New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: September, 2015

Lorraine Leckie and Pavel Cingl Release Their Enigmatic, Witchy New Album at the Mercury on the 29th

Among rock songwriters, few are as capable as Lorraine Leckie in writing across a vast array of different styles. New Yorkers know her best as the leader of a whipcrack-sharp psychedelic Americana rock band that she fondly calls Her Demons. Yet as straightforward as her work with that group is, her other projects can be much harder to pin down. Her latest album, The Raven Smiled – a collaboration with similarly eclectic Czech violin star Pavel Cingl, streaming at Bandcamp – is her most enigmatic, her most beguiling and arguably her best. She and Cingl are joined by those Demons – lead guitarist and recent Blues Hall of Fame inductee Hugh Pool, bassist Charles DeChants and drummer Paul Triff – at the album release show on September 29 at 8 PM at the Mercury. Cover is $10, and you get a free copy of the cd with paid admission.

The influences on this album, through a glass darkly, seem to be PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, although the music here bears more reflection than resemblance to either artist’s work. As you would expect from the instrumentation – Leckie’s Telecaster or piano paired with Cingl’s violin – the sound is a lot closer to the folk noir of Leckie’s spare 2010 album Martini Eyes. However, Cingl’s judicious production frequently adds misty atmospherics and more ornate textures, in the same vein as Leckie’s haunting 2013 album with Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted.

The opening track, The Man That Walks in the Rain sets the stage, cryptic and mysterious, along the same lines as Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat. Leckie has made no secret that she is a devotee of the black arts, so it should come as no surprise that Climb Ya Like a Mountain would be a homage to Aleister Crowley (who, as Leckie tells it, was an avid mountain climber – and a surprisngly buffoonish persona for someone enamored with the dark side).

Leckie explores that light/dark dichotomy from the opposite angle with Dangerous Friends, its triumphant continental party narrative set against a hazy backdrop channeled via one of the unorthodox guitar tunings that she employs so often here. By contrast, the baroque-tinged piano ballad Story of Your Life has a lustrous, minimalist sheen, a homage to Prague, a city whose history and beauty clearly resonate strongly with Leckie.

Awake is even more minimalistic, Cingl’s lullaby violin gently building the somnambulistic ambience. By contrast, That Ain’t Nice is a launching pad for Leckie’s dissociative, noisy guitar explorations in tandem with Cingl’s blizzard of glissandos. Witches Heart tersely mashes up early PJ Harvey, witchy mid-70s Marianne Faithfull Britfolk and 80s goth, enhanced by the eerie close harmonies of backup singer Lisa Zwier. “My little doll, you were born under a broken star, I am sorry,” Leckie intones with a cool inscrutability as the album’s most distantly ominous track, Medicine Man, gets underway. The title cut, an enigmatic piano vignette, closes the album on a decidedly unresolved note. As with the rest of the songs here, there’s charm, but also menace, the defining characteristic of this allusively intriguing collection.

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A Darkly Glimmering, Cross-Pollinated Masterpiece from Saxophonist Ochion Jewell

In prosaic terms, tenor saxophonist Ochion Jewell‘s second album, Volk – streaming at Bandcamp – is Ghanian music reinventors the Bedstuy Ewe Ensemble playing moody third-stream jazz. And it’s often as far from that group’s joyous exuberance as you can possibly imagine. The band’s multicultural personnel – Moroccan pianist and Dawn of Midi founder Amino Belyamani, Persian-American bassist Sam Minaie, and Pakistani-American drummer Qasim Naqvi – join their bandmate in a magnificently ambered tour de force. The album’s backstory is troubling, but has a happy ending – more or less – taking inspiration (and financed by the settlement Jewell received) from a police brutality lawsuit stemming from a harrowing brush with death at the hands of an undercover NYPD narcotics squad run amok a couple of years ago. Drawing on idioms as diverse as Persian classsical music, pensive Keith Jarrett-style improvisation and elements of noir, it’s one of the best albums released this year in any style of music and should draw a wide listenership that transcends a jazz audience. These tracks unwind slowly, allowing for plenty of carefully considered improvisation: this album is all about building a mood and maintaining it. The complete ensemble are playing the album release show on Sept 23, with sets at 9 and 10:30 PM at at Cornelia St. Cafe; cover is $10 + a $10 mininum.

