New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: June, 2017

Funny, Socially Aware, Singalong Tunesmithing from North of the Border at the Mercury Tonight

Toronto band the Fast Romantics’ latest album American Love – streaming at Bandcamp – was conceived in the shock and horror after the 2016 Presidential Election. It’s a considerably generous gesture from the powerpopsters’ frontman Matthew Angus, a salute to all good things American rather than the cheap shot he could have taken so easily. The model for the songs is Born to Run-era Springsteen (with plenty of Cheap Trick and ELO thrown in), yet not in a cheesy, imitative way. There’s hope and urgency and a lot of humor, some of it allusive and some of it a lot more obvious, in its vast sonics, pounding beats and mighty choruses. It wouldn’t be hype to call it one of the funniest albums of the year. The band are playing the Mercury tonight, June 21 at 8; cover is $15.

The album opens with Everybody’s Trying to Steal Your Heart, a big stomping vintage Springsteenian anthem with stadium-sized singalong oh-ohs. For all the big-studio bluster, it’s an unexpectedly subtle look at a dilemma that everybody with an attractive mate has to deal with at some point.

“Although I couldn’t afford it, I bought a beat-up guitar, I worked til four in the morning in a broken-down bar,” Angus croons as Why We Fight, a tribute to the good things currently under siege from the Trumpites, gets underway. While there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm in American Love and keyboardist Lisa Lorenz’s epic synthesized string charts, it’s probably the only song ever written by a Canadian to reference the constitution of the United States – in a favorable way.

“I’ve smoked all kinds of flowers, now I’ve got superpowers,” Angus announces in Get Loved, a hilariously sideways look at a dude whose chemical overindulgences have had a similar impact on his libido. Ready for the Night is even funnier, a meta look at the process of songwriting, set to a mix of uneasy Orbison noir pop and bouncy new wave.

Radio Waves opens with a joke that’s too good to give away and stays just as amusing, an artsy late 70s ELO powerpop tale told from the point of view of a radio wave who “can feel you from a million miles away.” Julia spins a famous 60s riff through a fuzz guitar pedal, then the band stays in that decade, more or less throughout Alberta, a sardonically cheery, swaying lost-love tale with a surprise ending.

Kids Without a Country is an anthem for a new generation of Americans:

You were a refugee
I was a soldier’s son
But we couldn’t sleep together
So on the night of the storm we cut and run
Was just you and me and the weather

Runaway Girl is a harder-rocking, more enveloping take on the same idea, but with more oblique political subtext. Guitarist/keyboardist Kirty’s oxycontin vocals hover behind a wall of guitars and woozy synth in How Long Is This Gonna Last, which might or might not be about the election. The album closes with Heaven’s All Right and its Lynchian tremolo guitars. C’mon, Janey, wrap yourself round these blue velvet rims and strap your hands ‘cross my engines.

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An Awesome New Album and an East Village Release Show by Ethio-Jazz Songstress Meklit

Multi-instrumentalist singer Meklit is one of brightest lights in Ethiopian jazz  But that’s just the starting point for the ex-Brooklynite songwriter, who springboards off that  into a high-voltage mix that also draws on classic soul, funk, rock and ancient Ethiopian folk music. Her Lincoln Center show back in April was off the hook. Now she’s got a new album, When the People Move, the Music Moves Too, soon to be streaming at Bandcamp, and a release show tomorrow night, June 21 at 8 PM at the old Nublu at 62 Ave. C.. Cover is $22.

Since she absconded for the west coast, she’s assembled a killer band. Their not-so-secret weapon is tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley. The rest of the vast cast on the album also comprises but is hardly limited to drummer Colin Douglas, percussionist Marco Peris Coppola and bassist Sam Bevan. The rest of the crew spans from Ethiopian masenko fiddler Endris Hassen to the Preservation Hall Horns.

