New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: November, 2017

Mirian Conti Goes On a Mission Which Was Impossible Until Recently

This past evening in the comfortable, old-world auditorium at the Consulate of Argentina in midtown, Mirian Conti played the first ever North American concert devoted exclusively to the solo piano music of Lalo Schifrin. It could have been a world premiere, although the now 85-year-old Argentine composer has undoubtedly played at least a few solo shows of his own somewhere in the world. Either way, Conti made history with this revelatory performance, especially considering that she was responsible for getting Schifrin to write most of the music.

While Schifrin is no stranger to fans of film scores, he isn’t known as a composer of solo piano works. Long story short: Conti suggested he come up with enough new material or new arrangements for a solo show, and he did. And her dynamic, kinetic, mutable approach to the music did justice to the composer’s ruggedly individualistic blend of neoromanticism, jazz, nuevo tango and vast cinematic themes.

“Other than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, this is it,” Conti grinned, closing the bill with the world premiere of Schifrin’s solo piano arrangement of the Mission Impossible theme. Tens of thousands of bands and orchestras have played that tune, and kids have been playing probably more than one simplified piano arrangement since 1973. Perhaps ironically, Conti’s boisterous, irrepressibly hard-hitting version was the key to the entire concert. Consider: the theme opens with a hammering, syncopated blues riff, but expands to lots of unexpected chromatics, a mashup of blues, jazz, tango and hints of Debussy.

So it was no surprise that the rest of the show mirrored those influences in the prolific composer’’s work. Although a formidable lefthand attack is hardly the exclusive domain of Argentine pianists, it’s a distinctive  trope, and Conti did it justice, opening with the wryly titled Tango Del Atardecer, Schifrin new solo arrangement of the main theme form the 1977 movie Tango.

Conti made the tricky idiomatic shifts between nuevo tango, pre-tango Argentine folk and quasi-Second Viennese School tonalities in Danza De Los  Montes look easy. She told the crowd that for a classically-trained musician, the tricky rhythms, syncopation and allusive harmonies of Schifrin’s Jazz Sonata are a real challenge, but she delivered all of that in a strongly dynamic take of its second movement.

She explained that Schifrin had written Tango A Borges as a salute to the writer and his fondness for the tango guardia vieja – surprisingly, he didn’t like nuevo tango. So she made every intense, regal cascade count, up to a wry surprise ending. Her take of Schifrin’s new Suite and Ten Variations was a cleverly referential if hardly reverential capsule history of classical piano from the baroque,through Beethoven to Bartok and then maybe Piazzolla. Conti encored with a brand-new, lushly baroque-tinged lullaby: clearly, Schifrin has plenty of tunes left him him.

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Trippy, Eclectic Sounds in Deep Bushwick This Sunday Night

This December 3 there’s an excellent multi-band lineup put together by boutique Brooklyn label Very Special Recordings at Secret Project Robot, 1186 Broadway between Lafayette and Van Buren in Bushwick. The show starts at 8; the lineup, in reverse order, is psychedelic Afrobeat headliners the People’s Champs; female-fronted trip-hop/postrock band Green and Glass; brilliant bassist Ezra Gale’s funky, dub-inspired psychedelic project the Eargoggle; psychedelic pastoral jazz guitarist Dustin Carlson; similarly eclectic guitarist Ryan Dugre; and cinematic guitar-and-EFX dude Xander Naylor, who can be a lot louder and more fearsome than his latest, more low-key album. Cover is ten bucks; take the J to Kosciusko St.

It’s an album release show for the label’s new Brooklyn Mixtape, streaming at Bandcamp. The playlist is a cheat sheet for their signature, eclectic mix of hypnotic, globally-influenced grooves as well as some more jazz, postrock and indie classical-oriented sounds, which are a new direction from the stoner organic dance music they’re probably best known for.

The A-side begins with Swipe Viral, by Sheen Marina, a skittish, math-y, no wave-ish number awash in all kinds of reverb: “I gotta go to the edge of a digital world where I can find my soul,” the singer says snottily. Green and Glass’ Night Runner brings to mind Madder Rose with its slow trip-hop sway, uneasy low tremolo-picked harp anchoring frontwoman Lucia Stavros’ clear, cheery vocals.