The album opens with a triptych of sorts, the interaction between Jewell and Belyamani gradually developing from a brooding coversation to more agitated and then back again as Naqvi’s toms prowl tensely, the piano adding a Rachmaninovian undercurrent. Jewell opens the third section, Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi with a plaintive, dusky, blues-drenched riff and variations as the dirge behind him rises to macabre proportions and then subsides. His rain-drenched, wee-hours black-and-white streetscape sax as the piano’s rivulets rise and fall, bass and drums adding rustling suspense, is vivid to the extreme.

The band picks up the pace with Give Us a Drink of Water, its frequent rhythmic shifts, funky syncopation and lively sax constrasting with murky piano riffage, Minae stepping out with a dancing solo mirrored uneasily and opaquely if energetically by Jewell. Likewise, they shift between dancefloor exuberance and a knifes-edge tension fueled by Belyamani and Miniae as it winds out.

Pass Fallow, Gallowglass reverts to moody, wounded piano-sax interplay, Naqvi’s elegant cymbals and toms again enhancing the sepulchral ambience. They continue the theme with Radegast, eventually rising to a briefly stomping interlude, flutters and squawks returning quickly to the shadows, driven by Belyamani’s sinister low lefthand. Guest guitarist Lionel Loueke’s tersely bending David Gilmourisms open The Master, a hypnotically bouncing mashup of North African proto-funk and bluesy minor-key rusticity. He also joins a similarly hypnotic if much more spikily energetic sonic web on Gnawa Blues.

While folk themes here are a frequent inspiration, they seldom rise to the surface to the extent they do on the take of Oh Shenandoa, a Matthew Brady early-morning post-battle Civil War tableau in sound.  The album ends appropriately with a wee-hours solo sax take of Black is the Colour (of My True Love’s Hair).

Fanfarai Bring Their Edgy, Fun Mashups of Balkan Music, Funk and the Middle East to Drom

Fanfarai is a pun, a mashup of “fanfare” and “rai,” as in the slinky groove music from North Africa. What does this multicultural, Algerian-born, now Paris-based brass band sound like? Like Balkan brass music, with some occasionally different if similarly tricky tempos and frequent detours into both Middle Eastern and western grooves. Which makes sense, considering that the roots of a lot of Balkan music can be traced back to Turkey and from there to Egypt and what’s now Algeria and Tunisia. The group’s latest bitingly edgy, chromatically-infused, surprisingly elegant album Tani is streaming at soundcloud, and they’re playing a New York Gypsy Festival gig at Drom on Sept 23 at 9 PM, $15 advance tix are available at the club.

The opening track, Goulou L’rim has one of those classic, pouncing two-chord Balkan minor-key vamps, over which the band layers both a balmy trumpet arrangement as well as an eerie, otherworldly Ethiopian fiddle break. The second number, Raba El Haraba is a real trip, kicking off as a snaky rai groove before morphing into roots reggae with elements of both Balkan music and deep dub: the influence of Mahala Rai Banda immediately comes to mind.

The briskly strolling Achdah a Taous, built around a classic Egyptian maqam riff, features some nimble oud-and-percussion flurries along with the precisely soaring, hefty horns. There’s a similarly dynamic pairing between tuba and flute throughout Saissi, a pulsing early 70s psychedelic funk tune. Touchia Zidane reimagines an ancient Andalusian classical piece as a distant, darkly microtonal dirge, violin and flute taking turns leading the slow procession as it gathers steam up to a majestic peak – and then goes for a sprint. It’s the most stunning track on the album.

Waye Lahbib El Ghali brings back a wry psychedelic soul strut, with North African syncopation and the tuba’s dancing lines taking the place of, say, a clavinova or funk bass. Metrics aside, it’s not hard to imagine this in the Ramsey Lewis or Isaac Hayes catalog. They hit a hypnotically dancing gnawa pulse with sintir lute, flute and bright horns in Elmima, then a scampering clip-clop beat on the upbeat Zwit Rwit, equally informed by New Orleans brass, Mexican banda music and American funk. The album’s last track is Zina Hlima, a steady, bouncing number that’s equal parts funk and vintage Khaled rai, with an unexpected detour into Ethiopiques. If you love Balkan music, or Middle Eastern music, or just dance music in general, you can’t go wrong with these guys.

