New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: balkan music

Calmly Yet Adventurously Exploring Slavic Vocal Traditions with Kitka

All-female Bay Area choral ensemble Kitka love exploring vocal traditions from Eastern Europe to parts of the former Soviet Union. Beyond that eclecticism, they distinguish themselves with their collective vocal range: this unit has strong contraltos to balance out all the soaring highs. Their vast twenty-two track album Evening Star is streaming at Bandcamp. Although a lot of their material is very rhythmically sophisticated, there’s a mystical, reassuring calm to much of it, a welcome antidote to the terror of the coronavirus scare.

The opening medley of Bulgarian carols is a lot of fun, with a very cool contrast between an increasingly complex, stately web of counterpoint and a triumphant “wheeee” bursting from every corner of the stereo picture. That contrapuntal complexity returns again in songs from Romania and Latvia.

They have just as much fun with the eerie close harmonies and swooping, melismatic ornamentation of several more Bulgarian and Serbian tunes. They spice a Latvian round with strange, surreal, looming percussion. In one of the Ukrainian tunes, a couple of the group’s most distinctive voices add striking timbres over an increasingly delirious backdrop anchored by boomy bass drum. The group interpolate a a Greek tune – with a swooping, melismatic Indian flavor- within a brooding Appalachian-tinged folk song, the only one from these shores here.

The album also includes a calm, Renaissance-tinged Russian hymn; a spare, hypnotic Georgian piece and a triptych of Yiddish lullabies over a wafting midrange drone. There are love songs, laments and a peasant work song. Among all the solos, the single mightiest one is at the end of a steady, swaying Ukrainian number. They wind up the album with a Yiddish tune and finally break out the accordion, memorably. In the centuries before the magic rectangle took over the collective imagination, this is what people used to do with their time.

A Brooklyn Brass Legend Keeps on Blasting at Barbes

It was so much fun to just sit and actually listen for once to Slavic Soul Party on a Tuesday night.

That’s the trouble with Barbes. The original Brooklyn Balkan brass band’s weekly residency there goes back to the bar’s second year, fifteen years ago. If you’ve seen them since then, you inevitably run into friends, who give you the choice of either dissing them or not paying attention to the band. And you can’t dis your friends.

Slavic Soul Party’s Golden Fest time slot a couple of weeks ago was on the early side: usually they play the big ballroom, late. That show turned out to be more of a jam, the group eventually forsaking the stage for the center of a shifting morasss of circling dancers. The band’s second set of their final January Barbes installment was more straight-up minor-key intensity than Balkan chromatics,, at least for the first few songs.

The catchy tuba basslines are key. The first number had a simple four-chord progression that’s been used in a million rock songs: you wouldn’t normally associate Neil Young with music from Eastern Europe, but some riffs are catchy no matter where you come from.

As usual, the place was packed. Was that Matt Moran who took that almost venomously crescendoing trumpet solo toward the end of the set? It was hard to see. As usual, the band took over the center of the room at one point, forcing anybody who wasn’t already either dancing or intent on the music to get into it, or get out.

The difference this particular night, and maybe what ultimately differentiates the band from their Eastern European influences is that there was less rat-a-tat and more straight-up blast – other than from the two standup tapan drums, at least. The second song had more of a bite; from there they edged their way toward a funky strut and eventually a WONK-wonk tuba bassline that got everybody chuckling. Finally, they hit a crackling, stairstepping pulse that, in the hands of a rock band, would have been close to Black Sabbath. Then they went back to the syncopated minor-key bounce.

Slavic Soul Party play Barbes just about every Tuesday; their next gig is tomorrow night, Feb 4. Officially, the show starts at 9; sometimes they hit at the stroke of nine, other times not til about 9:30. Cover is $10; as with all shows at Barbes, all the money goes to the band.

Symphonic Lushness and Edgy Intensity from Wildly Eclectic Accordionist Simone Baron

Accordionist Simone Baron‘s debut album The Space Between Disguises, with her group Arco Belo – streaming at Bandcamp – has the lushness and epic sweep of classical music, the edge of the Balkans, the rhythmic complexity of jazz and the vividness of a film score. Just when you think it couldn’t get more eclectic,  she throws in brief interludes with loops and snippets of found sound in between songs. There are thousands of bands across Europe who mash up all these styles, but few here in the US.

The lush string overture introducing the album’s opening cut, Post Edit Delete, alludes to a famously overcast weekend song made famous by Billie Holiday. Then the group tipetoe through a Balkan-tinged violin theme. Baron plays piano on this particular number, dancing through the moody mist.