Ryan Dugre’s Mute Swan makes postrock out of what sounds like a balmy Nigerian balafon theme. He’s also represented by another track, the pretty, spare, baroque-tinged pastorale Elliott, on side B.

There are three Eargoggle tracks here. Picking My Bones opens with a tasty chromatic bass solo: deep beneath this sparse lament, there’s a bolero lurking. The second number is You’re Feeling Like, a blippy oldschool disco tune with dub tinges. A muted uke-pop song, Hero, closes the mix

Shakes, by Carlson, is a gorgeously lustrous brass piece with countryish vocals thrown on top. Trombonist Rick Parker and acoustic pipa player Li Diaguo team up for the album’s best and most menacing track, the eerily cinematic, slowly crescendoing Make Way For the Mane of Spit and Nails. Then Middle Eastern-influenced noir surf band Beninghove’s Hangmen put on their Zep costumes to wind up the A-side with the coyly boisterous Zohove, from their hilarious Beninghove’s Hangmen Play Led Zeppelin album.

The.People’s Champs open the B-side with a throwaway. Twin-trombone roots reggae band Super Hi-Fi – whose lineup also includes Parker and Gale – toss in an echoey Victor Rice dub. Xander Naylor kicks in Appearances, a shifting, loopy resonator guitar piece with innumerable trippy overdubs.And Council of Eyeforms’ slowly coalescing, oscillating tableau Planet Earth – with guitarist Jon Lipscomb of Super Hi-Fi – is the most hypnotically psychedelic cut.

All of these artists have albums or singles out with the label, who deserve a look if sounds that can be equally pensive and danceable are your thing.

Ward White’s As Consolation: Best Rock Record of 2017

Ward White’s album Bob topped the list of best releases of 2013 here. So it’s hardly a surprise that his latest album As Consolation is by far the best rock record released this year. Most artists who play loud, troubling, psychedelic music usually get quieter and more pensive as the years go by. but since the early zeros, White has gone in the opposite direction.

The new album – streaming at Bandcamp –  isn’t quite as surreal as Bob, but Bob is unlike any other record ever made, a disjointed whirlwind murder mystery psychedelic lit-rock suite. Its closest comparisons are not albums but Russell Banks novels and David Cronenberg films. As Consolation, on the other hand, does not seem to have a central storyline  – other than a relentlessly grim cynicism that crosses the line into sadism and the macabre. White’s worldview has never been more bleak – yet there’s never been this much unselfconscious joie de vivre in his music.

He’s a one-man guitar army here with his lavish but tersely arranged multitracks – for what it’s worth, he’s also an excellent bass player (that was his axe in the legendary Rawles Balls). This time around he’s fallen in love with a vintage analog delay pedal, for an eerie, watery effect akin to running his axe through a Leslie speaker. Now based in Los Angeles after a long stint in New York, he’s joined by Tyler Chester, who plays a museum’s worth of vintage keyboards (or clever digital facsimiles) – he turns out to be a sort of a left coast Joe McGinty, a longtime White collaborator who put out a fantastic album with him in 2009. Mark Stepro, who played on White’s withering 2008 album Pulling Out, returns to the drum chair.

Overarching narrative or not, there are characters who make multiple appearances in these allusively grisly, meticulously detailed narratives. One is the titular girl in Here’s What Happened to Heidi, the opening track. As with Bob, the events are anything but clear. Is this being told from the point of view of a corpse? A murder victim? “”Please tell me it’s not morning yet,” someone pleads again and again.

It’s rewarding to see White getting back in touch with the psychedelia and heavy rock he grew up with as a kid in Connecticut: there are more textures and more stylistic leaps than ever before in what has become a back catalog that ranks with guys like Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello.

The murderously catchy, organ-infused Crater is one of the most straightforwardly sinister cuts here – an incriminating envelope is involved. “Under the stone, don’t fight it, you’ll be at home,” White intones nonchalantly as the band gallops behind him.