Roots Reggae At Its Deep, Psychedelic Best at Maxwell’s Thursday Night

Thursday night at Maxwell’s, the buzz was that Kiwi – the tri-state area’s most consistently entertaining and original roots reggae band – was going to school the two out-of-town acts on the bill. To their immense credit, both Myrtle Beach’s Treehouse and Boston’s High Hopes Band rose to the occasion, resulting in a wickedly good late-summer festival of deep psychedelic grooves.

One of the measures of a band is how well they play to an empty room. Seriously – any band can feed off the energy of a good audience, and the crowd was slow to arrive when Treehouse hit the stage at nine sharp. But they played as if they were headlining Coachella. They were by far the loudest and hardest-rocking of the three groups. Guitarist Jeremy Anderson had a blast with the dozens of settings on his huge pedalboard: he likes an icy tone and plays leads with furious flurries of tremolo-picking, building to several unexpected cumulo-nimbus peaks. Bassist Matt Link plays his five-string with a pick, but he doesn’t let it slow him down, with a serpentine, melodic attack that featured several slinky solos this time out. Drummer Trey Moody has an individualistic style, building a deep pocket with his classic roots beats but then picking up to a steady four-on-the-floor rock drive on the band’s louder material. Anderson doubled (tripled?) on melodica and trumpet, used his loop pedal to lay down a couple of psychedelic, cumbia-influenced riffs to underpin a couple of songs, and finally ended the band’s set on a blistering, explosive note with a dynamically shapeshifting number that veered back and forth between dancehall, ska and edgy rock.

Kiwi were their usual slinky selves, and High Hopes followed a similar deep-roots groove afterward. Kiwi has six members, High Hopes seven, so the music wasn’t as focused on guitar as Treehouse’s was. Both bands have sensationally good, trippy keyboardists. Kiwi’s Dave Stolarz brought a dramatic, cinematic edge with his synth work, when he wasn’t playing swirly organ or tersely bluesy piano. High Hopes’ Paddy McDonnell went further into artsy Pink Floyd territory, with just as atmospheric a dub style as Stolarz. Likewise, both bands have deep rhythm sections grounded in a classic late 70s Jamaican sound. Both bassists, Kiwi’s Steve Capecci and High Hopes’ Julie Feola, anchored the music with their purist, effortlessly boomy lines. Kiwi’s drummer, Ramsey Norman, was both the night’s hardest hitter and also its most oldschool one-drop expert; behind the kit for High Hopes, AJ Maynard worked a nimble, acrobatic approach.

The crowd had come to party, and they got louder as the show went on. So Kiwi frontman Alex Tea brought the music down to just Norman’s woodblock and percussionist Mike Torres’ scraper – and in a second the room was silent. Using a wide palette of sounds that brought to mind peak-era Steel Pulse as well as late 60s rocksteady, Tea led the group through an eclectic mix of songs that shifted from deep dub, to Beatlesque jangle and echoes of late 70s Burning Spear. Jazz chords, unexpected major/minor and loud/soft shifts kept things interesting, everybody in the band contributing something into the mix.

High Hopes have two distinctive guitarists: Jason Dick likes surrealistically atmospheric wah-wah lines; Sebastian Franks plays precise, catchy, soaring single-note leads. Like Kiwi, they varied their tempos and energy levels, opening with an instrumental medley, shifting on a dime between one mini-segment to another: an old Jamaican custom. Also like Kiwi, they had an awful lot going on, lots of it unexpected, shifting from dub to doublespeed to a goodnatured bounce, then bringing things down to a simmering ballad or two. The funniest moment of the night was when McDonnell hit a rapidfire echo riff during one of their deepest dub segments and then slowly, slowly turned his reverb knob, putting the brakes on the echo until it was finally in sync with the rest of the band.

At this point in history, roots reggae is a legacy style like swing jazz and bluegrass: beyond the festival circuit, it’s next to impossible to find three reggae acts on a single bill, let alone three this good and this original. Treeehouse and High Hopes are on tour; their next show is Sept 24 at 8 PM at one of Atlanta’s funnest venues, Smith’s Olde Bar.

