New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: August, 2016

Elegant, Serpentine Chamber Pop with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn

It’s hard to imagine that the String Orchestra of Brooklyn is ten years old this year. From the looks of some of the group’s members this past evening at le Poisson Rouge, if they’d been around since day one, they would have been in grade school then. This time out, the irrepressible ensemble backed a series of soloists straddling the worlds of indie classical and rock in a program that was more verdantly fresh and vivid than it was awash in the kind of lushly enveloping, dreamy sonics that strings orchestras are typically known for. A celebration of singles rather than an album of them, the program bookended often unpredictably knotty material around violinist Michi Wiancko‘s warmly minimal, poignant canon of a centerpiece, That Knock Is For Me (her first composition, she said), her cellist brother Paul adding a stark precision as he played standing up, as one would a kamancheh or erhu fiddle.

The New York premiere of William Brittelle‘s labyrinthine, surprise-packed, intricately dynamic mini-suite Canyons Curved Burgundy, was sung with moody resonance by Wye Oak guitarist Jenn Wasner, a frequent Brittelle collaborator. At the end, she went to her knees to elegantly tremolo-pick upper-register chords that were more raindroplets than dreampop washes. Her fellow guitarist Aaron Roche sang falsetto, off mic most of the time, so his harmonies often weren’t very present in the mix. Of his works on the bill, the most memorable was the slowly swaying, pensively 70s Britfolk-tinged Wooden Knife.

Wasner’s Everything Is Happening Today – scheduled for release on Flock of Dimes‘ debut album, due out next month – followed a more vigorous series of tangents, similar to Brittelle’s first piece. The group closed with his new single, Dream Has No Sacrifice, its central mantra within what by now had become an expectedly shapeshifting string arrangement replete with peek-a-boo voicings. Brittelle’s music in general is very translucent, so hearing him explain that the trials of fatherhood had sent him into a tailspin of jumping through some unnecessarily complicated hoops was quite a surprise. This, obviously, was a return to form, and despite its outward simplicity – “My Brightest Diamond on valium,” one wag observed – hardly easy to play.

A quiet, determined triumph for the soloists, who also included Robert Fleitz on electric piano and keyboards and Owen Weaver on syndrums – and the orchestra, whose members this time out also comprised violinists Gina Dyches, Quyen Le, Eric Shieh, Allison Dubinski, Shawn Barnett and Matthew Lau; violists Emily Bookwalter, Joseph Dermody and Brian Thompson; cellists Ken Hashimoto and Aya Terki; and bassists Luiz Bacchi, Valerie Whitney and Morton Cahn

The String Orchestra of Brooklyn’s next performance is at Bargemusic on Sept. 11 at 4 PM as part of a memorial concert, where they’ll be playing Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The concert is free, but early arrival is a must.

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A Thrilling, Chilling Bartok Triptych From the Chiara String Quartet

Every string quartet worth their salt eventually get around to the Bartok cycle, Chiara String Quartet cellist Gregory Beaver hastened to remind the sold-out crowd at National Sawdust this past evening. “Because we’re crazy,” he added sheepishly. This extremely ambitious, relatively young (mid/late 20s) ensemble’s take on Bartok’s string quartets stands apart from what the rest of their colleagues are doing in that they’ve been playing all six of these iconic works from memory. A fluke of rehearsal became a lightning bolt of inspiration. – the group discovered by accident that the most difficult passages, which they’d had to shed until they had them in their fingers, enabled more chemistry than the parts they were reading off the page. And much as the quartet’s new album, Bartok By Heart, bristles with all sorts of electric moments, watching this group play Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5 was even more transcendent.

There’s an argument that every civilized home should have at least a few recordings of the late Beethoven string quartets. For the sake of argument, here’s another: everyone, civilized or not, ought to experience the entire Bartok cycle in concert at least once.

Why? This music is as relevant – never mind cutting-edge – now as it was a hundred years ago, or more (the relatively rarely played String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1909). This evening’s themes included but were hardly limited to heartbreak, war, exile, loss and bereavement. And to illustrate just to clever Bartok’s harmonizations of folk tunes from his native Hungary, to Turkey, to North Africa were, Beaver introduced the program with a snippet of one of the ancient Magyar folk songs that the composer collected early in his career as a proto-Alan Lomax. Later, offering some insight into the night’s final piece, String Quartet No. 5, violist Jonah Sirota entreated the crowd to pay close attention to the piece’s concluding movement and the “delicious” series of chords that he clearly couldn’t wait to sink his fingers into.

