New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: September, 2015

The Dastan Ensemble Put on an Unforgettable, Intense Performance in Brooklyn

Arguably the best concert in any style of music in New York this year took place when the Dastan Ensemble brought an alternately stately, somber and exhilarating mix of new and ancient Iranian music to Roulette Saturday night. The esteemed four-piece group, which has been through a few lineup changes over the years but remains undiminshed in vision and intensity, was joined by up-and-coming singer Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, making a riveting and powerful New York debut.

Throughout the show, the group’s acerbic, often biting riffs and fiery flourishes were simple and vivid, closer to the tonalities of the western chromatic scale than the exotic microtones of Arabic music, although those appeared from time to time when the sound became the most ghosly and otherworldly. Hamid Motebassem, on tar lute, fired off bristling volleys of notes when he wasn’t trading licks with kamancheh fiddle player Saeed Farajpouri, whose own lines were more allusive and airy. Percussionist Pejman Hadadi got the crowd roaring both with his dry wit and his colorful but carefully crafted, intricately individualistic playing on a six-piece kit composed mainly of boomy tombak drums. Hossein Behroozinia played barbat (the Iranian oud) with a judicious, often white-knuckle intensity, like-minded consideration and purpose.

Motebassem contributed the absolutely haunting suite A Window, an epic, plaintively cresendoing work utilizing poetry by Forough Farrokhzad. Hadadi explained the 1960s firebrand poetess’ lyrics as embodying an ultimately hopeful vision for the equality of men and women:. Baseline prerequisite for human civilization, maybe, but not a concept one might necessarily think of originating in Iran. Then again, for centuries during the Middle Ages, that nation was the intellectual capital of the world.

When Mohammadkhani first joined in, she was so quiet as to be practically peeking in from the mix. Was this a fault of the sound system? No. She was establishing herself on the whispery end of a vast dynamic range, her meticulously melismatic inflections finally rising to a dramatic, explosive peak during the final minutes of the show. Throughout her many rises and falls, poised on her chair with a gentle confidence, she was impossible to turn away from. Meanwhile, the music rose from a stark, wounded dirge to an uneasy gallop. Long, slinky, downwardly trailing passages gave way to gripping round-robin solos, a purposeful stroll, then back to severe and up again, Mohammadkhani channeling raw outrage, defiant triumph and just about every emotion in between.

The second half of the program featured a similarly dynamic set of instrumentals by Behroozinia, livened with plenty of interplay, Farajpouri often delivering shivery swirls  in the same vein as Kayhan Kalhor, Mohammadkhani projecting with a gale-force power that drew the loudest applause of the night. They closed with the closest thing to a catchy pop song that they had – the expat contingent sang along – and encored with a brief, elegant improvisation on an enigmatic folk theme. Robert Browning Associates, who have been booking a terrific series of concerts by artists from around the world, have several other enticing shows coming up at Roulette. On October 3 at 8 PM there’s one of Spain’s leading flamenco guitarists, Antón Jiménez, On the 24th, also at 8 PM, west African kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso – a one-man orchestra of circular rhythmic riffage and intricate ornamentation – plays a rare solo show. Cover for each show $30/$26 stud/srs.

Two Sides of Iconic Trumpeter Frank London, Live and on Record

It makes sense that Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars would headline the finale of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival, starting at 7:30 PM on October 4 at the Schimmel Center at Pace University on Spruce St. in the financial district. The iconic trumpeter had already established himself in Balkan music before co-founding the original New York klezmer punk band, the Klezmatics. Since then, London has lent his firepower, wit and erudition to innumerable projects. One of the most quietly impactful and historically rich ones is Italian-born singer Shulamit’s album For You the Sun Will Shine: Songs of Women in the Shoah, which came out late last year. It marks the first release of the work of four women songwriters who chronicled their harrowing experiences, imprisoned during the Holocaust. One survived, two others were murdered, and the fourth is assumed to have perished as well. As you would expect, this is one of the most surreal and chilling albums ever made.

London and pianist Shai Bachar co-produced the album – four of whose tracks are streaming at Shulamit’s music page – recasting these pieces as art-songs. Bachar brings both a neoromantic plaintiveness and also a sense of the macabre that he uses delicately to raise the surrealistic factor. Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion supplies spare, purposeful percussion on a handful of tracks. Shulamit sings in German and Czech with equal amounts expressivneess and restraint: the common link among these songs is a crushing hope against hope.

