New York Music Daily

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Category: concert

On Site Opera Revisit the Drama of a Horrific New York Conflagration

The action and intrigue rise toward fever pitch and then pretty much stay there for the duration of the On Site Opera production of Morning Star, currently enjoying a run at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. With a lively, cinematic score by Ricky Ian Gordon and book by the late Bill Hoffman, it follows the emotionally charged trajectory of a first-generation New York Jewish immigrant  family impacted by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. In an era of fatal conflagrations at locked-in Wal-Marts staffed by immigrants, not to mention deadly infernos at highrise British council estates, it’s particularly timely. It also has surprisingly subtle implications concerning karmic consequences arising when the oppressed become oppressors themselves.

On March 25, 1911 a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist sweatshop at Washington Square East claimed the lives of 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, many in their teens. It was the deadliest single event on New York soil until 9/11. The public outcry for safety standards in the wake of the tragedy revolutionized building construction and fire prevention in this city and across the country as well.

The fire itself doesn’t factor into more than about five minutes of the two-act piece. There’s abundant historical context, including but not limited to insurgent women’s rights, immigrant rights and worker’s rights movements which mirror our own today. Set on the Lower East Side, there are also numerous references to both defunct and surviving landmarks that will bring a smile to anyone who’s ever lived in or knows the neighborhood.

The plot concerns a laundry list of family drama: the fire is the elephant in the room, a dead child – literally – whose absence casts a pall. Suspense builds as the fatal day approaches, with plenty of artful foreshadowing. Romantic and parent-child angst, along with possible questions of paternity and political allegiances, push the story along. The singers – in particular, Emily Pulley as the mom and Blythe Gaissert as bitter antagonist -are strong, because they have to be. Other than a couple of detours toward early 1900s vaudeville balladry, the music doesn’t have much in the way of dynamic shifts. There’s! No! Business! Like! Show! Business!

Gordon’s score bubbles and bustles with comfortably familiar tropes refined by years in the theatre. Cliffhanger moments get anxious tritones; romance gets effervescent flutes over sweet strings. The rest of the music has an anthemic sensibility and hints of Debussy in places, played with gusto by American Modern Ensemble.

The use of the space is marvelous. The natural reverb in the elegantly restored synagogue enhances the sonics, while the placement of singers everywhere, on the balconies and throughout the audience, is nothing short of psychedelic and underscores Gordon’s clever use of counterpoint. The performance repeats tonight, March 22 at 7:30 PM and on the anniversary of the fire, this Sunday, March 25 at 1 and 6 PM.


The New York Philharmonic’s Kaleidoscope Ensemble Puts Fun, Relevance and Respect in Music Education for Kids

Did you know that if you’re a New York City school student, you can get the New York Philharmonic to visit your class? If you think your school, or your child’s school would be a good contact, get in touch with the Philharmonic’s education department. The orchestra has a terrific teaching ensemble, Kaleidoscope, which makes the rounds of schools throughout the five boroughs.

“Kaleidoscope’s repertoire is always shifting to reflect new and relevant themes. It’s a wonderful point of entry into the very colorful and variegated sound world of the orchestra,” the Philharmonic’s Director of Education Production, Amy Leffert explained to the audience at the group’s“info-concert” Monday night at Lincoln Center’s dynamically curated atrium space. Then the ensemble – flutist Julietta Curenton, clarinetist Katie Curran, french horn player Laura Weiner, trombonist Steven Dunn and pianist Jihea Hong-Park – validated that description.

This was kickoff night, more or less, for the group’s current program on tour in city schools over the next several weeks, designed to dovetail thematically with issues students are exploring. This particular theme is the Harlem Renaissance and how it relates to the present. The program employs colorful new arrangements of classic Ellington and Gershwin works as well as a stark William Grant Still arrangement of the spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, and a more recent, picturesque piece by Valerie Coleman. Along the way, the musicians drove home how fearlessly multidisciplinary the Harlem Renaissance artists were, and how that sense of community mirrors  so many artistic movements both historically and in the present.