With its hazy swells and a coy bass/violin conversation, Angle of Incidence is more astringent, Baron’s accordion doubling bassist Mike Pope’s bubbly lines midway through. Who Cares is a gorgeously dark pastoral jazz vignette fueled by banjo player Mark Schatz’s enigmatic frailing. Dramatically incisive low-register piano, biting violin, austerely swirling strings, a bit of funk and warily unsettled accordion percolate throughout the epic mini-suite Passive Puppeteer.

The melancholic, singing quality of the strings and acccordion as the album’s title track gets underway is stunning; then all of a sudden it’s a loopy, marionettish dance that grows more haunting and lush. Baron reinvents Walter Bishop, Jr.’s Those Who Chant with an elegant gallop, then takes her time with the sweepingly plaintive Valsa, by Brazilian accordionist Tibor Fittel. The album’s concluding diptych, Buciumeana/Kadynja juxtaposes a gorgeous, klezmerish Moldovan theme with a Romanian folk dance appropriated by Bartók, complete with creepy music box-like piano and a killer handoff from accordion to violin.

A tour de force from a group that also includes drummer Lucas Ashby and the strings of Aaron Malone on violin and viola, Bill Neri on viola, Peter Kibbe on cello, plus violinists Nelson Moneo, Laura Colgate and Ellen McSweeney.

Haunting, High-Voltage Balkan and Middle Eastern Sounds from Oud Mastermind Mehmet Polat

One of the most richly dynamic albums of recent months is Mehmet Polat‘s Quantum Leap, with his eclectic band Embracing Colours. The oud virtuoso and composer’s latest releas, a mix of influences from Andalucia to the Balkans and the Middle East is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Expanded Lives, is stunningly intense, a wounded minor-key anthem that builds to a long, flamenco-tinged, flurrying crescendo from the bandleader. Accordionist Bart Lelivelt joins the dance as it reaches a peak, then the rhythm section – bassist Hendrik Müller and drummer Joan Terol Amigo – pull the song back to more elegant drama.

They don’t waste a second to segue into Dancing Statues, a suspenseful accordion-bass conversation setting off a fiery, pulsingly insistent Balkan dance with a deliciously edgy, chromatic accordion solo, with the bandleader adding his own scampering, misterioso lines. Playing the Time Away is more pensive, with a series of carefree oud/accordion exchanges.

The band stay in animated dance mode with the tricky metrics of Falseta Mesopotámica, Polat firing off a percussively incisive solo, singer Ciğdem Okuyucu adding her spacious, ripely melismatic voice to the mix. They follow with Segue – good as that joke is, this bridge is a particularly interesting one, shifting from a kinetic scramble to a wary, brooding bowed bass solo, picking up with renewed intensity and eventually coming full circle.

Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans’ airy microtones join with the accordion to introduce the slow, stately, Palestinian-inflected anthem All Connected: with the trumpet moving into stark blues, it could be the album’s most hauntingly gorgeous track.

The aptly titled, saturnine Breathing Again is another stunner, Polat’s allusively chilling, spacious solo giving way to Imamyar Hasanov’s plaintive, imploring kamancheh fiddle. The quote at the end is too good to give away: let’s say it’s a happy ending appropriate for the current political climate.

The band follow Polat’s steady, sternly catchy solo piece Conveyed Emotions with Contemplation, a big, powerful, serpentine, Balkan-spiced showstopper. Then Polat and Müller edge their way into the shapeshifting Entropy – with the exchanges between Polat’s soaring vocals and Michalis Kouloumis’ stark violin, it’s the closest thing to current-day, electric Black Sea jazz here.

Lelivelt’s portentous accordion taqsim kicks off A Deserved Distraction – it seems designed as a welcome, pedal-to-the-metal diversion in the wake of so much haunting intensity. The group close with Aftermath, a grimly beautiful tableau that wouldn’t be out of place in the Mohammed Abdel Wahab catalog: Polat’s insistent, minimalist solo is impossible to turn away from. What a breathtaking record.

Polat’s next concert is on January 31 at at the Lutherkirche Sudstat, Martin-Luther-Platz 4 in
Cologne, Germany.

Golden Fest: Best New York Concert of Whatever Year You Can Remember

It was early, a little before six, upstairs in the Rainbow Room Saturday night at the big finale to this year’s Golden Fest. A young mom with bangs in a simple black top and pants swung her daughter by the wrists. The two pretty much had the whole dance floor to themselves, and the little kid was relishing the attention. A friend of her mom’s joined them and took over the swinging.

