New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: choral music

Somber Arvo Part Choral and Orchestral Music for Somber Times

Whether Russian orchestras actually play Shostakovich better, or French organists are best suited to perform the work of Louis Vierne, are debatable questions. What was indisputable last night was how vastly attuned the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra were to their countryman Arvo Part’s somber, rapturous mysticism. It’s impossible to think of a more apt program for a New York series called Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.

The concert was a confluence of unlikely serendipities. Beyond the rare opportunity to witness these two legendary ensembles together on American soil, the material on the bill was what many consider to be peak-era Part. Everything dated from1990 and later, with one of the arrangements a 2018 North American premiere. Better yet, the composer himself had suggested the inclusion of his soberly crescendoing, cell-like 2006 string orchestra piece, Fur Lennart in Memoria.

On a macro level, the performance was as meticulously serious as its overall gloom was pervasive and relentless. In particular, conductor Tonu Kaljuste made masterful use of the innumerable spaces that punctuated these works, leting the natural reverb of the high-ceilinged Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola resonate as profoundly as the music itself.

The ensembles only missed the big American costume-party holiday by a couple of weeks. To be fair, the only point where the sound reached fullscale horror was in the stalking pulse, gothic chromatics and brief series of muted, shrieking motives in the concluding suite, Adam’s Lament. The message, here as elsewhere, seemed to be that no human alone should have to bear the burden of being cast out of paradise, all alone in a hostile world.

The rest of the program was every bit as troubled and serious. Even celeste player Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann’s graceful comet-trail phrases and bittersweet starriness tended to simply mingle with the otherwise rather stygian, even creepy tones of Salve Regina. Mysterious bass drones anchored alternately moody and robust accents and call-and-response from the choir throughout an understatedly dynamic take of Part’s Berliner Messe, the oldest piece they performed. The string orchestra brought a gorgeous, Gorecki-like, hypnotically circling ambience to Silouan’s Song, rising to a windswept ethereality. And the Prayer, from Part’s Kanon Pokajanen suite, perfectly synopsized the concert’s slow, steady, spacious majesty, artfully developed variations on simple, emphatic phrases and lustrous contrast between highs and lows from both the singers and the strings.

The two ensembles are currently on US tour; the next stop is Nov 14 at 7:30 PM at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St. in Stanford, California; you can get in for $32, less if you’re a student. After more lighthearted holiday fare next month, Sacred Music in a Sacred Space’s programming keeps the intensity high with a performance by longtime St. Ignatius organist Renee-Anne Louprette with uilleann piper Ivan Goff on Jan 20 at 3 PM; tix are $25.

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A Few Detours and a New Sound From a Legendary, Haunting Vocal Ensemble

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, neoliberals made their way into Bulgaria and convinced the new government to put the nation’s most popular export out of business. The renowned choral ensemble who were first known as the Bulgairian National Women’s Choir, then became a global sensation as Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, and are now known in the English-speaking world as the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices, were stripped of their government funding. Without that, these extraordinary, legendarily otherworldly singers were forced to take dayjobs. It’s hard to think of a more apt example of how drastically neoliberal tax policies can slash the very fabric of a nation at the seams.

Happily, the group have kept going over the years. Their latest release,  BooCheeMish – their first in two decades – is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a new direction for them. While the group have recorded with rock artists – Kate Bush, most famously – there’s more rock on this release than ever before. Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance contributes her voice to four of the tracks.

With the first number, Mome Malenko, the group set the stage with their characteristically eerie close harmonies, shivery melismas and modal, microtonal lines. This song has more of an Arabic chromaticism; the balance of hushed lows against the keening highs of the women’s voices is especially rapturous.

The second track, Pora Sotunea has rock keys, bass and a tabla rhythm bolstering an Andalucian-tinged tune. Rano Ranila, with its pulsing bursts of counterpoint, is the rhythmically trickiest trip-hop tune ever recorded. By contrast, Mani Yanni has a sepulchral vastness and broodingly melismatic Asian spike fiddle.