The songwriter whose work is featured most prominently here is Ilse Weber, a popular Czech broadcaster and children’s author murdered alongside one of her sons in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944..What’s most striking, aside from the heartwrenching, plainspoken lyrical content, is how diverse her songwriting is. London’s bright, blue-sky lines and Bachar’s stately piano channel a distant parlor-pop charm that makes a crushing contrast with the songs’ theme; at times, the band will mirror the crushing sarcasm of her lyrics with a faux-celebratory, martial Teutonic beat. But the forced-march courage quickly gives way to a muted horror, through the twisted I Wander Through Thersienstadt, the Satie-esque lament And the Rain Keeps Falling and a couple of lullabies, one of them an attempt to marshal some calm amidst the horror, and one that doesn’t try to mute the reality of the circumstances under which it was written.

The Czech-born Ludmila Peskarova, who survived and lived to 97, is represented by two tracks. There’s a sad Christmas-day tableau from the Ravensbruck camp, and Moravia, Moravia, the most ghostly and otherworldly song here, evoking an ancient cantorial ambience.

The most savagely sarcastic, despairing number is The Auschwitz Song, attributed to one Camilla Mohaupt, whose fate is unclear. It’s a cover of a 1920 Dutch pop hit with new lyrics reflecting hopelessness and sheer horror amid the squalor. There’s also an ornately classically-tinged miniature with music by Polish composer Carlo Taube and lyrics by his wife Erika: “As long as you aren’t bound by the word ‘home,’ your heart will be free,” a mother explains to her child. These days, one can only wonder how many of the Syrian war refugees feel the same way.

London’s show on Sunday with his band and singer Eleanor Reissa wraps up a tremendous night of music that starts at 7:30 with the Underground Horns, who veer from the Balkans to the Mediterranean to New Orleans, then the similarly eclectic, Ellington and hip-hop-influenced Slavic Soul Party, then the punk-inspired Hungry March Band, the only group on this bill so far to play Madison Square Garden. Considering what you get, cover is a reasonable $20.

The Bright Smoke Bring Their Darkly Fiery, Intense Art-Rock to Park Slope

Earlier this year, the Bright Smoke released one of the year’s most haunting and brilliantly lyrical albums, their full-length debut Terrible Towns. The album release show at the Mercury this past spring mirrored the swirly, ominously swaying ambience of the band’s studio work. But their most recent Mercury show was a ferocious, fiery, occasionally explosive breakthrough: all of a suddden, this band has become one of New York’s most exciting live acts. Their next show is at Union Hall in Park Slope on October 3 at 9 PM; cover is $10. Synthy 80s goth/darkwave act Elle Le Fantôme opens the night at 8; popular, intense, dramatic female-fronted powerpop band the Shondes make a good segue afterward at around 10.

Last time out, guitarist/frontwoman Mia Wilson didn’t waste any time establishing a wounded, enigmatic atmosphere right off the bat with one of the new album’s tracks, Hard Pander, tricky polyrhythms shifting between Karl Thomas’ drums and Yuki Maekawa Ledbetter’s laptop. The band raised the menace factor immediately with a corrosively crescendoing take of City on an Island, a sardonically vivid look at the diminishing returns an artist faces in New York in 2015, lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter rising from watery mid-80s Cure jangle to a napalm mist of distortion. He did the same thing in On 10, almost imperceptibly, as Wilson’s defiant alto rose to a dismissive wrath:

Join, join, join the ranks
Of the pretty, white, and jobless
And pray your daddy’s money away
At St. Sebastian’s School for the Godless

They opened the next number with a brisk postpunk stroll, but by the time they hit the chorus Thomas was scraping the guardrails with his cymbals and tumbling snare riffs, and Ledbetter was going deep into the blues with a similarly unhinged attack that went spiraling out in a blast of reverb-drenched noise. They went back to suspenseful for a catchy, moody backbeat-driven new song, part Joy Division’s The Eternal, part brooding soul ballad, lowlit by Ledbetter’s mournful belltone lines. Then on the next number Ledbetter shifted between fuzztone grit and off-the-rails Chicago blues.