The uneasy, verging-on-microtonal harmonies unravel so kaleidoscopically that there’s no end how fascinating this material is. Bartok wasn’t a string player, but he knew these instruments inside out and was generous to the extreme with virtuoso moments for everyone. Second violin seldom gets to have as much white-knuckle, intense fun as Hyeyung Julie Yoon had with the slithery slides in the rather vindictively matter-of-fact second movement of String Quartet No. 1. Out of the many, many challenges first violinist Rebecca Fischer had to pull off, possibly the most striking was how deftly she bounced her bow off the strings to provide stark high harmonics during the third movement of No. 5, the warped ghost dance where the whole group was forced to the limits of their extended technique.

Other riveting moments took shape less sharply and immediately but no less forcefully. The subtext of the first quartet seemed in this context less of a lovelorn lament and more of a cynical, I-told-you-so kissoff. The third, its horrified staccato growing as troops amassed along the border, was dynamically a world apart from heavy metal but no less ghoulish. And the dirge that ties up Quartet No. 5 came across as a cavatina that was arguably the most conversational passage of the entire evening. The crowd responded with three standing ovations before jazz started wafting through the room ,softly, as it had before the show. They’re playing the even-numbered quartets in the six-quartet cycle back at National Sawdust tomorrow night; advance tickets are gone, but $30 day-of-show cover is still a bargain for how this group delivers the material.

The Hilariously Relevant Rachael Kilgour Makes a Highly Anticipated Lincoln Center Debut Next Week

This September 8 songwriter Rachael Kilgour makes her Lincoln Center debut. She’s hilarious, and her acerbic, catchy songs are witheringly relevant. Her latest album is a terse three-song ep, Whistleblower’s Manifesto: Songs for a New Revolution, streaming at her site. It’s hard to imagine a handful of tunes released in recent years that capture the state of the nation any better than these three. The folksinger who opens Kilgour’s show in the atrium space at Broadway and 62nd St at 7:30 PM is pretty generic, but Kilgour is worth getting there early for – and especially since this show is free, it’s likely to sell out, so getting there early will be worth it.

Since the late zeros, Kilgour has made a name for herself as one of the smartest, most individualistic, and most rock-oriented acts on the folkie circuit. She’s a strong singer, a vivid lyricist with a populist streak and has a first-rate band. This little album is all about sarcasm. In a bright, cheery, soaring voice, Kilgour savages the kind of Prosperity Christians and related rightwingers that she may have grown up with her native Minnesota. The opening track, In America, sways along with a 90s trip-hop beat, although the layers of acoustic and electric guitars over an acoustic rhythm section gives the song a more organic feel than what you might expect:

It’s rags to riches, baby, that’s our story and we’re sticking to it
If you don’t make it big, you can’t claim the game is rigged
In America, you manifest your own destiny
Stack the deck and deal a hand and if your daddy’s rich
Every card you hold will be turned to gold
For a white man and his tricks
The bottom few could be privileged too
If they’d buckle down and try…

But at the end, Kilgour goes to the well for a punchline as devastating as anything the Clash or the Dead Kennedys ever put on vinyl.

He’ll Save Me is the centerpiece here. In this case, the sarcasm extends to the music, Kilgour’s blithely Bible-thumping protagonist chirping over a creepy, noir backdrop that’s Nashville gothic to the core:

As long as I pray I know I’ll get my way
When it comes to Judgment Day…
I don’t have to make nice
I know he’ll forgive me
Well, Jesus Christ, who do you think you are
Telling me I’ve gone too far?
…A three-car garage and a weekly massage,
I only take what I deserve
Healthcare? Don’t you know I know better
Than to hand rewards to sinners?
…She’s going to hell, another fetus killed
The Lord’s commandments say it’s true
But God bless my son as he aims his gun
At a cursed Afghani fool

The concluding, title cut is the most sarcastic of all mighty, swaying janglerock anthem, blending 90s Oasis clang with 60s Byrds jangle. The nagging, persistent cheer, delivered by the kind of know-it-all conformist we’ve all worked with (or worked for), is crushing:

There’s a man-boys’ club everywhere you look
From the Pentagon to your hippie neighbors
Keeping secrets, doing favors
‘Cause maybe in the end it’s easier to pretend
Than risk pissing off all your friends
Nobody wants a conflict
Nobody likes a tattletale
So keep your mouth shut, keep it to yourself
…Though you did what’s right
You’ll be the one to pay the price
Chances are you won’t be liked
They’ll never forgive you, Whistleblower
It’s on your shoulders
And you’re the only one to blame

The rest of Kilgour’s catalog is neither this grim nor this overtly political, but it’s just as tuneful. One suspects that Kilgour will be just as funny onstage as she is on these tracks.

Mitra Sumara Keyboardist Jim Duffy Puts Out a Wickedly Catchy, Cleverly Fun Instrumental Album

Jim Duffy is one of New York’s most irrepressibly entertaining and individualistic keyboardists. He had a longtime gig with Americana rockers Martin’s Folly; these days he plays organ in the wildly psychedelic Mitra Sumara, who specialize in covers of classic/obscure Iranian art-funk hits from the 60s and 70s. But he’s also a distinguished songwriter in his own right. His third and latest instrumental album, ominously titled Pale Afternoon, is streaming at Spotify (there are also a bunch of tracks at soundcloud and youtube for those of you who can’t stop multitasking long enough to jump on that fader and ride it down to zero when the ads pop up).

The album opens with Boulevard Six, a dead ringer for a late 60s/early 70s Herbie Hancock movie theme in rambunctious 6/4 time, guitarist Lance Doss contributing a blue-flame solo. The way Duffy’s oscillating Wurlitzer electric piano riff fades into the terse resonance of trombonist Sam Kulik and baritone saxophonist Claire Daly is just insanely cool, like something Brian Jones would have overdubbed on Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Figurine is sort of a variation on the previous tune, a bittersweetly twinkling late-night stroll lowlit by Kevin Kendrick’s vibraphone. If Bryan & the Aardvarks had been a rock band, they would have sounded like this. Once again, Doss fires off a solo, this time channeling late 60s Mike Bloomfield.

The album’s title track turns out to be a slow, summery groove until Doss drifts into sunbaked, stately art-rock, pushing the song toward 70s Procol Harum territory. Duffy’s Fillmore Theme turns out to be a breezy, swinging number, part Bacharach bossa, part Free Design psych-pop, Duffy multitracking his rippling, upper-register Wurly along with lush, fluid organ.

Keep Keeping On is a soul waltz as Booker T might have done one circa 1967, or Quincy Jones might have on the In the Heat of the Night soundtrack, Paul Page’s bass bubbling over the washes of drummer Dennis Diken’s cymbals. The elegant Wurly clusters in Reverse Image are so close to the melody of Figurine that it begs a momentary switch between the two tracks, to see if Duffy is pulling something clever like doing that song backwards. As it turns out, no – they’re just both incredibly catchy, this one close to a goodnatured Big Lazy highway panorama without the exit into David Lynch territory.

Mission Creep is the album’s best and darkest track, Doss’ simmering lapsteel bringing to mind the Friends of Dean Martinez‘s Bill Elm doing something from Dark Side of the Moon. Then with Tenerife, the band return to a sunny Bacharachian backbeat spiced with Doss’ wry soul-jazz lines.

Duffy follows the gently allusive ballad We’ll Never Know (nice theremin impersonation there, dude) with Spurare Il Rospo (The Spitting Toad), a briskly tropical motorik theme that’s a dead ringer for Los Crema Paraiso. The album winds up with Evening Birds, an iconoclastic spin on a hallowed, funereal Floyd tune. Crank this at your next party and get the entire room dancing – ok, everything but that last song.

Fun and inspiring fact: Duffy is one of the few musicians to shift from being a first-rate bassist to an A-list keyboardist. And then put out one of the ten best albums of 2016, more or less.