The triumphantly bouncing, swaying opening track, This Was Made Here, celebrates a DIY esthetic, but there’s also a lot of defiance in the bandleader’s “I’m not gonna wait, no more!” as Tassew Wondem’s Ethiopian wood flute leaps and bounds overhead. The brightly circlingI Want to Sing For Them All also has a defiant undercurrent – on the surface, it sends shouts out to Meklit’s influences, from Prince to a litany of Ethio-jazz stars, but it’s also a reminder that pigeonholing is a big mistake. As Hannah Arendt liked to say, stereotyping is the worst thing in the world. Andrew Bird’s violin pairs with the masenko as the dance rises to fever pitch.

Meklit breaks out her krar harp for the album’s catchiest track, Supernova. Powerful low-register brass fuels a vast, pulsingly dramatic backdrop as Wiley goes into wary Ethiopian mode. The mantra is “Where did you come from,” the point being that everything we’re made of came in with a bang: don’t we owe it to ourselves to keep that going?

Likewise, the Preservation Hall Horns supply the bluster behind Kibrome Birhane’s spare, incisive piano in the funky anthem You Are My Luck. Bird brings his violin back to the subtly polyrhythmic, mutedly moody Yerakeh Yeresal. Then the band pucks up the pace with You Got Me: hearing the New Orleans brass sink their teeth into Meklit’s gorgeously biting, emphatic Ethiopian arrangement is a trip, and a revelation.

Yesterday Is a Tizita brings back the grey-sky atmosphere, a lament that rises to the point where the sky clears and Meklit announces that “Our mistakes became the sun” –  her loping triplet melody is one of the album’s most delicious moments.

Wiley’s catchy, ominous baritone sax riffage drives Human Animal, a straight-ahead mix of hard funk and Ethio-jazz, with hints of 80s new wave. Sweet or Salty maintains that balance of 80s British pop and rustic Ethiopian themes, with acidically swirling masenko against lushly enigmatic strings and understatedly jubilant rat-at-tat percussion.

Happy Birthday starts out as a cute attempt at a replacement for an all-too-familiar ditty that could really, REALLY use a replacement, then becomes an intricate thicket of melody, winding up with a jaunty conversation between Wiley’s tenor sax and one of the trombonists. The album closes with Memories of the Future, shifting back and forth between a majestic, distantly uneasy sway and a jubilant, cantering theme fueled by the New Orleans horns. Lots going on here, plenty to sink your ears into over and over again – one of the best albums of 2017, bar none.

Svetlana & the Delancey Five: New York’s Most Unpredictably Fun Swing Band

Since swing jazz is dance music, most swing bands have limitations on how far out on limb they can go. After all, you’ve got to keep everybody on their feet, right? Svetlana & the Delancey Five are the rare swing band who don’t recognize any limits: they’re just as fun to siit and listen to as they are for the dancers.

There weren’t a lot of people on their feet at the band’s sold-out show earlier this month at the Blue Note, but the band charmed the crowd for the duration of the set…with new arrangements of material that’s been done to death by a whole lot of other folks. The premise of this gig was to revisit and reinvent the great Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald collaborations, a favorite Svetlana theme.

Frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian and guest Charles Turner took those roles to plenty of new places, neither singer trying to ape any of the original Ella/Satchmo takes. A lot of singers try to replicate horn lines; Shmulyian doesn’t do that, nor does she scat a lot, but she never sings anything remotely the same way twice and this show was no exception. She’s protean to the point that it takes awhile to get to figure her out, to the extent that she can be figured out. That’s part of the fun. There was a show last year where she didn’t break out the vibrato until the last song of the night; this time, she was using every device in her arsenal from the first few notes of Just A-Sitting and A-Rocking.Then later she bubbled and chirped her way through the rapidfire travelogue of her own bittersweetly charming romp, Baby I’m Back.

Turner has a wide-angle vibrato, like a classic old Packard or Mercedes with a loose clutch. How he modulates it sounds easy but is actually the opposite: it takes masterful control and nuance to stay in the game. He played it on the sly side against the bandleaders’ coy ingenue in Cheek to Cheek, then the two playfully flipped the script for a cheerily sardonic take of I Won’t Dance.

