New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: concert

Haunting Gravitas and Playful Beats with the Karuna Trio at Lincoln Center

This past evening at Lincoln Center, the Karuna Trio shifted between nocturnes and space jams. The nocturnes were intense and brooding, sometimes bordering on the macabre; the space jams ranged from starry effervescence to deep-nebula murk. Considering how many Euro-tourists pass through Jazz at Lincoln Center on any given night, free jazz like this would go over well at a space that so rarely programs it.

But it was great to see the trio of percussionist Adam Rudolph, drummer Hamid Drake and pianist Alexis Marcelo spinning all those sounds out of thin air, a couple of blocks to the north. Creative music tends to be all or nothing: when it’s good, there’s really nothing better. But free jazz also attracts some of the most annoyingly self-indulgent, pretentious players around. You know the type: they only play free jazz because if, perish the thought, they might actually have to say something meaningful, or acknowlege, let alone converse with their bandmates, that might limit their precious self-expression. So watching these three pros teaming up to build a majestic series of waves, and then ride them, was redemptive to say the least. Not to mention a lot of fun.

This was a leisurely, thoughtful performance, the three players leaving plenty of space for each other to think out where they’d go next, or respond to an idea that someone had thrown into the mix, and that empowered the audience just as much. Which made sense, considering Drake’s opening remarks that the spectators are just as integral to a concert as the musicians.

Marcelo played both the role of anchor and outlier. Opening with flickering, light-dappled phrases, then shifting to ominously resonant, vampy chromatic themes often enhanced by or echoing from a synthesizer perched above the keys, he was the dark knight of this soul. Other times, it was clear that the two drummer buds were going to lock in on a long series of subtly interwoven polyrhythms, with Marcelo adding color and texture, and after knocking at the door with one long hammering phrase, finally pulled the two percussionists back out of the sun and into the shadows.

There was also a playful, salsa-tinged interlude initiated by Marcelo; rippling echoes of Satie and the neoromantics; a pause for trinket noisemakers, an unselfconsciously funny one for singing bowls; hints of birdsong and deep-forest wildlife; and a final gnawa-influenced interlude with Rudolph on sintir and Drake on daf frame drum that was beside the point. Anyone in the house who was at this same space a couple of years ago to witness some of Morocco’s great maalems of gnawa music would have recognized that for the ersatz groove that it was. But the depth, and rapture, and generous interplay of the first four-fifths of the show lingered after the trio had left the stage.

Rudolph and his Go Organic Orchestra team up with the Brooklyn Raga Massive to create a monstrous, improvisational forty-person raga orchestra tomorrow night, Dec 13 at 7 PM at CUNY’s Elebash Hall at 365 5th Ave. just north of 34th St.; cover is $25. This year’s final free concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is on Dec 19 at 7:30 PM with Los Rumberos del Callejón bringing their oldschool salsa dura sound out of the alley. The salsa dance concerts here are insanely popular; showing up a half hour early wouldn’t be a bad idea

Best New York Concert of the Year

The best New York concert of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding. In case you think it’s elitist to choose a private event over something everybody in town theoretically could have gone to…you could have been there too if you happened to wander into Union Pool the night of September 29. “You thought you were coming to a wedding!” the protean, psychedelic Great Plains gothic lit-rock songwriter beamed. “I gave you a music festival!”

Super Yamba Band headlined. By that time, plenty of people had come out to the bar, with no idea that two of this era’s most formidable musical minds had just tied the knot. And soon there were plenty of random strangers getting down to slinky Afrobeat in the back room with all the wedding guests.