Ultan Conlon Hits New York With His Broodingly Lyrical, Vivid Grey-Sky Chamber Pop

Irish crooner Ultan Conlon sings with the same kind of hesitancy at the end of a phrase that Morrissey worked for so long – and for all we know, still is working. But Conlon can also sail up high like Orbison and belt like Pierce Turner when he feels like it. His latest album, Songs of Love So Cruel – streaming at Spotify – is a gloomy cycle told from the point of view of an old man looking back on his marriage with all sorts of angst and regret. Right now Conlon’s in town, with a Dives of New York tour in the works. Tonight, August 27 at around 8:30 PM, he’s at Hifi Bar, with the lyrically brilliant, increasingly harder-rocking Linda Draper opening at 7:30. Then tomorrow, August 28 at 8 PM he’s at 12th Street Bar & Grill in Park Slope; on the 29th at one in the afternoon, he’s at Little Water Radio in South Street Seaport.

Conlon’s site doesn’t credit the musicians on the record, and that’s a pity, because the arrangements and playing are first-rate, purist and inspired: a lot of work went into this. It opens with In the Mad, a brisk janglerock anthem with a lush string section that kicks in on the second chorus. Trouble’s brewing right from the start: “It’s wild and desolate in this snow-cold land,” Conlon grouses. He follows with The Golden Sands, a backbeat janglerocker. Conlon’s narrator longs to be swept off his feet, and “You wait for the day but it’s not coming round.”

The Lumberjack, You and Me, the first of the Americana numbers here, is an elegant waltz:

On the way to the Galway railway station
With your brother there so I can’t say what I’m thinking…
A wry smile, we will meet in September
All political lives end in failure…
I don’t grow, I just cling to the vine

“There’s a trail we wore down across the years,” the protagonist laments in the elegaically shuffling, slide guitar-fueled Dance to Paper Roses. Bristlecone Pines is even more wintry and morose, contemplating what hell must be like: “My limbs will mend but there are cracks, and those ones won’t.” Then the band returns to a shuffle groove with Lonely Avenues, the closest thing to the Smiths here, Conlon reaching for the rafters.

The lush art-rock ballad Eternally evokes Pink Floyd, especially when the slide guitar enters: “Oh how my eyes deceive me now, looking out on this minefield…like seeds waiting to explode, to go up in flames.”

Conlon follows the vampy stadium-rock anthem Place Of Sanctuary with the lush, gorgeously bittersweet art-folk ballad The River Flows and The Woods Creep, a duet with Sabrina Dinan. By the time the album closes with the spare, harp-speckled When I Fell in Love With You, it’s clear that this relationship is now one for the ages. Fans of the sad side of chamber pop will have a field day with this.

Gato Loco’s Perilous Mambos and Noir Cinematics Capture These Dark Times

Perilous times, perilous measures, perilous bands. In an era in New York when seemingly half the population  doesn’t know if they’ll have a roof over the heads a month from now, it’s only logical to expect that the music coming out of this city at this moment would reflect that unease. Many of New York’s elite bands and artists – Karla Rose & the Thorns, Big Lazy, Rachelle Garniez, Beninghove’s Hangmen across the river, and now Gato Loco – speak for this new Age of Anxiety. Of all those bands, Gato Loco might be the loudest and most explosive.

Most bands pump up the volume with loud guitars, and Gato Loco have Lily Maase to bring that firestorm. But more than anything, Gato Loco’s sound is an update on the oldschool mambo orchestras of the 50s, emphasis on low brass. Frontman Stefan Zeniuk can be found on bass sax, baritone sax, and, ironically, mostly on tenor sax these days. “Tuba Joe” Exley brings the funk and the funny stuff (is there a tuba player alive without a sense of humor? Perish the thought). Trombonist Tim Vaughan takes over front and center since he’s often the guy with the most dynamic range; likewise, drummer Kevin Garcia supplies just as much color as groove, on his hardware and rims and cymbals and pretty much everywhere that can be hit.

Like so many of New York’s elite, Gato Loco’s home base these days is Barbes. Last month, they played a Williamsburg gig that gave them the benefit of a big stage, which was fun considering that it afforded them a lot more space to stretch out, yet didn’t compromise the intimate feel of their Park Slope gigs.

A tense, syncopated stomp introduced the show. Slowly, the horns converged with a similarly dark riff that suddenly flared into a classic Ethiopian tune: a noir latin spin on Musikawi Silt, an iconic Ethiopiques hit from the 1970s. Trumpeter Jackie Coleman fired off a plane-crash slide, then the band hit a monster-movie mambo pulse. That was just the first eight minutes or so.