Much as the many percussion elements in Yove don’t get in the way, it would be even more impressive to hear just the women’s voices leaping and trilling, keeping perfect time throughout this polyrhythmic dance. Sluntse has more of that stark fiddle along with precise, jazz-tinged, acoustic guitar: beyond a brief intro, it’s an instrumental.

Unison is a return to distantly Indian-tinged trip-hop, with a vocal solo from who. The majestic, solowly unfolding call-and-response of Zabekaya Agne have more traditionally uneasy shifts between major and minor modes, along with a rather imploring vocal solo and ney flute over a boomy Middle Eastern dirge beat. It’s the album’s most successfully eclectic stylistic mashup.

But Tropanitsa, an attempt to Bulgarianize (Mysterize?) a blithe tropical tune, is a mess. Happily, the ensemble return to enigmatic massed splendor in Ganka, then dance their way elegantly through the catchy Shandal Ya. The album’s final track is Stanka, moody strings replicating vocal harmonies beneath their soloist’s impassioned lead melody.

For continuity’s sake, let’s count this as today’s installment for Halloween month. These magical voices persist in evoking a strange, antique spirit world, notwithstanding the many additional touches which some listeners may find superfluous.

A Shadowy Treat From Stile Antico

Today’s Halloween album was written to be sung by candlelight while each candle is extinguished one by one, until the singers and audience are left in total darkness. Its title make perfect sense: Tenebrae Responsories.

Tenebrae translates literally from the Latin as “shadows.” but commonly means darkness. Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria published this somber choral suite in 1585. It’s a setting of fire-and-brimstone biblical texts about exile, wartime occupation, betrayal, torture, suicide and a few more upbeat things. At the center of the narrative are the Lamentations of Jeremiah, mourning the loss of Jerusalem in a 6th century BC Babylonian invasion. Stile Antico, the world’s most popular Renaissance choir, have released a characteristically insightful, nuanced recording, streaming at Spotify. Divided up into 22 tracks, this new edit of the suite contains the high points of an epic that by any account must have been strenuous (and often utterly redundant) for the singers in mass to perform at the time it was written.

Since taking Europe by storm in the late zeros, Stile Antico have put out a dozen albums, and tour the world constantly. Through it all, their roster has remained pretty stable. They’re singing a different program – English Elizabethan works by Byrd, Tallis, Lassus and innumerable others – tonight, Oct 13 at 8 PM at a familiar and well-suited haunt, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at 145 W 46th St. to open this season’s Miller Theatre early music program. You can get into this reverb-rich space for $30.

As with most of the group’s albums, the Tenebrae Responsories were recorded in similar sonics at All Hallows’ Church in the north London neighborhood of Gospel Oak. The beginning of the suite is very spare and austere, far more northern European sounding than you would necessarily expect from a Spanish composer. The voices of the group’s women quickly take centerstage, more or less, in parts originally written for boys.

Counterpoint rises toward proto-operatic bluster and then subsides. Stately tempos juxtapose with moments of more atmospheric resonance. Sparse, hypnotically monkish plainchant interludes from the men meet with steady, pulsing passages from the whole choir. The harmonies grow more lush and ambered as the suite continues. It never reaches grand guignol heights, but that’s the point: the cyclical harmonies and absence of dramatic key changes make it as serious as life and death in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition.

And it’s another notch on the collective scorebooks of sopranos Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby and Rebecca Hickey; altos Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries and Katie Schofield. tenors Ross Buddie, Andrew Griffiths and Thomas Kelly; and basses Will Dawes, Thomas Flint and Matthew O’Donovan. They’re bolstered here by tenor and former group member Benedict Himas and bass Simon Gallear.

Rage Against the Machine in the Former Belly of the Beast

In their sold-out concert at the Park Avenue  Armory Wednesday night, cutting-edge 24-member choral ensemble the Crossing delivered a breathtakingly virtuosic rebuke to anyone who might think that rage is not all the rage these days. The Armory dates back to the 19th century and is decorated throughout with high quality Civil War memorabilia. According to heraldic engravings in all sorts of precious metals, sixty-five of New York’s entitled classes died fighting to keep the Union together. It’s hardly a stretch to consider that their patriotism may have reflected less of an endorsement of civil liberties for all Americans, black and white, than the desire to keep sources of raw materials in the south safe in the grip of northern banksters.

