New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: May, 2017

Potent, Evocative New Vocal Jazz: Helen Sung with Words Last Night at the Jazz Standard

On one hand, Helen Sung with Words last night at the Jazz Standard was a chance to hear both multi-reedman John Ellis and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen blaze together in front of a tight latin-flavored rhythm section, a treat not to be missed. On the other, it was an opportunity to witness the most cutting edge of vocal jazz, a tantalizingly eclectic, often harrowingly relevant work in progress bookended by a couple of real burners.

Singers Christie Dashiell, Carolyn Leonhart and Vuyo Sotashe took turns and often harmonized Sung’s settings of poems by Dana Gioia, whose recorded words wafted through the PA as each song got underway. Alternately brooding, sardonic or droll, Sung wove them into constantly shifting shapes, Dashiell getting the most time in the spotlight with her airy, often vividly wistful delivery bolstered by Leonhart’s sometimes brassy harmonies, Sotashe reaching toward Al Green territory from time to time with his balmy falsetto.

Ellis intoned mournful, blood-and-blues-drenched motives off the inside of the piano as a steady, hauntingly reflective elegy for a  murdered inmate in the US prison system got underway. Likewise, bassist Ricky Rodriguez gave a Lower East Side wee-hours lament a starkly bowed intro as percussionist Samuel Torres and drummer Kendrick Scott added their misty accents to the wounded ambience: it was the most avant garde moment of the night.

Yet there was as much adrenaline as poignancy in the set. Dave Brubeck famously joked that there’s a little lounge in every pianist, but whenever Sung hinted that she might go there, with a playful little trill or a chromatic downward run, she’d break it up with a fierce block chord or two. Her work defies standard A/B/C sectionality – these songs seemed to have an F, a G and an H too – and she has a flair for latin jazz. She wound up a couple of the more upbeat numbers with an altered couple of mambos that made a launching pad for tantalizingly brief duels between Torres and Scott.

The joyous closing number, the most straight-ahead of the evening, had echoes of funk. The opener – illustrating Gioia’s early 70s memories of a smoky West Coast jazz joint – grew out of Ellis and then Jensen blistering through a thicket of bluesy eights to Sung’s long, majestically driving solo, artfully expanding toward tropicalia and then back. As kaleidoscopically lyrical as the rest of the set was, it would have been even more fun to hear her cut loose like that again. As the saying goes, always leave them wanting more. Sung plays next on June 3 at 8 PM at Lulu Fest in Austin, Texas.

Tamar Korn Thinks on Her Feet and Enchants the Crowd at Barbes

Memorial Day at Barbes, singer Tamar Korn addressed the audience cautiously. “Brain Cloud’s not here,” she explained. “This is my situation.” The well-loved western swing band the petite, irrepressible singer fronts will be back at their usual Monday night residency on June 5 at 7 PM for those lucky enough to be able to get out of work in time to get to Park Slope. Lots do – the back room always fills up.

Despite the holiday, there was a good crowd for this one, and everybody stayed. “I call this project Kornucopia,” Korn grinned, and it’s an apt band name. Korn is both someone who everyone wants to play with, and who basically ends up doing that anyway – that’s the state of swing jazz in New York in 2017. This was a special treat, a chance to watch her think on her feet and run through a lot of material that she rarely gets the chance to, backed by an excellent pickup band including Rob Hecht on violin, Mark Lopeman on tenor sax and clarinet, Rob Adkins on bass and a California pal, in town for the weekend, on piano.

The set was more obscurities than standards. The high point might have been an early Billie Holiday  number, One Never Knows, Does One. Korn delivered it eyes closed, wistful and pensive, opening a door into another world, letting that world slip in, and the audience slip out into it. Korn’s high soprano is instantly recognizable, with a little mist and a little smoke – jaunty wit notwithstanding, her not-so-secret weapon is nuance.