The freshness of drummer Rob Garcia’s charts is another drawing card. Much of the time, it seems like the band is jamming away, but they’re actually not: That high-voltage interplay makes even more sense in the context that this is the rare band that’s stayed together more or less for the better part of five years: Garcia knows everybody’s steez and vice versa. Case in point: the band’s take of A Tisket, a Tasket, Ella’s version of a jump-rope rhyme that’s pretty much a throwaway. But this band’s version started out as a cha-cha and took a sudden departure toward a shadowy, almost klezmer groove midway through. His Afrobeat allusions in What a Little Moonlight Can Do were just as unexpectedly kinetic and spot-on.

The high point of the set, at least in terms of getting a roar out of the crowd, was a long duel between Garcia and tap dancer Dewitt Fleming Jr.  Rather than taking the easy road, going all cheesy and cliched, Garcia engaged Fleming as a musician…and Fleming pushed back, hard! Was Garcia going to keep up with Fleming’s relentless hailstorm of beats? As it turned out, yes, with every texture and flourish and part of his hardware, but it wasn’t easy. Bassist Endea Owens jumpstarted a more low-key, elegant duel earlier on, which was just about as fun if a lot quieter and slinkier.

Multi-reedman Michael Hashin (also a member of the Microscopic Septet, whose latest blues album is a purist treat) opened jauntily on soprano in an instrumental take of Cottontail (in keeping with the theme of the show) and then switched to tenor for more smoke and congeniality for most of the rest of the set. Trumpeter Charles Caranicas also switched back and forth with his flugelhorn in the set’s more pensive, resonant numbers, while pianist John Chin drove the more upbeat material with an erudite yet almost feral, purist, blue-infused attack.

If your taste in swing runs toward good listening as well as cutting a rug, Svetlana & the Delancey Five are playing a special Make Music NY set outside Joe’s Pub on June 21 at 3 (three) PM. And unlike most Make Music NY slots, where bands snag permits for outdoor performances and then don’t show up til the eleventh hour, if at all, this show is definitely happening as scheduled. Then they’re at the carousel at the south end of Battery Park on June 23 at 7.

A Darkly Majestic, Sweepingly Cinematic, Often Haunting Trio Album from Pianist Guy Mintus

Pianist Guy Mintus’ music has depth, and gravitas, and glimmer, and an often cinematic sweep. Israeli pianists tend to embrace both western classical music as well as the edgy minor keys and chromatics common to Jewish and  Middle Eastern music, and Mintus is no exception. His sound is very distinctive: there’s no real comparison, although from time to time he evokes the nocturnal majesty of Shai Maestro, the phantasmagorical side of Frank Kimbrough and the counterintuitively dark explorations of Danny Fox. Mintus’s new album, A Home In Between, with his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm – bits and pieces of which are online at Mintus’ music page and at Soundcloud – is due out tomorrow. The trio are playing the album release show on June 20 at 7:30 PM at the big room at the Rockwood. Cover is $12.

The album opens with an ambitious diptych of sorts, Our Journey Together, a bittersweet, neoomantic waltz spiced with the occasional striking, menacing chromatic. As the theme diverges, Mintus takes a couple of breathtakingly precise cascades, then everything falls apart. The band pulls it together again slowly, up to a long, broodingly triumphant coda lit up with uneasy Lennie Tristano close harmonies and a big drum hailstorm.

Lemm anchors Mibifnim, a disquietingly altered bolero, as a shuffle drag while Shmerling adds elegantly fugal counterpoint, Mintus quoting Rachmaninoff and spinning wryly leapfrogging flourishes around the moody melody. Background shifts dissociatively between stride, Chopin and hard bop before Lemm cracks the whip and takes everybody swinging up to a big, rumbling drum solo.

