New York Music Daily

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Category: brass band

Sold-Out Revelry With Balkan Brass Monsters Raya Brass Band at Symphony Space

There’s something refreshingly new and exciting happening in what might seem to be an unexpected space on the Upper West Side. This past evening, Raya Brass Band sold out Symphony Space, delivering a wickedly tight set that was just feral enough to seem like the six-piece Brooklyn Balkan collective were about to leave the rails at any second. They didn’t really do that until the end of the show, when they left the stage and went down into the crowd of dancers gathered at the front of the stage.

That’s right – dancers packing the floor at Symphony Space.

How did this neighborhood institution, best known for its annual classical music marathons and the NPR shows that tape there, suddenly get so cool? They’ve got a new series they call Revelry, where if you’re thirty or under, you can get in for twenty bucks – ten dollars less than older folks have to pay. Meanwhile, the downstairs bar stays open throughout the show and afterward. But you can get a drink at any club in town. What’s most exciting about this series is that Symphony Space is bringing in fresh talent that’s probably never played the Upper West Side before. They’ve imported some of the roster of bands from Barbes – Brooklyn’s best venue – and from other scenes as well.

Raya Brass Band packed Barbes back in January, but they always do that. It was dowmright inspiring to see them do the same in upper Manhattan in a space four or five times as big. Although they varied their tempos from funky to lickety-split, and their meters from a straight-up 4/4 to who knows what – some of these Balkan beats are impossible to count unless you have to play them – the show was more like one long jam with a thousand dynamic variations. There were a couple of Macedonian-style vamps where the group would shift back and forth between major and minor…an endlessly delicious series of sharp-fanged chromatic riffs…a klezmer-inflected number late in the set…and a final slinky, darkly glistening river of Ethiopian jazz after over an hour onstage.

Co-founder Greg Squared played the whole show on alto sax this time out, making it look effortless as he flickered between microtones, occasionally playing through an octave pedal for a spacy, techy effect. Trumpeter Ben Syversen didn’t spar with him as much as simply trading off long, goosebump-inducing volleys of chromatics – although he did a little jousting with accordionist Max Fass. Who is the band’s true anchor, providing rich washes of sound that were serendipitously up in the mix (sometimes the accordion gets lost at a place like Barbes) .

Nezih Antakli provided the boom on a big standup tapan drum, while fellow percussionist Kolja Gjoni played a standup kit: nobody could have asked for more cowbell. Tuba player Steven Duffy brought both slithery vintage Bootsy Collins basslines as well as pinpoint-precise oompah, and finally the kind of funny WAH-wah solo that every tuba player ends up having to take at some point.

The big takeaway here; if you live on the Upper West or points further north, Revelry at Symphony Space is the place to be on Thursdays nights. The next show is Oct 18 at 7:30 PM with the charming, female-fronted Avalon Jazz Band playing cosmopolitan European swing. And if you’re up for a shlep to Barbes, Greg Squared is playing there every Sunday night in October at 7 PM with a rotating cast of New York Balkan and Middle Eastern talent. Psychedelic Romany jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel plays there afterward at about 9:30 with his band.

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Feral, Carnivalesque Klezmer and Balkan Sounds From the Lemon Bucket Orkestra

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra distinguish themselves in a crowded field of high-voltage klezmer and Balkan bands with their feral, otherworldly sound and sizzling chops. They don’t just pillage the usual repertoire of freylekhs and bulgars: they go way back, blending the phantasmagorical elements of Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian and Jewish sounds that proliferated over a hundred years ago. The best musicians know no boundaries, and the Lemon Bucket Orkestra personify that sensibility. Their latest album If I Had the Strength is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re playing the latest installment of this year’s New York Gypsy Festival tonight, Sept 26 at 8 PM at Drom. It’s $20 at the door and worth it.

The album opens with a brief, somberly chromatic march fueled by Michael Louis Johnson’s muted trumpet and a walking bassline and ends with a hushed folk tune. In between it’s a wild party. The lickety-split stomp of Crooked immediately sets the scene, with wildfire riffage from bagpipes and James McKie’s violin over a brisk sousaphone/drums pulse from Ian Tulloch and Jaash Singh, Mark Marczyk and Stephania Woloshyn taking turns on vocals. They take it out with a tantalizingly brief stampede that could have gone on as long as these guys could have physically been able to play it.

