New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: chamber pop

An Edgy Debut Album and a Williamsburg Show by Intense Cello Rockers the Icebergs

The Icebergs are New York’s hardest-working cello band. No disrespect to the great Serena Jost, but the Icebergs maintain a punishing late-night gig schedule. If there’s any midnight band in New York, it’s the trio of frontwoman Jane LeCroy, cellist Tom Abbs and O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry. That’s even more impressive when you consider that LeCroy also fronts the similarly intense, politically fearless avant garde duo Ohmslice with multi-instrumentalist Brandon Ross. The Icebergs have an edgy debut album, Eldorado, streaming at Bandcamp and Ohmslice have a show this Friday night at 8:30 PM at Pete’s.

If you can forgive the appropriation of an iconic album title (ELO’s epic, symphonic 1974 masterpiece is arguably the greatest rock record ever made), this is an edgy, lyrical treat. The opening track, Needleworker is about piecing things back together, literally and metaphorically, LeCroy’s soulful, blues-infused voice channeling 19th century African-American gospel starkness as she chronicles everything she’s got to stitch up over a brisk groove spiced with all sorts of tasty low-midrange riffs from Abbs. This gist of it is that this century’s American culture is hardly woman-friendly.

Sonnets 57 & 58 is a propulsive, echoingly uneasy 6/8 art-rock shuffle, Abbs’ terse overdubs and distant washes of sound over Rogers-Berry’s savagely ornate attack, a cynical, Shakespearean-inspired cautionary tale about women subjugating themselves. The catchy, witchy, hard-hitting Similitude could be a particularly energetic track from Rasputina’s first album

Then the band slows down with Proves My Love, a spare, darkly bluesy, imagistic account of less-than blissful domesticity: “Prison keeps you away from me, I visit you eternally,” LeCroy intones matter-of-factly .

Abbs rattles around a tasty reggae bass riff, Rogers-Berry answering back as Broken Heart vamps along: “I’ll take all your pieces put them together then smash your crown,” Le Croy announces. Swear looks back to an iconic, bluesy Stooges classic, Abbs overdubbing shivery, evil guitar licks way up the fingerboard over the drums’ fluttery accents.

“I’m a different ghost every day,” LeCroy muses in Gold, over a Siouxsie-esque vintage new wave pulse and Abbs’ gritty, distorted multitracks. Borders mingles Raw Power-era Stooges blues with Slits minimalism – it’s as vivid a menacing late-night-urban tableau as it is a defiant Trump-era anthem.

“I can’t find my Eldorado,” LeCroy laments over Abbs’ slinky, bouncing, gnawa-tinged bassline in Bad Map; then she takes her Kafkaesque search further toward hip-hop. As Abbs does throughout many of these songs, he works a lingering/rhythmic dichotomy for all it’s worth in Draw Me. Over an anguished whirl obscuring the song’s ominously bluesy undercurrent, LeCroy offers a catalog of doomed imagery in the album’s most intense track, Gun:

Everything tries
Everything fails
This life is a cross
And a bunch of nails

An echoey mashup of dub reggae and cello metal, Dear Lifeguard is a similarly gloomy oceanside tableau. The album winds up on a similar note with the surreal Decode. In a city oversaturated with vapid indie conformity, it’s good to see these three keeping the spirit of smart, individualistic, fearlessly relevant downtown New York rock alive.

Advertisements

Abraham Brody Brings His Mystical Reinventions of Ancient Shamanic Themes to Williamsburg

Lithuanian-American violinist/composer Abraham Brody covers a lot of ground. In a wry bit of Marina Abramovic-inspired theatricality, he’ll improvise as he stares into your eyes, a most intimate kind of chamber concert. He also leads the intriguing Russian avant-folk quartet Pletai (“ritual”) with vocalist-multi-instrumentalists Masha Medvedchenkova, Ilya Sharov and Masha Marchenko, who reinvent ancient Lithuanian folk themes much in the same vein as Igor Stravinsky appropriated them for The Rite of Spring. The group are on the bill as the latest installment in Brody’s ongoing series of performances at National Sawdust on Oct 5 at 7:30 PM. Advance tix are $20 and highly recommended.

Brody’s album From the Dark Rich Earth is streaming at Spotify. It opens with the methodically tiptoeing It’s Already Dawn, its tricky interweave of pizzicato, vocals and polyrhythms bringing to mind a male-fronted Rasputina. The ominously atmospheric Leliumoj goes deep into that dark rich earth, disembodied voices sandwiched between an accordion drone and solo violin angst.