Shmerling plays the role of percussionist, then takes a morosely microtonal solo to open the Levantine dirge Zeybekiko for the Brave, echoing both the Golan Heights and the Greek isles, Mintus’ incisive passing tones reaching a red-sunset crescendo over the walls of Jerusalem.

A spare trouble-in-deep-space conversation between bass and piano opens In the Moment, which goes in a more playful, funky direction reminiscent of Fox. Smile is a journey rather than a destination, opening with a very artfully implied, latin-tinged menace, then slowly brightens, up to a cheerily circling piano riff and neoromantic variations, wryly interpolating the old standard.

Desert Song begins as a hushed, plaintive, slow ballad against Lemm’s shadowy cymbals, glittering with chromatics, Mintus then building a distantly troubled anthem in the same vein as the album’s opening track. A dip where the band pulls apart gingerly contrasts with Mintus’ big, spiraling crescendo: sounds like they finally made it to the oasis.

Mintus’ allusively Middle Eastern solo improvisation introduces Coban Sirto, a whirlingly carnivalesque Balkan dance fueled by Lemm’s rat-a-tat on the toms, Mintus’ twistedly swaying circus riffs and Shmerling’s leaping, bounding insistence. The final cut is My Ideal, Mintus solo, slicing and dicing with Errol Garner-ish flair and a playful spaciousness. The best piano trio album of 2017 by a mile, so far.

Powerful Singers and an Iconic Band Celebrate Global Yiddish Music in Central Park

What’s the likelihood of seeing the Klezmatics not only slink, and barrel, and slowly sway through a gorgeous and often haunting blend of minor keys and punk-klezmer romps…but also  getting to see them back two of New York’s most powerful singers? It happened Wednesday night at Central Park Summerstage, where cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer got to take tantalizingly short turns on the mic in front of the band, along with other entertainment on a night celebrating Yiddish music from around the world.

There was a time when being a cantor was just as competitive as, say, African-American gospel music, or a jazz cutting contest. The cantor was the treasure of the temple, the guy you’d send on tour to represent you and thrill the people with his powerful pipes. That tradition has sadly fallen into disrepair in recent years, but it is alive and well on the Upper West Side, at the Jewish Center on 86th St. and also the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where Berson and Lemmer, respectively, hold court.

Berson has a vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through, with Little Jimmy Scott nuance but also Johnny Cash intensity, if you buy those references. He also turned out to be a fluent guitarist as well, adding poignant, purposeful jangle to one of the set’s early numbers. Lemmer’s baritone has a tinge of grit and a similarly steely resonance, opera without the buffo.

He immediately made an impact, sending a shout-out to the 99-percenters in the crowd (which seemed to be pretty much everybody) with a stern march through We’ve Got to Make a Living, an anthem for solidarity in hard times. Then he led the band through an increasingly dynamic, lickety-split, sardonically funny medley of drinking songs. “Drinking songs?” Lemmer deadpanned, “Jews don’t drink. We’re too busy suffering.”

But a little l’chaim never hurt anybody – they did that one, too toward the end of the evening. Berson opened his own set with an impassioned, broodingly rapturous, melismatic improvisation while the band built an ominous wash of sustain behind him. From there, he worked the corners for every bit of chromatic mystery in a mix of numbers that looked forward to messianic redemption and sought worldly solace, either through transcendence or libations.

The Klezmatics finally got a set of their own and reveled in it with the energy of a group, well, thirty years younger. The original rebels of the 80s klezmer revival, they celebrated all things treyf, sexually and foodwise and otherwise in the high-voltage, Romanian-tinged dance numbers, and kept an eye on history with the slower ones. There’s no small irony in that the high point of the evening might have been the slow, subdued dirge The Yoke, a Yiddish translation of a Catalan protest song from the 1960s.

