the crowd wanted to know.  Trumpeter Ben Syversen paused: “We’ve been playing mostly originals, although we also play a lot of the traditional repertoire,” he hastened to add. That’s this band’s appeal in a nutshell: you’d assume that they were from East Serbia if you didn’t know they were actually from Brooklyn. A nonstop gig schedule over the past couple of years has made this scorching Balkan five-piece group incredibly tight. Syversen and alto saxophonist Greg Squared use extended technique – microtones, slides and lickety-split doublestops – that would make most jazz players green with envy. Tuba player Don Godwin’s funky, surprisingly bright tuba pulse fueled the nonstop groove along with the ominously booming clip-clop clatter of the standup tapan bass drum. Ostensibly there were sound issues with Matthew “Max” Fass’ accordion, but out in the crowd his swirls and rapidfire riffage were cutting through just fine.

A lot of the traditional material from throughout the Balkans pulses along on menacingly chromatic vamps, and Raya Brass Band does that as well, although their songs are a lot more complex. They don’t rely on a simple verse/chorus format, they love tricky time signatures and they jam the hell out of the songs. By the time the first explosive minor-key number was over, Greg Squared had already shredded his first reed. By the end of the set, there was something in Syversen’s mouthpiece – a piece of him, maybe? Talk about giving 100% onstage. The staccato twin riffage between the two horns had an icepick intensity, the two sometimes doubling their lines, sometimes pairing off harmonically. Fass led the band through an unexpectedly lush, lingering ballad that took all kinds of wary twists and turns before they brought back the marauding minor-key assault. The high point of the many originals was a slinky number with an austere Ethiopian flavor. The most exhilarating of the traditional tunes was a lickety-split dash through Mom Bar, which does not have anything to do with your mother although drinking is definitely involved. Raya Brass Band are at Golden Festival Saturday night at 11 PM and then play a 2 AM set at Freddy’s afterward.

Shana Tucker Brings Her Eclectic Cello Soul Sound to Brooklyn

Shana Tucker covers the much of the same ground from behind the cello that Esperanza Spalding does from behind the bass. Tucker distinguishes herself with calmly resolute, eclectic vocals and similarly eclectic songwriting that span the worlds of jazz, soul music and pensively lyrical chamber pop. She brings to mind the similarly diverse, tuneful vocal stylings of fellow cellist Marika Hughes with her group Bottom Heavy. Tucker and her band make a stop in Brooklyn on Jan 19 at 8:30 PM at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus; cover is $15.

Her latest album Shine is streaming all the way through at her site. Songs about “saving the children” are usually horrible – even Gil Scott-Heron couldn’t come up with a decent one. But Tucker’s Precious Ones does double duty as a parable for both the environment and the younger generation, with brooding sostenuto cello and tersely resonant piano over a brushed shuffle beat. The next track on the album, Fast Lane, is an acoustic guitar song, the verse reaching toward country, the chorus shifting abruptly toward soul music, Tucker’s voice shifting nimbly between each idiom. Bow Out Gracefully sways along with flamenco tinges, while the sardonically moody, bluesy waltz Repeat Again is bitingly funny. “Surprise surprise surprise, it’s not the ‘new yes,’ it really means no,” Tucker explains exasperatedly.

No Get-Back blends cello chords, echoey Rhodes piano and wah funk guitar into a similarly biting, insistent soul tune, while Simplicity sets gospel-tinged piano over a matter-of-fact, trip-hop tinged groove. Look Me in the Eye has a waltzing pulse and a wry Star Trek reference; the album winds up with the title track, a lushly attractive chamber pop ballad. The other tracks include November, which builds from a suspensefully jazzy intro into brisk Anita Baker-esque jazz-pop, and Just Go, mixing jazz sophistication, gritty oldschool soul and 90s-style trip-hop.