Green Brass keeps the atmospheric calm going for a bit and then leaps along, Brody’s wary Lithuanian vocals in contrast with increasingly agitated, circular violin. Aching atmospherics build to a bitterly frenetic dance in Orphan Girl.  In Linden Tree, a web of voices weaves a trippy round, joined by plaintively lustrous strings.

Father Was Walking Through the Ryefield begins with what sounds like an old a-cappella field recording, then dances along on the pulse of the violin and vocal harmonies, rising to a triumphant peak. Oh, You Redbush, with its hazy atmosphere, and insistently crescendoing bandura, reaches toward majestic art-rock and then recedes like many of the tracks here. Likewise, the mighty peaks and desolate valleys in The Old Oak Tree.

Spare rainy-day piano echoes and then builds to angst-fueled neoromanticism in the distantly imploring I Asked. Strings echo sepulchrally as the ominous, enigmatic Litvak gets underway. Then the band build an otherworldly maze of echoing vocal counterpoint behind Brody’s stark violin in Trep Trepo, Martela.

The group revisit the atmosphere of the opening cut, but more gently, in Green Rue, at least until one of the album’s innumerable, unexpected crescendos kicks in. The final cut is the forcefully elegaic piano ballad A Thistle Grows. Fans of Mariana Sadovska’s bracing reinventions of Capathian mountain music, Aram Bajakian’s sepulchral take on Armenian folk themes or Ljova’s adventures exploring the roots of The Rite of Spring will love this stuff.

Tredici Bacci Kiss the Sky at Barbes

This is what old NEC students do when they’ve had too much to drink: play slow, simmering oldschool soul vamps, take a stab at faux-operatic vocals and then bop their way through a bunch of summery, serpentine instrumentals inspired by 60s Italian cinema. At their most recent Barbes gig back in July, Tredici Bacci did all that tighter than most bands could do sober.

Not everybody in the band was half in the bag. Singer Sami Stevens was a force of nature and then some, giving the music all the drama it demanded with her full-throttle vibrato and passion worthy of a primo Sophia Loren role. Keyboardist Evan Allen went from creepy with his tremoloing funeral organ, into outer space with the synth and then all the way back to the Middle Ages with a wry electric harpsichord patch.

The strings shimmered and shivered behind the blaze and blips of the horns – this is a big band – through a cheery mix of mostly original material, a lot of which sounded like 60s Burt Bacharach on steroids. They did one Morricone cover, but in a similar vein. The lone spaghetti western number, late in the set, was an original, and turned out to be the night’s best song.

Bandleader/guitarist Simon Hanes was in a surreal mood: “Gimme a generic bossa,” he ordered the band, and they obliged: practice this enough at conservatory and you can pull it off in a split-second like this crew. Then he had Stevens free-associate on random topics over the music, and she ran with it: she’s funny, and managed not to embarrass herself. The effect was akin to Ingrid Sertso doing her stream-of-consciousness jazz poetry thing with Karl Berger’s improvisational big band, but at doublespeed and a couple of generations removed.

Barbes is home base to a whole slew of the funnest bands in town: organ-fueled psychedelic surf rockers Hearing Things; mesmerizing Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa; Afrobeat monsters Super Yamba; fiery Ethiopian jamband Anbessa Orchestra; spectacular Bollywood cumbia band Bombay Rickey; and at the top of the list, slinky noir soundtrack trio Big Lazy.  Count Tredici Bacci as one of the newer additions to the elite: they’re back at Barbes on Sept 28 at 10 PM. The Austin Piazzolla Quintet, who open the night at 8, play both classic nuevo tango and originals in the same vein and are also excellent.

And Stevens also leads an oldschool soul group whose next gig is at the Parkside (the Brooklyn boite at 705 Flatbush Ave between  Winthrop and Parkside,  no relation to the Manhattan one) – on Oct 20 at 9:30 PM.