Frontman Lorin Sklamberg played that one on piano rather than his usual accordion, like he did much of the rest of the material, and showed off similar chops: at one point, he hit an unexpectedly feral barrelhouse groove. Likewise, trumpeter Frank London spent much of the night behind an electric piano, constantly tweaking it to get the textures right when he wasn’t hitting ecstatic heights or firing off hundred-yard spirals on his horn. Bassist Paul Morrissett took a turn on tsimbl, the Ukrainian Jewish ancestor of the cimbalom, while violinist Deborah Strauss switched between icepick precision and stark, rustic, otherworldly sustain over Richie Barshay’s playful, jazz-inflected drums. When he wasn’t reaching the rafters on alto sax, Matt Darriau was adding ethereal flute textures or channeling grim Balkan tonalities on clarinet. 

As an encore, Daniel Kahn – star of the upcoming immigration-themed musical Amerike – came up to deliver a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen song whose expiration date passed a long time, joined by the rest of the night’s performers, among them tongue-in-cheek a-cappella unit the Maccabeats. But then everybody segued into a rapidfire dance number every bit as fun as Man in a Hat, the title track from the Klezmatics’ cult classic 1995 Jews with Horns album, a wry salute to their home turf: “I’m a man in a hat, a Manhattan man,” Sklamberg reaffirmed.

The next Central Park Summerstage event of note starts at 5 PM on June 24, a night of Portuguese music with newschool fado star Sofia Ribeiro and assaultive goth/Stooges punk duo Dead Combo with special guest guitarslinger Marc Ribot. Get there early if you’re going. 

A Chance to Discover Some Rare Jazz Seldom Heard on This Continent

Even in this youtube-enabled era where a kid from Reykjavik or Rhode Island can develop jazz chops to rival anyone from Harlem, it takes a special kind of passion to play music that’s not native to your home turf. That’s why so many of the European jazz acts with the ambition to cross the pond can be fantastically good. And while most American fans probably don’t think of Poland as a jazz hotspot, this upcoming week’s annual Jazztopad Festival has a lineup that could open a lot of eyes and ears.

The good news is that the dreaded f-word (fusion, for folks who might have forgotten) isn’t part of the deal. There are lots of flavors. Some of the bands on the five-night bill draw on ancient, rustic Polish folk themes, others move in more of a improvisational direction. The first two nights, June 21 and 22 are at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where darkly enigmatic improvisers Stryjo and the similar Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet play at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. The Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet make another appearance on June 24 at 8 PM with eclectically brilliant cellist Erik Friedlander at the Jazz Gallery. Strings work especially well with this kind of music.

The June 23 show is at Joe’s Pub at 7:30 PM, featuring pianist Marcin Masecki and rummer Jerzy Rogiewicz playing stride and ragtime classics. Then the festival winds up at National Sawdust on June 25 at 4 PM featuring mesmerizingly improvisational string ensemble the Lutosławski Quartet with violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. This blog was in the house for the quartet’s playfully fun show there last year with pianist Uri Caine, details here.

Another uncategorizably brilliant Polish band, the trio Lautari – who are not on this bill – wound up their US tour with an often riveting set last fall at Subrosa. While their current raison d’etre is to jam out rare, obscure and often otherworldly Polish folk themes, some of their their tropes are common in Polish jazz.

The big takeaway was how diverse Polish music has always been, and still remains. Several strikingly catchy, whirling dance numbers began with biting harmonies between Maciej Filipczuk’s violin and Michał Żak’s clarinet. Then Jacek Hałas’ piano would icepick and ripple, and sometimes he’d slow the tunes down and take them in a considerably more shadowy, Lynchian direction. Or they’d make a crazy quilt of counterpoint and then reconverge. Throughout their roughly ninety minutes onstage, there were recurrent echoes of Balkan music, including one particularly incisive dance number that drew a line south, straight to Macedonia.

The night’s most poignantly surreal moment was when they played a plaintive dirge to a backing track (on Filipczuk’s phone, actually) of an aging Holocaust survivor quaveringly humming an old folk tune. It was disquieting on more than one level to see the band playing along with that long-dead voice, but also redemptive to know that they’d literally resurrected the song.