Conductor Donald Nally’s choice to stage the group’s performance there was as daring as it was obvious. Each room utilized for the concert’s two sets is rich with natural reverb. in a proud tradition that goes back long before Laurie Anderson‘s legendary performances at the Armory, this was yet another reclamation of the space in the name of something other than killing.

Eight of the pieces on the program were New York premieres. The trio of cellists Thomas Mesa, Arlen Hlusko and Sujin Lee opened with the subtly shifting, hypnotically circling riffs of David Lang’s Depart as the crowd filed in. The singers then took their places one by one and treated the audience to a night of daunting counterpoint, playfully challenging extended technique, kaleidoscopic interplay and glistering, often achingly enveloping polyphony.

Central to the program were two breathtaking pieces by Gabriel Jackson. Our Flags Are Wafting in Hope and Grief, with its cleverly expanding cell-like phrases and dramatic cadenzas, brought to life Latvian writer Doris Koreva’s poem addressing a crucial, pivotal historical moment from which there can be no return. There’s cruel ambiguity in its flag imagery; the ensemble’s  emphatic intensity weighed in on the side of the perils of nationalism rather than potential triumphs.

The similarly circling first segment of Jackson’s Rigwreck could have been dispensed with, but the diptych’s second part was as gripping as it is relevant, connecting the dots from the question of eternal vigilance to its absence in both the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, and also our own relationships. The pinpoint precision of the group’s gusts underscored the grim cautionary tale in Pierre Joris’ text, a fervent wakeup call about the corporate interests and money culture that pollute individual lives as toxically as the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline were in 2010.

Kile Smith’s Conversation on the Mountain – from his suite Where Flames a Word – gave the choir a wide-open field for all sorts of deft, subtly baroque-inflected call-and-response that twinkled and sometimes burst from every corner of the stage. A brief premiere, by Louis Andriessen rose to anguished close harmonies. By contrast, the group got to let off some steam with Ted Hearne’s Animals, voicing an entire Nile riverbank bestiary with unleashed abandon and an undercurrent of Orwellian cynicism.

The choice of opening the second half of the concert with the knifes-edge close harmonies of Suzanne Giraud’s Johannisbaum instantly set the tone for the unease of the rest of the program, the cellists joined by a trio of soprano Abigail Chapman, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and a masterfully precise blonde woman whose image hasn’t yet made it to Google. Unfair as it is to single out a singer from a performance where selfless teamwork is so crucial, Sutherland’s soul-infused expressiveness and unselfconscious joie de vivre explain why she was front and center throughout much of the show.

There was also hypnotic, atmospheric rapture in Sebastian Currier’s Sanctus, from his Night Mass, and a final, wistfully precarious contemplation of our ongoing existence by Lang. Needless to say, it was a sobering idea to take home.

The Crossing’s next concert, on Sept 29 at 8 PM features indie classical chamber group International Contemporary Ensemble, with works by Hearne, Lang and Caroline Shaw at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theatre. Tix are $30; a $10 shuttle bus leaves from behind Port Authority about an hour and a half before the show. It’s about a 45-minute ride from Manhattan. 

A Strange, Innovative New Mixtape Album and a Williamsburg Show From Agnes Obel

Of the 21 tracks on Agnes Obel’s latest aptly titled album Late Night Tales – streaming at Bandcamp – only four of the songs are hers. But it’s not a covers album – it’s a cleverly assembled mixtape, often a very good one. Considering how many decades’ worth of material across about as wide a stylistic swath as you could imagine are represented here, segues aren’t the point. Obviously, the goth-tinged Danish multi-keyboardist/singer is going to be playing her own material at her gig tomorrow night, Sept 15 at Warsaw. Showtime is 8 PM; general admission is $20. If you’re going, be aware that there is no G train this weekend: the venue is about a five minute walk from the south exit (i.e. the one without the lines) at the Bedford Ave. L station.