Another memorable moment, among many, was when Korn sang Abi Gezunt, the famous Yiddish swing anthem. It’s hard to translate – the implication is “at least we’re not dead.” Songs by embattled minorities – whether Mexicans under the conquistadors or now Trump, American blacks, or European Jews – tend to be ripe with irony and signification, and this was a prime example. Metropolitan Klezmer rips the hell out of it – Korn’s version gave voice to its ironies and bittersweetness. She sang the last verse in English to drive those emotions home.

The group ran through a couple of standards as well – was Old Devil Moon one of them? Maybe. Korn is unsurpassed at vocalizing the sound of various instruments. Trombone is a specialty, but this particular evening she was in a low-key trumpet mood (forget about that rrt-rrt-rrt kazoo sound – anybody can do that!). Lopeman spun wafting lyrical sax figures and jaunty, sometimes dixieland-flavored clarinet lines, Hecht adding stark blues and atmospherics, Adkins thinking on his feet as much as Korn with his purposeful, horn-like solos. Elegant, low-key rolls and tumbles and occasional departures toward barrelhouse or ragtime from the piano completed the picture. This is the kind of magic that you might accidentally stumble into over a holiday weekend at Barbes – whose Indiegogo campaign isn’t over yet, and is only about 70% funded at this point. You can help ensure that this Brooklyn treasure sticks around long enough to outlast both the Trump and Pence administrations.

A Rare Manhattan Show by the Fiery Cecilia Coleman Big Band

Here are some highlights from the Cecilia Coleman Big Band’s show last year at St. Peter’s Church in midtown. If they played another after that, the monthly concert calendar (just completed – whew) didn’t catch it. They’re back this Wednesday, May 31 at 1 PM for one of the lunchtime concerts there.

Coleman didn’t come up in a big band milieu, but she’s a natural. Her charts manage to be both trad and cutting-edge. Big punchy crescendos and a brassy, energic drive are persistent tropes in her book. She likes to throw caution to the wind and let the band rip, and she’s not averse to ripping either.

They kicked off that show with a brisk three-alarm if not five-alarm shuffle fueled by the bandleader’s enigmatically cascading, neoromantic-tinged piano, punctuated by big brassy accents. A tumbling drum solo kept the beat going steadily, the brass punching in again, then the group lept back into the bustling picture, just thisclose to frantic.

Lustrous Debussyesque high brass quasi-fanfare riffage contrasted with brooding lows as the next number got underway, a moody alto sax solo as the brass hammered the offbeat and the drums moved further toward the center. Then a trombone huffed and puffed, uneasily modal over an elusive, syncopated sway. They took it out with terse trumpet riffage that gave way to a big drum crescendo, the brass kicking in the door for good measure.

From there they flipped the script with an uneasy, richly lustrous, wistful theme, anchored by Coleman’s spare but resonant chords, a baritone sax solo soaring over the vamp as colors shifted through the orchestra, a prism spinning on a turntable, if you buy that analogy.

Rapidfire yet melancholy tenor sax opened the tune after that – i’ve Got You Under My Skin, maybe? – over just the rhythm section and dominated from there: memory and distance from the stage blur who it might have been, but those two solos were exquisite. Stairstepping chromatic foreshadowing and hard swing fueled the two songs that followed.

The set’s most epic number opened with a big ominous chromatic riff spiced with Coleman’s sparkly piano, then grew louder and more ominous, only to shift toward warmer balladry. then with a more tightly wound, angst-fueled edge. Spaciously energetic trumpet, trombone and then moodily modal alto sax took their turns over a syncopated sway

Coleman’s mighty, insistent brass arrangement of a stern minor-key gospel theme was breathtaking, a tensely incisive alto sax solo leading to an explosively joyous upward drive. There was other stuff in the set, but by now, you know the deal. Either you like this kind of exhilaration or you can’t handle it.