As the show went on, phantasmagorical interludes reminiscent of Frank Carlberg’s Tivoli Trio were juxtaposed with bustling, Mingus-like passages and a slow, lingering piece midway through where a guest guitarist added brooding, Satie-esque accents. Halas opened the night’s most starkly riveting number solo on accordion, with a frantically trilling, Middle Eastern edge, then the band took it in a slinky direction that sounded like Dolunay on acid. There’s no guarantee that any of this will happen at this year’s festival, but you never know.

Paíto y los Gaiteros de Punta Brava Put on a Colombian Beach Party in Their New York Debut

The cumbia party at Lincoln Center last night started at about nine. For the better part of the previous ninety minutes, a vast expanse of bodies had been bouncing and swaying to the thunderous beats of Colombian gaita negra band Paíto y los Gaiteros de Punta Brava, who were making their New York debut. Introducing the group, Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez kept her cool, but she couldn’t hide how psyched she was to have booked them, current political climate be damned. “The music is deep, and goes way back,” she told an energized, sold-out crowd, and then let the music speak for itself.

Bandleader and wood flute player Sixto Delgado a.k.a. Paito hails not from the mainland but from Rosario Island off the coast of Cartagena. He’s one of very few remaining practitioners of gaita negra, a style that originated hundreds of years ago when slaves kidnaped from Africa began playing music with native Colombians. The result turned out to be as rhythmically sophisticated and eclectic as it is otherworldly. And as the group made clear, among the many grooves in their repertoire is the original cumbia. Even though they’re Colombian rather than Peruvian, if there’s ever a third volume of the Roots of Chicha compilation albums (which, if you love cumbia, you have to own), Paito needs to be on it.

It was a beach party night, and if there’s anybody who knows how to do it, it’s this group. The torrents of beats started very direct and matter-of-fact, then grew more complex and dynamic as the night went on, hitting a mighty peak, then down again and finally out with a lickety-split cumbia celebrating Colombian pride. Over the course of the party, the slinky, booming rhythms, played by two men and a woman on standup bass drum, conga and a surprisingly resounding hand drum, blended and alternated elements that can be heard in African Nyabinghi drumming, roots reggae, Cuban son montuno and Puerto Rican salsa, among other flavors.

Likewise, the fervent call-and-response of the vocals echoed African sounds that have spread around the globe, from American gospel and field hollers to the magical, ritualistic Moroccan trance music of Innov Gnawa. On their wood flutes, Paita and his counterpart played emphatic, gritty riffs based on the blues scale, the younger man keeping time all the while with a pair of shakers. The segues were clever, almost imperceptible, as the group would gallop along a triplet groove and then subtly make their way into straight-up 4/4, whether with a proto-reggae bounce, a slithery clave or the irresistible pendulum motion of cumbia.

One especially tasty subtlety turned out to be that the drums were tuned to a fourth interval, which enabled the drummers to interchange riffs with each other as well as with the flutes. By the end of the night, even the oldsters in the back were on their feet. The next dance party/global music event at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just south of 63rd St. is June 22 at 7:30 PM with South African guitarist Derek Gripper, who plays his own intricately virtuosic arrangements of ancient Malian music. 

And Paito and the band play a rare Brooklyn date on June 19 at 9:30 PM at Barbes; cover is $15.

An Epic, Explosively Catchy Balkan Brass Album from What Cheer? Brigade

What Cheer? Brigade headlined this year’s Golden Festival, the nation’s top gathering of Balkan bands. It was two in the morning in Brooklyn when they hit the stage, and by then, there were almost as many people playing as watching. Which meant more brass instruments and drums than could fit onstage, so what seemed like half the band were gathered around in front. It was an apt way to wind up what will probably prove to be the best party of the year.

Beyond the New York Philharmonic, there is no other band this size on the East Coast, and no brass band in the United States other than MarchFourth with as many members. Maybe that’s why they aren’t listed on the band’s webpage –  maybe there’s not enough bandwidth! Calling their sound titanic is beside the point.