Then the little girl decided she wanted to show off her dance moves – and schooled the two adults in how to get down to an edgy minor-key Balkan tune, in 7/4 time. Over the course of the next eight hours or so, she wouldn”t be the only preschooler who had those kind of moves down cold.

Many of those kids’ parents, or the kids themselves, are alumni of the annual Balkan Camp immortalized as the idyllic setting of Josephine Decker’s horror film Butter on the Latch. It seems like a great place to learn Romany dances or sharpen your chops on the accordion, or zurla, or gadulka. But not everyone who goes to Golden Fest every year goes to Balkan Camp, or has roots in the old country, or in Eastern European music. They just like minor keys, and chromatics, and what a lot of western musicans would call weird tempos (and eating and drinking too – there’s lots of both). Over the course of two nights every January, this is New York’s most entertaining music festival, year after year. At the risk of being ridiculously redundant, you’ll see this on the best concerts of 2020 page here at the end of the year.

The little girl, her mom and her friend were dancing to the sounds of Rodyna (which, appropriately, means “family”). That particular song had a rustic northern Greek or Macedonian sound to it, the women in the band singing stark and low, bouzouki player Joseph Castelli adding a bristling edge. A floor below, the Navatman Music Collective were joining voices in leaping, precise harmony throughout an ancient Indian carnatic melody.

Indian choral music at a Balkan music festival – with harmonies, no less? Sure. Over the years, Golden Fest has expanded beyond Serbian and Romany sounds to embrace music from all over: Egypt, Spain, and now, India. That’s where Romany music started, anyway. As the members of New York’s original Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste – who originated the festival, and were the centerpiece of the Friday night edition – view it, it’s all just good music.

To hell with the overcrowded, touristy Copacabana – this is the real Globalfest.

When careening Russian Romany dance band Romashka took the stage at about half past six, the big ballroom was pretty empty. As frontwoman Inna Barmash and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment took a couple of breathtaking cadenzas, was this going to be the year nobody came to Golden Fest?

Ha. About half an hour later, just in time for everybody to hear guitarist Jay Vilnai slink his way through an eerie, pointillistic solo, it was as if the floodgates broke and half of Brooklyn busted through the doors. In what seemed like less than five minutes, it was impossible to get through the expanding circles of line dancers. This party had a plan.

To the extent that you can bring a plan to it, anyway. Much as Golden Fest is one-stop shopping, a way to discover a couple dozen great new bands every year, there comes a point where Plan A and Plan B go out the window and you just have to go with the flow. In an age where social media is atomizing and distancing everyone from their friends, it’s hard to think of a more crazily entertaining way to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in months.

So this year’s agenda – to hang on the dance floor and catch as many of the headliners as possible, like a lot of people do – didn’t last long. Until the first distractions came into view, it was a lot of fun to discover Orchester Praževica, their surfy guitar and shapeshifting dance tunes from the southern side of the Danube. After them, it seemed that Slavic Soul Party spent as much time off the stage, in the middle of the floor surrounded by the circling hordes, as they did onstage. This time they didn’t do the Ellington, or much of the hip-hop stuff, as they’ve played in years past here; this was as close to traditional as this untraditional brass band gets.

While the Elem All-Stars were keeping the dancers going with their tight, purposeful Romany tunes, the first of the distractions led to some drinking – at Golden Fest, you really have to pace yourself – and a side trip to the atrium to see Wind of Anatolia playing their achingly gorgeous, lush mix of Turkish folk themes and cinematic originals.

The decision to give Danish klezmer band Mames Babagenush the main stage paid off mightily. They’d just played a bunch of relatively intimate Manhattan club dates the past weekend, so this was their chance to use the big PA and really rock the house, and their energy was through the roof, particularly frontman/clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt. Upstairs, legendary Armenian-American multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his band weren’t as loud but were just as mesmerizing, the bandleader’s burbling, microtonal sax and duduk matched by oudist Adam Good and bassist Michael Brown’s slinky riffage.

Gauging the most opportune moment to join the food line (Golden Fest has a buffet starting at around 10) was more of a challenge this year – but so what, that only opened up the door for more music. The first-floor Chopin Room is where most of the wildest bands on the bill play, whether onstage or, like more and more of them seem to do, under the big chandelier. Representing Brooklyn for the umpteenth year in a row, Raya Brass Band scorched and blasted through one pulsing, minor-key original after another. Greek Judas‘ set of searing heavy metal versions of classic Greek rembetiko gangster anthems from the 20s through the 50s had some people scratching their heads at first, but by the time they hit their second song, the room was packed once again. One of the security guys couldn’t resist giving the group the devils-horns salute and joined the dancers on the edge. Frontman Quince Marcum has never sung with more Athenian fury than he did at this show; Good, meanwhile, had put on a mask, put down his oud and strapped on a Strat.