What was most enjoyable about this experience – other than the music, which was played with the passion and dynamism you would expect from America’s flagship orchestra – was that it’s not condescending or patronizing like so much “music appreciation” coursework. Just like jazz, the five musicians worked from a script to engage the audience, but with plenty of room for lively, conversational interplay. The adults outnumbered the kids at this show, but everyone seemed to be having a ton of fun singing along in counterpoint, working variations on the blues scale and even scatting some jazz. 

There were two big takeaways, one obvious and the other implied. First and foremost, the Philharmonic’s education outreach is all about empowerment. Curran emphasized that under ideal circumstances, she’d be more than content if a student composer was able to hear a Dvorak piece and then prefer his or her own work instead. And without ever letting the words “third stream” slip into the discussion, the quintet let the music validate the paradigm shifts that take place when two traditions as vast as African-American jazz and western classical cross-pollinate.

The highlight of the night was Imani Winds flutist and co-founder Valerie Coleman’s In Time of Silver Rain, from her colorfully pointillistic, lilting suite Portraits of Langston for flute, clarinet and piano. The group closed with Ellington’s Echoes of Harlem, Dunn’s moody, darkly foggy trombone lines front and center.

And even if a visit from the Philharmonic doesn’t fit your school’s schedule, there are tons of resources for teachers, especially geared toward grades 3-5, at the orchestra’s education page

A Rare, Explosive New York Performance of Ancient Chinese Music and Puppetry

The manic energy of Chinese New Year in New York can’t compare with Saturday night’s performance by the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band with pipa virtuoso Wu Man at the Ethical Culture Society. Staged by the World Music Institute, the show featured not only hammering medieval battle songs to rival any Viking pageantry, but also boisterous, droll shadow puppetry. Wu Man wryly characterized it as “old Chinese rock and roll.”

As chronicled in the 2012 documentary film Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China, the lute virtuoso has been on a crusade to preserve rapidly vanishing folk styles across her vast home turf. As you would imagine, Chinese sounds are every bit as diverse as American music. This concert was a rare opportunity to experience feral, centuries-old village traditions from a dynastic family band which has been active since the 1700s, updated with some spine-tingling 21st century improvisation. Wu Man is the first woman to ever play with this crew, which until recently had been strictly a family enterprise, run by the Zhang clan of farmers from a mountain village in Shaanxi Province.

One of their instruments was a robust handmade wooden bench that percussionist Dang Anhua had brought from home. His wife had sewed a pretty pink carrying case which typically draws mystified looks from airport checkin personnel across the globe, Wu Man explained. That bench absorbed several mighty whacks to cap off a battlefield scenario, and gave the floor of the stage several mighty thumps as well.

Wu Man opened the show with a couple of solo pipa pieces, a traditional number followed by an original, shifting sometimes elegantly and sometimes suddenly from lilting pastoral passages to fiery volleys of tremolo-picking and the occasional sparkling glissando.

A rustic, sawing quartet of erhu fiddles – one a low-register zhunghu model, akin to a Chinese cello – kicked off the first group piece, frontman and moon lute player Zhang Ximin leading the ensemble with his hearty, theatrical vocals. Many of the group numbers commemorated battles from the first century A.D. Others retold ancient fables, from a creation myth to a droll shadow puppet piece about a group of villagers fending off a voracious lion.

Wu Man is an irrepressible extrovert, a generous and insightful ambassador for traditional Chinese music and is also very funny, whether enumerating the difference in Chinese dialects, recounting the group’s adventures on the road or trading peek-a-boo riffs with various group members. Zhang Shinin played several percussion instruments including a small gong, and served as puppeteer as well. Zhang Qansi, Zhang Xinmin and Dang Guangdi played erhu, with Yuan Yuti on zhunghu, and Liu Xicang on banhu, a long trumpet.