They follow Fate, a growly, tensely stalking miniature with Goodbye, the violin holding the down the bassline as the sousaphone takes a a coyly blithe solo, mingling with Woloshyn’s shivery vocals; then they pounce their way through a catchy series of chromatics and crescendos, with spiraling, wildfire solos from Julian Selody’s clarinet and Marichka Marczyk’s accordion.

They rip the riff from Whole Lotta Love for the bassline to Soldat, violin and clarinet in tandem delivering tight country dance riffage, Johnson’s trumpet holding the center. Freedom has a rat-a-tat Serbian-style brass band pulse, clever call-and-response riffs and a completely unexpected psychedelic bridge.

The album’s most rustically surreal track is When, a brief, majestically crescendoing number glimmering with eerily ornamented vocal harmonies. From there the band segue into Palinka, an equally surreal Balkan cumbia mashup with tasty, chromatically slashing solos from violin, accordion and bagpipes and a coyly chirping flute solo out.

Cocoon, a furtively jungly miniature for percussion, sets the stage for Heroes with its delirious unison riffage over a tight, tricky, Macedonian-flavored dance rhythm, up to a misterioso Bulgarian vocal interlude by guest soprano Measha Brueggergosman. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

A Wild Night With Dobranotch to Kick Off This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

Dobranotch means “good night” in Russian. It’s a very understated way of describing the crazy, exhilarating dance party they put on this past evening at Drom to open this year’s New York Gypsy Festival. The Russian klezmer band romped and blasted through a fiery set of originals and radical reinventions of more traditional material, showing off their virtuoso chops as well as an irrepressibly boisterous sense of humor.

Klezmer dance music is fun by definition, but these guys are beyond the pale. There was a point about midway through their set where their their guest dancer, Lea Elisha, went twirling across the floor in front of the stage, her mane of curly hair flying, an unstoppable human gyroscope. Meanwhile, frontman/violinist Mitya Khramtsov played behind his back, Hendrix style.

OK, that’s common enough. Next, he played with his bow behind his back and his violin tucked under his arm.

Then he stuck his bow down his pants and fiddled the violin on the bow – without missing a catchy minor-key riff. After bowing with his mouth, then sticking the bow in the dancer’s mouth and fiddling it, he finally handed the bow to a surprised audience member and had him do it.

Ilya Gindin, the band’s not-so-secret weapon, started the show on alto sax, then switched to oboe, firing off lickety-split spirals and slashing chromatic trills. Then he switched to clarinet. Slowly and methodically, he disassembled the instrument between verses, moving further and further up the scale until there was nothing left to play but the mouthpiece and then the reed. By then, it was all he could do to slowly bend a note up to where it was supposed to be, but nobody wanted the joke to stop.

Beyond the theatrics, this is an incredibly tight party band. More often than not, Khramtsov and the horn section would lock in on their harmonies while Gindin did his thing. Roman Shinder fired off fast flurries of banjo chords as Evgeny Lizin thumped out the groove on a big tapan bass drum and accordionist Ilya Shneyveys fleshed out the sound with rich washes of chords and elegant filigrees.

Khramtsov took a couple of stark, strikingly rustic departures into otherworldly weaves of microtones, veering away from the center before leaping back into the traditional western scale. The best original of the night was an epic, darkly Bessarabian-flavored anthem written by trombonist Grigory Spiridonov, who puffed out staccato basslines when he wasn’t harmonizing with tenor saxophonist Max Karpychev and the rest of the group.

They reinvented the iconic Algerian protest anthem Ya Rayyeh as a gruff but similarly sardonic Russian brass tune. Likewise, they turned a shapeshifting Macedonian bagpipe dance into what Khramtsov termed a “gypsy rhumba,” although it sounded more like a Turkish tango. They finally wound up the night with a third encore, gathered on the floor in front of the audience. An unexpectedly slow, lushly benedictory, moody concluding anthem with edgy solos all around couldn’t douse the crowd’s energy.

The New York Gypsy Festival continues at Drom on Sept 14 at  9:30 PM with the eclectic Underground Horns celebrating ten years of mashing up Balkan, New Orleans and latin brass sounds. You can get in for ten bucks in advance.

Hungry March Band Make a Classy, Brassy New Record

Brass monsters Hungry March Band are the only group ever to play both Madison Square Garden and the Women’s March on Washington. And also on Ludlow Street – in the street itself, marching north across Houston to parts unknown late in the summer of 1999. That was typical of the band back then.

The Garden gig happened five years later, as part of a Ralph Nader benefit. By then, as one former member put it, they’d decided to “shake out the musicians from the Burning Man people.” And suddenly this ramshackle, rotating Lower East Side and Williamsburg crew, who could barely keep time, transformed themselves into a blazing, Balkan-inspired beast.