A Colossally Heavy Triplebill at Drom This Past Evening

Dead Wake. Their first gig? Fooled me!” Imminent Sonic Destruction frontman Tony Piccoli wasn’t alone in thinking that. A lot of great bands have made memorable debuts at Drom over the years, but very few rock acts as heavy as Dead Wake. From how acrobatically and expertly they made their way through brain-warping metric changes and stylistic shifts, it’s obvious that all of these guys have had plenty of experience. Still, you never expect a band to come out of the chute firing on as many cylinders as these guys did. and with a combination of as much finesse and relentless assault. They could have headlined this killer night of cutting-edge metal that also featured Pennsylvania’s Next to None along with ISD.

One aspect that sets Dead Wake apart is how they vary the vocals. Frontman Sam Smith does the pigsnorting guttural deathmetal thing, while six-string bassist  Rob Zahn supplies the Dickinsonian grand guignol. His big, boomy, toxic clouds of chords anchored many of the songs, but it was his elegant Rime of the Ancient Mariner of a solo that was one of the set’s high points. Guitarist Lance Barnewold – stage right, wearing a Metallica shirt – fired off one sizzling volley of tapping after another, while his counterpart across the way, Steven Drizis, had more of a resonant solar flare attack. Drummer Marc Capellupo made the constant tempo shifts look easy: you can hear echoes that go all the way back to Queensryche and Pantera in their music, but their mashup of thrash, doom and orchestral grandeur is unlike any other band out there.

Next to None were even more stylistically diverse, and just as individualistic. Frontman/keyboardist Thomas Cuce proved equally capable as bovine bellower and operatic apocalypse messenger. It was his creepy, Messiaenic organ interlude that turned out to be the band’s high point on stage, although guitarist Derrick Schneider’s valkyrie savagery and biting sarcasm gave the music a lot more color than most thrash bands can deliver. They also had the night’s heaviest rhythm section, as you would expect from a bassist who’s a Slipknot fan.

Barely half an hour into Imminent Sonic Destruction’s set, Piccoli glanced up from his guitar to the sound booth. He’d been given the signal – by his own sound guy, no less. – that the band had one song left.

That song turned out to be twenty minutes long, part pastoral Zep, part Peter Gabriel-era Genesis on steroids, part merciless stomp. Guitarist Scott Thompson channeled grimly spare rainy-day Jimmy Page while Piccoli’s lightning runs looked back to the James Hetfield playbook. Earlier in the set, Piccoli had sent electric chair shivers down everybody’s spines with his slides down the fretboard, along with an ice storm of tremolo-picking that would have made Dick Dale jealous. Bassist Bryan Paxton held down the stygian low end and matched that with the occasional zombie-bogman growl, while drummer Pat Deleon made all the epic twists and turns look easy. Keyboardist Pete Hopersberger sang the quieter passages, spinning classical piano flourishes, psychedelic organ and ominous clouds of synth.

They opened with the doomy calculus of I Am the Fall, then made Breaking Through, another twenty-minute monstrosity,, equal parts symphonic grandeur and knee-to-the-face thud. Outside of Golden Fest or this past January’s multi-band extravaganzas at this club, it’s hard to think of a triplebill this year as relentlessly interesting as this one.

Hot Swing Jazz on a Cool Spring Night at Drom

A big ‘ooooh” went through the crowd when arranger/conductor David Berger announced Juan Tizol’s Casablanca, the noir cha-cha classic that turned out to be the high point of a dynamic opening set by his blazing Sultans of Swing Big Band at Drom last night. Berger is a founding member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: this gig, staged by the New York Hot Jazz Festival folks, gave him a chance to air out this stormy, allusively chromatic showstopper along with his other purist but inventive arrangements of swing tunes both popular and obscure.

Emcee Will Friedwald explained that everybody was there to celebrate the birthday of the “godfather of lindy hop,” Frankie Manning, the dance leader widely credited with springboarding the 90s swing revival here in Manhattan and around the world as well. Swing jazz was and will always be for dancers, but this was a concert for the listener too. There were at least as many people chlilling on the sidelines as there were on the floor, maybe more.

