New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: balkan music

A Promising, Characteristically Eclectic Start to This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

This year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival runs through Sept 14 and promises to be as rapturously fun as last year’s was. On Wednesday evenings starting at 5:30 PM, a rotating cast of accordionists play half-hour sets of an amazingly eclectic range of music. This year there are five sets happening simultaneously, which created some dissonance on opening night when one group was going full steam while their neighbor played a quiet ballad. But the music was sublime.

For a connoisseur of accordion music – and who wouldn’t want to be one, right? – it’s always a triage. Forro or klezmer? Irish folk-punk or cumbia? The advantage of staggered sets is that you get multiple chances to see your favorite player or style of music. This week it was easy to choose a set by the brilliant and erudite Christina Crowder to begin the evening. Most of her numbers were minor-key Jewish wedding tunes, including a bouncy one about giving away the family’s youngest daughter, along with a mysterious, enveloping theme typically played early in the day for relatives of the betrothed. She romped through a jaunty bulgar and another, more somber tune, both of which contained the Twilight Zone riff. Late in the set, she treated the crowd to a Moldavian tune whose title translates roughly as “Freestyle Over This Groove.” Crowder didn’t rap; instead, she built an ambience that was as kinetic as it was hypnotic.

After that, it was time to head to the southeastern corner of the park for an even livelier set of oldschool cumbia and vallenato – “Colombian country music,” as accordionist Foncho Castellar termed it. Backed by a couple of percussionists, he played button accordion. The trio romped through some very brisk cumbias before the even more rustic stuff about peasants in the big city, or way out on the frontera, dancing, partying and chasing women.

After that, Susan Hwang – half of haunting literary art-rock duo Lusterlit – broke out her accordion for a deviously fun set. Backed by a djembe player, she opened with a coyly exasperated, new wave-flavored original, from her days with charming late zeros/early teens trio the Debutante Hour, concerning New York parking. Her funniest cover was a remake of the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters blues classic, which she titled Hoochie Koochie Woman. Another fun one was an original from her lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club, a thoughtful, quirky bounce told from the point of view of physicist Richard Feynman.

Like Hwang, Dolunay frontwoman Jenny Luna is best known as a singer and percussionist. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call her one of New York’s – and arguably the world’s – most riveting, shattering vocalists. She’s also a first-rate Balkan and Middle Eastern drummer. As it turns out, she’s a competent accordionist as well. Much as she got plenty of brooding, sometimes haunting atmospherics and chromatics wafting from her reeds, it was her voice that held the crowd spellbound,. She began with a moody tone  poem of sorts, then a couple of Rumeli (Balkan Turkish) laments that gave her a chance to air out both her soaring highs and haunting low register. She wound up the set with a jaunty if hardly blithe singalong, in Turkish – the chorus translated roughly as variations on “be my habibi.”

Next week’s installment of the festival, at 5:30 PM on Aug 22, features a similarly diverse lineup including but not limited to gothic Americana songwriter Sam Reider; the torchy, swinging Erica Mancini; edgy, avant garde-influenced chamber pop singer Mary Spencer Knapp; Argentine tango duo Tinta Roja and Mexican norteño crew Toro de la Sierra.

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Trumpeter Ben Holmes Brings His Lyrical Brilliance and Distant Unease to Barbes This Weekend

According to Kate Attardo – the brilliant photographer who ran the music room at Barbes in recent years – trumpeter Ben Holmes and accordionist Patrick Farrell staged their ominous, cinematic Conqueror Worm Suite there three times. This blog was in the house for two of those rapturously haunting shows (here’s what it sounded like there back in September of 2016). Fortuitously, the suite is also available on album, and streaming at youtube complete with Natalie Sousa’s original concert visuals. Over the duo’s shapeshifting, often wildly eclectic backdrop, Holmes narrates Edgar Allen Poe’s grand guignol poem about a killer worm to rival all others.

The suite opens with Farrell’s moody, low solo accordion chords eventually joined by Holmes’ mournful theme; from there, the trumpeter picks up steam with lively flair, up to a sudden coda. Then the duo return with a variation that foreshadows the klezmer influence that grows more distinct as the suite goes on – which makes sense, considering that the two have shared membership in the Yiddish Art Trio.