A mashup of psychedelic soul and Abbey Road Beatles, Dude is White at his sardonic best:

Girls in California call me dude.
It’s non-negotiable
As smirks and disapproval misconstrued

“A few dreams, that much you’re owed,” White muses to the girl passed out on the sofa as Rhodes piano echoes uneasily in the miniature that serves as the album’s title track. Then he picks up the pace immediately with Spurs, its treacherous western vacation plotline shifting suddenly and strangely between a hard-hitting, syncopated pulse and lushly ethereal cinematics. “The paralyzing fear that we’re alone makes us cling to the humdrum,” White asserts: the rhyme that follows is too good to give away. It’s definitely a first in rock history.

Stepro flurries like Keith Moon throughout Hotel, a mashup of mod and new wave.

The fumes are playing havoc with your senses
You never listened before
Why would you listen now?

We never find out what Heidi, making a reappearance here, has to say to her assailant; White’s tongue-in-cheek, bluesy guitar solo adds a blackly amusing tinge.

White goes to the top of his formidable vocal range in Dog Tags, the narrator telling someone who was “naked on the fire escape: – his killer, maybe? – not to bother to look for the body, over an artfullly lingering remake of Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1. Then the music picks up with a blast of Beatles and Bowie in Parking Lot: “Frozen onfire in the parking lot, better hold your breath til I count to ten again,” White instructs.

With its tense, broken guitar chords and smoky organ, Stay Low is the most distinctly Lynchian song here: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Charming Disaster catalog. The raging guitars of Coffee Maker echo the sonics on his 2014 release Ward White Is the Matador, a pair of accomplices growing more desperate by the hour. The way White caps off his guitar solo is as cruel as it is priceless.

The psychedelic Twin Peaks narrative Which Pain takes place in a torture chamber: “Too late to turn back now, not too big to fail,” a vindictive narrator tells his victim. More echoes of early-70s Bowie return in The Crows, another chilling tale from beyond the grave. “Sadness will make you insane, leave your cake out in the rain,” White reminds: that’s among the most telling of the many wry and far more subtle lyrical references here. The album closes with Weekend Porsche, a surreal soundscape that slowly coalesces into a reprise of that glam theme. It’s the first instrumental White’s ever recorded and the Eclipse to this Dark Side of the Moon.

A Long-Overdue Retrospective From the Greatest Songwriter You Might Not Know

Back in the radio-and-records era, it was common for a band to put out a greatest-hits album to fulfill their obligation to the label in order to get out of a record deal. Mark Breyer, longtime leader of cult favorite powerpop band Skooshny, put his together to get a record deal. Which makes sense in a way: Breyer is nothing if not counterintuitive. The album, Matchless Gifts – out from Kool Kat Musik and streaming at Bandcamp – is a lavish, smartly assembled double-cd compilation of the best tracks he’s released since 2006 under the name Son of Skooshny, often in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Steve Refling. For those new to the Breyer songbook, this is as good a way as any to get to know one of the greatest songwriters alive, and it’s one of the best albums of 2017.

The layers of jangly guitars and dreamy sonics draw obvious comparisons to Australian psychedelic/spacerock legends the Church, reinforced by Breyer’s brilliant lyrics – his double entendres and wordplay rank with the Church’s Steve Kilbey, and Elvis Costello, and Rachelle Garniez. And the songs are catchy beyond belief, drawing on decades of clang and twang – Carl Newman is another reference point. Yet Breyer’s catalog doesn’t really evoke any band other than his old one. This guy is a real individualist, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who might take you by surprise.

And much as Breyer can’t resist a good pun – it’s impossible to count all of them here – these songs are sad. The devil is always in the details: Breyer has a rare eye for them. The one that might rip your face off more than any of the others, The Subtle Eye, is actually a brisk, balmy number and one of the gentlest songs here:

Teddy lifts me to a cloud
To protect me from an angry crowd
We sit and watch the spectacle below
Teddy died too young for her to go

See, Teddy is a dog. She appears in a dream, after appearances by now-deceased parents who, if these cameos are characteristic, were real cheerful earfuls (NOT). Humans will betray you, but many other species won’t. And they care enough about you to visit you after they’re gone, if only to let you know that they’re ok. In his last verse, Breyer promises to do the same: who knows what the subtle eye can see, right?