All evening, solos percolated throughout the band, individual members pairing off song by song until pretty much everybody got a few bars apiece. They kicked things off with a Mack the Knife-ish original that started out balmy, got brassy and then featured some neat syncopation between brass and reeds. A midtempo swing version of Happy Days Are Here Again, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s theme song, was next. “Maybe not,” Berger admitted. “Maybe later,” one of the sax section clarified.

Jelly Roll Morton’s Someday, Sweetheart had a jaunty Dan Block clarinet solo that gave way to suave trombone, and then Mark Hynes’ bubbling tenor sax. One of the clarinetists sang an opiated take of  Louis Jordan’s Knock Me a Kiss, lit up with another bustling Hynes tenor solo.

Berger explained away his stab at making swing jazz out the old early 1900s standard By the Light of the Silvery Moon as sarcastic: if a little tongue-in-cheek, it turned out to be fetching despite itself, with some pretty hip harmonies in the high reeds and brass, exchanges of bars throughout the band and a genial trombone solo. A little later they made a gorgeously lowlit, lush wee-hours swing ballad out of the old Scottish folk song Mighty Like a Rose, with a deliciously moody low brass arrangement: it turned into a dynamic feature for baritone sax.

Zoot Sims’ The Red Door got a lush snowstorm of drums, a brightly purposeful tenor sax solo and a bit of a bubbly one from bassist Jennifer Vincent – it was good to hear her amply amped in the mix, something that you can’t necessarily expect from the four string at a big band gig.

A breathtaking, uneasily carnivalesque take of Al Cohn’s Take Four was packed with brief, out-of-breath conversational phrases. A Neal Hefti number – “the swinginest chart ever,” Berger enthused – turned into a hopped-up vehicle for more baritone sax as well as the drums’ rolling, tumbling attack.

Then guest singer Hetty Kate, fresh off the plane from Australia, joined the band and launched into a coy, slinky take of Them There Eyes. She’s the real deal: she sings in character, every number different from the last one (you’d be surprised how many singers don’t do that), can bend a blue note any which way and make you smile or smirk or furrow your brow along with her.

You’re Too Marvelous for Words, with its simmering sophistication and surprisingly stark, bluesy trombone solo, contrasted with the bitingly brassy, sarcastic kissoff anthem A Fine Romance. And then channeled brittle hope and expectation in Louis Armstrong’s A Kiss to Build a Dream On. The band closed with an irrepressible dixieland flair.

The New York Hot Jazz Festival’s next big production is at Central Park Summerstage on July 1 starting at 5 PM with chanteuse Aurora Nealand, charming, female-fronted cosmopolitan swing crew Avalon Jazz Band and NYC’s arguably finest oldtime swing band Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks,

Brooklyn’s Best Music Venue Is in Trouble

Barbes is fifteen years old this month. Since 2003, the little Park Slope boîte has been home to the most fearlessly adventurous global sounds from across the borough and around the world. To give you an idea of what kind of magic takes place here, night after night, multi-instrumentalist Chi-Chi Glass played here a couple of nights ago and aired out a brand-new Peruvian piano ballad with lyrics by Maya Angelou, as well as part of an Albeniz piano sonata and a series of haunting Andean-tinged art-songs featuring the rapturously ethereal harmonies and accordion of La Rubias Del Norte’s Alyssa Lamb along with Judith Berkson.

A couple of nights before, psycho mambo band Gato Loco blasted through a set of percussively stalking noir themes with frequent detours into Ethio-jazz. And the Saturday before that, the band in the back room was Les Chauds Lapins, who unveiled a bunch of lush new classically-infused string arrangements to bolster the droll, surrealistic French swing they’ve made a name for themselves with, mostly here. There is nowhere else in New York, maybe in the world, where you can hear such diversely entertaining talent – and unless the venue can come up with seventy grand, there  may not be one anywhere.