By the time midnight struck, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers” – were keeping the dancers twirling in the ballroom, the food was down to babagenoush, pitas and an irresistible but short-lived spread of ajjar (a sort of Turkish red pepper hummous). In the top-floor room, Zisl Slepovitch (hotshot clarinetist the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof) and his similarly sizzling klezmer band Litvakus were leaping to the top of their respective registers for a lickety-split, nonstop series of what could have been traditional Ukrainian tunes but were probably originals.

By one in the morning, if you’ve done things right, this is where the booze finally starts to kick in and the dilemma of where to go really hits home. The allstar Amerike Klezmer Brass in the ballroom, Klezmatics reedman Matt Darriau‘s five-piece Paradox Trio downstairs, or singer Jenny Luna’s haunting Turkish ensemble Dolunay? If you last any longer, you might discover that the calm, thoughtful-looking individual seated next to you during one of the early sets is actually a member of What Cheer? Brigade, the feral, gargantuan street band who took over both the stage and the dance floor to close the night. Meanwhile, there was a much quieter Turkish quintet still going strong on the topmost floor. You want to dance? Great. You want to chill? Golden Fest has you covered. Looking forward to 2021.

Partying Around New York with Mames Babegenush

Danish klezmer band Mames Babegenush played Drom Friday night at around midnight. Saturday they were at Mehanata, the notorious Lower East Side Bulgarian bar, until the wee hours. Sunday they played an afternoon show in the basement of Gustavus Adolphus Church in Gramercy, then took the party a few blocks north to the Carlton Arms Hotel. They’d played the church in the past, beginning with the day after the honcho there had seen them late one Saturday night at the old Zebulon in Williamsburg – and invited them to play the next day. And they took that gig. Fatigue and alcohol do not seem to affect these guys at all.

Bracing Jewish minor-key folk dances are the loosely connecting thread among the band’s often exhilarating catalog of originals and popular standards from throughout Eastern Europe, Spain, the Middle East and the Balkans. Throughout about three hours of music yesterday, there were all sorts of wry conversations, lots of sparring, spine-tingling solos and a couple of sprints to the finish line. One of the best of the solos was a slinky, bristling chromatic series of climbs and descents, using a horn voicing, and played by bassist Andreas Mollerhoj. Bass solos are usually a bad idea; this guy got all of two throughout the afternoon and left you wanting more.

One of this band’s most distinctively unorthodox features is drummer Morten Aero’s kit. He kept a steady thud going with his right foot on a kickdrum, a snare and hi-hat set up to his left where he’d rattle off vaudevillian rimshots, often using his hands for hypnotic Middle Eastern beats. Straight in front of him was a tsmibl, the Ukrainian Jewish zither that may be the forerunner of both the Hungarian cimbalom and the Iraqi santoor. As he hammered the strings, they seemed both a little muted and a hair sharp, consistently across the scale, adding a subtle and absolutely otherworldly edge, especially in the music’s quieter moments.

Clarinetist and bandleader Emil Goldschmidt matched precision to dynamics, whether soloing or harmonizing with the sax and flugelhorn. Lukas Bjorn Rande shifted between a welcome, smoky grit on tenor sax and a gorgeously plaintive tone on alto, obviously influenced by the great Bulgarian player Yuri Yunakov, a guy he’d had the good fortune to study with. On flugelhorn, Bo Rande reached for the rafters with imploring, searing cadenzas and a handful of slithery, electrifying trills, often matched by accordionist Nikolai Kornerup.

Throughout the set, influences from Romanian brass music, to Andalucian balladry, Turkish laments, suspenseful Ukrainian horas and relentlessly flurrying Greek hill country music filtered through the songs, seldom staying in one place for long. Maybe the greatest thing of all about Jewish music is that it’s so well-traveled, and this group completely get that. The only weird thing was that nobody other than the band members were on their feet dancing (although this generation’s most dangerous American klezmer clarinetist, Michael Winograd, was in the house and bouncing in his seat). Mames Babegenush are at Golden Fest this coming Saturday night, Jan 18 at 8:55 PM (they run a tight ship there) in the big ballroom, among dozens of similarly high-voltage bands from across the Balkans, Mediterranean and Middle East.

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

A Wild, Careening, Eclectic New Album and a Ridgewood Release Show From Funkrust Brass Band

Funkrust Brass Band‘s name raises some questions. There’s no question that they’re fun. Are they krusty?