A Brooding, Wounded Masterpiece from Jane Antonia Cornish

Composer Jane Antonia Cornish has scored some big hits (pun intended) with her film music. Her signature style tends to be reflective and atmospheric, meticulous to a fault: a wasted note would be a serious crime in her universe. Her latest album, Continuum opens with Nocturne 1, a starkly minimalist, Lynchian series of very subtle variations on a very simple motif for strings that Angelo Badalamenti would no doubt approve of. As it grows darker and louder, bringing to mind Philip Glass’ Dracula soundtrack, the ghosts of the deep, robust roots of the trees whose wood became cellos and violins begin to flicker, their microtones dancing across the bows of the string ensemble Decoda. Composers tend to write best for their own instruments, and Cornish being a violinist, that strikes particularly true here. For that matter, the whole album – out from Innova and streaming this week at WQXR – is as starkly gripping as its opening track.

Nocturne II opens with such precision and clarity that its sonorities could be produced by winds instead of strings – and then that macabre theme kicks in! The third and final Nocturne is an achingly crescendoing grey-sky tone poem. Again, the cello quintet achieves such a crystalline timbre that they could be french horns.

Cornish’s cinematic prowess stretches across the horizon on Continuum 1, a spacious, moody Great Plains tableau of sorts – it’s tempting to say that it reaches Spielbergian heights. The second movement refers obliquely to the Glassine pulse of the opening Nocturne, with a series of wavelike echo effects as hypnotic as anything Glass ever wrote. The solo cello piece that follows offers a fond nod back to the Bach cello sonatas, adding both Cornish’s signature spaciousness and minutely honed sense of tasty string overtones. The album winds up with Tides, a vivid illustration of waves and echoes. A thousand electronic composers have used machines to follow similar tangents, but Cornish’s triumph is one of echoing nature exactly as it exists rather than through the bottom of a laptop.

And it wouldn’t be fair to end without mentioning the rapturously precise and inspired solo performance by Decoda cellist Hamilton Berry at the album launch party last month at Chambers Fine Art in Chelsea, where he gave voice to an austerely poignant Cornish sonata as well as a colorful solo pastorale by George Crumb that required considerable split-second extended technique.

Amir ElSaffar’s Intense, Brooding Crisis Transcends Middle Eastern Music, Jazz and Everything Else

“Driving and to the point, Amir ElSaffar’s music is beyond categorization: not jazz, world music or any facile fusion thereof but a world unto its own.” A lot of bravado there, but the Chicago-born, New York-based trumpeter backs it up. His fifth album, Crisis – a suite inspired by his year in Egypt in 2012, as witness to the Arab Spring – is just out from Pi Recordings, and it’s arguably his best yet. Towering, majestic, haunting, dynamically rich, often grim, it might be the best album of 2015 in any style of music. Here ElSaffar – who plays both trumpet and santoor and also sings in Arabic in a resonant, soulful baritone – is joined by brilliant oudist/percussinonist Zaafir Tawil, fiery buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. Since the album is just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but three of the tracks are up at ElSaffar’s music page. ElSaffar and all of these players perform the album release show tonight, September 17 at 8 PM at Symphony Space. Cover is $25.

Rumbling, tumbling drums underpin a alow, stately, chromatically edgy trumpet theme distantly echoed by the oud as the introduction, From the Ashes, rises and falls. ElSaffar switches to the eerily rippling santoor for a serioso solo, utilizing the exotic microtones of the Iraqi classical maqam music he’s devoted himself to over the past fifteen years after an auspicious career start bridging the worlds of jazz, latin music and the western classical canon.

Mathisen doubles the reverberating pointillisms of the santoor on The Great Dictator, until a flurrying trumpet riff over distorted electric buzuq, and suddenly it becomes a trickly dancing Middle Eastern art-rock song. Abboushi’s long, slashing solo is one of the most adrenalizing moments committed to record this year, the song moving toward funk as Mathisen sputters and leaps.

After ElSaffar’s plaintive solo trumpet improvisation Taqsim Saba – imbued with the microtones which have become his signature device – the band slinks and bounces their way into El–Sha’ab (The People), which for all its elegantly inspired shadowboxing between the oud and the trumpet is a pretty straight-up funk song. The aptly titled, apprehensively pillowy Love Poem, a variation on the introductory theme, overflows with lyrical interplay between santoor, sax and oud, as well as a graceful pairing between santoor and bass. It takes on an unexpectedly dirgelike quality as it winds out.