The song after that had Wilson’s steady, ominously looping fingerpicked riffs building tension against Ledbetter’s echoey cumulo-nimbus resonance, rising to fullscale horror as his attack grew more insistent, throwing off some invisible demon. Likewise, on Exit Door, the band left the spare, shuffling gloom of the album version for a raw, screaming guitar drive, Wilson again holding it to the rails with her elegant fingerwork. The end of the show was intense to the extreme. Wilson explained that a friend had convinced her to revisit some older material from her days leading a similarly dark, intense band, the French Exit, so she played one of their best songs, a towering, anguished 6/8 anthem about “totally losing it,” she said. As the song escalated toward sheer terror in a cauldron of reverb and overtones, Wilson fell to her knees, rocked back and forth, wailed without a mic and ended up with blood-streaked strings after she’d slashed at them.  Calmly, she assured the crowd afterward that she was ok. There hasn’t been such an intense moment onstage anyhere else in New York since then. Hopefully there won’t be any blood or bruises at Union Hall, but the energy is going to be through the roof regardless.

Blues Guitar Maven Will Scott Makes His Way Back to His Old Brooklyn Stomping Ground

Will Scott was in goodnatured entertainer mode yesterday evening at this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival, staged in Brooklyn Bridge Park by 68 Jay Street Bar impresario and distinctive British-American folk song stylist Jan Bell. “I’m the only guy who ever left Brooklyn for Indiana and lost weight,” he joked. Which is funnier than you might think, considering that his rangy build never seems to have felt the effect of all those late-night whiskeys during the weekly residency he held for years up the block at 68 Jay. This one of a handful of return shows over the past year was especially fun since he was playing solo acoustic – he’s always been more of a band guy. For another, he got to air out just about every one of his many blues styles: swooping, animated Robert Johnson-style slides; intricate fingerpicking; purist delta blues, and Bible Belt gothic gospel. And lots of grim fire-and-brimstone biblical imagery, and one absolutely sizzling, shredding display of tremolopicking where he really took his time chainsawing all the way to the top of the fretboard. The one style he didn’t show off, one that he’s exceptionally good at, was hypnotic Mississippi hill country blues. But you can only fit so much stylistic cliff-jumping into a 45-minute set.

Scott explained that Gnawbone – the raw, roughhewn title track from his 2009 electric blues album – was named for a town in his home state. “They wanted to name it after Narbonne, in France,” Scott explained, “But the best the hoosiers could do was Gnawbone. I figured I’d name my album that since there was no way I’d ever end up playing there,” he explained. He paused. “Well…I just did.” Apparently the people in town didn’t take offense.

Scott eventually brought up Bell, his longtime collaborator and partner for some harmony vocals on a high-energy, anthemic take of See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, which turned out to be pretty amazing. See, most backup singers will go way up high and wail around on the blue notes. Bell did the opposite: if memory serves right, she went up an octave above the fifth and then made her way down. The effect was as original as it was unselfconsciously chilling: somebody transcribe that so other singers can do that too! And it’s worth mentioning that they way they did the song, looking back toward gospel rather than the Blind Lemon Jefferson recording that Dylan based his on, harked back to a very early version better known as One Kind Favor.

The festival winds up today, September 27 with a ton of music, starting at eleven in the morning at Superfine in Dumbo with the mando and guitar-driven Demolition String Band, eclectic retro Americana/doo-wop singer Willy Gantrim, and honkytonk bandleader/bassist Abby Hollander. Then at 4 PM there’s a rare solo vocals-and-accordion set by charismatic Romany chanteuse and song reinventor Eva Salina followed by the Jack Grace Band playing their boisterously funny oldschool 60s C&W and brooding southwestern gothic, under the archway below the Manhattan Bridge: if you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll hear it. And Scott makes a fond return appearance at 68 Jay at 7 PM.