Beyond sheer volume, what’s most impressive about their new album You Can’t See Inside of Me – streaming at Bandcamp – is how tight it is. Bands this size, let alone punk brass street bands like these people, tend to be unwieldy. Their Golden Fest set was pretty crazy, but it’s a good bet they’ll be extra tight since they just made the record – and maybe will be a little smaller in size too – when they play the album release show tonight, June 16 at around 10 at the new Littlefield at 635 Sackett St. in Gowanus, just around the corner from the old location. As a bonus, the similarly explosive if considerably more compact Raya Brass Band – arguably the best Balkan brass unit in the United States – open the night at 9. Cover is $10.

The album’s opening track, Iahabibi, is a Balkan cumbia. The way the lush wall of trumpets (and trubas, maybe) slithers and bends in unison to reach the highs on the chorus sounds effortless, but in reality it’s just the opposite. The chromatics and rat-a-tat attack get even more fearsome and catchy in the second track, Punk Gratitude, the band eventually dropping back to just the tubas and drums for a flamenco-edged trumpet solo and then an explosively flurrying drum break.

Ekremov Čoček has towering, expansive minor-key harmonies to match a big Renaissance choir. The song struts more than it careens, no small achievement. Then again, nothing about this band is small. Hora Din Petrosnitza is a mghty, bubbling punk klezmer number, like the Klezmatics turned up to eleven, with another big drum break. The epic, cinematic, funkified You Don’t Want to Go to War is packed with call-and-response and echo phrases; deep inside, it’s a soul song.

The diptych Ba Tu/Perin Čoček opens as a slow, gorgeously stormy anthem fueled by low brass chords and then picks up with an intensity that’s just short of frantic. Likewise, the breathtaking fanfare that kicks off the title track, a heavyweight, catchy Andalucian-flavored blast of brass with a tantalizingly brief, simmeringly chromatic trombone solo.. Reka Želja reaches for even greater heights, balancing flamenco fire with wry 80s new wave pop allusions and an artfully circling exchange of individual voices.

Black Cannon is sort of a swaying Balkan Hawaii 5-0; the stampeding doublespeed bridge and the breathless charge on the way out are the high points of the album. NBD is a brassy spoof of a popular early zeros rock hit, while the epically puffing, closing cover of Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, complete with choir, is even more surreal.

The album also includes nine remixes: while it’s good to hear the songs, at least parts of them, a second time, around that’s hardly necessary considering how meticulously recorded the originals are. Big up to the folks at Pawtucker, Rhode Island’s Machines with Magnets studios for not simply lining these guys up inside McCoy Stadium and recording the album right there on the ballfield. Although it might have been just as difficult to fit everybody into the ballpark too. Count this among the top ten releases of 2017 so far.

Palestinian Oud Virtuosos Le Trio Joubran Play a Historic Lincoln Center Concert This July

One of the most important and potentially transcendent concerts of the year is scheduled for this July 29 at 8 PM, where harrowing Middle Eastern oud ensemble Le Trio Joubran play the US premiere of their elegaic suite of settings of poems by their late collaborator Mahmoud Darwish at the Lynch Theater at John Jay College,524 W 59th St. The concert is part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 seats are still available as of today.

 For the last several years of the great Palestinian poet’s life, the three brothers accompanied him onstage while he read his incendiary, poignant explorations of exile and resistance. To get an idea of what the concert could be like, here’s a look at their 2010 live DVD In the Shadow of Words, adapted from the original review at New York Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture. [To be consistent with the DVD  booklet, the French spelling,“Darwich,” is used throughout the review rather than the English transliteration, “Darwish.” This blog takes responsibility for any errors in translation].