To open the album, the shifting ominousness of Henry Mancini’s Evil Theme segues into the creepy arpeggios and vocalese of Moonbird, a 1971 instrumental by the Roger Webb Sound. Campy faux-tropicalia by Eden Ahbez quickly breaks the mood; the grim Lee Hazelwood western gothic track after that also hasn’t aged well.

Jamaican singer Nora Dean’s distantly menacing dub plate Ay Ay Ay Ay (Angle-Lala) is a welcome return to the darkness, echoed a bit later by Lena Platonos’ Bloody Shadows from a Distance. A loopily cinematic bass-and-narration miniature by Yello quickly gives way to the surreal 196os Brazilian renaissance choral psych-pop of Aleluia, by Quarteto Em Cy with the Tamba Trio

Ray Davies’ 2015 cover of his ex Chrissie Hynde’s I Go to Sleep is almost as surreal, awash in an echoey chamber pop arrangement. The lingering unease of the fifth movement from Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, (uncredited, but the piano sounds like Obel) connects to her first original here, Stretch Your Eyes and its rainy-day Dead Can Dance ambience. 

An otherworldly folk melody sung by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Choir bridges to Obel’s second number, Glemmer Du and its twistedly twinkling music-box piano. Her third composition, Bee Dance is a ghostly waltzing instrumental for strings and piano.

The stark freak-folk of Sibylle Baier’s The End, from 2006, leads into Michelle Gurevich’s similarly spare, sarcastic Party Girl, from a year later. The mix shifts back to noir with Can’s wintry, swooshy instrumental Oscura Primavera, followed by indie classical composer David Lang’s minimalist choral fugue I Lie, performed by the Torino Vocalensemble (uncredited). Arguably the highlight of the whole mix is a live 1964 concert recording of Nina Simone singing an a-cappella version of her excoriating, ferociously relevant ode to black female beauty, Images. Obel’s emphatic, minimalist dreamscape setting of Inger Christensen’s Poem About Death concludes this strange and unsettling mix.

One minor issue with the album is that the times listed for every single track on the Bandcamp page are completely wrong. Don’t be surprised when what’s ostensibly six minutes worth of Obel suddenly cuts off at the 1:45 mark.

Captivating Cutting-Edge New Indian Sounds from  the Women’s Raga Massive

True to their bandname, the Brooklyn Raga Massive draw on a huge talent base, including but not necessarily limited to players who specialize in Indian classical music. Their rise from their early days at a grungy little Fort Greene bar to big summer festivals is a rare feel-good story in recent New York music. These days, they reinvent John Coltrane and Terry Riley, put on all-night raga parties and push the envelope with where Indian music can go.

Because all of their members are busy with their own careers, the cast is constantly rotating. The Brooklyn Raga Massive also have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, whose new compilation, compiled by brilliant violinist Trina Basu, is steaming at Bandcamp. 20% of the proceeds from the album are being donated to the nonprofit Indrani’s Light Foundation, dedicated to empowering women and combating gender violence. They’re playing Joe’s Pub tonight, March 31 at 7 PM; cover is $20.

The artists here are a mix of singers and instrumentalists. Although most of the tracks ultimately draw on centuries-old melodies, most of the arrangements are brand-new and very innovative. The album opens with flutist Rasika Shekar’s Uproar, rising from a brightly modal swirl to a mashup of Afro-Cuban jazz and modal carnatic riffage fueled by Hooni Min’s emphatic piano.

Basu’s string band Karavika contribute The Time Is Now, its warmly undulating melody over alternately scattergun and hypnotically thumping percussion. Cellist Amali Premawardhana’s memorably gentle solo sets up a brightly soaring response from Basu. A bit later on she and her violinist husband Arun Ramamurthy join forces with the aptly titled, epic Tempest, building from a hypnotic, rhythmic pulse to echo effects, a funky sway and all kinds of juicy, microtonal bends and churning riffs before a final calm.

Multimedia artist/singer Samita Sinha represents the avant garde with the sparse, childlike vocal piece Suspension. Arooj Aftab’s poignantly melismatic vocals swirl over Bhrigu Sahni’s delicate acoustic guitar and Baqir Abbas’ bansuri flute in the sparse, spacious Man Kunto Maula, a more traditional piece.