They’ve raised a little more than half of that via Indiegogo with a month to go. There are all sorts of awesome musical perks for contributing. Characteristically, the amount you can donate on the page peaks out at $1000. These guys are populist to the core, and probably assume (pretty accurately, actually), that nobody has more than that to spare.

But this blog believes in angels. That’s a matter of personal experience. Having experienced a wave of computer meltdowns over the years, and having been rescued every time by a global support system, it seems more than reasonable to believe that there might be someone out there who’s experienced a degree of personal success and would take pride in rescuing a venue in a time of dire need. You can talk to owners Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas – the brain trust of legendary psychedelic cumbia band Chicha Libre here.

Another way to help is to treat yourself to a night of some of Barbes’ stable of amazing bands, who are playing a benefit concert on June 9 at Drom featuring mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Who’s playing when is still being figured out, but everybody on this bill is worth seeing. Advance tix are a bargain at $20; the show starts at 7 PM and goes into the wee hours. It might be the single best concert of the year.

To lose Barbes would be a devastating blow to the arts in New York, but also would be personally devastating as well. In case you haven’t already figured it out, Barbes is New York Music Daily’s local – notwithstanding the fact that this blog isn’t based in Park Slope.

Sure, if Barbes closes, some of the younger and most popular acts can find gigs elsewhere. But there’s definitely no other place in New York that would provide a home where trumpeter Ben Holmes and accordionist Patrick Farrell could workshop their wickedly creepy Conqueror Worm Suite…or where resonator guitarist Mamie Minch could collaborate with film noir soundtrack maven Steve Ulrich…or where klezmer clarinet wizard Michael Winograd could pull together a band and figure out how he’s going to record all the amazing material he’s written over the past year.

Or where a rustic Greek rembetiko band called Que Vlo-ve could morph into one of this city’s mightiest and most menacing heavy psych bands, Greek Judas. Or where bands like Balkan brass funksters Slavic Soul Party, or western swingers Brain Cloud, or Romany guitar jazz reinventor Stephane Wrembel could play weekly residencies on off nights that would become legendary in Brooklyn history. In an era where spaces that support the arts are being displaced right and left by yuppie greed and status-grubbing, we need Barbes like never before. Hit their Indiegogo page,  tell your rich friends if you have any, and see you at Drom on June 9. 

Oud Virtuoso Rahim AlHaj Plays the Year’s Single Best Concert at Lincoln Center

From the moment he took the Lincoln Center stage this past evening, playing material off his new album Letters from Iraq, oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj – one of the world’s most eclectic and riveting musicians – made no secret of the fact that he’d really been looking forward to this gig. He has a wit to match the magic, and gravitas, and vast, global sweep and majesty of his compositions. “Here, I can talk about Trump and not worry that they’re going to take me away,” he joked. More seriously, took care to mention that he was genuinely concerned about his trio getting broken up at the airport by Homeland Security. AlHaj sarcastically calls the group the “Axis of Evil,” since santoor player Sourena Sefati is Iranian and percussionist Issa Malluf is Palestinian. While the trio promote global unity – which is the opposite of terrorism – the concern is that Trump and his minions don’t see it that way. “This administration wants to divide us,” AlHaj warned, but added defiantly that if we all pull together, that will never amount to more than a pipe dream for the extreme right.

The trio followed with a performance that ran the gamut of human emotions: sometimes harrowing, often haunting, but also kinetic and dancing, with a delirious, exhilarating stampede out at the end. They opened on a distantly somber note with an adaptation of a string quartet AlHaj had written for a friend at the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. Soberingly, AlHaj reminded that sanctions against the nation have taken their toll in child mortality, illustrated by the fact that his violinist pal no longer plays: he had to burn his violin one night to provide heat for his critically ill infant. A big, insistent cadenza punctuated the song’s serpentine interweave of notes, Sefati taking a judiciously incisive solo midway through.