The concert followed a dynamic path, with intricate pipa pastorales interspersed among the jubilant, catchy, pentatonoic anthems. Shivery fiddling, elephantine snorts from the trumpet and raucous percussion rose and fell, Wu Man a gentle but forceful, pointillistic presence with her rippling strings.

The World Music Institute’s next show is a  Middle Eastern-flavored triplebill of brilliant Middle Eastern and North African women performers at the Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this Saturday night, March 24 at 7:30 PM. Fiery Tunisian art-rocker Emel Mathlouthi, slinky, oud-fueled Middle Eastern/Nile Delta dance orchestra Alsarah & the Nubatones and Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj share the bill: tix are expensive, $35, but worth it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haunting Lebanese Pianist Tarek Yamani Revisits a Classic New York Concert at Lincoln Center This Friday Night

Suppose you could see the guy who played this blog’s pick for best concert of 2014 – for free. Would you go? You have that option when Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani plays this Friday, March 23 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just south of 63rd St.

Yamani opened a marathon evening of music from across the Middle East at Alwan for the Arts in January of 2014, officially called Maqamfest, known informally as the Alwan-a-thon. Here’s the report originally published here the following day.

“…Yamani kicked off the night with a richly eclectic mix of brooding Middle Eastern themes and blues-infused bop. While he didn’t deliberately seem to be working any kind of overtone series with the piano – it can be done, especially if you ride the pedal – he proved to be a magician with his chromatics and disquieting passing tones. Bassist Petros Klampanis supplied an elegant, terse, slowly strolling low end while drummer Colin Stranahan nimbly negotiated Yamani’s sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring rhythmic shifts. The trio wove a tapestry of gorgeous chromatic glimmer through a couple of romping postbop numbers to a haunting, starkly direct piano arrangement of a theme by Said Darwish, considered to be the father of modern Middle Eastern classical music. The trickiest number in their set was the title track to Yamani’s album Ashur (the Assyrian god of death). Stranahan got the dubious assignment of carrying its cruelly challenging, almost peevish syncopation, but he ran with it and nailed it.”

Yamani has done a lot since then, notably his 2017 Peninsular album, whose influences span from Cuba to Oman.  You can bet this blog will be in the house for the Friday, show which could rank among 2018’s best as well. And it’s free – you just have to get there a little early to get a seat.

A Thunderous, Sold-Out Party With Ageless Latin Jazz Piano Icon Eddie Palmieri at Lincoln Center

Party long enough and you get really, really good at it. Still, it’s amazing how fresh and vigorous Eddie Palmieri still is at age eighty. And much as he’s generous with solos, he didn’t let the band carry his show last evening at Lincoln Center, The atrium space was at absolute capacity for a crowd that was on the young side. Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who met the legendary latin jazz pianist during a sold-out run at the now-shuttered Subrosa, convinced him to come do a show for “The people, the music, the culture that we embrace.” And she got him. “As you can see it’s a very popular evening,” she said, working hard on trying to hold back a grin. Epic win in the booking department, epic fail at hiding raw bliss. Which mirrored how everybody in the packed house – as packed as this space has ever been, at least in the last five years – seemed to be feeling

Nobody in the world can make a simple two-chord vamp more interesting than Palmieri does. Obviously, there was a whole lot more to the show than that. The band didn’t even hit a salsa-clap rhythm until the bandleader himself lit into that familiar hip-grabbing syncopation about ten minutes into the show. The horns – trumpeter Jonathan Powell and tenor sax player Louis Fouché – would go out on a limb for what became longer and longer turns, then would converge tantalizingly, always with a new harmony that invariably took the music in a different and occasionally far darker direction.