Zedashe Bring Ancient Yet Amazingly State-of-the-Art Georgian Harmonies Back to Life

Imagine if you couldn’t rap, or sing old Irish songs, because it was against the law. That’s essentially what the older members of Zedashe had to deal with in their native Georgia before the breakup of the Soviet Union. When the Berlin Wall came down, it didn’t just open up the Iron Curtain nations to plundering American privatizers: it unleashed a torrential cultural reawakening. Zedashe number among the many, many artists who seized the opportunity to resurface with their underground, centuries-old sound intact. They dedicate themselves to preserving and bringing a folk repertoire rarely heard outside their native land – and until recent decades, not heard there either – to a global audience. It’s an ancient, yet strangely almost avant garde sound, considering how alien and jarring their tonalities are, compared with not only western music but the music of the neighboring lands as well. You might think that there’d be some obvious cross-pollination with Turkish, Armenian or Russian music, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least with this particular slice of the Georgian folk tradition. Zedashe are playing just their second-ever US tour. Their first New York stop is at Drom at 7:30 PM on October 1 as part of the New York Gypsy Festival; advance tix are $15. Then they’re at Barbes playing for the tip jar on October 3 at 8.

The group’s seventh and latest album, Our Earth and Water, is streaming at Rockpaperscissors. If stark close harmonies, boisterous field hollers, intricate vocal ornamentation and austere folk hymns for mixed choir are your thing, don’t be daunted by the grand total of 26 tracks: most of them clock in at around the three-minute mark, often less. Most of the songs are for choir alone, with occasional accompaniment from strummy panduri lute, accordion, drums and even bagpipes on the album’s creepiest tune. The men and women of the group tend to belt at full throttle – this is not relaxing, sleepy-time music. The upbeat numbers include a quick shout-out to the ancient Georgian war god along with the expected wedding songs, harvest songs and work songs. But there are some quieter tracks, including a a dizzying yet elegant rondo, a tender accordion waltz sung by one of the women and a plaintive panduri-and-vocal lament sung by one of the guys.

This isn’t all completely serious stuff, either: there’s a bit of quasi-yodeling, some goofy falsetto from the men in the group, a real tonguetwister that sounds like a jumprope rhyme and a suspiciously eyeball-rolling here-comes-the-bride number. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, considering that the group records at the local winery. Take a taste of this and let it take you back to a land that time forgot.

Spanglish Fly Bring Their Hot Spanish Harlem Flavor to This Year’s Chile and Chocolate Festival

Let’s say you’re in charge of a popular annual Brooklyn hot pepper festival. Of all the bands in New York, who would you want to serenade the crowd as the doors open? The Brooklyn Botanic Garden chose fiery, hard-hitting latin soul revivalists Spanglish Fly to open this year’s Chile and Chocolate Festival this Saturday, September 26. Festivities start at 11 AM – that’s when the band hits – and continue til 6 along the cherry tree esplanade, which is a short walk from the Eastern Parkway entrance, just steps from the Eastern Parkway stop on the 2/3 trains.. And if you stick around until 3:15, you’ll get to hear popular 90s Jamaican crooner Everton Blender; then at 4:45 the eclectic reggae/Afrobeat Refugee All-Stars of Sierra Leone take the stage. Admission is $20/$15 stud/srs, kids under 12 get in free. And many of the vendors offer free samples as well.

Spanglish Fly also have a long awaited full-length debut album, New York Boogaloo, just out and streaming at Bandcamp. The band’s Harvey Averne-produced 2010 debut album is closer stylistically to the vintage singles of artists like Joe Bataan or Joe Cuba; the new one is more like those artists live, stretching out the songs with a blazing, brass-fueled salsa dura flavor. If you try sitting still to this stuff, your body will revolt.

The opening track, Esta Tierra, sets the stage: slinky percussion, fat slipsliding bass, smoky roto Hammond organ and similarly sepia-tinged trombones. And then a pause, and Kenny Bruno’s elegantly tumbling piano comes in, frontwoman Erica Ramos (who’s since been replace by the charming Mariella Gonzalez) offering a tour of the hood where these Puerto Rican and Harlem grooves started to cross-pollinating fifty years ago. The band takes it doublespeed from there, fueled by leader Jonathan Goldman’s jaunty trumpet. All this in less than five minutes.

Bump (And Let It Slide) is a real catchy one, a briskly strolling, edgy blend of echoey Rhodes piano, minor-key brass and summery organ spiced with Jonathan Flothow’s baritone sax. Return of the Po-Po is a sad scenario that just about any New Yorker who’s been here since the Rudy Mussolini era can relate to: hanging in the park after closing time? Open container, maybe a smoky treat? Uh oh, 5-0!