The boisterous opening anthem, Just a Test is irresistibly funny, but quaint diner food turns out to have a surprise in it, and eventually Breyer declares that “I want the other actors dead instead !” He’s referring to a tv show, but obviously there’s more to it.

“You left a note on my door, I found the footnote on the floor,” he announces as Spine, a big, enveloping seduction athem gets underway: foreshadowing is a huge part of Breyer’s M.O. A picturesque, bittersweetly romantic stroll through North Hollywood, No Ho may be conceptually funny – nobody walks in LA, right? – but you can see the ending coming a mile away, and it’s bleak.

Likewise, don’t let the blase calm 70s folk-pop sheen of Half of the World fool you. It deals with issues of perception and drunken yoga, with a coda that’s way too good to give away. Science Changes Everything, with its litany of math and physics metaphors, follows the same pattern, as does Dizzy – a dead ringer for the catchiest stuff on the Church’s Blurred Crusade album. “When more is less you use subtraction, reduce it to a fraction,” Breyer calmly intones.

His images invite plenth of debate. What does the object of affection In Mid-Century Modern do when she visits the justice of the peace? Regret, disillusion, and alienation bordering on despondency are everywhere. “I had that flat but it wasn’t home, you had a cat but you were alone,” Breyer relates in Sorry, another contrast between dreamy, Church-like sonics and richly imagistic, grim narrative.

Good Morning, Gail Warning may take place in an ashram kitchen, but Arthur Schlenger’s eerily reverberating guitars and keys are pure David Lynch soundtrack. “Troubles brew, bubbles rise,” Breyer relates in How Does It End, glistening nocturne swirling through an allusive tale of fractured family ties.

“Take apart your Japanese contraption – douse the charcoal, tear the plastic tent,” Breyer implores in Candy Air: meanwhile, the cat’s under the house and won’t come out. “May I remove your elevator shoes?” he asks in The Right Idea, backed by a plaintively lingering web of twelve-string guitars that leave no doubt how this story is going to end.

Some of these tracks rock pretty hard – Knee Deep, one of the few more optimistic anthems here; the surreal Kate’s Green Phone, which may or may not be about daydrinking and unrealistic expectations; the autobiographical Untold History, which traces an allusively harrowing Cold War childhood narrative; and Another Time, a Costello-esque account of dealing with somebody from outer space. And Bare Bones reaches toward classic punk blast and thud: it’s the closest thing to Breyer’s old band here.

In typical fashion, he saves some of the best songs for the bonus disc. Jeff Peters’ guitar nicks a familiar Angelo Badalementi film noir riff for the doomed trajectory of You Can’t Love Me:

Thank god you’re farsighted instead of near
It might be the only thing keeping you here

And Love’s Not Impossible, with Michael Meros’ hilarious early 80s pop quote, offers a tantalizing flicker of hope, even as the drizzle grows more impenetrable.

In the meantime, Breyer hasn’t slowed down. His latest single, The New South – presumably from yet another formidable album – has unexpected country flavor and a typically sardonic plotline. 

Revisiting Some Classics by Mingus and His Many Advocates

Trombonist Ku’Umba Frank Lacy is a mainstay of the New York jazz scene, with a list of recording and touring credits a mile long as a both a bandleader and sideman. His Live at Smalls album, a red-hot straight-up postbop sextet date at the well-loved West Village basement spot, got a big thumbs-up here in 2014. And as big band fans know, Lacy is also an excellent singer with a distinctively gritty, dynamic low register. New Yorkers have at least three chances to catch him over the next week or so. He’s leading his own group on Dec 5 at 10:30 PM at Smalls, their usual haunt; cover is $20. In addition, he’ll be with the Mingus Big Band at the weekly Monday night Mingus ensembles’ residency at the Jazz Standard on Nov 27 and Dec 4, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25

Lacy’s latest album with the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Sings – streaming at Spotify – is his star turn in the studio with the group. Although Charles Mingus’ music pretty much speaks for itself, he was an underrated wordsmith, and there are four tracks here representing his poetic side, along with others by Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, and a rarity  by his widow and longtime champion Sue Mingus.