“Mere puppets who go…who shift the scenery to and fro,” Holmes intones over Farrell’s creepy, carnivalesque oompah – did Poe have some foreknowledge of the plague of gentifiers who would imperil this city far more than any oversize, ravenous insect?

Whatever the case, the two build a march in the same vein as the first part of a hora, in this case hapless victims dreading their fate far more than any new bride required to dance and make nice with her mother-in-law. Then Poe’s “motley drama” in a “circle that ever returneth in” becomes “horror – the soul of the plot,” a brief moment of terror giving way to a strutting, catchy klezmer dance. Holmes’ melody bounces, blithe and surreal, over Farrell’s steady, rhythmic orchestration – as usual, he has a way of making the accordion sound like a whole reed section.

The oompahs grow more disquieting, as do the duo’s increasingly atonal harmonies, rising toward terror as the march continues toward an ineluctable conclusion.The ending is something of a surprise, yet a magnificent payoff in its own counterintuitive way. 

It was tempting to save this album in the stack waiting patiently for Halloween month this year – an annual tradition at this blog where there’s not only something new but also something macabre or monstrous every day. But that can wait – Holmes is playing this Saturday night, July 28 at 8 PM at Barbes, his usual haunt, with his latest trio project, Naked Lore which features Brad Shepik on guitar and Shane Shanahan on percussion along with frequent special guests. While their sound is completely different and a lot more improvisational than this masterpiece, there are plenty of moments of distant menace and frequent references to uneasy Middle Eastern and klezmer melodies. If you miss this weekend’s show, they’re back at Barbes again on Aug 24.

Book of J Reinvent Classic Spiritual Sounds With a New Album and a July Barbes Residency

Book of J are Sway Machinery guitarist/bandleader Jeremiah Lockwood and singer Jewlia Eisenberg of Charming Hostess. Each have brought an impassioned, vocally-driven approach to their own projects, equally informed by classic Jewish and African-American melodies and spiritual traditions. Together they reinvent those influences, from haunting, medieval Jewish piyutim love laments, to oldtime country blues and gospel. Their debut album is streaming at youtube. They have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes this July, a venue where the two have collaborated memorably in the past.

The new album opens with a steady version of the spiritual 12 Gates to the City, Eisenberg taking the lead, Lockwood’s harmonies shadowing her as he drives the song with his shivery acoustic slide blues work. Likewise, Lockwood’s nimbly tumbling phrases propel the gorgeous Agadelkha, Eisenberg’s raw vocals out front, up to an enigmatic chordal guitar solo. The verse sounds like an acoustic Balkan predecessor of the Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit: was Grace Slick into that stuff?

Lockwood switches to Telecaster for a boogie-flavored take of the country gospel tune Do Lord, Remember Me which they transform into an oldtime union anthem after a spiky Lockwood guitar solo. The duo exchange impassioned, conspiratorial vocals over Lockwood’s eerily tremoloing guitar in the Yiddish dirge Khavele; their hauntingly fluttering, sotto-voce, French/English take of Leonard Cohen’s The Partisan is much the same.

They go back to classic African-American gospel for Freedom Plow, adding unsettled indie rock chords underneath. Their call-and-response in the country blues-flavored Tell God is much more rustic. Then they do Sweet Inspiration as proto Ike & Tina Turner, with some sweet, Indian summer blues guitar riffage.

Eisenberg sings an unvarnished take of the lament Seven Sons Had Hannah over Lockwood’s spare, hypnotically Malian-influenced guitar. Tzir is the shortest, most whispery and most starkly gorgeous, bittersweet song on the album. The duo follow with Kum Mayn Kind, a distantly blues-inflected European lullaby

They do a final spiritual, My Sun Will Never Go Down as a turn-of-the-[past]-century Pete’s Candy Store number, with some starkly incisive picking from Lockwood, and close with a hushedly fervent, brooding interpretation of Fiery Love, an edgy Yiddish theme.

Lockwood always invites a whole slew of killer talent to his Barbes residencies; the July 14 edition with his sometime collaborator, Big Lazy noir guitar genius Steve Ulrich, should be particularly intense.