Case in point: the closing number in the first set. Palmieri vocalizes off-mic while he plays, and that unmistakeable gruff voice wafted into the mix louder than ever as he played stabbing variations on a classic Cuban minor-key riff against the timbales. But instead of turning up the heat for the sake of the dancers, the band kept it murky, dropping to a ghostly, spare conga solo that finally picked up, Luques Curtis’ bass hinting at a psychedelic soul interlude before backing out. The horns diverged and then reconfigured, then hung back for Palmieri and the congas to channel some more black magic, deep ancient Africa via Cuba and then Spanish Harlem in the 70s.

Likewise, on the number before that, the bandleader went gritty with edgy close harmonies, counterrhythms and and a little extra growl. Powell took it to redline and stayed there, but by the end of the song, Palmieri was hitting on an unexpected minor chord, taking it out with a slightly more low-key, ominously boomy, shamanic semi-calm. There were many other interludes, none of them ever predictable, where Palmieri would shift the music into straight-ahead postbop jazz, bristling with polyrhythms, punchy dancing bass and biting chromatics.

Palmieri didn’t talk to the crowd much, dedicating a shapeshifting, hard-hitting Tito Puente number to a pal from his wayback days at the old Palladium Ballroom at 53rd and Broadway – less than ten blocks south of the site of this show.  He saluted one of his mentors, Thelonious Monk with the first tune of the second set and drove that point home with a nifty, uneasy intro before making bouncy rhumba jazz out of it with some artfully placed, thundering thumps from the percussion – Xavier Rivera on congas and Camilo Molina on timbales – and then the bass during a fat solo midway through. Then Palmieri faked out the crowd, careening back and forth between crushing, shifting lefthand rhythms, tumbling swing and Monk.

A stormy conga break echoed by Curtis’ monsoon chords gave way to a slinky lowrider theme that Palmieri never let get too hypnotic. They closed with a rapturously dynamic, singalong take of the mighty, defiant minor-key anthem La Libertad, Curtis spiraling and counterpunching between the woodblock and the timbales, the congas channeling a long series of rhythmic conspiracies. A detour into Palmieri’s classic, fearlessly populist latin soul hit Harlem River Drive was inevitable at that point. There was less dancing than usual – everybody seemed to want to get an album full of pix

The next salsa dance party in Lincoln Center’s mostly-monthly Vaya 63 latin music series at the atrium space on Broadway south of 63rd St. is by superstar oldschool Fania-era salsa percussionist Eddie Montalvo and his band on April 20 at 7:30 PM. If tonight’s show was any indication, you REALLY have to get there early to get a seat.

Aakash Mittal at Nationa Sawdust: A Major Moment in New York Jazz This Year

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s sold-out show with his Awaz Trio at National Sawdust on the 11th of this month was as mysterious as it was mischievous – and delivered an unmistakeable message that this guy’s time has come. The obvious comparison is Rudresh Mahanthappa, another reedman who draws deeply on classic Indian melodies and modes. But Mittal doesn’t typically go for the jugular like Mahanthappa does: a more apt comparison would be visionary Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who joined Mittal onstage for the second half of the program alongside guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan, who played both the boomy mridangam as well as a small, tabla-like hand drum.

Mittal has been simmering just under the radar in New York for awhile but has been increasingly in demand over the past year, playing with both both ElSaffar’s large ensemble and Pulitzer-winning singer/composer Du Yun, who gave him a rave review for an onstage introduction. The trio of Mittal, Okazaii and Swaminathan opened with a seven-part suite of night raga themes reinvented as jazz. Mittal explained that he’d written it during his a year in Kolkata studying traditional Indian sounds, and that his purpose was to redefine the concept of a nocturne to encompass both mystery and mirth. One suspects he had an awfully good time there.

He didn’t waste any time unleashing his daunting extended technique with some uneasy riffs punctuated by otherworldly overtones and microtones, yet throughout the rest of the night he held those devices in store for where he really needed them. Likewise, he chose his moments for puckish accents and sardonic chirps that got the crowd laughing out loud; as the show went on, Okazaki and Swaminathan got in on the act as well. Which made for apt comic relief amidst the lustrous, glimmering and often sparsely plaintive phrasing that pervaded the rest of the suite and the evening as a whole.