Interestingly, Lacy doesn’t play on this record, although the band otherwise is as much of an allstar outfit as it always its, comprising trumpeters Alex Norris, Jack Walrath and the late Lew Soloff; trombonists Coleman Hughes, Conrad Herwig and Earl McIntyre; saxophonists Craig Handy, Wayne Escoffery, Alex Foster, Ronnie Cuber, Abraham Burton and Brandon Wright; bassists Boris Kozlov and Mike Richmond; pianists David Kikoski and Helen Sung, and drummer Donald Edwards.

The material spans the iconic composer’s career, from bustling swing to haunting third-stream epics. Lacy narrates Langston Hughes’ poetic commentary over slowly swaying lustre and then fingerpopping swing in Consider Me, a pensive Stormy Monday-inspired first-person commentary on black empowerment. Clearly, not much has changed in sixty years.

Dizzy Profile, part elegant waltz, part brisk swing, is a mighty, knowing reminder of how much controversy the pioneers of hard bop faced; again, somewhat ironically, it’s Coleman Hughes who gets to take a sagacious trombone solo instead of Lacy.

Weird Nightmare, as you would expect, is one of the real standouts on the album: Lacy holds back to let Mingus’ angst and longing really resonate while the band builds an eerily surreal backdrop. Portrait comes across as quite a contrast between the lyrics and the regal, almost somber quality of the music, animated by solos from Walrath and Handy. Another stunner, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – with the first of the Joni Mitchell lyrics – is awash in grim, close harmonies, introduced by a gently plaintive Kikoski piano solo, Handy contributing a pensive, achingly angst-fueled alto solo.

Sweet Sucker Dance – from Mingus and Mitchell’s 1979 collaboration – has an infinitely more purist, epic sweep compared to the original and really does justice to Mitchell’s bittersweet, detailed character study. Likewise, Lacy digs in and wraps his tongue around Invisible Lady’s torrents of Elvis Costello noir iconography over murderous, tense  harmonies and nonstop, shadowy urban bustle: it’s the rare resurrection of a classic where the new lyrical dimension isn’t hopelessly ponderous.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, which Mingus did write all by himself, is surprisingly restrained here: Cuber blows some purist blues spirals and Lacy saves his biggest melismatic moment for this one. Contrastingly, Dry Cleaner From Des Moines has a jaunty rumble to match Mitchell’s surreal beatnik narrative.

Noonlight – the one real obscurity here, posthumously discovered along with the scores for Mingus’ magnum opus, Epitaph – gets its lyrics and title from Sue Mingus. It turns out to be a saturnine-tinged but catchy and ultimately cheery ballad, shifting matter-ofl-factly between meters.

Mitchell’s lowdown vernacular and imperturbable narrative fit seamlessly with Chair in the Sky, with its sly bluesiness and unstoppable upward trajectory  – and Lacy has a ball matching its unhinged exuberance. Eclipse, the final number with Mingus’ words and music, is typically symphonic, a study in contrasts, slinky latin ballad morphing into towering anthem, Foster’s flute nailing both when the time comes. The final track is the second-line strut Jelly Roll, with a Costello lyric to match. It’s a good bet that most Mingus diehards already have this album, or at least have it playlisted somewhere; if not, hell, why not now?

Purist Roots Reggae Band John Brown’s Body Make a Long-Awaited Manhattan Return

John Brown’s Body have been touring for longer than Bob Marley & the Wailers were together.

Think about that for a second.

If you count the point in the mid-60s where ska slowed down to rocksteady, and Toots & the Maytals had a hit with Do the Reggay, roots reggae has been around for half a century. And it’s been a long time since reggae was CNN for Rastafarians and the Jamaican pro-democracy underground.

And it seems like almost as long since John Brown’s Body played a good New York venue. These road warriors’ most recent album, Fireflies – streaming at Soundcloud – has been sitting on the hard drive here waiting for the moment that they’d say boom bye bye to Williamsburg bowling alley Babylon. Good news: they’re playing Bowery Ballroom on Dec 1 at 10ish; cover is $20.