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis, which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

Looking Back and Forward to Some of the Most Electrifying Large Ensemble Shows in NYC

There are very few eighteen-piece groups in the world, let alone New York,  led by women. Even fewer of those bandleaders are singers. Here in Manhattan we have Brianna Thomas and Marianne Solivan, who have assembled their own big bands to back them from time to time. But they play mostly standards. Sara McDonald, who fronts the NYChillharmonic, writes some of the world’s catchiest yet most unpredictable music for large ensemble. Watching their show at Joe’s Pub back in May was akin to seeing a young Maria Schneider emerge from Gil Evans’ towering influence twenty years ago – not because McDonald’s music sounds anything like Schneider’s, but because it’s so distinctive and irresistibly fun. And the scariest thing of all is that McDonald still growing as a composer.

Over the last couple of years, she’s invented her own genre, and concretized it with equal amounts depth and surprise. The occasional lapse toward the corporate urban pop she may have been immersed in as a child is gone, replaced by a lavish sound with equal parts puckishness and gravitas. Radiohead is the obvious influence, but McDonald switches out icy techiness and relentless cynicism for a far more dynamic range of textures. Keeping a big band together that plays steadily for a month or two and then goes on hiatus as the band members do their own thing is a herculean task, especially as far as tightness is concerned, but this time out she’d whipped them into shape to nail the split-second changes – and there were a lot of them.

A NYChillharmonic show is best experienced as a whole. Ideas leap out, only to be subsumed in a distant supernova of brass, or a starry trail from the strings, or a calming, beachy wash from the reeds. Then that riff, in any number of clever disguises, will pop out later. McDonald works from the same playbook the best classical and film composers use, beginning with a simple singalong hook, embellishing it and then taking it to all sorts of interesting places. McDonald’s are more interesting than most. The lucky crew who got to go there this time out comprised Albert Baliwas, Brian Plautz, David Engelhard, Dean Buck and Eitan Gofman on saxes; trombonists Karl Lyden, Seth Weaver, Nathan Wood and Dillon Garret; trumpeters Rachel Therrien, Michael Sarian, Caleb McMahon and Chris Lucca; pianist Eitan Kenner, bassist Mike DeiCont, guitarist Steven Rogers and drummer Pat Agresta, plus a string quartet of Kiho Yutaka, Audrey Hayes, Jenna Sobolewski and Susan Mandel

Throughout the set, she and the group employed just as many subtle shifts as striking ones. Odd meters would filter to the bottom and then straighten out as the whole ensemble would enter over a pulsing quasi-canon from the brass or moodily loopy electric piano. More dramatically, the orchestra would drop down to just McDonald and the rhythm section, then leap back in at the end of a bar or when a chorus kicked in, such as there are choruses in her music – recurrent themes are everywhere, but never where you expect them.

On the mic, McDonald – who’s also grown immensely as a singer over the last several months – would vary her delivery depending on the song’s content, whether slyly coy, or uneasily insistent, or with one fullscale wail late in the set to illustrate some kind of apocalypse or at least a dramatic end to something good. Lately she’s been lending her voice to the even more enigmatically improvisational rock band Loosie. And she’s also been known to sing with the much crazier, high-voltage Jazzrausch Bigand, who are making their Lincoln Center debut this August 31 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. If you’re going, get there on time because it could get pretty wild.

Dalava Hauntingly Reinvent Grim, Timelessly Relevant Slovak and Czech Folk Songs

Dalava reinvent dark, often grim, centuries-old Slovak and Czech folk tunes as intense, dynamically shifting psychedelic rock. Guitarist Aram Bajakian is arguably the greatest lead player ever to pass through Lou Reed’s band: only the late Robert Quine and Mick Ronson compare. Bajakian also plays with numerous other outfits including lavish Hungarian folk/art-rock band the Glass House Ensemble.

His wife, singer Julia Ulehla, is the scion of an important Moravian musicological legacy. Her great-grandfather Vladimir, a colleague of Leos Janacek, was a major player in that discipline and as she tells it, a pretty amazing guy. His exhaustive fieldwork and research would make a good movie all by themselves. You can read a lot more about that in the extensive liner notes to the latest album The Book of Transfigurations, streaming at Bandcamp.

Bajakian isn’t coming through town this month to play this amazing, haunting music, but he will be at the Stone on both August 19 and 20 at 8:30 PM with John Zorn’s quasi-horror-surf band, Abraxas; cover is $20.

Like the duo’s 2015 debut album, this latest one radically reimagines a series of picturesque tunes from the family collection.Its central theme is change: as Ulehla puts it, “Girl into speckled bird, girl into married woman, boy into soldier, girl into mother, mother into widow, boy into ghost, vibrantly strong soldier into wounded corpse, and man into murderer.”