Martian Boogaloo is an instrumental, its catchy horn riffage punctuated by a handful of wry percussion breaks: just when it seems that percussionists Machuco Estremera and Gabo Tomasini and timbalero Charly Rodriguez are going to chill and just hit on the clave, they cut loose. The ever-present buzz of the scraper propels Mira Ven Aca, a Johnny Colon hit from 1967 that gets the fullscale psychedelic soul treatment, including but not limited to a coolly precise multitracked keyboard break.

42 (El Cuarenta y Dos) is a scurrying go-go shout-out to longtime Yankees closer and future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera – and it doesn’t sound the least bit like Enter Sandman. Love Graffiti Me takes The Locomotion and gives it a deeper, more spring-loaded bounce. Being a New York band, one assumes that Spanglish Fly are referring to the kind of bike you own, rather than rent from some corrupt, bankrupt corporation, in Me Gusto Mi Bicicleta. “Better ride on two wheels!” Gonzalez warns.

The wounded ballad Ciudate Hermana, Bruno’s anguished High Romantic piano underpinning Ramos’ eerily torchy vocals, is an unexpected break from all the party flavor – strangely enough, it might be the best track on the album. The party vibe returns on the final cut, Brooklyn Boogaloo, a hip hop-style shout-out to your neighborhood and everybody else’s. Since Spanglish Fly burst on the scene back in the late zeros, other bands have been mashing up classic soul with classic salsa, but these guys got there first.

If you can’t make it to Brooklyn on Saturday,  Spanglish Fly are at Goddard Riverside Center, 647 Columbus Ave. at 92nd St. on the 29th at 8 PM for $10; take the 1/2/3 t0 96th.

ThingNY Debuts a Blackly Amusing, Sonically Rich Reflection on Hurricane Sandy

ThingNY‘s provocative, often hilarious performance piece This Takes Place Close By debuted last night, making maximum use of the spacious, sonically rich Knockdown Center in Maspeth, a former doorframe factory recast as adventurous performance venue. Through the eyes of various witnesses to Hurricane Sandy, the multimedia work explores apathy, anomie and alienation in the wake of disaster. It raises more questions than it answers – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Is this limousine liberal self-flagellation, a vain attempt to demonstrate eleventh-hour empathy? A simpering, self-congratulatory meme for gentrifiers hell-bent on their fifteen minutes on Instagram? A welcome dose of perspective on where the hurricane falls, historically speaking, in terms of disastrous consequences? A caustic and often poignant critique of narcissism raising its ugly head at the least opportune moment? You can find out for yourself when the piece repeats, tonight, September 25 through Sunday the 27th at 8 PM; general admission is $20.

Ostensibly an opera, this is more of an avant garde theatre piece with music. The six-piece ensemble lead the audience from one set to another, creating a surround-sound atmosphere, voices and instruments leaping unexpectedly from the shadows. The live electroacoustic score – a pulsing, rather horizontal, minimalistic theme and variations – is gripping and often reaches a white-knuckle intensity, and the distance between the performers has no effect on how tightly they play it. The narratives vary from more-or-less straight-up theatre vignettes, to phone calls, harrowing personal recollections and surrealist spoken-word interludes. Other than Gelsey Bell – whose pure, translucent chorister’s soprano is the icing on the sonic cake – the rest of the ensemble do not appear to be trained singers. Yet they gamely hold themselves together through some challenging, distantly gospel-inspired four-part harmonies. Violinist Jeffrey Young‘s shivery cadenzas and the occasional creepy glissando enhance the suspense, while Bell’s keyboards and Dave Ruder’s clarinet supply more resonantly ominous ambience. Percusssionist Paul Pinto wryly doubles as roadie and emcee of sorts with his trusty penlight. Bassist Andrew Livingston distinguishes himself by playing creepy tritones while sprawled flat on his back in the rubble; meanwhile, Bell projects with undiminished power despite the presence of Livingston’s bass on top of her diaphragm.

Intentionally or not, the star of this show is multi-saxophonist Erin Rogers, whose vaudevillian portrayal of a 911 operator slowly losing it under pressure – in between bursts of hardbop soprano sax – is as chilling as it is funny. Happily, she later gets to return to give the poor, bedraggled, unappreciated woman some dignity. And playing alto, she teams with Livingston for a feast of brooding foghorn atmospherics during a portrait of a philosophical old bodega owner for whom the storm is “been there, done that.”