The album’s brassy, minor-key first track is Badman. The song was recorded before the 2016 Presidential election, and it alludes to exploitation of immigrants and working people rather than the tweeting twit in the Oval Office. Still:

Created a master fool
Pay what is natural
Won’t be your slave
Don’t want to obey

Reggae wasn’t always just about getting stoned and chilling.

Realistically, not many people other than musicians are going to listen to this album for every single lyric or nuance. But you have to hand it to this band for nailing every oldschool trope from the rocksteady era to the early 80s, right before the Sleng Teng riddim changed the game.

Tour enough and you can afford the equipment and the studio time to do this like legends. Some highlights: keyboardist JP Petronzio’s subtle organ flickers on the album’s title track, and his growly sub-bass clavinova on the aptly titled Mystery; drummer Tommy Benedetti’s straight-to-dub snare hits; the spot-on evocation of early Maytals rocksteady in Hard Man Fe Dead; trumpeter Sam Dechenne’s horn chart from High Grade, straight out of a blazing Burning Spear anthem circa 1975.

The three-part harmonies on Mash Them Down, another pro-immigrant anthem that would make the Mighty Diamonds proud. That sneaky Aswad reference in the Steel Pulse soundalike New Fashion. The dubwise production, especially with the layers of echo effects in Pure Fire. Singer Elliot Martin’s vengeful “You never look me in the eye” on the closing cut, Who Paid Them Off. Amazing how much you can do with two chords if you have the imagination, isn’t it? Is it time for all the new jacks to do a John Brown’s Body tribute album?

Maximo Park Bring Their Populist Dance Party to Bowery Ballroom

Maximo Park play fun, catchy, acerbic new wave-flavored dance-rock with smartly conscious lyrics. They’re more likely to bounce their way through the smoke machine haze than to strike a pose with a boot up on the monitor, Oasis-style. So it’s not likely that there’ll be a lot of trumpies at their show at Bowery Ballroom on Nov 30 at 9:30 PM. For the 99%, tickets are a reasonable $20 in advance, and you can get them at the Mercury Lounge on weekdays until 7.

The band’s latest album Risk to Exist is streaming at Spotify. The funky opening track is What Did We Do to You to Deserve, a sort of mashup of 1994-era Blur and the Cat Empire:

When the auditors add it up in the books
Will you keep it away
What’s that look upon your face
No this is not the good old days
What did we do to you to deserve this
You’re doing everything in your power to preserve this
Let’s all pretend to tell the truth…

Get High (No I Don’t) follows the same pattern, frontman Paul Smith calling bullshit on the appeal of forbidden fruit: “If someone tells your it’s wrong enough times, it’s a sinner’s song.” At the same time, the “no I don’t” mantra seems awfully suspicious.

What Equals Love is a more organic take on slick mid-80s new wave, guitarist Duncan Lloyd and organist Lukas Wooller harmonizing what probably would have been a string synth arrangement if a band thirty years ago was doing it:

Lock up the glass house every day
Hope the problem goes away

Tom English’s flurrying drums fuel album’s title track, a carpe diem anthem: so good to be alive while the whole world is dying, huh?

Wooller’s keys blip and bleep over tricky syncopation and then an enigmatic bass solo in I’ll Be Around: is this a come-on, or a sardonic look at a guy who’s willing to do the absolute minimum to look good?

Work and Then Wait is a defiant singalong anthem:

The rightwing views are getting me down..
The rich start life with a hand-me-down
The hand that giveth is set to take it away
They strip you of your dignity…
I won’t be caught in my fate

The Hero is a faux EDM dancefloor stomp, a sardonic tale of a hardworking guy too worn out to affect the pose:

How on earth do you begin
When you know you can’t win
They say that money doesn’t change a thing
But you know they’re not suffering…
Sometimes you have to give in but you better not make a habit of it

The Reason I Am Here starts out as Gang of Four no wave and rises to a big, triumphant Midnight Oil peak:

You will have to make a journey
Through the eyes of idiots
Where every problem is a country
It’s blamed on the immigrants
Not exactly high society
Neither fact nor sobriety
People who never doubt are the ones I’m worried about
People who never doubt are the ones who carry the clout

The ferocious, insistent Make What You Can has woozy Split Enz call-and-response, again building to a mighty peak, referencing somebody whose “Language is violent, somebody on the take” – which could be any dictator or would-be dictator, anywhere.