By contrast, AlHaj explained that the wryly bouncy Chant was inspired by how his mom would sing to keep the bratty kids around her from getting out of hand. The oudist infused this lilting, practically Celtic minor-key dance with frequent wry bent-note riffage. The trio followed the pensively swaying, chromatically edgy One Voice with a clapalong in 10/8 time, the crowd’s irrepressible energy matching the group onstage, throughout a toweringly moody theme sparkling with intricate harmonies from the santoor and oud.

Sefati opened what was arguably the  high point of the night with a suspenseful, Mediterranean-tinged solo taqsim; then the group took it in a far more uneasy, anthemic direction over Malluf’s briskly strolling beats, AlHaj anchoring Sefati’s icepick insistence.

The picturesque Fly Away soared with elegant harmonies from earth to sky from oud and santoor, respectively, a wickedly catchy, interlocking riff at the center. Again, Sefati took centerstage, choosing his spots as AlHaj and Malluf held the melody to the ground.  On the number after that, the santoorist had fun with the rapidfire trills that AlHaj had originally written for accordion wizard Guy Klucevsek.

AlHaj explained that he’d written the night’s lone vocal tune when he was 13. That he’d based it on an Iranian maqam as an Iraqi kid during the Iran/Iraq War speaks to his fearlessness. The three musicians closed with a race to the finish line, speeding up again and again over a catchy Kurdish dance vamp. Yet all the energy, and passion, and frequent humorous japes were matched by a somber undercurrent, party music for a city and a world increasingly under siege.

There is another oud performance coming up at Lincoln Center that all New York fans of Middle Eastern music should be aware of. On July 29 at 8 PM, Palestinian brother ensemble Trio Joubran play a tribute to their longtime mentor and collaborator, legendary poet Mahmoud Darwish at the theatre at the Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, 524 W 59th St; $30 seats are available and worth it.

Miklos Lukacs’ Bewitching Cimbalom Unlimited Play an Epic Album Release Show at Drom

The mysterious, bewitchingly rippling cimbalom is the national instrument of Hungary, more or less. While it’s best known to American audiences as a staple of Romany music, rock acts from Judy Henske to Hazmat Modine have used it. It looks like a harpsichord without the keys; like its oldest descendant, the Egyptian kanun, it’s played with mallets. Miklos Lukacs is the Jimi Hendrix of the instrument. In his hands, it doesn’t just ring and resonate: it whirs and purrs, and flickers, and sometimes roars. Last night at Drom, Lukacs took the cimbalom to places it’s never gone before, in a magical album release show for his new one, Cimbalom Unlimited, joined by Harish Raghavan on bass and Eric Harland on drums.

Lukacs’ stately, spaciously suspenseful, allusively modal intro set the tone for the night: after awhile, his epic songs became part of an even more epic tapestry that stretched from India, to the Middle East, to Harlem in the 1950s. As the rhythm crept in, the trio built to a pulsing, leapfrogging, relentlessly pouncing drive, Lukacs waves’ of melody shifting toward the blues rather than the Middle East, but again, not going there directly. Raghavan added the first of more than one bubbling cauldron of a solo as Harland deftly syncopated the torrents of beats. Lukacs’ axe is a percussion instrument, so it was no surprise to see his rapidfire attack on the strings echoed by his bandmates. The only surprise was the cold ending. a playfully recurrent trope all night.

Raghavan began the next number just as the bandleader had opened the first one, Lukacs lurking on the perimeter with an icy glimmer. Slowly and enigmatically, the two exchanged places as Lukacs developed a plaintive, elegaic theme, Harland spicing the swaying rhythm with the occasional snowshower of cymbals or ominous snare hit. Spaciously clustered spirals rippled and pinged against Harland’s increasingly propulsive, circular phrases as momentum grew, up to a deceptively simple Kashmiri-inflected theme. Each instrument pulled against the center, seemingly hoping to break completely free, then Lukacs picked one of the eeriest chromatic phrases of the night to loop unwaveringly, for what seemed minutes on end as Harland navigated a vortex of his own.