An Early Morning Blaze From the Uncategorizably Brilliant Klazz-Ma-Tazz

Pianist Ben Rosenblum hit a sharks-teeth minor-key spiral, echoed with slithery precision by bandleader and violinist Ben Sutin. Meanwhile, bassist Mat Muntz dipped and swayed, a monster truck spring at peak tension crossing a ravine in some remote Chernobyl forest. Behind them, drummer Tim Rachbach worked tense variations on a clave groove as guitarist Rafael Rosa held back, deep in the shadows, saxophonist Elijah Shiffer waiting for his moment. That would come about fifteen minutes later. At this point, it was about quarter to noon on Sunday morning.

The album release show by Sutin’s phenomenal band Klazz-Ma-Tazz transcended a lot of things, including but not limited to genre specificity and time of day. While Sutin’s compositions and arrangements draw deeply from the vast well of classic Jewish folk music from east of the Danube, they’re hardly limited to that. What they play is jazz, but it’s also dance music. You could also call it film music, considering how deeply they can plunge into noir. But they didn’t stay there, or anywhere, for long.

Musicians tend not to be morning people. But watching this band blaze through two ferocious, sets made it more than worthwhile to sit there glassy-eyed after spending most of the previous evening at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Interestingly, Sutin launched his epic Letting Go suite, from the band’s new album Meshugenah, just two songs in. Its allusive, chromatically electriified rises and falls foreshadowed the feral but expertly orchestrated intensity they’d save for the second set, veering from panoramic desertscapes to hints of samba and some Cuban flair.

Shiffer’s moment was a coda. Before then, he and Sutin had built a briefly heated conversation, but even that didn’t hint at what the saxophonist had up his sleeve. Working his baritione to what seemed the top of his register, he dropped it and reached for his alto. The choreography wasn’t perfect, but the effect was irresistibly fun as he went for the jugular…then put it down, picked up the bari again and took that big horn to heights nobody expected, or probably imagined were possible. Sure, it was a show-off move: to see somebody actually pull it off at such an early hour was really something else.

Sutin told the crowd that Sunrise, Sunset was one of his alltime favorite songs, then reinvented it as lush, plaintive, latin-tinged syncopated swing, a Lynch film set somewhere in the Negev. His version of In Odessa pounced and charged, possibly mirroring Putin-era terrorism there, Rosenblum’s bittersweet accordion holding its own against the stampede.

The second set showcased the band’s sense of humor as well as how feral they can get. Muntz’s quasi-Balkan dance Cyberbalkanization had a relentless, tongue-in-cheek faux EDM whoomp-whoomp beat, Sutin and Shiffer trading terse, acidic phrases overhead. From there they ranged from brooding and mournful to cumulo-nimbus ominousness in their version of Tumbalalaika, segueing into a majestically careening, turbocharged take of the classic Misirlou – but without much in the way of surf.

They saved the guest rapper and singers for the end. Sheyn Vi Di Levone is best known as a schmaltzy ballad, but singer Astrid Kuljanic worked its coy internal rhymes for all it was worth, the band making perfectly decent, uneasy midtempo swing out of it. Then guest Zhenya Lopatnik opened their version of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön with a suspenseful, moody rubato vocal solo before the band swung it, hard. Thank You, from the band’s sizzlingly good debut album, was one of the closing numbers, awash in slashing modal riffs and shifting meters. That the band managed to play one of the best shows of 2018 so far, so early in the day, speaks for itself. Sutin’s next gig is a low-key trio show tomorrow, April 11 at 7 PM at Sidewalk. 

The Brooklyn Folk Festival Is Ten Years Old and Better Than Ever

Over the past decade, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has become a New York rite of passage. Like Golden Fest, Rev. Vince Anderson’s Union Pool residency, the Brooklyn Cyclones and Shakespeare in the Park, it’s something that everyone should experience at least once. It’s held over a weekend every spring, with both daytime and evening lineups; a lot of people go every year.

The best thing about the festival is that it isn’t exclusively devoted to artists who play music by the greatest and most prolific songwriter of all time – whose name varies from language to language, but invariably translates as Anonymous. This past Saturday night’s lineup featured some of that repertoire but also originals drawing on a global expanse of influences, from high-voltage Romany dance music, to moody Balkan ballads,  ecstatic Afro-Colombian trance-dance chants, honkytonk, southern gothic and jug band sounds. Which makes sense, considering that the folks at the magical Jalopy Theatre – New York’s Americana music central – put this thing together.