Maase anchored the next song with her shadowy Brazilian riffs, a blazing Lynchian bossa of sorts, horns leaping from the shadows like flames on an old building whose landlord finally decided to show the remaining tenants the Bronx, 1970s style, the guitarist putting a tighter spin on spiraling Carlos Santana psychedelia. The highlight of the set came early with The Lower Depths, a slow, murderously slinky, blackly backlit number: the striptease theme from hell, essentially, something that wouldn’t be out of place in the Beninghove’s Hangmen catalog. Flickers of Lynchian dub and 60s Quincy Jones noir soul cinematics appeared before all hell broke loose, Vaughan contributing a long, cloudbusting major-on-minor solo. Zeniuk has been writing a lot of theatre music lately, and this is a prime example.

Likewise, with the set’s next song, the group worked a serpentine path upward through brooding exchanges of voices over Garcia’s nebulous woodblock-fueled groove, chaos threatening to break out every other measure. It was the sonic equivalent of a Sequieros mural. From there they hit a hint of dub reggae on their way to a brisk clave stomp and then more Ethiopiques fueled by Coleman’s tersely joyous blues and the bandleader’s cynically fleeting tenor sax.

Tuelo & Her Cousins opened the night with a rather epic set that drew equally on jaunty, jangly late 80s British guitar pop, oldschool soul and the exuberant, dynamic, socially aware frontwoman’s South African heritage. They’re at Union Hall on Sept 9 at 8 PM; cover is $8.

A Thrilling Centerpiece to This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

High-voltage Indian vocal and instrumental group the Navatman Music Collective played one of the year’s most exhilarating concerts as part of this year’s Drive East Festival last night at LaMaMa, a sold-out performance in celebration of the release of their new album An Untimely Joy. Although each member got at least a couple of turns out front to dazzle the crowd with their voices and their chops, their de facto main soloist, Roopa Mahadevan, reaffirmed her status as not only one of the most spellbinding singers in New York but in the entire world. With her pulsing, minutely inflected melismas, powerful low register and the occasional dramatic flight upward, she displayed thrilling command of classical carnatic styles from throughout the ages, in addition to ghazals and theatre music.

The rest of the group pretty much did the same. What was most striking right off the bat was how far they’re pushing the envelope. They opened counterintuitively with the kind of coda typically associated with a dance theatre piece and concluded with what Mahadevan said was one of the alltime bom diggity ragas, and she wasn’t kidding. The strong baritones of Vignesh Ravichandran and Kaushik Ravi anchored the music, usually hovering an octave beneath the kaleidoscopically timbred voices of the women: Mahadevan, Kamini Dandapani, Bhargavi Khamakshivalli, Prettha Raghu and Shradda Balasubramaniam. Kavi Srinivasaragavan negotiated the music’s tricky rhythmic shifts on mridangam, while 17-year-old violin prodigy Harini Rajashekar wove meticulous, often plaintive lines amid the dynamic, often joyously dancing melodies.

Perhaps ironically, the night’s most riveting moments came not during the most ecstatic peaks but in a brooding, low-key mini-epic that Mahadevan began slowly and plaintively. Tali Rubinstein’s flute spun eerily baroque-tinged lines against Camila Celin’s stark sarod while guest tabla player Ehren Hanson engaged Srinivasaragavan in some subtly wry rhythmic jousting.

The early part of the show quickly rose from a raptly enveloping medieval piece to a new arrangement of a classic carnatic theme featuring some stunningly unexpected harmonies and intricate counterpoint making its way throughout the choir, akin to a mashup of Thomas Tallis with classic Indian themes. The night’s most epic work was a torrentially rising and falling new piece by Ravichandrana and Mahadevan, featuring the full ensemble along with Celin on acoustic guitar. There was also an ecstatic raga made famous as a film theme, opening with a stunningly dynamic, melismatic solo vocal from Mahadevan, along with a stately ghazal with Kamaikshivalli taking the lead.

They brought everything full circle at the end. Hearing the voices in unison delivering the kind of shiveringly precise, minutely wavelike phrases commonly associated with the sitar reminded how carnatic music is the foundation of the Indian classical canon. Long before there were sitars, people were doing the same thing with their voices, which is actually more physically demanding than merely playing it on a fingerboard. That this group challenge themselves to take this music to yet another level testifies to their collective fearlessness and irrepressible joie de vivre.