In the years since, there’s been some turnover among what’s always been a rotating cast of players. Their latest album, streaming at Bandcamp, is surprisingly title Running Through with the Sadness. Hungry March Band have a thing for edgy chromatics and minor keys, but they aren’t exactly known for depressing music. How melancholy is this record? It’s not. The songs are on the fast side, and the ban will be playing some of those tunes at one of their annual rituals on July 15 at 3 PM at the corner of Lexington Ave. and 60th St. as part of this year’s Bastille Day festival.

The album also manages to be the most polished thing the band’s ever done, without being slick. The catchy opening track, Ghost Puppy, pulses along on a loopy sousaphone riff – that’s either Tom Abbs or Ben Fausch. There’s also some neat call-and-response and a weirdly oscillating trumpet solo played through a flange, something you’d hardly expect from this analog AF group.

Tenor saxophonist Tove Langhof’s edgy, spiraling, JD Allen-esque solo kicks off Mali Mali – a briskly shuffling, Afrobeat-tinged shout-out to the late Coumba Sidibe. Baritone saxophonist and producer Jason Candler adds good-natured, smoky riffs and bursts over a streamlined pulse.

At least half of the band’s seven-person percussion section join in the intro to Shimmy, a mambo-tinged New Orleans strut packed with the droll pregnant pauses the band love so much, along with a neat alto sax conversation. mighty swells and flanged drums.

Big, bright, cinematic brass juxtaposes with droll, barking sousaphone in Zombie Dog,  a wave of terror rising through the band midway through. Whichawhicha is a wickedly anthemic ska tune with early Skatalites flair, a punchy, gruff Candler baritone solo and an even tastier one from one of the trumpeters (who include John Heyenga, Jeremy Mushlin, John Waters and Jennifer Harder).

Eclipso Calypso is another direct, catchy Caribbean joint – it’s the balmiest track on the album, with carefree solo for trombone (that’s either Sebastian Isler, Cecil Scheib or Kevin Virgilio), trumpet and saxes. The rest of that section of the band includes Emily Fairey and Phillippe Boyer on tenor, Okkon Tomohiko Yokoyama on alto and Sasha Sumner on soprano.

With its funky blend of New Orleans and Puerto Rican flavors. the album’s best track is the brisk, bustling, bluesy Off the Hook. The fiery title cut, a lickety-split merengue, is another monster – the tightness of those rat-a-tat lines will come as a shock to anybody who saw this band in the early days.

After that sprint, it only makes sense for the band to slow down with Swirling Spaceman, if only for the dubwise intro that morphs into a skanking ska groove. There’s also an expansive bonus track, Ataraxia, meaning “calm.” For this crew it might be calm, but for anybody else it would be an epic coda, a warmly anthemic, altered cha-cha with sweet, triangulated riffage, a soulful trombone solo and a clattering percussion break. 

For the record, the percussionists on the album include Kris Anton, Anders Nelson, David Rogers-Berry, Samantha Tsistinas, Adam Loudermilk, Sara Valentine and Theresa Westerdahl. Let’s also not forget the costumed, twirling “HMB Pleasure Society:” Valentine, Despina Stamos, Sarah King, Libby Sentz and Jill Woodward, in charge of motivating the crowd in case the music hasn’t already taken care of that. 

You Can Lead a Bushwick Crowd to Water But…

The Man in the Long Black Coat turns through the entryway and enters the Bushwick bar. Other than a few gaggles of gentrifiers, it’s pretty empty. The walls are festooned with leftwing slogans, but the beer prices don’t match the decor. Nor should they, really. This is all for show, the man decides. It’s a Kafka short story, The Department of Protests. You see the bureaucrat, you sign up to rally about your favorite issue: the weather, catcalls, cruelty to pet marmosets. Anything you want, really, unless that might impede the steady flow of income upward from the working class to the gentrifiers’ parents.

This bar has a reputation for things starting late. Nublu late. Which explains why nothing’s happening yet. The man decides to take a walk around the neighborhood, a dubious choice considering that it’s nine in the evening. On his way out, he almost bumps head-on into a friend, who’s carrying her axe. They greet each other; he swings the door wide so that she can make her way in. “See ya in a bit,” he says brightly.

He’s lying. He has no intention of coming back til showtime. When he reaches the corner, he decides to take a left on Irving for once. Walking toward Myrtle, he stops in at a couple of delis to see if they have his favorite beer. But they don’t carry it.