Mitali Bhawmik’s vocal ornamentations rise from restraint to pure tremoloing bliss in Miyan Ki Malhar, above a stately backdrop of Ramachandra Joshi’s harmonium and Meghashyam Keshav’s tabla.

Pianist/singer Ganavya Doraiswamy’s Nithakam: Dedication to Prashant Bhargava is a somber Indian take on Gershwin’s Summertime. Violin/piano sister duo Anjna & Rajna Swaminathan team up with guitarist Sam McCormally for the broodingly modal Indian gothic trip-hop anthem Ocean of Sadness. Then paradigm-shifting carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective flip the script with their playfully hip-hop tinged Urban Gamaka (Hindolam Thillana), singers Roopa Mahadevan and Shiv Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal licks over a steady, swaying backdrop.

Navayee, by Persian-American singer/guitarist Haleh Liza Gafori is a balmy love ballad animated by Matt Kilmer’s clip-clop percussion. Psychedelic soul singer Shilpa Ananth works subtle dynamics with similarly lush atmospherics in Enge Nee, against Takahiro Izumikawa’s bubbly Rhodes piano.  

The album’s longest and most trad track is sitarist Alif Laila’s twelve-minute-plus segment of Raga Kedar, a brisk romp right off the bat that doesn’t wait to get to the shivery, spine-tingling heart of the matter. It’s arguably the high point of the album; the ending is a complete surprise.

Violinist Nistha Raj matches and then jauntily trades riffs with alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal in Jayanthi, which is only slightly shorter. Yalini Dream narrates an imagistic antiwar poem over Ganavya’s vocalese and atmospherics to close the album. Fans of cutting-edge Indian sounds like these should also check out the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s other albums, especially their Coltrane covers collection, which feature some of these artists.

Some Great December Shows Reprised This Month

Who says December is a slow month for live music in New York? The first three weeks were a nonstop barrage of good shows. And a lot of those artists will be out there this month for you to see.

Last summer, Innov Gnawa played a couple of pretty radical Barbes gigs. With bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer’s hypnotically slinky sintir bass lute and the chorus of cast-iron qraqab players behind him, they went even further beyond the undulating, shapeshifting, ancient call-and-response of their usual traditional Moroccan repertoire. Those June and July shows both plunged more deeply into the edgy, chromatically-charged Middle Eastern sounds of hammadcha music, with even more jamming and turn-on-a-dime shifts in the rhythm. Innov – get it?

So their most recent show at Nublu 151 last month seemed like a crystallization of everything they’d been working on. The usual opening benediction of sorts when everybody comes to the stage, Ben Jaafer leading the parade with his big bass drum slung over his shoulder; a serpentine chant sending a shout out to ancient sub-Saharan spirits; and wave after wave of mesmerizing metallic mist fueled by Ben Jaafer’s catchy riffage and impassioned vocals.

Ben Jaafer’s protege and bandmate Samir LanGus opened the night with an even trippier show, playing sintir and leading a band including Innov’s  Nawfal Atiq and Amino Belyamani on qraqabs and vocals, along with Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion on drums, Dave Harrington on guitar, plus alto sax. Elements of dub, and funk, and acidic postrock filtered through the mix as the rhythms changed. Innov Gnawa are back at Nublu 151 on Jan 12 at around 6:30 with trumpeter Itamar Borochov for ten bucks; then the following night, Jan 13 they’re at Joe’s Pub at 7:45 PM for twice that, presumably for people who don’t want to dance.

The rest of last month’s shows that haven’t been mentioned here already were as eclectically fun as you would expect in this melting pot of ours. Slinky Middle Eastern band Sharq Attack played a mix of songs that could have been bellydance classics from Egypt or Lebanon, or originals – it was hard to tell. Oudist Brian Prunka had written one of the catchiest of the originals as a piece for beginners. “But as it turned out, it’s really hard,” violinist Marandi Hostetter laughed. The subtle shifts in the tune and the groove didn’t phase the all-star Brooklyn ensemble.