The album is bookended by mid-century field recordings of her grandfather Jiri singing with spare cimbalom accompaniment by Antoš Frolka. The senior Ulehla’s voice is raw, strong and impassioned as he sings of departure and no return: a soldier off to war, possibly. The band – Bajakian on guitar, Peggy Lee on cello, Tyson Naylor on multi-keys, Colin Cowan on bass and Dylan van der Schyff on drums – then make relentlessly prowling Velvets rock out of it.

The album’s second song, Grass, offers delicate, airy contrast, a vignette that captures the literally crushing poverty faced by peasants across Europe for thousands of years. Bajakian plays jagged minor-key slashes over a careening, bolero-ish beat behind Ulehla’s accusatory wail in The Rocks Began to Crumble, a soldier sent off to war bitterly telling his true love that she might as well marry somebody else.

Lee’s cello builds distantly claustrophobic ambience in Iron Bars, Iron Lock, illustrating an age-old mother-daughter conflict: mom wants to keep her kid away from the guys. The Bloody Wall allusively recounts a murder victim haunting the scene of the crime over lushly crescendoing, anthemic art-rock. It’s one of the album’s most gorgeous melodies, the strings matching the intricate Czech ornamentation of Ulehla’s voice.

That narrative is echoed with a more spare, atmospherically crescendoing approach in You Used to Look Like a Lion, a gruesome lament for a dying soldier. Then the band laps into Red Violet, a stormy, syncopated 1-chord jam in 7/8 time. Bajakian and Ulehla slip back into the shadows for Souling, a love song set to an uneasy fingerpicked acoustic backdrop.

The album’s starkest, most riveting song is War, Ulehla’s wounded melismas soaring over Bajakian’s sparse, lingering minor-key broken chords and Lee’s washes of cello: it’s another vivid soldier-going-off-to-war scenario. Then Lee and Ulehla flicker through the anguished medieval magic realism of Mother Gave Away Her Daughter,

He’s Bringing Something For Me, a veiled account of love and abandonment, has an even more sepulchral atmosphere that winds out with an ominous rumble. The terse murder ballad Carnival is awash in creepy wind-chime ripples and Ulehla’s phantasmic vocals. The album’s closing cut, Sell Us Your Shirt mashes up the vocals of grandfather and granddaughter Ulehla over the cimbalom, a cruel encounter with thieves who’ll literally steal the shirt off an unlucky peasant’s back. How little things have changed over the centuries: this magical, mysterious, imagistic album will entrance anybody who likes dark, brooding music: you don’t have to speak Czech to appreciate it, although that helps.

It’s a Great Summer for Middle Eastern Music in New York

While much of the New York City parks system is on the highway to privatized hell – both Central Park Summerstage and the Prospect Park Bandshell series are selling ticketed seats to free concerts now – we haven’t yet reached the point where free summer concerts here have been whitewashed and yuppified to the point of irrelevance. Meanwhile, serendipitously, there have been some new publicly accessible concert series popping up, keeping the hallowed tradition of free summer concerts here alive.

One public space that’s been flying more or less under the radar until recently is Bryant Park. It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the transcendent performance by slinky Middle Eastern ensemble the Bil Afrah Project, who opened the final night of this year’s Accordions Around the World festival there. Obviously, it would have been fun to stick around for the whole night, which ended with a wall-to-wall sea of revelers celebrating Colombian Independence Day.

The park’s overseers had the good sense to put the festival in the hands of tireless, intrepid impresario Ariana Hellerman (publisher of the irreplaceable Ariana’s List of free summer events). Over the course of the month, she drew from her roster of two hundred of New York’s finest accordionists (yes, there are that many) for a series of performances that reinforced the instrument’s portability across cultures, a powerful if compact vehicle for musical cross-pollination. 

In barely a half hour onstage, the Bil Afrah Project – who dedicate themselves to recreating Ziad Rahbani’s iconic 1975 Bil Afrah suite of reinvented Lebanese and Egyptian love and love-gone-wrong ballads- raised the bar for the rest of the evening dauntingly high. Rahbani has since gone on to be called the Lebanese Bob Dylan, although many others, none of whom sound anything like the American Nobel Laureate, have been given that label. Rahbani – son of famous chanteuse Fairouz and songwriter Assi Rahbani – was nineteen when he pulled a band together to record it. The suite doesn’t have much of the acerbically fearless political sensibility that characterizes his later work: its populist message is much subtler, grounded in its achingly wistful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes bucolic themes.