The Man in the Long Black Coat doesn’t even like beer. But it’s cheaper than anything available at the yuppie wine stores – which at this hour are still open, even if nobody’s in there. Just as well, he thinks. The sidewalks may be deserted at this hour, but the cops always put undercovers out in front of the luxury condos.

Past the park, a guy with a backpack approaches from behind. Suddenly he’s a little too close for comfort. The man weighs the possibility of danger, pulls to the right, then with a quick backward glance takes his phone out of his pocket.  He puts it to his ear. “What?” he asks sharply.

There’s nobody at the other end. But that doesn’t matter. “I’m on Irving and, um, Hart Street,” the man says with a hint of aggravation. He prepares for plan B.

But there’s no need. The guy with the backpack – a blue-collar kid in cheap work boots, jeans and a vinyl winter coat – passes on the left. The man puts his phone back as the kid shuffles along.

As he gets closer to Myrtle, the man brightens as he passes a couple of lowlit Ecuadorian delis. Brightly colored bags of snacks, tropical fruit soda and dried chiles are visible from outside. The man considers going in – he’s running out of hot pepper at home – but decides it would look weird if he brought a bag of groceries into the bar. Out here the new arrivals don’t shop anywhere but Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, or from the expensive Korean delis.

He turns around when he hits Myrtle, retracing his steps, one eye over his shoulder. Luxury condos, undercover cops or not, this is still a dangerous neighborhood. But none of the delis have his first choice of beer – and by now he could use one.

Returning to the bar, his timing turns out to be perfect. The roughly eighteen members of Funkrust Brass Band file from the back room to the front: first the reeds, then brass, then the drummers. They all wear black costumes. The horn players’ valves are all lit up in white like little Christmas trees. Their frontwoman has a bullhorn and leads the band in a chant as the horns pump out a catchy march. They have a theme song! Slowly, one by one, they march back to the inner room.

Several of the customers from the front follow them in, mystified. If they’ve ever seen a street band before, they’ve never been this close. And this group is very theatrical. In formation like a phalanx of soldiers, they crouch, and leap, and strike poses. One of their trumpet players climbs way up by the PA system, balances precariously on something extruding and plays a mean solo. For a moment, the crowd is into it.

For a band who don’t tour much or even play out a lot, they’re very tight. Just as impressive, the man thinks, is that half of their members are women. Even by punk rock standards, that’s noteworthy.  Although they use a lot of minor keys, their songs are closer to punk than Balkan music – and they’re catchy.

The man finds himself nodding along as the trombones blaze and snort and the drums rumble. “Why are we alone?” the group sing in unison throughout one of the quieter vamps. Out of biological necessity, the man wants to tell them. If we were telepathic, it would kill us. If we could feel everyone’s pain, we’d be dead in a nanosecond. But he doesn’t say anything.

The novelty wears off, the crowd starts to filter out and two catchy, thumping numbers later, the band is done. Though what they play is obviously dance music – or at least you can march to it – nobody dances. Afterward, their singer mingles with what’s left of the crowd, handing out buttons and taking emails. The kids seems receptive – that’s a good sign, the man thinks.

Greek Judas play afterward and pretty much completely clear the room. The man finds this amusing, considering that they packed Hank’s the last time they played the place. But this is Bushwick, and the newcomers obviously have no use for loud heavy metal versions of Middle Eastern flavored crime rhymes from the 1930s Greek gangster underworld.

From the first few notes of the first song, it’s clear that singer Quince Marcum – who sings in Greek even if he doesn’t speak it – is way too low in the mix. Afterward, he turns up – and so do his bandmates. Wade Ripka eventually switches from guitar to lapsteel for extra marauding resonance while Strat player Adam Good plays gritty chromatics and some oud voicings – which makes sense considering he’s also an oudist. A mask hangs from the back of Marcum’s head; Good wears a Batman-style mask. Bassist Nick Cudahy plays simple, hypnotic intervals on a big, beautiful Gibson Firebird model and sports a deer mask. Drummer Chris Stromquist is also some equine creature, and makes it look easy as he follows the songs’ tricky meters. He should be the group’s Minotaur – he knows this labyrinth by heart.

Marcum gamely explains a few of the narratives – a guy lusting after a cute Romany girl in the adjacent public bath; two smalltime crooks planning on resuming their music careers once they get out of jail; and a crack whore on the streets of Athens in the 1920s. But there’s hardly anyone there to explain them to. The band soldier on, determined to have some fun even if nobody else is there to share it with them. That’s ok, the man thinks. This isn’t their turf anyway. Or mine either. After their last song, he exits without a word.