Mittal peppered the dreamlike state with lively, often circling, edgily chromatic phrases: he likes lights in the night, but he knows the dark side of the bright lights just as well. Okazaki ranged from spare, emphatic accents, often in tandem with Swaminathan, to expansive, lingering chords, to long interludes where his spiky phrasing evoked a sarod. The evening’s biggest crescendo fell to Swaminathan, and she welcomed a chance to bring some thunder to the gathering storm.

ElSaffar joined the group for the final numbers, opening a brand-new suite – which Mittal had just finished a couple days before, based on a poems by his sister Meera Mittal – with a mesmerizing series of long tones where time practically stood still. From there he and Mittal developed an increasingly animated conversation, through alternately lush and kinetic segments underscoring the influence that the trumpeter has had on the bandleader: it was a perfect match of soloists and theme. The group closed with what Mittal offhandedly called a jam, but it quickly became much more than that, a jauntily voiced mini-raga of its own laced with both utter seriousness and unleashed good humor. Both Mittal and ElSaffar’s music is full of gravitas and sometimes an almost throttle-like focus, but each composer also has a great sense of humor, and that really came to the forefront here.

This was the final show in this spring’s series of concerts at National Sawdust programmed by Du Yun, focusing on composers of Asian heritage who may be further under the radar than they deserve to be. The next jazz show at National Sawdust – or one that at least skirts the idiom with a similar outside-the-box sensibility – is by thereminist Pamelia Stickney with Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba and Stuart Popejoy on keyboards on March 28 at 7 PM; advance tix are $25 and highly recommended.

Lyrical, Mesmerizing Psychedelia From Rose Thomas Bannister in Williamsburg Saturday Night

Psychedelic rock bands aren’t known for searing, literary lyrics. It’s even rarer to find a psychedelic group with a charismatic woman out in front. Likewise, it’s just as uncommon for a woman songwriter with an acoustic guitar to be leading a great psychedelic band. Saturday night at the brand-new Wonders of Nature in Williamsburg, the crowd got all that from Rose Thomas Bannister and her mesmerizing backing unit.

She and lead guitarist Bob Bannister are the closest thing we have to an American Richard & Linda Thompson – except that these two don’t hit each other over the head with things (or at least it doesn’t seem so). Her career dates back to the past decade in Nebraska, where she sharpened her hauntingly spare, broodingly allusive “great plains gothic” songcraft. His dates back a decade before to post-no wave bands like The Scene Is Now, who are still going strong.

With a wry grin, he bowed the strings of his Strat for “ambience,” as he put it, as the undulating, enigmatic opening number, Sandhll slowly coalesced, drummer Ben Engle’s subtle cymbals mingling with bassist Debby Schwartz’s nimbly melodic, trebly, punchy countermelodies and violinist Concetta Abbate’s ethereally tectonic washes. In this context, The Real Penelope and its achingly Homeric references were reinvented as a sort of mashup of the Grateful Dead’s China Cat Sunflower and Rubber Soul-era Beatles.

Appropriating religious imagery and turning it inside out is a device that goes back centuries – Rumi, for example – but Rose Thomas Bannister is unsurpassed at it. The best song of the night was a brand-new one, Heaven Is a Wall, a prime example. She opened it with a hypnotic, cirlcing fingerpicked riff, then it morphed into a sarcastic march as she let loose a litany of fire-and-brimstone imagery straight out of the Mike Pence speechbook. Likewise, the gritty, swinging In the Alley and its understatedly Tom Waits-like tableau.

The rest of the set rose and fell, from Sutherland, a misty, ominous murder ballad, to the jauntily sarcastic Like Birds Do (a subtle Macbeth reference); the grim, claustrophobic narrative Jephthah’s Daughter, and Houston, an escape anthem recast as late-60s blue-eyed soul. Terse, sinewy, slinky Strat lines blended with stately violin, leaping and swooping bass and Engle’s low-key propulsion. They closed with their one cover of the night, a pulsing, emphatic take of Ivor Cutler’s Women of the World: Bannister knows as well as anyone else that the future of this country is female.