The epic Flyover Iraq – as cruelly ironic a title as one could possibly imagine in this century – begins as bright, syncopated stroll, goes back to funk with a lively trumpet/buzuq duet, ElSaffar then taking flight toward hardbop with his trumpet. DeRosa takes it out with a lithe, precise solo. The suite’s most titanic number, Tipping Point introduces an uneasily contrapuntal melody that expands throughout the band, follows an upbeat, funky trajectory toward a fanfare, then vividly voices a theme and variations that literally follow a path of dissolution. ElSaffar’s somber trumpet solo out sets the stage for Aneen (Weeping), Continued, a spare, funereal piece that brings to mind similarly austere material by another brilliant trumpeter with Middle Eastern heritage, Ibrahim Maalouf. The album winds up with Love Poem (Complete), a more somber take on the first one. Clearly, the revolution ElSaffar depicts here has not brought the results that he – or for that matter the rest of the world – were hoping for.

Mycale’s Sara Serpa Enchants the Stone

If Sara Serpa quit right now, her body of work would still leave her a major figure in the history of early 21st century jazz and beyond-category vocal music. As one small example, consider the influence of the addition of Serpa’s otherworldly vocalese on Asuka Kakitani‘s landmark Bloom album a couple years ago. Yet, one suspects that Serpa’s best years are still ahead of her. This week through September 20, the individual members of Mycale – the vocal quartet John Zorn assembled, with Serpa, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei and Malika Zarra – are booking the Stone, an audience-friendly way to discover the eclectic and distinctive work of each of these singer/composers. With two sets a night, 8 and 10 PM, there are plenty of enticing shows, especially the album release show for Mycale’s new one at 8 PM this Saturday the 19th.

Last night the late set was Serpa’s, leading her City Fragments sextet. As the group made their way gently, pointillistically and hypnotically into the opening Andre Matos composition, listening to Serpa blend voices with the similarly lustrous-timbred Aubrey Johnson conjured such resonant radiance that it didn’t seem fair. Sofia Rei, who has the powerful low register that those two do not, perfectly completed the vocal frontline.

And yet, as unselfconsciously mesmerizing as those voices were, the number belonged to Matos, Serpa’s longtime collaborator. It’s so rare to see a guitarist with the depth of vision that he brought into play, being able to see this music from five thousand feet and realize it for all its uneasily majestic heights without cluttering it. This number had elements of 70s Morricone crime jazz and David Gilmour angst, but with neither the busyness of the former nor the bluster of the latter. Matos’ lingering, austere lines were like a distillation of both, reduced to most impactful terms. Underneath it all, bassist Matt Brewer supplied a bubbling tar-trap low end while drummer Tyshawn Sorey shuffled and spun an intricate web of cymbals, adding the occasional, stark, emphatic hit when least expected.

Serpa’s long suite after that again featured a similarly intricate, steady lattice of three-way vocal counterpoint, in the same vein as the new Mycale album. The three womens’ gentle bell-tone harmonies often gave way to mysterious, almost inaudible, fragmentary segues, Matos’s stiletto guitar often joining as a fourth voice in the choir, building to an unexpected, knifes-edge, sometimes darkly bluesy apprehension as it went on. Serpa’s spoken-word segments contemplated the human race’s alienation from nature, and a possible return to it, imbuing the work with a defiant, mid-80s punk-jazz edge. It was a characteristically ambitious move for Serpa, oldschool European intellectual to the core, constantly finding new ways to ground her ethereal sonic explorations in relevant concrete terms. The three women brought the night full circle with a radically reinvented, gently lilting take of an old fado hit. Serpa next performs with Mycale at the Stone this week on September 17 at 8, with Ikue Mori sitting in with her trusty laptop and its bottomless well of percussion samples. Cover is $15.