Drummer-Chef Sunny Jain Brings Treats for the Ears and the Taste Buds to Lincoln Center

Last night Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh enthusiastically introduced Sunny Jain as “Our original – an artist who’s had a long history with Lincoln Center…the first artist to play the atrium.” The Red Baraat mastermind and dhol bass drum player is also an accomplished cook. His gameplan was to do a food-themed show, complete with samples of his own all-natural, sugar-free homemade pear chutney, introduced by his ExtravagaJAMza band with a strutting, New Orleans-infused take of a wry 50s-style lounge theme. And the chutney was tasty  – although he admitted it lacked the hot pepper burn of his first batch. Bring THAT stuff next time, dude!

Taking a relatively rare turn behind a full drum kit, Jain mixed up his band members. Flamboyant singer Jonathan Hoard fronted the unit that opened the show – with Marc Cary on electric piano, Gary Wang on bass, Delicate Steve on guitar, Lee Hogans on trumpet and Mike Bomwell on soprano sax – for a coy boudoir funk intro that morphed into a psych-funk vamp, the guitar suddenly switching from emphatic rainy-day chords to sunbaked blues. Red Baraat are no strangers to the jamband circuit; this band could sell a lot of tickets there too.

Jain explained that he’d written Mango Festival back in the early zeros after attending a real mango festival in New Delhi, India, watching his family flex their chops in a mango eating contest. As Wang held down a low drone, the intensity of singer Ganavya Doraiswamy’s wordless melismas rose, then Jain took over with a qawwali groove, sax and keys shifting the music from dusky Hindustani ambience to gritty Harlem summer psych-funk and back.

The lightheartedly energetic Jack & Jill, inspired by Jain’s three-year-old twins, opened with a Vikram Seth poem, followed by a dancing upper-register Cary solo and a dip to more stately, poignant vocalese from Doraiswamy that she again took into the stratosphere. Jain’s quintet got ambitious, jazzing up a Bollywood number, Bomwell switching back to baritone – it didn’t take long to get a clapalong with those who recognized it. But even a pulsing, insistent Ray Mason trombone solo and a slinkier one from Wang didn’t get the crowd dancing – maybe it was just too cold outside.

Jain cracked everybody up with his sardonic account of visiting Global Village in Dubai – that country’s equivalent of Disneyworld’s Epcot Center – to discover that the only country in the exhibit represented by a person rather than architecture was the United States. That individual was a cowboy. Jain couldn’t resist noticing that the Roy Moores of the world all seem to wear the same symbol of subjugation – a cowboy hat. And then the full band – which also included Alison Shearer on alto sax and John Altieri on sousaphone – followed with the colorful, cinematic Indian Cowgirl, mashing up Morricone with a Bollywood take on a western film theme. Shearer’s high-voltage solo was the high point.

Cary switched to drums and Jain strapped on his dhol, closing with the Red Baraat tune Shruggy Ji, which made an improbably successful connection between bhangra and the DC go-go music Cary grew up with, fueled by Hogans’ relentless, edgy trumpet. Who knew that Cary was such an accomplished guy behind the kit?

These Lincoln Center atrium shows at the Broadway space north of 62nd Street are an awful lot of fun. The next one is a Dominican dance party on Dec 21 at 7:30 with newschool merengue band Tipico Urbano. There’s no cover; get there early.

An Insider Look at This Year’s Amazing Accordion Festival at Bryant Park

The annual accordion festival at Bryant Park continues with a couple of amazing shows tomorrow, July 19 at 6 PM and then the grand finale, which starts at 5 on Friday the 21st with the haunting Lebanese sounds of the Bil Afrah Project ,with Gregorio Uribe headlining and leading a wild celebration of Colombian Independence Day at 9 PM.

If you’ve spent any time at the festival over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed a tall blonde woman calmly making her way across the park, taking lots of pictures and getting lots of hugs from accordionists. She always seems to have a Mona Lisa smile on her face. Then again, you’d be smiling too, if you ran an accordion festival.

That irrepressible impresario is Ariana Hellerman, who’s also the publisher of the indispensable Ariana’s List of free summer concerts and events all over New York. Backstage Sunday night at the Innov Gnawa show on the Upper West Side, Hellerman shared some history and some secrets:

New York Music Daily: First, I just want to say thanks for finding so much sonic bliss, and sharing it with us. I think your festival should be a yearlong event. Any hope for making it longer this year?