The characters run the gamut from enigmatic or gnomic to extremely vivid. Young gets to relish chewing the scenery as he channels a wet-behind-the-ears, clueless gentrifier kid who’s just self-aware enough to know that he ought to cover his ass while expunging any possible guilt for gettting away with his comfortable life intact. Livingston’s shoreline survivor, horror-stricken over the possible loss of his girlfriend, really drives the storm’s toll home. Bell’s baroque-tinged ghost is more nebulous, as is Pinto’s mashup of tummler and historian at the end – in a set piece that seems tacked on, as if the group had to scramble to tie things together just to get the show up and running in time. Yet even that part is grounded in history – which, if this group is to be believed, does not portend well for how we will react when the waters rise again. And they will.

Cocek! Brass Band Put the Exclamation Point in Original Balkan Dance Music

The last time Cocek! Brass Band played New York, their set uptown at Shrine had barely gotten underway before a pretty girl in the crowd went to the bar and bought them a couple of rounds of shots. Which were gone by the next song. And the five-piece Boston Balkan group played like they’re used to that kind of stuff. Especially frontman/trumpeter Sam Dechenne, who’s also a member of innovative klezmer dance unit Klezwoods…and is best known as a regular member of long-running second-wave roots reggae band John Brown’s Body. Although JBB probably get offered stuff that’s smokier than what these guys were downing in between songs.

What sets Cocek! Brass Band apart from so many of their colleagues in the thriving American Balkan demimonde, other than that exclamation point, is that Dechenne writes the songs. Beyond the bristling chromatics, tricky rat-a-tat rhythms and rapidfire, redline solos is a cheery but dynamically shapeshifting sensibility and a surprisingly wry sense of humor that looks back to Eastern European dance music while taking it to new places. The band are bringing their high-octane show back to New York on what might be the year’s single best night of music, at Drom tomorrow night, September 25, as part of the New York Gypsy Festival. The Coceks open the night at 8:30 followed by explosive, theatrical Balkan punk rock band Bad Buka at 10, then Raya Brass Band – the tightest and most epic among all the great Eastern European acts in New York – and then similarly fiery if somewhat more traditional Baltimore Romany dance band Balti Mare, whose name means “big pond” in Romanian, hitting the stage at 1 AM the morning of the 26th. Advance tix are $15 and are still available at the club as of today.

Cocek! Brass Band’s debut album Here Comes Shlomo came out last year. It’s always fun to see a prediction come true, but they more than validated what this blog said about it, “ A good indication of the blend of virtuosity and raw power that this crew brings to the stage.” One of that night’s many high points was a minor-key number with a beat that veered between what could be reggae and could be disco – which, when you think about it, is disco in Serbia. Jaunty broken chords lept from the end of the band’s phrases, trumpet, trombone, tuba and standup drum all in sync.

A loopy, catchy, downwardly spirailng trombone riff contrasted with Dechenne’s calm, sailing lines on the next tune; then they slowed things down with a blazingly resonant, undulating  9/4 groove, Dechenne switching from intense to jaunty and carefree with a long solo against the rest of the band’s percolating harmonies. Then they switched to an edgy, circling, minor-key Ethiopiques drive! And a doomy waltz after that. There was a lot more material in the set which made it neither onto the tape nor into longterm memory.. Considering that the show was on a sketchy block in Harlem and it was late on a work night, and that there was still a decent crowd in the house, the Drom show will undoubtedly draw a lot more people: there will be line dancing.

The Ochion Jewell Quartet Evoke a Ghostly, Haunting North Africa of the Mind in the West Village

Of all the possible universes where improvised music can go, the Ochion Jewell Quartet chose to explore one of the most interesting ones last night at Cornelia Street Cafe. The opening set of their album release party for their new release, Volk, was the reverse image of your typical cutting contest, everyone trying to say as much as possible in the fewest possible notes, a challenge to see who could play the quietest. The four – tenor saxophonist Jewell, pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Sam Minaie and drummer Qasim Naqvi – displayed the camaraderie that comes from years of close collaboration (in this case, in a much more frenetic unit, the Bedstuy Ewe Ensemble). Mirroring each other and framing each others’ time in the spotlight – a sepulchral, ultraviolet one, such that the music was – their commitment to the subtle architecture and unselfconscious gravitas of Jewell’s slowly unwinding, blues- and North African-infused melodicism was singleminded. And beyond the chatty staff at the bar, the crowd locked in on the alchemy being created onstage.