Cellist Leah Coloff opened with an acerbic solo set of her own, a mix of stark blues phrasing, edgy Patti Smith-style anthems and bracing detours toward free jazz and the avant garde. Franklin Bruno and his power trio the Human Hands closed the night with a set of haphazardly punchy, catchy, sardonically lyrical tunes that brought to mind acts as diverse as Cheap Trick, Big Star and the Dream Syndicate. Afterward, Bob Bannister spun a mix of obscure 70s dancefloor tracks over the PA; everybody danced.

Punjabtronix Put on a Pulsing, Hauntingly Hypnotic Dance Party at the Kennedy Center

UK Punjabi dance band Punjabtronix’s show last night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC was a hypnotic, undulating, dynamically rich exploration of how far sounds from the rich melting pot around the India-Pakistan border can go. As the concert began, they took their time getting the groove up and running, the keening twin algoza flutes and tumbi lute of multi-instrumentalist Vijay Yamla set to a quasi trip-hop beat from Naresh Kukki’s big dhol bass drum in tandem with the thumps emanating from the mixing desks manned by DJ Swami and his co-engineer. What was live, what was being looped, and what was instrumental karaoke? It was hard to tell. As the textures mingled in the murky mist, that trance-inducing atmosphere set the tone for the rest of the night, John Minton’s shapeshifting projections pulsing in and out behind the band. You can watch most of the show here.

By all accounts, this show was better than the one in Queens the night before. Flushing Town Hall has a reputation for excellent sound, but word on the street was that Punjabtronix didn’t get to experience that (this blog wasn’t in the house for that one). Here, the mix had the clarity this band needs to create the full psychedelic experience. That first number was spiced with uneasy, lingering David Gilmour-esque lead guitar lines. Then sarangi player Dheera Singh took the stage for a take of the popular Punjabi folk song Jugni, Kukki’s hammering dhol polyrhytms veering close to the edge, singer Gurtej Singh energizing the crowd with his passionate, melismatic baritone.

The followed with Chhalla, the band’s frontman alluding that they were going to get this one in to pre-empt the inevitable audience requests. As Singh swayed and pounced, decked out in a regal blue-and-bold traditional suit and headdress, it was easy to see why people would want to hear the big, catchy anthem. They made moody, modal acid jazz out of another popular folk tune, Zindabad, the plinks of the sarangi and Singh’s insistent vocal riffs cutting through the blippy electronic backdrop, Yamla eventually taking a long, droll, warpy upper-register solo on the bugchu, a surreal stringed instrument that looks like a cross between an Ethiopian riti fiddle and a tabla drum.

Yamla switched to the stark tumba fiddle for an intense, rustic call-and-response duet with Pujabi “talking drum,” tuned to play stairstepping melodies much like a tabla. The cinematic epic after that celebrated the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, but also took a sobering look at the devastating effects of the British invaders’ partition of India and Pakistan. The uneasy east/west dichotomy was vivid, the traditional instruments solid and resolute against the techy beats.

Yamla gave the serpentine number after that a deadpan jawharp intro then a broodingly pulsing twin flute solo and rapidfire vocals as the the electronic storm loomed in behind him. The group’s final epic was a celebration of cross-pollination in the global Punjabi diaspora, an enveloping swirl of ancient organic textures mingling with the synthetic.

Punjabtronx’s US tour continues with a couple of stops at South by Southwest. Tomorrow night, March 14 they’re at Barcelona, 209 E 6th St, in Austin at 8 PM, then the next night, March 15 they’re at the Palm Door on Sixth, 508 E 6th St., also at 8.

Magic Microtones and Modal Menace at Barbes

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

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

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

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

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