They’re definitely funky. Are they also rusty? Hell no to that.

Bottom line: this massive, potentially eighteen-piece monstrosity are one of New York’s most explosive live bands. They march in various formations, wear illuminated costumes, climb on anything that looks like it could support them…and write catchy songs that draw from styles as diverse as Serbian dances, New Orleans second-line marches and punk funk. Their latest ep, Bones & Burning is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the album release show on Nov 8 at around 10 PM at Footlight Bar in Ridgewood on a killer triplebill. The Plaster Cramp open the night at 8 with their darkly lyrical mashup of post-Velvets jangle and Talking Heads, followed at 9 by Williamsburg psychedelic funk vets the MK Groove Orchestra. Cover is $10.

A moody chromatic trumpet solo kicks off the album’s title track, which sounds like Slavic Soul Party playing clave funk, with incisive, spare solos from trumpet and alto saxes. “The future’s gone, we don’t believe in it,” frontwoman Ellia Bisker (also of latin noir art-rockers Kotorino and existentialist soul band Sweet Soubrette) intones cynically through her bullhorn.

Open House Fire is closer to a New Orleans street theme, with a heftier arrangement that whole crew seems to be in on, pretty much from the beginning. Terminus is the album’s craziest, punkest number but also the most hypnotic one. The group go back to minor keys and chromatics for Uncanny Carnival, with a quote from the busker-rock playbook that’s so obvious but also such a good joke that it’s surprising that other brass bands haven’t used it.

With such a huge ensemble, it’s impossible to tell who’s playing what most of the time, but the whole army of instrumentalists deserves credit for this dark beast. In alphabetical order: Phil Andrews (trumpet), Elizabeth Arce (trombone), Eva Arce (trumpet), Josh Bisker (percussion), Matthew Cain (sousaphone), Sherri Cohen (trombone), Anya Combs (alto saxophone), Devin Glenn (trumpet), Ryan Gochee (trombone), Allison Heim (bass drum), Nick Herman (percussion), Perrine Iannacchione (alto saxophone), Alex Jung (snare), John Lynd (sousaphone), Roo O’Donnell (snare), Andrew Schwartz (trumpet), Laurel Stinson (tenbor saxophone).

Haunting New Interpretatations of Ancient Greek Tunes on the Upper East Side

Last night at Holy Trinity Cathedral on the Upper East Side, clarinetist Petroloukas Halkias and lauto player Vasilis Kostas treated a sold-out crowd to a rare, exhilarating, frequently haunting performance of centuries-old repertoire from the Epirus region of northern Greece.

It was astonishing to witness how much vigor and vitality Halkias, now 85, can still bring to the material. Employing round after round of circular breathing, he most frequently channeled a woody, otherwordly, resonant tone that evoked a duduk. In those instances, his steady, unwavering, meticulous control, typically playing moody, often plaintive variations and melismatic microtones against a low, central note, were absolutely spellbinding.

The scion of a legacy of virtuosos that dates back to the 1880s, Halkias also displayed an American jazz influence…but with airy, purposeful, pensive lines rather than endless volleys of postbop. Kostas, his protege, often picked out clarinet voicings on his lauto, sparkling with hammer-ons and pull-offs. It was a clinic in individualistic interpretations of an ancient tradition.

Kostas said that violinist Beth Bahia Cohen’s similarly spellbinding, ominously chromatic voicings would be difficult to find among musicians from Epirus today, let alone here in the US: he was clearly psyched to have her in the band. His fellow lautist Pangiotis Sakkoulas played steady, jangly rhythm, often holding an enigmatic, open minor sixth chord for minutes on end while his bandmates exchanged solos. Percussionist Pangiotis Georgakopolous may only have been playing the defi hand drum for a few months – he’s a jazz drummer by trade – but had masterful touch and sublety, especially when it came to coloring the lows.

The material was as dynamic as the performance. Kostas sang in expressive Greek throughout a mix of lively drinking tunes, resonant love ballads and several plaintive laments. The best number of the night was a moody minor-key ballad based on a four-chord descending progression, featuring some of Kostas and Halkias’ most poignantly incisive soloing. Several of the numbers began with undulating, brightly major-key verses before taking a turn toward stormier, more ominous Balkan terrain. Both musicians took turns opening songs with tantalizingly brief, woundedly vivid solo improvisations. There was no encore: after almost two nonstop hours onstage, the group got a lengthy standing ovation.

Halkias and Kostas also have a rapturous new duo album, The Soul of Epirus, a more intimate, intertwining approach to many of these songs.