A bass solo over Lukacs’ lingering, menacing tritones opened the next number, the cimbalom edging toward melancholy ballad territory and then pouncing but never quite hitting it head-on: the suspense was unrelenting. Lukacs doesn’t just use mallets; he uses his hands for a muted inside-the-piano-style approach, at one point using the handles instead when he wanted to get really spiky. From its starry, solo cimbalom intro, the third song of the night was arguably the best, a twisted, labyrinthine Balkan jazz lounge theme – a Black Lodge of Sarajevo.

From there, menacing tritone-laced pavanes alternated with long, majestic Harland crescendos, Raghavan alternating between mournful, low bowed washes and ominously percolating cadenzas. Along the way, Lukacs alluded to the moody maqams of the Middle East, the hypnotic hooks of India and the occasional flicker of postbop piano jazz but never completely let any of those ideas coalesce and define the music. Clearly, he’s invented something the world has never heard before and wants to keep it that way.

Lukacs’ next gig is in Athens at the Technopolis Jazz Festival on May 27 at 10. Another enticingly syncretic, esoteric show a little closer to home – the kind that Drom specializes in – is happening there on June 9. It’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Who plays when is still up in the air, but it really doesn’t matter since all of these acts are a lot of fun. Advance tix are a bargain at $20 and still available as of today.

Happy Tenth Birthday to Manhattan’s Best Music Venue

[adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming photo book celebrating the tenth anniversary of Manhattan’s edgiest music venue and romantic date spot, Drom]

Every great city is defined by its artistic spaces. Paris has the Louvre and the Bataclan, London has the Royal Albert Hall, New York has the Met and and Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theatre.

But every city also has a secret history. No real history of New York in the past decade would be complete without Drom, Manhattan’s global music mecca since 2007.

High on the back wall of the lowlit, old-world space, there’s an amber-toned painting of the Galata Tower, an iconic landmark on the western Istanbul skyline. In the shadow of the tower is a historic neighborhood which throughout the centuries has been home to churches, mosques and also a synagogue. That striking image mirrors the inclusive sensibility central to the philosophy at Drom, in a decade of booking artists from around the world, from every tradition from the West and beyond.

Among New York venues booking music and the arts from around the globe, Drom is the only one over the past half-century to succeed without corporate or public funding. In an era in Manhattan increasingly defined by rising rents and displacement of independent business, that achievement is all the more astonishing, testament to the tirelessness and depth of vision of founders Serdar Ilhan and Mehmet Dede, bolstered by their partner Ekmel Anda.

The two are a contrast in personalities: Ilhan, the aesthete, an accomplished visual artist with a focus and drive to create a milieu that best represents the vast range of artists who grace the stage there. Dede, the gregarious impresario, with a similarly vast address book and fearlessness to match the eclecticism of the acts he books. In a field that can be awfully shady, Ilhan and Dede aren’t afraid to be transparent with their terms. No wonder so many artists from around the world, and across New York’s five boroughs, have made their North American or New York debuts here.

The space itself is both indelibly urban and urbane. The wrought iron steps down to the brickwalled basement-level landing are gritty New York to the core. Inside the front doors, past the plush red velvet curtains, an oasis reveals itself.

Before it was Drom, the high-ceilinged, L-shaped space was a neighborhood dance club called Opaline. Ilhan completely gutted and redesigned it himself, directing renovations from up on a ladder. The contrast of elegant dark wood paneling and rustic brick under the low light of the chandeliers reflect a welcoming atmosphere. The same friendly faces work here, night after night – everybody seems comfortable here, a rarity at music venues and even more so in the service industry.

The only feature from the old space that Ilhan retained was the L-shape and the high ceiling, which enhances the sonics: Drom is a live room. No matter who’s onstage – a classical ensemble, a jazz group, a blazing Balkan brass band or hip-hop – the sound is reliably good. Depending on the music or the performance – Drom has also been home to the Fringe Festival and other theatrical performances over the years – there might be tables, or the entire floor might be opened up for concertgoers. The bar always fills up fast: the wine is good, the bartenders are friendly and it’s one of the few places in all of New York where you can find Yeni Raki, the delicious anise liqueur.