Ariana Hellerman: I have ideas, but nothing is set in stone – yet. Stay tuned!

But in general, my work is around making arts accessible to people and I get most pleasure from producing in public space – parks, plazas, etcetera. Because of winter weather, it becomes more difficult to work in these places. I’m beginning to think about public spaces that exist indoors. If anyone has ideas, I’m always open.

NYMD: How do you find these people? Other than googling “accordionist NYC”?

AH: I have a few sources. Before I was invited to help design this series, Bryant Park had lone accordionists strolling around the park once a week. The Park had about fifteen people on their roster. When I came on board with the “Accordions Around the World” idea – and with the hopes of making the series more of a destination for the park -, I brainstormed all the local accordionists I knew in New York. Because my interest is mainly music from around the world, I tried to think of all the bands I knew who had accordion – and there were quite a few. In addition, I racked the brains of others and scanned the webpages of some of my favorite venues and festivals – Barbes in Brooklyn and the annual Balkan music festival, Golden Fest were amongst the lot.

In 2013, the first year of this incarnation of the series, I was able to find thirty additional accordionists. I continue to do this type of research regularly so that we can be more inclusive of new styles and musicians. But because the series is becoming more of a destination, many people have begun to reach out to me. Over the last five editions, my list has grown to 470 accordionists!

NYMD: Does you own personal taste in accordion music include tango, cumbia, klezmer, Middle Eastern, tarantella, Celtic, cajun and jazz?

AH: Yes. While I like some genres more than others, my priority is sharing culture. Even if my ears don’t agree with the sound, I continue to be inclusive because this is “Accordions Around the World” and we want as many styles of music represented in the series.

NYMD: I always find myself having to explain to people why I think the accordion is one of the three coolest instruments in the world – the oud and the church organ being the other two. Do you find yourself having to do the same sort of thing? What do you tell people?

AH: When I tell people I curate an accordion festival, I’m usually met with a “Really????,” followed by a surprised or disgusted look, and then a sheepish giggle. My usual spiel in response is: “You know, when Americans usually think of the accordion, they think of polka, Lawrence Welk, and yesteryear kitsch. But, in many parts of the world, it’s one of the most important instruments to convey the sound of the region. And in New York, we are lucky to have access to many of these cultures.” And then I outline the cultures.

I also think the accordion is cool because it’s an instrument of immigration, migration, and connections. You can hear similar sounds in Cajun music – which traveled from Quebec to Louisiana with obvious French influence prior – and forró from the northeast of Brazil. Many immigrants from all over Europe – Italian, German, Jewish, Polish, etcetera – came to the US in the late 19th/early 20th century and brought their music forms with them. This continues today with more recent immigrant communities such as Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Accordion usually sparks conversation and each week in the park, I almost always hear “You know, my grandfather/grandmother/father/mother/aunt/uncle played the accordion.” I like that many people of very different backgrounds have a personal connection to the instrument.

NYMD: Can you give us a capsule history of the Bryant Park Accordion Festival? How did it start? You’ve been doing it for four years now….

AH: Dan Biederman, the president of Bryant Park, took a trip to France and stumbled upon an accordionist in a park and was enchanted. Since Bryant Park has Parisian elements, the experience made him want to create a similar, serendipitous experience. For a few summers, a accordionist would stroll around for a few hours. It was nice, but people weren’t coming to chase after the lone musician.

I have a blog, arianaslist.com, where I share free cultural events in New York. Many people in the field read the blog since I write about their events and because I provide ideas on how to make the arts more accessible to audiences. In spring of 2013, Ethan Lercher, the executive producer of Bryant Park Presents, their cultural arm, contacted me. He had read one of my blog posts that described my experience at the Festival Vallenato in Valledupar, Colombia. I had just come back from living in Colombia and had attended a festival of Vallenato music, a Colombian genre that focuses on the accordion. He asked, “what do you know about accordion?” He wanted to make the accordion more prominent in the Park’s programming. My response was, “I don’t know that much but what fascinates me about the instrument is how it’s played in so many cultures.” From there, we began to explore the idea of “Accordions Around the World.”

NYMD: Are you happy with how the festival has gone this year, with rescheduling and all?

AH: It’s been wonderful. This is the first season that we’ve had our “Accordion Picnic” format for the entirety of the series. In the past, the audience and passer-bys were invited to stroll around to see accordionists play two-hour sets in different pockets of the park. This year, the accordionists come to the audiences: each accordionist plays a 15 minute set before another comes in. This way, if an audience member sets up shop in one location, they will hear eight styles of music over the two hour span. There are also six stations around the park so people can “chase” the music or artist they would like to hear.