Respond to the Feeling is spare and funky:

You can sleepwalk into the night or focus on forever
You can make the short term right but you gotta focus on forever

The final cut here is Alchemy, a grimly funny, pulsing anthem that turns your typical online privacy disclaimer on its head and slams it into the ground. The Clash used to make albums like this.

Vigen Hovsepyan Reinvents Stark, Impactful, Frequently Haunting Armenian Themes

The little nation of Armenia seems to have more good musicians per capita than almost anywhere in the world. So it makes sense that one of the most intriguing albums to come over the transom here in the past year is singer/bandleader Vigen Hovsepyan’s Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music, streaming at Spotify. Hovsepyan plays guitar, duduk and percussion and sings in Armenian in a strong, expressive baritone, backed by bass, percussion, oud, cello, and traditional reeds including duduk and zurna. What differentiates this collection from more traditional versions of these tunes is the imaginative arrangements, with edgy, crescendoing solos from throughout the band.

Armenian music is notable for blending the enigmatic microtones of the Middle East within melodies in the western scale. Minor keys are prevalent, along with a lot of what’s essentially implied melody: these themes are simple, stark and striking. The album’s opening number, a dirge, features rising star duduk player Arsen Petrosyan along with intense, otherworldly vocal harmonies. Another Armenian reed star, zurna player Harutyun Chkolyan is featured on a more lively later track. 

The spare, stately, syncopatedly swaying Nare features understatedly incisive, spacious oud work from the great Ara Dinkjian, up to a surprise trick ending. Hoy Nar is a robust work song – a riverboat tune, maybe? – updated with echoes of 90s trip-hop and a long, bracing, uneasily trilling duduk solo.

Garegin Arakelyan’s austere bass riff mingles with Havard Enstad’s sparse piano in the ballad Es Gisher, building to aching close harmonies between strings and reeds. Hovsepyan’s voice rises to an angst-fueled peak over a menacing low string drone in Ani; then the strings build a storm on the horizon. The gracefully dancing, austere Tal Tala features breathtakingly spiraling tar lute from Miqayel Voskanyan against a brooding backdrop.

The moody ballad Gulo sways slowly over an elegant 6/8 guitar/bass groove over resonant, distantly troubled piano: it’s the most Lynchian track here. Drdo opens with a darkly pensive exchange between Hovsepyan’s emphatic vocals, cello, frame drum and duduk, slowly coalescing with an overcast grandeur. The Immigrant blends dancing, Balkan-tinged strings and echoey, Romany-inflected vocals, with a spaciously mournful duduk solo.

A tense low bass drone, a melancholy cello solo and Hovsepyan’s misterioso flamenco-tinged guitar fuel the slow, troubled, cinematic sweep of Lusnyak Gisher. Likewise, the closing cut, Sareri begins with cumulo-nimbus atmospherics and then settles into an elegaic sway. Considering the history of Armenia and how many cultural treasures were lost in the holocaust there a hundred years ago, and before, it’s no surprise how dark most of this music is. But you don’t need to speak Armenian to be drawn into this unsettling masterpiece.

Wild Turkish Psychedelic Rock Rescued From Obscurity

One of the most amazing albums released this year is Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu, a compilation streaming at Spotify that pays homage to the Turkish cassette label that released some of the wildest, most surreal sounds to emerge from that part of the world. Spanning from 1975 to 1984, this trippy ten-track playlist collects hard funk, symphonic rock, disco, electrified Turkish traditional ballads and anthems…and what sounds like a long radio commercial.

String synth, organ, wry wah synth and soaring, otherworldly, microtonal zurna oboe mingle in Zor Beyler’s suspenseful, lushly anthemic Gozumdeki Yaslar. The second track, by guitarslinger Erkin Koray, is a one-chord heavy funk jam, fuzztone acid lead guitar over loping bass and drums, with an emphatic spoken-word lyric: Turkish rap from forty years ago!