Another allstar Brooklyn group, Seyyah played an even more lavish set earlier in the month at the monthly Balkan night at Sisters Brooklyn in Fort Greene. With the reliably intense, often pyrotechnic Kane Mathis on oud behind Jenny Luna’s soaring, poignant microtonal vocals, you wouldn’t have expected the bass player to be the star of the show any more than you’d expect Adam Good to be playing bass. But there he was, not just pedaling root notes like most American bassists do with this kind of music, his slithery slides and hammer-ons intertwining with oud and violin. The eight-piece band offer a rare opportunity to see a group this size playing classic and original Turkish music at Cornelia St. Cafe at Jan 15, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

When Locobeach’s bassist hit an ominous minor-key cumbia riff and then the band edged its way into Sonido Amazonico midway through their midmonth set at Barbes, the crowd went nuts. The national anthem of cumbia was the title track to Chicha Libre’s classic debut album; as a founding member of that legendary Brooklyn psychedelic group, Locobeach keyboardist Josh Camp was crucial to their sound. This version rocked a little harder and went on for longer than Chicha Libre’s typically did – and Camp didn’t have his trebly, keening Electrovox accordion synth with him for it. This crew are more rock and dub-oriented than Chicha Libre, although they’re just as trippy – and funny. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 15 at 10. 

There were four other Barbes shows last month worth mentioning. “Stoner,” one individual in the know said succinctly as Dilemastronauta Y Los Sabrosos Cosmicos bounced their way through a pulsing set blending elements of psychedelic salsa, cumbia, Afrobeat and dub reggae. Their rhythm section is killer: the bass and drums really have a handle on classic Lee Scratch Perry style dub and roots, and the horns pull the sound out of the hydroponic murk. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 10 at around 10.

Also midmonth, resonator guitarist Zeke Healy and violist Karen Waltuch took an expansive excursion through a couple of sets of Appalachian classics and a dadrock tune or two, reinventing them as bucolic, psychedelic jams. For the third year in a row, the all-female Accord Treble Choir sang an alternately majestic and celestial mix of new choral works and others from decades and centuries past, with lively solos and tight counterpoint. And the Erik Satie Quartet treated an early Saturday evening crowd to stately new brass arrangements of pieces by obscure 1920s French composers, as well as some similar new material.

At the American Folk Art Museum on the first of the month, singer/guitarist Miriam Elhajli kept the crowd silent with her eclecticism, her soaring voice and mix of songs that spanned from Venezuela to the Appalachians, including one rapturous a-capella number. And at the Jalopy the following week, another singer, Queen Esther played a set of sharply lyrical, sardonic jazz songs by New York underground legend Lenny Molotov, her sometime bandmate in one of the city’s funnest swing bands, the Fascinators. She’s at the Yamaha Piano Salon at 689 5h Ave (enter on 54th St) on Jan 14, time tba.

The Resistance Revival Chorus Sing a Fiery, Fearless Benefit for Immigrant Rights

When the Resistance Revival Chorus hit the stage Tuesday night for the first of their rousing, oldschool gospel-style protest songs, there seemed to be about two dozen women in the group. By the time the show ended, individual choir members and special guests treating a sold-out crowd at City Winery to a tantalizing series of cameos, it seemed that the size of the chorus had doubled. Are they New York’s largest ensemble? At the rate they’re growing, they will be, and in the current political climate it’s not going to take long.

Much as booking a group with a ton of people in it is a surefire way to pack a club, there’s never been more of an audience for protest music. The chorus had put together a short video to kick off the show, tracing the history and profound influence of protest songs on this continent from field hollers and back-to-Africa anthems thinly disguised as Christian hymns, all the way to hip-hop.

There was a little bit of that, but most of the material was songs that drew on decades of soul music. And this was as much of a populist rally as concert. Three of the group’s founding members were organizers of the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year. They’re also affiliated with many pro-democracy and advocacy groups including Communities for Change and pro-immigrant organizations working under that umbrella. A couple of group leaders took the stage midway through the show and delivered a defiant, grimly entertaining bilingual English-Spanish account of the perils of being an undocumented immigrant, even in a so-called sanctuary city.