Since we’re eager to provide a good experience for audience members, Bryant Park provides blankets to borrow, encourages picnics, and even sells alcoholic beverages that can be consumed on the lawn. It’s lovely and we’ve noticed an uptick in attendance.

NYMD: Yeah, I should say. Another thing I want to mention is that there’s no sonic competition with shrieking alarms on city buses. And it’s also a lot easier now that you don’t have to chase the accordionist.

AH: With this format, the artists are also able to engage with the other accordionists, and see other styles of music on the accordion. My secret hope is that I’m sparking relationships between accordionists ,and new, exciting projects will come from this!

NYMD: What highlights do you have to share? I’ve seen so many great acts – Rachelle Garniez, Simon Moushabeck ,Guillermo Vaisman,,Melissa Elledge , so many others. Who have you seen that really floored you this year?

AH: We have incredible artists in the series. I can’t choose one! They’re all near and dear to my heart. In this moment, the Brazilian artists in this series really stand out: I love Felipe Hostins who is from Santa Catarina, Brazil. He grew up playing polkas, which was the main accordion music in his hometown in the south of Brazil. Today he is helping to lead the forró movement in New York. Vitor Gonçalves has been playing choro, an instrumental genre which originated in 19th century Rio de Janeiro, his hometown. As a trained jazz musician, he also incorporates a lot jazz into his sets. Eduardo de Carvalho lives in Newark and has mainly played restaurant gigs to date. He is ready for a bigger stage with his incredibly strong sertanejo and forro. Rob Curto grew up in a Sicilian family but spent many years living in Brazil. Today he shares his blend of bluegrass and forró with us. These four players are so incredibly strong. But again, we have so many incredible artists in these series. If we had time, I would tell you about each and every one!

NYMD: Can I ask you, you’re a pianist. Why aren’t you an accordionist, you obviously love the instrument so much…and it’s a lot easier to take an accordion with you when you move. I realize also that this isn’t a fair question, you could ask me the same thing and I wouldn’t have a really good answer for you…

AH: Accordion never even seemed to be an option while I was studying classical piano. And now I’m a music appreciator more than a musician. Though because I know so many accordionists, it has crossed my mind to take up lessons and to become (or more likely, fail at becoming) the singer-songwriter-rockstar I am in my dreams. 

NYMD: You lived in Colombia and Argentina. To what degree did that influence your accordion fixation?

AH: Obviously living in Colombia became the inspiration for this series, as you know. And while I knew tango and the bandoneón – the free reed instrument played for tango – before living in Argentina, I was introduced to chamamé, a folk music genre from northeast Argentina, while living there. It is a fusion of Guaraní  – the indigenous population from this part of the world –  Spanish, German, Polish, and Ukrainian music. There were a lot of Eastern European immigrants to this region in the early 20th century. I’m thrilled that we have our first chamamé artist, Guillermo Vaisman in the series this season.

NYMD: Do you have a desert island accordion song? Or album? Or accordion song you’d want somebody to play at your wedding?

AH: No. Though I just stumbled upon a short clip I recorded of Felipe Hostins from last week’s edition and I’ve been listening to it on loop. He says its his original composition called “Minh’alma” (My Soul) and it’s chamamé – our artists are obviously inspired by all forms of music! It’s so good.

While I love accordion and I can identify when the music is really good, for me, this is about sharing culture with the people of New York. My work is all about creating live performance opportunities for artists and audiences alike. I get joy from seeing these connections made and the joy it brings others.

NYMD: What’s your alltime favorite accordion concert?

AH: Our Accordions Around the World Festival is always a highlight, obviously. But outside of the performances I curate… I always love Lila Downs and we’re lucky to have her accordionist, George Saenz in our series!

NYMD: Just saw her at Prospect Park at the end of last month. Amazing. Nice work getting him!

AH: Another experience that comes to mind – when I was in Argentina, one of my colleagues connected me to Chango Spasiuk, who is one of the most famous musicians down there, who is known for chamamé. He picked me up in a limo, along with his bandmates, and I got to watch his whole show from backstage. The experience was pretty cool!

NYMD: Tell me about closing night on the 21st, this Friday.Is this a bunch of debuts? Has the Bil Afrah project ever played anywhere elase before? How about Peter Stan’s new band? It’s gonna be amazing!