By the time the nighttime lineup got underway, St. Ann’s Church on Montague Street was already packed with a diverse crowd of veterans and kids hell-bent on getting the most bang for the buck out of their all-weekend or allday passes. Italian pianist/singer Luca Ferraris kicked off the evening on the stage next to the beer stand with a dynamic set of originals and a few traditional numbers that ran the gamut from bouncy dance tunes with Romany or even Russian tinges, to ballads that sometimes sauntered unexpectedly in a jazz direction. A bassist joined him about midway through and became a vocal sparring partner. Even for those in the crowd whose Italian might be limited to restaurant menu items, the songs were infectious. 

In the church’s main space, pan-Balkan singer and song reinventor Eva Salina and sorcerer accordionist Peter Stan benefited from the rich natural reverb, which added yet another layer of mystery to their distinctive versions of songs from the catalogs of iconic Romany singers Saban Bajramovic and Vida Pavlovic. Nimbly negotiating the slithery sibilances of the Romanes language, the California-born Salina channeled resilience and grace in the face of longing and abandonment, sang a cartoonishly bouncy number from the point of view of a guy overjoyed with his three-foot-tall, extremely fertile wife, and didn’t shy away from the issues of displacement and exile that permeate so much of this repertoire. Stan sized up the sonics in a split-second and maxed them out with flickering torrents of bracing minor keys and chromatics that took on new dimensions, echoing off the walls.

There was a little overlap while one of the Jalopy house bands, Skalopy, played live dub reggae and some classic Toots & the Maytals material with a lineup that included both banjo and piano. Meanwhile, in the main space, Bulla En El Barrio built a frenzy of call-and-response with their hypnotically percussive chants, which draw a straight line back from Colombia to Africa. A succession of men and women took turns leading the choir over the thunder of the percussion; they closed with an original that was as rustic and otherworldly as any of the traditional epics.

They would have been a tough act to follow, but not for Jerron Paxton, who may be the most talented musician in all of New York. Playing a longer set than any of the other acts on the bill, solo, he nonchalantly showed off his spectacular chops as oldtime acoustic blues and ragtime guitarist, fiddler, banjo and harmonica player. This time out he didn’t take a turn at the piano, but he could have. In his genial Louisiana drawl, he entertained the crowd with stories from the kind of colorful past only a musician could have…but also didn’t hesitate to remind them of the sobering reality of how many ex-slaves died of starvation after the Civil War. And you wonder why so many old blues songs mention hunger. Moving methodically between carefree proto-bluegrass fiddle, wickedly precise blues fingerpicking, ominously ancient, hypnotically percussive banjo and some fierce harmonica blues, he made it all seem easy He encored on harmonica as well, with a breathless medley of 18th century blues tunes, including Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song.

Nick Panken, frontman of high-voltage Americana crew Spirit Family Reunion, didn’t waste time admitting that they had an impossible act to follow. And they’re a great band – but loud electric rock with drums doesn’t work in a space like St. Ann’s. In that context, the matter of who was playing before or after was irrelevant. The sound people really tried their best, and the band realized what was up, so their ballads worked out ok. But when they picked up the pace, the mix was just vocals, drums and Maggie Carson’s icepick five-string banjo lines. Their songs blend bluegrass, honkytonk and oldtime string band music and they can jam like crazy. And their fan base is crazy about them. But this was the wrong venue. The Jalopy is their New York home base when they’re not on tour; they’re best experienced there.

Speaking of Jalopy people, guitarist/singer Feral Foster – who’s been running the weekly Roots and Ruckus series there since forever – was next on the bill. Looking dapper in a sharp tan suit, he crooned, picked expertly in oldtimey open tunings and took a couple of unexpected and very successful turns into ragtime and slow blues. It’s hard to think of a more original songwriter in gothic Americana. Some of the songs were tongue-in-cheek but others were not: there’s an omnipresent dark undercurrent that always grounds them in grim reality. He’s at the Jalopy virtually every Wednesday sometime after 9 PM.