A Rare, Haunting Recording of Armenian Music Gets a Manhattan Launch

Musicologist and drummer Jason Hamacher (late of squalling Washington, DC experimental indie rock trio Decahedron) made his initial trip to Aleppo, Syria eight years ago, which jumpstarted his recently launched Lost Origin Sound Series. Last year’s initial release comprised a series of recordings of thousand-year-old Sufi chants by Syrian choir Nawa. The second release in the series, Forty Martyrs: Armenian Chants from Aleppo, features 2006 and 2010 recordings by Armenian priest Yeznig Zegchanian, made in the historic, centuries-old house of worship where he was head cleric until war broke out. The result is as haunting as it is historic. To mark the hundredth anniversary of the genocide in Armenia, there’s an interesting album release event happening this Friday, September 18 at 7 PM at the Kavookjian Auditorium of the Armenian Diocese in New York, 630 2nd Ave.(34th/35th Sts), where Hamacher will discuss the album’s backstory and related historical events. The evening will be moderated by NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas; admission is free and open to the public.

The album itself was recorded on the fly, a selection of common liturgical pieces. Zegchanian sings at a steady clip in his endangered West Armenian dialect, his soulful, expressive baritone projecting with an effortless strength reinforced by just a touch of the 1496 edifice’s magical natural reverb. To call these impassioned solo performances inspired is an understatement: Zegchanian may have realized that he had a rare moment to immortalize this material, and seized it. The performance is fresh and off the cuff as you might expect, and the levels of volume and reverb vary from track to track, as would be expected with a field recording. As with secular Armenian music, the tonalities are closer to the even intervals of the west than the microtone of the east. The album – which is happily also available on vinyl – hasn’t hit Spotify or the other usual streaming spots yet, but there’s an intriguing selection of tracks from Hamacher’s archive up at Soundcloud.

While one might not expect to be able to hear Armenian Christian music in a predominantly Muslim city, Aleppo has historically been a major cosmopolitan center, often serving as a sanctuary for minorities from across the Middle East. As of today, most of the grounds at Forty Martyrs Church remain intact, although its outbuildings have been damaged by artillery fire. And Hamacher has not been able to track down Zegchanian. How cruelly ironic that the horrors of 1915 would mirror the tragic events in Syria a hundred years later: it is approximated that half of Aleppo’s Armenian population have become refugees in the past two years.

Banda De Los Muertos to Serenade the Trump Tower and Then Red Hook

New York’s only Mexican-style brass band, Banda De Los Muertos, will perform live in front of the Trump Tower at half past noon on Wednesday, September 16. For those who don’t know where the Trump Tower is (guess who just google mapped it), it’s at 5th Ave. and 56th St. in Manhattan. As street theatre in 2015 goes, this will be pretty hard to beat. 99-percenters who’re up for a serious dance party with this tight, explosively yet meticulously arranged retro group can go to the album release show for their self-titled Barbes Records debut at 9ish on Sept 18 at Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer St. just off Van Brunt in Red Hook. The incomparably fun yet poignant all-female Mariachi Flor De Toloache open that night at around 8; cover is $15. The B61 bus (which you can pick up just south of Sahadi’s on Atlantic Ave.) will drop you off on Van Brunt about a block and a half from the venue. And if you have 20 minutes to spare, the walk from the Carroll St. F station is remarkably easy. Exit at the front of the Brooklyn-bound train, then take Smith about a block and a half to First Place and make a left. A couple of blocks from there, First Place becomes Summit. Keep going for a couple of blocks and when you reach the BQE, take the footbridge over and then make a U-turn, continuing on Summit until it merges with Hamilton Ave. for about half a block. Then make a left on Van Brunt and take it straight to Pioneer. And take these directions with you.

Among Mexican-Americans, Sinaloa-style banda music was often considered cheesy and dated until rediscovered by Gen X-ers in the 90s; since then, it’s continued to enjoy a resurgence in popularity. Although bandas are common in California and the American border states, Banda De Los Muertos are the first of their kind in New Yor. This banda is the brainchild of clarinetist Oscar Noriega and multi-brassman Jacob Garchik, who came up with the concept while members of Slavic Soul Party. Noriega is Mexican-American and grew up playing much of the band’s traditionally-oriented repertoire in a popular Tucson family band. Garchik is a highly sought-after jazz trombonist and composer, although in this group, he plays sousaphone.The rest of the ensemble comprises several A-list jazz musicians: clarinetist Chris Speed, trumpeters Ben Holmes and Justin Mullens, trombonists Curtis Hasselbring and Bryan Drye, horn player Rachel Drehmann and standup drummer Jim Black, with Mariachi Flor de Toloache frontwoman Mireya Ramos on vocals.