Group members, notably oudist Brian Prunka, accordionist Simon Moushabeck, ney flutist Bridget Robbins and violinist Sami Abu Shumays took turns playing plaintive taqsims as segues between songs. The most incisive, intense of these was from buzuq player Josh Farrar, who remained very prominent in the mix. John Murchison, a connoisseur of Middle Eastern bass, made his debut concert on kanun a memorable one as well. And riq tambourinist Michel Merhej Baklouk, who played on the original album, was present and added an almost defiantly crescendoing solo toward the end of the suite as the edgy chromatics, uneasy microtonal modes and graceful sweep of the music rose and fell over the pulse of Sprocket Royer’s bass and Jeremy Smith’s darbouka. Then emcee Rachelle Garniez took the stage and treated the crowd to some similarly incisive banter and her own noir-tinged material.

The performances on the festival’s next-to-last night fit in perfectly with its eclectic sensibility as well. Over the course of the early part of the evening, Erica Mancini played jaunty oldtimey swing, then made noir mambo out of the old standard St. Louis Blues. Shoko Nagai began with airy, austere Japanese folk themes and then went deep into the dark, kinetic chromatics of the klezmer music she loves so much.

Will Holshouser, best known for his exhilarating speed and high-voltage solos, flipped the script with his own thoughtful, methodically shifting originals, occasionally alluding to Indian modes: as a pioneer of the pastoral jazz revival, he deserves far more credit than he’s been given. And a beautiful blue-eyed blonde in the crowd called out Eduardo de Carvalho for the masculinity of his playing. That’s not to say that the other performances weren’t strong, but there was plenty of muscle in his confident, impassioned, unselfconsciously soulful, rustic runs through a mini-set of forro and tango.

Circling back to the Middle Eastern theme, there are a couple of upcoming shows that shouldn’t be missed. On July 29 at 8 at the Lynch Theatre at 524 W 59th St., haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran  perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 tix are still available. And on August 10 at 10 PM, legendary, ageless Armenian-American jazz reedman Souren Baronian leads his amazing band at Barbes.

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. 

Charming Disaster Bring Their Richly Detailed, Creepy Art-Rock to Joe’s Pub

Singer and ukulele player Ellia Bisker fronts uneasy existentialist soul band Sweet Soubrette – known for their delicious retro 60s horn charts – and also leads careening careening Balkan punk street group Funkrust Brass Band. She also harmonizes menacingly with guitarist Jeff Morris in Kotorino, who mash up latin noir and phantasmagorical circus rock. Lately, Morris and Bisker have been busiest in their duo project Charming Disaster, New York’s noir supergroup. As you would expect from a crew who specialize in murder ballads, suspense pervades their uneasily tuneful, richly arranged art-rock and parlor pop narratives. Sometimes they can be playful, other times downright macabre. Their latest album, the aptly titled Cautionary Tales, is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing Joe’s Pub on July 20 at 8 PM. Cover is $15.

While Charming Disaster typically tour as a duo, the album features some familiar faces from the Kotorino talent base, including bassist/drummer Don Godwin (better known as the world’s funkiest tuba player, from Raya Brass Band) and a brilliant string section of violinist Marandi Hostetter and cellist Noah Hoffeld. ]

The opening track, Sympathetic Magic, rises out of a stately web of guitar, uke and clever vocal counterpoint, a carefully detailed S&M scenario between two unlikely participants. No spoilers here.

Snake Bit is a concert favorite and one of their loudest songs, a snarling garage-psych anthem with a little latin and late Beatles flavor. Some of Charming Disaster’s charm is how Morris and Bisker trade off playing the villlain and victim roles, and this is a prime example.

With its blend of spiky Britfolk and prime 70s Bowie glam, Selene & Endymion is just as guitarishly ferocious, proof that dating a goddess isn’t all it’s made out to be. “When you’re asleep, sleep with one eye open,” the two harmonize at the end. They go back to mythology a little later on and further north with the grisly, apocalyptic Ragnarok. part Byrds, part Cheap Trick at their punkest.

Phosphorescent Lilies is a primo Bisker soul number, a swaying, allusive, blackly funny tale of medieval sacrifice. The Dylanesque folk-rock waltz Little Black Bird follows a surrealistic Brothers Grimm-style tangent. Days Are Numbered, an irresistibly funny mashup of Black Sabbath and lush chamber pop, is a spy story, at least on the surface, an apt tale for a surveillance state in the age of big data.