Laurie Anderson’s cameo was the funniest, with a bit of droll, satirical faux-autotune pop and a story about narrowly sidestepping what could have been a grisly stage mishap bookending a communal scream. The artist who got the crowd to scream even louder was Amy Leon, who otherwise held everybody rapt with her fearless, individualistic, witheringly acerbic blend of Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron and what might be called avant garde soul. She picked up where Simone left off with a misterioso take of Bob Dylan’s Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and added her own scathingly insightful commentary on coping with white supremacy: things haven’t changed all that much in half a century.

Nigerian-American songstress Ayo – who has an album release show coming up at Drom this Dec 20 at 9:30 -,led her trio through a couple of spare, withering roots reggae tunes dealing with the murder of young black men at the hands of the police, and resistance in general. Trixie Whitley reached for similarly hypnotic ambience with a single psychedelic folk-blues number, solo on electric guitar. And a smaller subset of the choir got the crowd bouncing to their intricate interweave of voices, from Sam Cooke to classic gospel.

The catchiest of all the songs might have been the two by singer Alba Ponce De Leon and her band the Mighty Lions. The latin soul diptych they opened with veered into psychedelic Chicano Batman territory, then they raised the roof with the big, funky vintage-style soul anthem Love Army, which as the bandleader said, needed no explanation.

At one point, the chorus situated themselves throughout the room, for a neat stereo effect. At the end of the show, the whole crew finally made it onto the stage for a soaring, imperturbable take of their big youtube hit Under My Feet, where the narrative starts out at the rich man’s house and ends up at the White House speaking truth to power. And as one of the chorus’ founders reminded, their next performance may be at a rally or with a flashmob if it’s not at City Winery, which has become their home base. Pick an issue, find an advocacy group and then go out and represent – how ironic that at this point in history, we’ve never had so many to choose from.

The Navatman Music Collective Take Rapturous Indian Classical Sounds to New Places

Last night at the Navatman Music Collective’s sold-out show at Symphony Space, choir leader Roopa Mahadevan took what otherwise would have been a pretty generic blues riff and transformed it into shiveringly melismatic, sultry R&B, echoed by guest tenor saxophonist Pawan Benjamin. Not something you would expect at a performance of centuries-old south Indian classical music.

There was another point where singer Shiv Subramaniam took a series of flying leaps from his crystalline low register to a spot much further upward, his voice a comet tail of grit and overtones. Then there was the split-secomd where Preetha Raghu’s brief vocal solo hit a sudden spiraling climb, Mahadevan closing her eyes and shaking her head in wonder that another person could create such beauty with just a brief flurry of notes.

There were thousands of similar moments during the carnatic choir’s epic, magically shapeshifting performance. The Navatman Music Collective are one of three carnatic choirs in the world, and the only one in this hemisphere. If you think that playing one rapidfire, microtonal volley after another on, say, a sitar, is challenging, try singing that in perfect sync with seven or eight other people, some of whom may be an octave above or below you.

Obviously, the reason why carnatic choirs are so rare is that in Indian classical music, there’s no need for more than one voice at a time to sing the melody line. While this group is shifting the paradigm by introducing harmony into the equation, they didn’t do that at this show: this was all about spine-tingling solos, and group improvisation, and spellbinding interplay between the voices, Anjna Swaminathan’s elegantly swooping violin and Rohan Krishnamurthy’s precise, emphatically reverberating mridangam rhythms.

And as easy as it was to get completely lost in much of the music, this group has a sense of humor. That became apparent right off the bat after the stately cadences and tantalizingly brief solos of their first number, an original by Subramaniam utilizing an old Sanskrit poem about a new bride feeling completely lost in her in-laws’ house. Singer Asha Unni was in the middle of what was actually a spot-on description of how its deliciously distinctively Indian microtones differentiate from the standard western scale when Subramaniam and Raghu winkingly interrupted her, shifting the conversation from music theory to the dilemmas among newlyweds across cultures and centuries.