Finally, at around midnight, Birmingham, Alabama’s Steel City Jug Slammers took the stage, bolstered by Ernesto Gomez and one of his bandmates from Brooklyn’s Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues. It was amazing to watch Washtub Jay pick out swooping basslines on that clothesline string – without any tape on his fingers, either! – and play kazoo lines through a trumpet horn at the same time, and not miss a beat. Frontman Ramblin’ Ricky Tate played guitar and led the band through a sly series of shuffles and stomps as Maxwell Honeycup kept the low end going at the other side of the stage with his jug. By now, the crowd had thinned out, but these guys were not about to let anybody down.

That was it for this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, but a lot of these acts can be found at the Jalopy. Bulla en El Barrio are at Barbes on April 30 at around 10. Eva Salina and Peter Stan are at the American Folk Art Museum on May 4 at 5:30 PM, sharing the bill with irrepressibly fun, charming oldtimey chanteuse Tamar Korn, who can vocalize any wind instrument ever invented.. The Steel City Jug Slammers are at KGB Bar at around 9:30 PM on April 11. And Spirit Family Reunion are at the Knickerbocker, 35 Railroad Ave. in Westerly, Rhode Island on April 14 at 9 for $13 in advance.

The Irrepressibly Fun Klazz-Ma-Tazz Radically Reinvent Classic Yiddish Vaudeville Themes

Klazz-Ma-Tazz’s lusciously Lynchian 2016 album Tangibility was one of the half-dozen best releases of the year. Violinist Ben Sutin’s group bring fearless jazz adventurousness to an individualistic, darkly electric sound that draws equally on classic klezmer, Balkan and Middle Eastern sounds. Interestingly, their forthcoming album Meshugenah – streaming at Bandcamp  – is mostly reinventions of iconic Yiddish vaudeville tunes. Sutin’s objective here is to do with that repertoire what Charlie Parker and John Coltrane did with Broadway songs, in other words, establish a new Great American Songbook for future generations of jazz players. To say that the new record is as astonishingly original and irresistibly fun as the last one isn’t an overstatement. They’re playing the klezmer brunch at around 11 AM this Sunday, April 8 at City Winery; cover is $10, kids under 12 get in free and there’s no minimum. You better believe that this blog will be in the house.

Ben Rosenblum’s dark washes of accordion underscore Alec Goldfarb’s flickering guitar as the enigmatically tropical take of Alexander Olshantesky’s Mein Shtetele Belz gets underway; violin and guitar solos keeps the edgy bounce going, the latter edging toward Django Reinhardt territory. Elijah Shiffer’s clarinet veers from a party in the Pale to dixieland and then back. A Hawk and a Hacksaw and 3 Leg Torso come to mind.

Sutin’s arrangement of Svalava Kozatshok has a suspenseful trip-hop pulse anchored by Shifffer’s baritone sax, up to a shreddy fireball solo from Goldfarb; Sutin adds devious hints of bluegrass, then the band make Hava Nagila metal out of it. Are we having fun yet?

Drummer Tim Rachbach kicks into thumping techno mode in Cyberbalkanization, a suspensefully pulsing Turkish-flavored metal tune by bassist Mat Muntz, bristling with high-voltage tradeoffs and intertwining solos. They take it out with Beninghove’s Hangmen-style metal and then a psychedelic accordion outro

Sutin’s remake of the traditional tune Tumbalalaika has a desolate, glimmering poignancy, Rosenblum’s starry piano against Goldfarb’s languid Romany-tinged phrases, Sutin takes the energy up between a forlornly dancing Muntz solo and Rosenblum’s graceful, elegaic conclusion.

Astrid Kuljanic sings the first of two Joseph Rumshinsky numbers, Sheyn Vi Di Levone, a sardonic noir Vegas tango of sorts: her jazz kazoo solo has to be heard to be believed. Then they make Balkan metal out of Im Odessa – but with Rosenblum’s accordion, Shiffer’s airy alto sax and Sutin’s wild spirals interspersed up to a punchline that’s too good to spoil.