The Drive East Festival continues through Sunday at LaMaMa, 74 E 4th St. between Bowery and 2nd Ave. Tonight’s performances begin at 6 PM with carnatic instrumental ensemble Akshara, featuring sensationally eclectic violinist Trina Basu.

The Chiara String Quartet Play Bartok By Heart: A Harrowing, Landmark Achievement

There’s an argument that Bela Bartok’s string quartets are the holy grail of that repertoire. Sure, Beethoven wrote more of them, and so did Shostakovich, and others, but in terms of unrelenting, harrowing intensity, Bartok is unsurpassed. And the Bartok cycle is as daunting to play as it is darkly exhilarating to hear. On one hand, that the Chiara String Quartet would be able to play all six Bartok quartets from memory isn’t as staggering a feat as it might seem, since plenty of other world-class ensembles could do that if they put the time into it. It’s how this ensemble does it that makes their forthcoming double album Bartok By Heart, and their continued performances of these works, such a landmark achievement.

As Chiara cellist Gregory Beaver has explained, the group’s purpose in memorizing all this sometimes cruelly difficult material is to bring the composer’s themes – many of them inspired by or pilfered from North African, Middle Eastern and Romany music – back to their roots. In the process, the group discovered how conversational – some might say folksy – much of it actually turns out to be. New York audiences are in for a treat when the quartet play all six pieces over two nights to celebrate the album’s release at National Sawdust. The August 30, 7 PM concert features Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5; the following night, August 31 features Nos. 2, 4 and 6. Advance tix are $20, and considering how expensive chamber music of this caliber has become in this city, that’s a bargain.

How do these recordings stand out from the rest of the pack? In general, the convivial quality of the composer’s counterpoint – echoing the call-and-response of so many of the original folk themes – comes to the forefront. Dynamics are also front and center, but this interpretation is especially noteworthy for how vigorous the quieter passages are. Bartok’s later quartets, in particular, rely heavily on all sorts of extended technique, high harmonics, ghostly glissandos and sardonically plucky pizzicato, and the group really sink their teeth into them. Passages like the second movement of Quartet No. 3, with all its sepulchral strolls, rises from unease to genuinely murderous heights. Yet, when they have to play their cards closer to the vest, as in the slithery foreshadowing of the twisted dance that develops in the first movement of No. 5, the ensemble revels in that mystery as well.

Emotional content becomes more inescapable within the context of interplay between individual instrumental voices. Bartok saw himself as an exile, and was horror-stricken by the rise of fascism in Europe in the wake of World War I. So it’s no surprise how much of a sense of alienation, abandonment and loss – from Bartok’s point of view, culturally as well as personally – permeates these performances. That, and a grim humor: for example, the wide-angle vibrato of violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon against the plaintive presence of Jonah Sirota’s viola, as they bring to life the the anguished, embittered Quartet No. 1 and its unvarnished narrative of love gone hopelessly off the rails. As underscored in the liner notes by Gabriela Lena Frank  a longtime Chiara collaborator – all this makes the ensemble’s take on this music every bit as relevant now as it was during the waves of displacement, and nationalist terror, and genocide that coincided with the Great War that was supposed to end them all.

Kedar Naphade Opens This Year’s Drive East Festival with Elegance and Purposeful Virtuosity

Before launching rather suspensefully into an evening raga to open this year’s Drive East Festival of Indian music last night at LaMaMa, harmonium player Kedar Naphade cautioned the crowd that things might get a little uneasy. And they did. Early on in his opening alap (taqsim, or solo improvisation), it was almost as if he was playing major on minor, a hallowed trope in western horror movie music. He’d explained that since evening ragas reflect a transitional time of day, those melodies tend to bristle with disquieting accidentals.

Much as it might seem unusual to open a weeklong celebration of Indian music and dance with a classical harmonium concert, instead of, say, Bollywood or bhangra, it was a counterintuitive success for the festival’s organizers. The show wasn’t sold out, but there was a good crowd, an impressively diverse mix of the many cultures that continue to defy the odds to make this city such a rich cultural melting pot.

Naphade was joined by tabla player Dibyarka Chaterjee, whose elegantly pointillistic phrases somewhat ironically brought a calming, hypnotic effect to the music when he first joined in, along with Rohan Prabhudesai, a fellow harmonium player moonlighting on swaramandal and adding the occasional starry glissando to drive a phrase home.