Ilhan got his start in show business in the theatre: his first booking at the Town Hall was a sellout. When Dede first began booking music at Drom, he was doing regular Balkan events at a gritty Alphabet City bar a few blocks further east. Since their first days producing the annual New York Gypsy Festival, this city’s most wide-ranging series of concerts featuring performers from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Balkans , the two have combined to offer more diverse programming than any other venue in all of New York, in the same vein as Barbes in Brooklyn.

Long before Obama hinted at normalizing relations with Cuba, Drom was booking Cuban artists. Since its inception, the venue has been the first stop in Manhattan for Russian bands. Before Snarky Puppy became the most happening thing in progressive jazz, they were playing here as well. Boban Markovic took the stage at Drom years before his Balkan wedding and funeral band began packing Lincoln Center. Iconic jazz drummer Chico Hamilton played his final show on that stage, while noted klezmer trumpeter Frank London’s Glass House Ensemble made their debut here, among countless other artists’ genre-defying projects, blending Eastern European, Mediterranean and jazz sounds.

Meanwhile, Ilhan and Dede have expanded beyond their home base. They’re the only American promoters doing national tours for some of the most happening Turkish rock and folk acts. And numerous iconic Turkish artists have made their American debuts at Ilhan and Dede’s annual showcase, Istanbulive – “the Turkish Woodstock.”

You could make a case that Drom is CBGB, LaMaMa, Carnegie Hall and Mehanata – the downtown Bulgarian bar where Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz held court for so many years – rolled into one. Except that the sound is on par with any good New York jazz venue, and the ambience is more inviting: among New York music spots, few are as unabashedly romantic as Drom.

If your agenda in running a music blog is to cover the entirety of New York and the vast expanse of styles across this city, you need to move around a lot. But it helps to have an anchor. In Manhattan, Drom is New York Music Daily’s home base. If you’ve followed this blog, especially if sounds from around the world and the Balkans are concerned, you’re no stranger to Drom. If you’ve never been, now is as good a time as any to discover the space. June is looking especially hot. Since they’re celebrating ten years of going against the tide – seriously, did anybody really expect these guys to last ten months, let alone ten years? – their ten-year celebration month is off the hook. Just for starters, on June 9 at 7 there’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Advance tix are a bargain at $20.

Then on June 10 at 8 Romany guitar legend Stephane Wrembel airs out material from his wildly eclectic, psychedelic new double album The Django Experiment, with another show at 11 by Brooklyn Balkan brass faves Slavic Soul Party featuring sensational Serbian trumpeter Demirhan Cerimovic; advance tix for those are $15.

On June 14, the wildfire NY Gypsy All-Stars are joined by brilliant guest oudist Ara Dinkjian at 9:30; advance tix are $10. On June 21 at 8, there’s one of the year’s hottest jazz lineups: imagine seeing the Rolling Stones’ Tim Ries on sax, leading a quintet with Randy Brecker, the great Chano Dominguez on piano, with James Genus on bass and Clarence Penn on drums, for real, and for fifteen bucks! And for fans of serious esoterica, percussionist Navin Chettri‘s band makes jazz out of rarely heard Nepali themes on June 25 at 9:30, and that’s ten bucks if you buy in advance. That’s just a taste of what’s coming up.

Which is something that adventurous New York concertgoers have taken for granted, and can pretty much still take for granted. Day in, day out, nobody in Manhattan does more fearless programming than these guys. July will no doubt be just as good as June…then there’s the annual New York Gypsy Festival to look forward to as we get into the fall. Here’s to another ten years of minor keys, intoxicating grooves and Yeni Raki!

An Iconic Noir Piano/Vocal Duo Put Out the Best Album of 2017 So Far

Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.

The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.

Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.

Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original  – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.

Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.

The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.

The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.

As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.

Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.

Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.

There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.

This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.