Powerful baritone crooner Kerem Guney’s Sicak Bir Sevda is a slashing, richly catchy Middle Eastern rock gem, sparkling electric baglama trading off with spare yet searing electric guitar. Asik Emrah’s Bu Ellerden Gocup is one of the trippiest cuts here, a mashup of psychedelic latin funk and spiky, oscillating Turkish classical sounds – is that an electric saz lute that’s taking that twistedly oscillating solo?

Longing and hazy angst pervade Yar Senin Icin, by chanteuse Elvan Sevil, a trickily syncopated, broodingly catchy anthem blending austere guitar with more of that delicious electric saz. Seker Oglan’s epic dancefloor jam Akbaba Ikilisi has a straightforwardly slinky, disco-tinged groove and similarly tasty, microtonal fretboard melismatics. Deniz Ustu Kopurur nicks a classic Stooges riff for Unal Buyukgonenc, a similarly vast, shapeshifting web of enigmatic reverb guitar and similarly reverb-drenched zurna: it’s the most psychedelic number here.

Nese Alkan gives her vocals a suspenseful, dramatic allure in Kacma Guzel, which comes across as sort of proto Balkan reggae. The compilation’s final track, by Ali Ayhan, mashes up wah funk and majestically sweeping, starkly string-driven Turkish balladry. All this begs the question of how many other treasures are lurking in the Uzelli vaults. In the meantime, New Yorkers can catch a tantalizing show coming up on Nov 24 at 8 PM at Drom with a current Turkish psychedelic band, the ominously majestic Philadelphia-based Barakka. Cover is $10.

A Captivating World Premiere and Two Playful, Relevant Works in Progress Wrap Up This Year’s Sounds of Arts Festival

This year’s Sounds of Arts Festival in Long Island City, staged by arts organization Multicultural Sonic Evolution, featured a variety of performances from jazz to dance to indie classical music. The final program was an auspicious trio of works in progress by Chinese-American Alicia Lieu and Japanese composer Yui Kitamura along with a world premiere commission from Mayalsian-born JunYi Chow.

The highlight of the first night was Chow’s colorful, dynamic partita The House of Smells and Noise. Inspired by a story about a boy’s experiences with Nyonya (Chinese Malaysian) culture in Lee Su Kim’s book Sarong Secrets, it was replete with tensions and dichotomies: tradition versus modernity, calm versus bustle, humor versus solemnity. Percussionist Maiko Hosoda really got a workout, beginning with a stroll around the back of the theatre, clanging her cymbals. From there she took charge of the rhythm on a variety of instruments, including the dreamy microtone-laced plink of a Malaysian kalimba.

Austere call-and response gave way to somewhat more expansive passages that bordered on carefree but never quite went there, played with care and restraint by an impressively unorthodox ensemble of violinist Michael Mandrin, cellist Jay Tilton, oboeist Kevin Chavez, flutist Chrissy Fong and harpist Margery Fitts.  The electroacoustic ending packed a subtle emotional wallop and is too good to give away.

Kitamura’s brief suite, from a forthcoming opera, was sung with expressive power in Japanese by soprano Hirona Amamiya. The text explores the struggles of the daughter of famous 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika, widely credited with much of her father’s work since art in Japan at the time was a career essentially closed to women. Asian melodies were alluded to rather than stated outright; themes ranged from a poignant waltz that recalled Belgian musette, to more sweeping, distantly angst-fueled, cinematic passages.

To close the night, a quartet of singers delivered the first part of Lieu’s comic opera Unwrapping Fortune, exploring cultural and parent-child tensions in a Chinese-Jewish New York family. Not to spoil a good and relevant plot, but a chow mein sandwich is involved. A quartet of singers – sopranos Caroline Miller and Estabaliz Martinez, baritone Brian J. Alvarado and tenor Stephen Velasquez – brought drama and sardonic humor to the narrative over pleasant, baroque-tinged melodies.