AH: The Bil Afrah Project has performed before but not in a setting that can yield this large of an audience – in past years, we’ve had about four thousand people. It’s very exciting. We’ve put the word out to the Lebanese and Arab community and we hope they will come out. Ziad Rahbani is one of the most important and known composers from the Arab World, son of the famous Fairuz.

Peter Stan’s Zlatni Balkan Zvuk is brand new and will be debuting at the Festival. In talking with Peter – of Slavic Soul Party fame – I asked him if he ever played traditional Serbian music since SSP is more of a jazz/funk Balkan brass group. He told me he didn’t think there would be a market for it. After he shared more information and shared examples of Balkan wedding music, I chose to disagree! All of the musicians in this group are from the Balkans  – including Peter’s son who is also an accordionist! – and have been rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. I’m really excited to welcome them, and was happy to provide the opportunity to Peter to be a bandleader for the first time. Given how amazing Peter is, I know this is just the beginning for them. 

A Fourth of July Show Worth Celebrating at Barbes

This was not a year to celebrate the Fourth of July with any kind of American pageantry. There were a few people in the crowd at Barbes who’d deliberately decided to opt out of visual fireworks for musical ones, but otherwise there was no political subtext to a wildly energetic triplebill of New Orleans swing and Balkan brass sounds that ran the gamut from the most trad to the craziest avant garde.

Saxophonist Aurora Nealand’s Royal Roses had played Central Park over the weekend with a couple of popular New York acts: from this performance, putting them first on that bill must have raised the bar impossibly high. Much as the hurricane and the forced exodus  out afterward did a number on the Crescent City’s indigenous jazz population – developers have been scheming to depopulate New Orleans’ working-class neighborhoods for years – it’s still a hotbed for jazz, if a lot less creole than it used to be. The Royal Roses represented that tradition and schooled us all, through two deliriously swinging sets.

Barbes tends to draw a lot of bands who are used to much bigger venues, and this group was no exception: it was impossible to get into the music room until very late in the second set. A lot of what they played could be called dixieland noir. There was volley after volley of soprano sax/trombone interplay and counterpoint, but it was dark and edgy, and tight beyond belief. Piano and guitar made spiky appearances out in front on a handful of numbers, and it wasn’t all just lickety-split dance music, either. As the band built steam in the second set, there were also a handful of clenched-teeth massed climbs up the scale, part Anthony Braxton largescale improvisation and part horror film soundtrack. This contrasted with Nealand’s close-to-the-vest charm on the mic: as much as she’s a pyrotechnic reed player, she sings with a lot of nuance.

Slavic Soul Party, who’ve mashed up Balkan brass music with everything from hip-hop to Ellington jazz suites over the years, weren’t available for their usual Tuesday night 9 PM residency, but there were members in the house. And it was awfully cool to be able to catch a rare appearance by Veveritse Brass Band. “I saw them on some random night at the Jalopy, years ago, and they blew me away,” enthused a brunette beauty at the bar.

She wasn’t kidding. An eight-piece version of the band shook off the rust and a rocky start to bring back fond memories of a Serbia of the mind circa 2009 or thereabouts, when the band was a regular draw on the Barbes/Jalopy circuit. Tricky tempos? Minor keys? Chromatics and microtones to rival seasoned Serbian or Egyptian brass players? Check, check, check. Alto saxophonist Jessica Lurie whirled in, unpacked her horn and fired off the most deliciously slithery solo of the night, not missing a beat. Finally, de facto bandleader and baritone horn player Quince Marcum took a similarly valve-twisting microtonal solo of his own.

The night came full circle with an enveloping, otherworldly and eventually feral set by the Mountain Lions, billed originally as the duo of baritone saxophonist Peter Hess and standup drummer Matt Moran. Maybe this was planned, maybe not, but it ended up with Hess playing achingly intense, minutely fluctuating melody over a slow, funereal beat, several horns massed behind him and playing a drone. The result was as psychedelic as anything played on any stage in New York this year – and a pretty spectacular display of circular breathing and extended technique. Then the group loosened up, Raya Brass Band’s Greg Squared lit into one of his supersonically precise, pyrotechnic solos and the band got their feet planted back in Sarajevo or Guca or somewhere like that, in the here and now.

Word on the street is that Slavic Soul Party will have everybody back in town by August for their Tuesday night Barbes residency. In the meantime, this month, their absence opens up the late slot for a lot of great music- check the Barbes calendar or just stop by the bar if you’re in the hood. This coming Tuesday, July 11 at 7 PM lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club open the night at 7, playing songs inspired by Steve Martin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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