While Naphade has a lightning right hand, he took his time, matter-of-factly building to where he could ornament the music with some spectacularly rapidfire trills, playfully balletesque spirals and long cascades. He and Chaterjee traded solos as the music rose and fell, at one point reaching a groove that would have been a perfectly solid swing jazz shuffle. That long, serpentine road eventually led to a vivid series of variations on an enigmatic fanfare riff of sorts. It was only at this point that Naphade introduced any harmony or chords, but even there kept them terse and unresolved.

The trio wound up the performance with a couple of more recent works. Introducing the irst, Naphade poignantly related how his great-uncle, whom he first knew as a shy, retiring family elder, was actually an important figure in Indian music, a pioneer who helped introduce western orchestration in the 1950s. That number turned out to be a broodingly swaying, chromatically charged clip-clop proto Bollywood groove punctuated by lively leaping phrases. The night’s final piece was variations on a bouncy, acerbically spiraling musical theatre tune from Naphade’s home state in India, Maharashtra, dating from around the time that audiences were abandoning the music hall for the movie theatre with the rise of Bollywood. The only thing that could have made this concert more interesting or fun would have been more music.

The Drive East Festival continues through this Sunday, August 28 at LaMaMa, 74 E 4th St. Tonight’s lineup begins with a dance performance by Sahasra Sambamoorthi backed by a live orchestra; tix are available here. And speaking of tix, this blog still has a few free tickets to the festival to give away; the shows and information on how to claim your prize(s) are listed here.

Shelley Thomas Channels an Entire Bulgarian Vocal Choir on Her Stunning New Solo Album

Shelley Thomas‘ debut solo album, Joy – streaming at her music page– is as exhilarating to listen to as it is a towering display of vocal prowess. Thomas is not only one of New York’s great voices; she’s one of the world’s most highly sought-after interpreters of Middle Eastern and Balkan music. What’s most impressive about this album is how she multitracks her voice, essentially becoming a one-woman Bulgarian vocal choir, a self-contained Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares or Black Sea Hotel (of which she is a member). As she explains in the album’s liner notes, Bulgarian music is “a vast and exciting repertoire of wildly diverse regional styles, dialects and ornaments, rich in history, storytelling and feeling.” That’s an understatement. Thomas has such vast range, formidable technique and minutely nuanced command of microtones that she can do it all. The result is rapture that sometimes borders on terror. Olivier Messiaen understood that; so does Thomas.

Beyond the otherworldly, microtonal beauty of the arrangements, sometimes what’s most striking about these seventeen songs is their surrealism. Other times it’s the subtext, as in the album’s distantly plaintive, solo vocal opening track, where a girl goes out into the woods, ostensibly to pick flowers. But what she’s really up to is searching for her missing brother, a freedom figther against the local tyrant, or Ottoman invaders.

Most of the other tracks are packed with the close harmonies typically associated with the Bulgarian vocal tradition. Thomas juxtaposes a hypnotically enveloping field holler of sorts with a bride-price diptych full of the echo effects typically associated with mountain music. She channels the wistfulness of a girl beseeching her mother not to marry her off before she’s been able to enjoy a bit more of her carefree childhood, and the bounciness of a tune that belies its macabre lyric about a construction worker who falls victim to a murderous prank. Thomas delivers the album’s celebratory title track as a brisk but stately pavane of sorts.

The rest of the album is just as colorful. Brides are sought after again and again; grooms are rejected (usually because they’re too impoverished) and accepted once in awhile. An abusive boyfriend runs up against karmic payback; another hothead meets his match with a girl who wants to tie him up, yikes! Thomas’ lush, hushed reinvention of Mesechinko Ljo is simply exquisite, one part Arvo Part, one part African-American gospel. The next-to-last track is even more epic. Many of the remaining songs are very short, clocking in at barely two minutes; in each case, the emotion in Thomas’ vocals, sometimes tender, sometimes wounded, often uneasy, transcends linguistic limitations. You don’t need to speak Bulgarian to be entranced by this music: it’s one of the half-dozen best albums of 2016. Thomas’ fascinating liner notes include both the original Bulgarian lyrics and English translations as well as historical and musicological background.