Sunrise, Sunset gets reinvented as a slinky, distantly lurid Twin Peaks Red Room theme, lit up with Rosenblum’s cascades, Shiffer’s summery alto trading off with Sutin’s knifes-edge violin before things get really crazy,

Pretty much every klezmer band does Rumshinsky’s Builgar; Klazz-Ma-Tazz’s epic version blends Hendrix, hints of an Appalachian dance and Balkan metal into a colorful salute to the song’s theatrical origins. And the take of Bei Mir Bist Du Schon is surreal to the extreme, balmy Rachelle Garniez-esque balladry bookending hard swing with Sutin at the center; Zhenya Lopatnik sings

Sutin’s only original here, the diptych Letting Go, is the album’s most cinematic track. A lushly vamping, edgy Middle Eastern groove gives way to a rippling Rosenblum piano solo, then Sutin gives the music in a brighter, more latin pulse, Golfarb’s icepicking signaling a return to an insistent attack. This band has a huge ceiling: fans of jazz, metal, Jewish folk, David Lynch soundtracks and all other things noir will not be disappointed. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page if we make it that far.

Brilliant Balkan Singer Eva Salina Channels Empowerment in the Face of Despair

Since her days in the previous decade as an underage teenager belting over brass bands in Brooklyn bars, Eva Salina has established herself as one of the most distinctive and haunting voices in Balkan music. Although that’s her specialty, she doesn’t limit herself stylistically as a singer: her 20010  collaboration with fellow singer Aurelia Shrenker is a riveting glimpse of how radically she can reinvent classic Americana. Salina’s previous album was a blazing, horn-spiced, hard-rocking full-band tribute to legendary, tragic Romany crooner Saban Bajramovic.

Her latest album, Sudbina – streaming at Bandcamp– is a radical shift, a spare, rivetingly intimate reinvention of songs from the catalog of another Romany legend, Vida Pavlovic. For the most part, the instrumentation is just Salina’s voice backed by the accordion of her longtime collaborator Peter Stan. The two are playing the album release show this March 29 at 7:30 PM at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $15 and includes a copy of the new album.

Pavlovic was sort of a Balkan counterpart to Billie Holiday. She was unlucky in love; profound sadness and a sense of abandonment pervade her music. Yet there’s also a defiant, resolute joie de vivre, a quality that Salina explores deeply. In an era of global women’s marches and the Metoo movement, Pavlovic’s aching ballads are more relevant than ever. Which makes it all the more odd that it’s fallen to the American-born Salina to revive interest in her music.

The album opens with Pusti Me Da Zivim, an embittered born-to-lose theme, more or less. There’s despondency but also defiance in Salina’s slightly breathy delivery as Stan spirals and trills elegantly behind her: “Leave me to live my life alone,” is the main message; the moody minor-key melody has subtle bolero echoes.

E Laute Bašalen Taj Roven has a more brisk, marching rhythm, Stan a one-man accordion army as Salina’s voice chronicles the grim realities and constant displacement faced by Romany populations over the decades. The stark arrangement of Ostala Je Pesma Moja, Pavlovic’s signature song, underscores its theme. It’s a self-penned eulogy of sorts, the world-weary chanteuse addressing a new generation: “Remember, your mother gave you everything she had.”

Ćerma Devla Crikli is a lively dance number whose irrepressible bounce mutes an ever-present unease, a metaphorical perspective on the struggle to escape rural poverty. That dispersion comes into stark focus in the gently poignant Aven, Aven Romalen, a plea to men who’ve gone off to earn a living to come back to their families. It’s another study in contrasts, Salina’s brittle, vulnerable vocals against Stan’s balletesque leaps and pulses.

E Dadeći Cajori/Dema Miro is one of Pavlovic’s biggest hits:  the gist is “Give me peace, because you are eating my heart.” Salina’s wintry, ghostly vocals are arguably the album’s quietest yet most riveting moments.

The album winds up with Ostala, a final instrumental sendoff to Pavlovic featuring the simmering doublestops of popular Serbian trumpeter Demiran Ćerimović. Throughout the album, Salina maintains a meticulous focus on ornamentation and accents – she genuinely could pass for a Romany song diva. Which makes sense, considering she’s been singing this repertoire practically her whole life. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of this year.

A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

Magic Microtones and Modal Menace at Barbes

Was the Barbes show on the first of the month by Greg Squared’s Great Circles going to turn into a Balkan power play? That’s the Eastern European version of a jazz power play. The great saxophonist Bryan Beninghove came up with that one: it’s when there are more people in the band than in the audience.