Jewell rose from a predawn smokiness to a squawk or a squall a grand total of three times in maybe fifty minutes onstage, and the first lasted just a millisecond. Otherwise, he he held to a rustic, carefully considered approach, even when spiraling through one of the many looping Andalucian or Berber-inspired phrases that brought to mind an especially tuneful take on Steve Reich just as much as they echoed rai or gnawa themes. Only on occasion were the four all playing at once, both Jewell and Belyamani letting the bass and drums – who in places on the new album are so sepulchral that they’re almost invisible – take centerstage. What a treat it was to hear Miniae go to the bottom of his sonic well for the pitchblende bowing that opened the set – and what a thrill it was to watch him interpolate high harmonics into those deep-riverbed washes so seamlessly as to become a one-man string section. Likewise, Naqvi went for extended technique only when it really counted: his flickering use of his hardware, muted hand-drumming and a single bowed cymbal riff brought to life a phantasm rather than a poltergeist.

Belyamani – whose allusively chilling, judiciously resonant phrasing is one of the album’s most powerful assets – was especially chill here, holding much of that in reserve as he painted lowlit lustre and aurora borealis glimmer with minute variations on open fifths and minimalistically ornamented Middle Eastern phrases. They picked up the pace midway through with a mashup of the blues and gnawa, Jewell’s aching red-clay lines low and somber beneath Minae’s artfully plucked, bouncy riffs, articulated with the lively pop of a Moroccan bendir lute. They finally went around the horn with a fleeting, somber reinvention of Ennio Morricone’s Navajo Joe – “You’re never heard it like this before,” Jewell grinned – but they did that with the song’s head, nobody getting more than a bar at a time, a rapt, wounded one at that. Sometimes less is more than most people  can possibly imagine.

Intense Polish Art-Rock Bandleader Karolina Cicha Brings Her Otherworldly Jewish Music Project to Drom

For whatever reason, Balkan music in New York has evolved to the point where there’s a sort of Balkan solstice, in winter and late summer. Golden Festival takes place in mid-January, a worldwide gathering of bands and singers, held for the past several years at Grand Prospect Hall at the southern tip of Park Slope. The New York Gypsy Festival features many similarly first-class acts, spread across several weeks and venues in September and October. One of the highlights of this year’s festival promises to be the performance of rare Jewish songs from Polesia by charismatic Polish art-rock/folk noir singer and keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Karolina Cicha with cellist Bart Palyga at Drom on Sept 28 at 8 PM. $15 advance tix are very highly recommended.

Cicha is an intense performer who deserves to be better known outside her home country. At this show, she and Palyga will be playing songs from her 9 Languages project, a mix of somsetimes driving, sometimes haunting, often otherworldly Jewish folk material from the badlands of Polesia, bordering Russia, Belarus and Lithuana, a desolate region that for many decades was home to a more-or-less thriving Jewish community. Cicha has a thing for rare and antique instruments, both winds and strings, which may be a part of this.

Cicha’s vocals are starkly ornamented, plaintive and often anguished: avant-garde Carpathian chanteuse Mariana Sadovska often comes to mind. For a taste of Cicha’s goth-tinged antiwar art-rock, check out her video page. For her more folk-oriented material, there’s a page of intriguing audio at Flipswitch. The first track starts out seemingly blithely, a flute-driven dance that quickly goes into creepy art-rock territory. The second is a breathless folk-rock stomp with jawharp, accordion, shivery fiddle and ominuous layers of throat-singing. There’s a pulsing art-rock fiddle tune with hypnotically soaring mulititracked vocals, and an even more hypnotic, gorgeously atmospheric one with accordion and layers of strings and vocals. There’s also an eerily bouncing piano-and-accordion vamp, a swaying lute dance that sounds like a sea chantey, a mournful klezmer accordion tune from her hometown of Bialystock, and an angst-fueled vocalese-and-cello piece that sounds like a Polish Randi Russo, just for starters. Those who want to go deeper into Cicha’s fascinatingly eclectic catalog can also check out her ethnocloud and youtube channels.