Poets are the rock stars of the Middle East – the day the Bush regime invaded Iraq, the number one bestseller there was a book of poetry. Which is often the case. Iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich could read to a sold-out stadium crowd of 150,000. He died unexpectedly in August of 2008; forty days later, extraordinary Palestinian oudist brothers the Trio Joubran – who often served as Darwich’s backing band, touring the world with him – gave a memorial concert at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah, playing along to a recording of his words. The footage on their latest DVD A L’ombre des mots (“In the Shadow of Words,” whose audio is streaming at Bandcamp) was filmed at that concert.

It is extraordinarily moving: dark, pensive, terse yet often lushly arranged instrumentals that sometimes accompany Darwich’s recorded voice, other times providing an overture – or, more frequently, a requiem. Darwich’s powerful, insistent baritone keeps perfect time, allowing the musicians to do what they always did: if it’s possible to have onstage chemistry with a ghost, they achieve that. Shots of the band stark against a candlelit black background heighten the profound sadness that permeates this, yet the indomitability of Darwich’s metaphorically-charged words and his voice linger resonantly. Darwich speaks in Arabic with French subtitles on the DVD.

Darwich was first and foremost an artist, fiercely proud of his Palestinian identity and therefore seen as a voice for his people. But he bore that cross uneasily: once a member of the PLO’s inner circle, he quit the job. Although politically charged, Darwich’s work always sought to raise the bar, to take the state of his art to the next level: through that, his writing achieved a universality. The poems here will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever cheated death, missed their home, been outraged by an atrocity or numbed by a series of them.

Darwich was both a poet of his time and one for the ages. This DVD contains four works, notably the long suite The Dice Player, his last. On the surface, it’s a question of identity; iot ends with a taunt in the face of death. Fearlessly metaphorical, it contemplates the cruelty of fate yet celebrates good fortune, by implication the fate of being Palestinian.

The concert begins with the trio onstage, closeups alternated with shots taken at a distance, a characteristically understated requiem. A stately, portentous drumbeat and then a cymbal crash signal the beginning the theme, a forest of ouds from the three brothers, Samir, Wissam and Adnan. Darwich’s images are rich with irony and unease: “I had the good fortune to be cousin to divinity and the bad fortune that the cross would be our eternal ladder to tomorrow,” he states emphatically early on in the piece. He addresses the issue of love under an occupation: “Wait for it,” he cautions, again and again, “As if you were two witnesses to what you’re saving for tomorrow, take it toward the death you desire, and wait for it.”

“I didn’t play any role in what I was or will be, such is luck and luck doesn’t have a name…Narcissus would have freed himself if he’d broken the mirror…then again he would never have become a legend,” Darwich muses sardonically. “A mirage is a guidebook in the desert – without the mirage, there’s no more searching for water.” As the poem winds up, through an ominous, swaying anthem, several subsequent themes and pregnant pauses, the bitterness is overwhelming: “I would have become an amnesiac if I’d remembered my dreams.” But in the end he’s relishing his ability to survive, even if it’s simply the survival skill of an old man who knows to call the doctor before it’s too late.

There’s also the defiant On This Land, a offhandedly searing, imagistic tribute to Palestine and the Palestinians, the somber Rhyme for the Mu-allaqat (a series of seven canonical medieval Arabic poems) and finally The Mural, its narrator bitterly cataloging things which are his, ostensibly to be grateful for. “Like Christ on the water, I’ve walked in my vision, but I came down off the cross because I’m afraid of heights,” Darwich announces early on. And as much as he has, there’s more that he doesn’t. “History laughs at its victims, she throws them a look as she passes by.” And the one thing he doesn’t have that he wants above anything else? “I don’t belong to myself,” the exile repeats again and again as the restrained anguish of the ouds rises behind him. The DVD ends with the group playing over a shot of the mourners at the vigil outside.

It’s hard to imagine a more potently effective introduction to Darwich’s work than this – longtime fans, Arabic and French speakers alike will want this in their collections. For anyone who doesn’t speak either language, it’s a somberly majestic, haunting, lushly arranged masterpiece – the three ouds and the drummer together sound like an oud orchestra.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Rivers of Sound, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Geroges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Kaseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.