If you’re hearing this stuff for the first time and thinking, “A lot of this sounds like ranchera music with horns instead of guitars and strings,” you’re right! Many ranchera stars have recorded with bandas over the years. The songs on the new album are mostly covers, although the opening track, a Garchik/Noriega creation, is a brisk, spring-loaded cumbia. With its droll juxtaposition of swirly reeds and punchy staccato horns, it’s arguably the best song here – and a reminder just how tight traditional Mexican bandas can be, and how challenging the music is to play. The band revisits that groove later on with their take of ulio Jaramillo’s Ay Mexicanita.

The band segues from the joyous pageantry of El Sinaloense into the even more dramatic and more complex El Jalisciense. Ramos raises the rafters with her impassioned, gritty vocals on El Puerto Negro. Even by the rigorous standards of new big band jazz, Garchik’s elaborate chart for the old standard El Toro Viejo is striking – then again, he’s used to that kind of stuff since he arranges for the Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson, among others. The same could be said for the tricky counterpoint and lush, ambered sonics of the band’s version of Las Nubes.

There’s a Ramon Ayala hit, the stately waltz Tragos Amargos – where the group sounds like a single, giant accordion – and one by Jose Alfredo Jiminez, Tu Recuerdo y Yo, which is closer to Tex-Mex balladry. The best song on the album  – and the one with the most resonant backstory – is the angst-ridden bolero Te Quiero Tanto, written by Noriega’s grandmother, Susana Dominguez, who mentored him while he played with his brothers as a teenager. Another more fiery, toweringly majestic bolero, Culiacan also packs a wallop. For some comic relief, there’s a wry cover of Marty Robbins’ El Paso. The album closes with the scamperingly exuberant, shapeshifting Arriba Mi Sinaloa. The album’s not out yet, so there’s nothing at Spotify or the usual streaming spots, but there are a bunch of videos up at Garchik’s music page.

Ola Fresca Bring Some Oldschool Cuban Flavor to Classic NYC Salsa

“You jacked my beats!” the old Cuban salsero said with a scowl to his Puerto Rican colleague. That accusation doesn’t hold a lot of water, since music from the Caribbean, with its island nations and many ports of call, is so well-traveled and full of ocean-borne cross-pollination. But that argument still gets some play in latin music circles. So there might be a little irony in the fact that Jose Conde – a guy who’s operated at the artsy edge of latin pop for the past decade or so – would revisit his oldschool Cuban roots with his band Ola Fresca. They’ve got a new album, Elixir – streaming at Spotify -and an album release show coming up at 9:30 PM on September 16 at Joe’s Pub. Cover is $15.

The album’s opening title track sets the darkly bronzed trombones of Jose Davila and Rey David Alejandre over a terse four-man percussion section, pianist Pablo Vergara holding to a similarly tight, almost minimalist groove in tandem with bassist Juan-Carlos Formell (heir to the Los Van Van legacy). While the production is closer to digital-clean than, say, Machito, it’s also not sterile.

Conviviencia is a cool exercise in dynamics, a biting horn arrangement with trumpeter Dennis Hernandez joining with the trombones over a jovial, lowdown groove. With its balmy brass chart, Bizcocho is both more ambitious and retro, again pairing jazz sophistication alongside vaudevillian flourishes. La Mano del Rumbero puts some extra slink on a rhumba beat, the percussion section – Roberto Quintero, Obanlu Iré, Gabriel Machado and Román Diaz – taking a welcome turn front and center.

A Formell cover, Mulata, starts off on the careful side but then the band relaxes. Likewise, the band resists shifting El Niño de la Clave from an elegantly tiptoeing pulse toward the stomp that a lot of salsa bands would make out of it. In the same vein as the lighter, more party-oriented material from the golden age of Nuyorican salsa, the songs’ lyrics put Conde in the position of party-starter or rootsman guiding everybody back to their island origins, sometimes with a droll, punny sense of humor, as in the catchy, playful, Veracruz-tinged Pollitos de Primavera. The humor takes a backseat to relevance with the starkly shuffling border-crossing tale Bandera. Otherwise, this isn’t particularly heavy music (although the playing has a laser-direct focus): it’s a lot of fun and will resonate with people who look back fondly on the classic Fania era as well as those who go back deeper into history with the Buena Vista crew.