By the time the quartet had wrapped up their set, there was a full house, who ended up being treated to one of the most exhilarating shows of 2018 so far. But things didn’t look promising at the start. Guitarist Adam Good sent a shout to his friend in the back, who was texting and looking pretty oblivious. Half of searing metal band Greek Judas – Good and drummer Chris Stromquist – were also onstage with bassist Reuben Radding and the bandleader. And that was pretty much it.

Great Circles is Greg Squared’s vehicle for his more expansive tunes that don’t fit with Raya Brass Band – the perennial star attraction at Golden Fest, New York’s legendary festival of Balkan and Middle Eastern music – or with the more vocally-oriented Sherita, who seem to be on hiatus at the moment. For most of the set, he ran through volley after volley of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics. And he wasn’t even playing all that fast. Most of the tunes were slinky and upbeat – this is dance music after all – but for a guy who plays a ton of notes, this show was all about suspense and intensity stretched to breaking point.

Stromquist made all the tricky tempos look easy – a couple of numbers in 9/4 and one especially serpentine one with so much syncopation that it was impossible to count along. He does the same in Greek Judas,  but more subtly here, first with his rims and snare, then with a clave groove in a minor-key song that seemed like it was going to morph into a Russian tango but didn’t. He finally got to take a tumbling solo – something he doesn’t do in Greek Judas – trading eights with Good.

The guitarist also got to do the same with the sax for a bit, the two like a couple of wolves going at each other through a wire fence. Radding kept a fat, low-key end going for the first half of the set before cutting loose with a solo laced with horn voicings, then some booming chords and nifty slides to drive a chorus or a turnaround home. Most of the material was originals; at the end, the group did a couple of traditional Macedonian numbers, veering from tense and overcast to sunny and then back. A couple of the last tunes brought to mind the glory days of Ansambl Mastika, Greg Squared’s great Balkan guitar band from the late zeros, who put out two deliriously good albums. If you can, snag them.

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Bring Their Dynamic Reinventions of Songs From Across the Jewish Diaspora Uptown Next Week

Violinist Lara St. John is the kind of musician whose presence alone will inspire her bandmates to take their game up a notch. Case in point: last summer in Central Park, where she played a picturesque, lyrical, alternately tender and soaring version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. And this wasn’t with the kind of big-name ensemble St. John is accustomed to playing with: it was a pickup group. St. John’s dynamic focus may well have jumpstarted the group’s harrowing interpretation of Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga suite, a narrative about a 1950s British nuclear experiment in Australia gone horribly wrong.

St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz revisit that intensity and relevance with their program this March 14 and 15 in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession at 550 W 155th St in Harlem. The show is sold out – in order to get tickets to this popular uptown attraction, you need to get on their mailing list, who get first dibs before the general public and will often gobble them up. This isn’t a cheap experience, but if you look at it as dinner and a concert, it’s a great date night (it’s big with young couples). There’s an amuse-bouche and wines paired with the program: supplies are generous, there’s always a vegetarian choice and the choices of vintage can be a real knockout. And the sonics in the intimate but high-ceilinged stone space are as magical as you would expect.

Next week’s program is drawn from St. John’s most recent album with Herskowitz, wryly titled Shiksa, streaming at Spotify. It’s a collection of imaginative and sometimes radical reinterpretations of haunting melodies from across the Jewish diaspora and Eastern Europe by a wide variety of composers, as well as by the musicians themselves.

Among the album’s fourteen tracks, the Hungarian folk tune Czardas is reinvented as a scampering mashup with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Variaiuni (Bar Fight) is an old Romanian cimbalom tune as St. John imagines someone careening through it in the Old West. St. John learned the lickety-split klezmer dance Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn from iconic violinist Alicia Svigals, while composer Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of the wildfire Romany dance Ca La Breaza is based on Toni Iardoche’s cimbalom version. And St. John picked up the elegant Romany jazz tune Kolo in a bar in Belgrade.

The most poignant track is the Armenian ballad Sari Siroun Yar, which gave solace to composer Serouj Kradjian and his family growing up in war-torn Lebanon. The most wryly clever one is Herskowitz’s jazz version of Hava Nagila, in 7/4 time. St. John also plays an expressive suite of solo ladino songs arranged by David Ludwig, along with material from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Hungary. It will be fascinating to witness how closely she replicates the material – or flips the script with it – at the show next week.