With its waltzing horror-movie music-box piano and danse macabre strings, Infernal Soiree is the closest thing to Orphan Jane grand guignol here. Awash in distant reverb, the starkly elegaic What Remains is the album’s best track, the shadow image of the frantic couple cleaning up the evidence in an earlier Charming Disaster gem, Deep in the High, from the duo’s debut album Love, Crime & Other Trouble. The final cut here is the grimly metaphorical, ineluctably waltzing String Break Song, Is this 2017’s best album? it’s one of them.

Good news on the Kotorino front, too – they’ve got a new album pretty much in the can, and an expected 2018 release date.

The Spellbinding Rachelle Garniez Tops the Bill at This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

What’s the likelihood of being able to get what amounts to an intimate, personal show from the world’s greatest English-language songwriter? A handful of New Yorkers got to experience that at last night’s edition of the ongoing Bryant Park Accordion Festival, following Rachelle Garniez across the park to various stations for tantalizingly brief fifteen-minute mini-sets.

Even though there were two dozen other accordionists playing in the park’s four corners and next to the fountain on the Sixth Avenue side, it was impossible to resist taking in two sets from Garniez. What was most fascinating was to watch her mash up elements of latin, klezmer, zydeco, classical, punk rock and even a bit of opera, banging out one song after another without the hilariously surreal, politically-charged stream-of-consciousness intros and jams that have made her legendary among New York performers.

The best song of the night was Tourmaline, a bittersweet waltz that works on innumerable levels: ultimately, it’s about rugged individuality triumphing against all odds. Without any more fanfare, Garniez let the rest of her songs speak for themselves.

The funniest moment was during Jean-Claude Van Damme, a tongue-in-cheek shout-out to a pitchman for antidepressants. She got everybody laughing when she reached the part about certain personality traits that have to be brought under control – then hammered that word again, and again, until everybody within earshot got the message. The faux-operatic outro, where she took a flying leap to the very top of her formidable four-octave vocal range, was pretty funny too.

She also played the jaunty, cabaret-infused Just Because You Can (Doesn’t Mean You Should), whose corollary is “just because you should doesn’t mean you can,” along with the slyly strutting, seductive Medicine Man, packed with all kinds of coy double entendres. She’s emceeing the festival’s closing night a week from today on June 21 at 6 PM, which might be the single best concert of the year, a bill that includes the Bil Afrah Project, who recreate iconic Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani’s legendary 1975 Bil Afrah album; pyrotechnic Romany accordionist Peter Stan’s new band Zlatni Balkan Zvuk, Brazilian accordionist Felipe Hostins’ new forro group Osnelda; and cumbia accordionist/crooner Gregorio Uribe leading his slinky big band in celebration of Colombian Independence Day.

The festival’s only drawback is that it’s such a feast that there isn’t time to see everybody on the bill. It was awfully cool last night to watch accordionist Simon Moushabeck make his way through Arabic modes with all sorts of enigmatic passing tones, in two abbreviated duo sets with oudist Brian Prunka, mixing up steady, serpentine originals with a Fairouz cover or two.

Further to the west, Sadys Rodrigo Espitia played equally slinky, catchy cumbia and vallenato numbers. When he forgot the words to the hit Cumbia Del Oriente, a woman in the crowd sauntered over to the mic: and sang them with serious Colombian pride.

It was also cool to get to watch popular busker and Thee Shambels accordionist Melissa Elledge jam out cinematic themes and a Johnny Cash classic, then make noir blues out of Beethoven. Late one night a couple of years ago in the Second Avenue F train station, after a Bowery Ballroom show, Elledge played what had to be the most heartwrenchingly gorgeous version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 ever. So it was refreshing to be able to just chill on the grass and hear her think outside the box without the usual subway stresses. Garniez may be the world’s most brilliantly eclectic songwriter, but as an instrumentalist, Elledge is on the same page.

Before the big blowout on the 21st, there’s another night of mini-sets from another amazing cast of accordionists at Bryant Park on July 19 starting at 6 PM, with a lineup including avant garde and klezzmer player Shoko Nagai, pan-Mediterranean wizard Ismail Butera, jazz luminary Will Holshouser and Ed Goldberg & the Odessa Klezmer Band.