Relevance means a lot to this crew, underscored by a lilting suite by 19th century Tamil composers Papanisam Sivan and Ghopalakrishna Bharan whose subtext was the struggle to abolish the caste system in the midst of a murderous invasion by the British. That number turned into a launching pad for various types of improvisation: Mahadevan’s rapidfire microtones, Parthiv Mohan’s precise, majestic cadences and Subramaniam’s unearthly mesmerizing leaps and bounds. More than once during the show, Mahadevan emphasized how new and often radical this repertoire once was – like the elegant, lush waltz, a real rarity in Indian music, which ended the ensemble’s first set.

Indian mythology is a trip.  Another Sivan piece illustrating the Monkey King, Hanuman and his fixation with Lord Rama was more lighthearted, as were Subramaniam’s artfuly interwoven raga themes in a new arrangement of an ancient Kalidana piece depicting Lord Shiva slumming among the peasantry.

The group really picked up the pace at the end with a tongue-twisting display of takadimi drum language: turns out that Sahasra Sambamoorthi, best known for her work in dance, has daunting vocal dexterity to match her footwork. The group closed with a similarly spectacular round-robin of solos. As singer Shraddha Balasubramaniam explained, the title of the group’s latest album An Untimely Joy refers to how great music transcends time even as a particular era’s most fearless musicians take it to new places. As lavish as this concert was, for this group that seems to be no big deal.

And you can learn to do this too: the Navatman organization also runs a Manhattan music and dance school.

Singer Sara Serpa’s New Multimedia Project Examines the Aftereffects of Imperialism

Sara Serpa is one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. She got her big break collaborating with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake – their  2010 album Camera Obscura is a masterpiece of menacing nocturnal music across all genres. Since then, her work has encompassed her own cinematic, often lush compositions, her role in John Zorn’s otherworldly Mycale chorale and an endless series of rewarding new projects and collaborations: there’s a restlessness in most everything she does. Her latest project was springboarded when she discovered a family archive of material relating to her native Portugal and its former colony, Angola, in the 1960s. You want uneasy? Serpa’s bringing that to a multimedia performance this Saturday night, Sept 16 at 7:30 PM in a trio show with harpist Zeena Parkins and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner at the Drawing Center at 35 Wooster St. in SoHo. This is one of the increasingly frequent series booked by Zorn around town; cover is $20.

Like every other major jazz artist, Serpa has to spend a lot of time on the road. Her most recent New York concert was a beguiling and unexpectedly amusing duo performance with her Mycale bandmate and longtime vocal sparring partner Sofia Rei in the West Village back in June. Completely a-cappella, the two made their way methodically through constant dynamic shifts, in a mix of originals, a handful of south-of-the-border folk tunes and several numbers from Rei’s album of radical reinventions of Violeta Parra classics, El Gavilan.

It’s easy to see why Rei and Serpa are friends. Rei is a cutup and will go way outside the box without any prompting, to the remote fringes of extended vocal technique. And she can sing anything. Serpa is serious, focused, purposeful to the nth degree: she doesn’t waste notes and has an instantly recognizable sound. Yet she’s always pushing herself. “Welcome to our crazy project,” she told the crowd with a wry grin. And at one moment late in the set, while Rei swooped and dove and shifted into what could have been birdsong, Serpa rolled her eyes, echoing the melody further down the scale, as if to say, “I can’t believe I just sang that.”

Unlik what they do in Mycale, the two didn’t harmonize much. Instead, they took contrasting roles, often exchanging rhythmic blips and bounces, a funhouse mirror of gentle, emphatic, wordless notes. Without Marc Ribot’s guitar, the material from El Gavilan often took on more gravitas: for example, a less rhythmic, more stately take of Casamiento de Negros, and a considerably condensed, airy version of the title track. And when there were harmonies, they were acerbic, and bracingly astringent, and warily rapturous. At the end of the set, another of Mycale’s brilliant voices, Aubrey Johnson joined them and added her signature lustre to the mix. Not having seen Johnson sing her own material in a long time, it would have been an awful lot of fun to stick around to see her lead her own band. But by then it was time to head to Brooklyn.