It’s probably safe to say that Super Yamba’s set was a mashup of their mid-July 2018 show on an old shipping pier by the water on the Upper West Side, and their gig at Barbes this past March. If there’s any band in town worth seeing more than once, it’s these guys. The pier show seemed to be louder and heavier on the horns, the keyboardist doing double duty on both, while the Barbes gig had more dynamics, instruments leaving and then rejoining the mix, Both shows were heavy on the minor-key, sometimes distantly, sometimes closely Ethiopian-tinged jams. Impassioned frontman Leon Ligan-Majek a.k.a. Kaleta did a long stint in Fela’s band toward the end, so he learned from the guy who invented Afrobeat. Cantering, undulating rhythms, sharply sparkly electric piano, looming organ and spicy, emphatic horns and brass filtered through the mix, sometimes for minutes on end, sometimes shifting quickly to a faster tempo or back the other way.

Super Yamba Band’s next gig is at 9 PM on Dec 14 at Bar Chord for the tip jar. For those who can’t make it to deep Brooklyn, they’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 19 at 7:30, where you can get in for $20 if you’re thirty and under.

The rest of the wedding was a mix of searing jams and savagely brilliant tunesmithing. The wildest jam was when Bannister’s dad Tom, came up to the stage and joined 75 Dollar Bill for a hypnotic yet searing duel with guitarist Che Chen. It was as if the freedom fighters in Tinariwen had flown to Scotland for a predawn raid to liberate a Trump property.

Bannister has never sung more powerfully, or with more triumphant intensity. Which made sense in that marrying guitar polymath Bob Bannister was the crowning stroke in a career that began when she escaped from a Christian supremacist environment, driving off in a little car with her secret collection of forbidden secular cassettes. In that context, the sudden, wary martial flurry in the opening number, Ambition, made sense on every possible level: a word of warning, but also a vengeful, martial riff. Whichever motivation you might ascribe to the slowly crescendoing anthem – a portrait of greed, or revenge – it worked.

Working on only two rehearsals, drummer Rob Smith colored the music with his subtle brushwork and cymbals while the groom wove restlessly articulated webs of notes, from saturnine Richard Thompson-esque leads to lingering jangle and clang, austere blues, warmly soulful Beatlesque lines and even a little wry Tex-Mex. When bride and groom calmly matched voices in the stately, understated, Macbeth-inspired Lady M – “Your children will be kings” – there was no mistaking how much of a victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The rest of the set was a mix of the hypnotic and the ferocious. The Real Penelope, a mashup of Revolver Beatles psychedelia and Britfolk, was wistful yet guardedly optimistic, the future Mrs. Bannister realizing that she’d found the lead guitarist of her dreams. Same Name Blues, which she rarely plays live, had a seethingly sardonic edge, as did the most relevant song of the night, Heaven Is a Wall, a shapeshifting fable about border walls packed with the cynically appropriated Old Testament imagery that she loves to use to drive a point home. And Iowa, with its simple yet eerie Midwestern imagery and coda that fell away abruptly at the end, seemed to synopsize her flight from repression, knowing that there would be possibly apocalyptic consequences, both personally and globally,

After that, most of the band reconvened as PG Six, frontman/guitarist Pat Gubler a steely, dapperly suited presence out front. Debby Schwartz, fresh off a sizzling set with the Bannisters, was even more of a whirlwind, firing off incisive chords, raga riffs working around an open string and sinuous, soaring leads that gave the band a third lead player. Gubler’s resonant, darkly opaque chords and tersely circling lines rang out as Bannister’s leads slashed and wailed around them, sometimes bringing to mind Jerry Garcia in “on” mode, at other times veering closer to unhinged Sonic Youth territory. His bride eventually came up to sing harmonies, one of the great Brooklyn musical power couples reveling in making it official.

Getting Lost with Gamelan Kusuma Laras at Roulette

Where do you go when over the past four decades, you’ve staged two thousand shows by artists from all over the world, all over New York? Robert Browning ended up at the most easily accessible venue in Brooklyn: Roulette. All trains lead to Atlantic Avenue, more or less; the space is two blocks away, maybe less depending on your exit.

Last month’s performance was an impassioned, intense concert by a legendary Iraqi singer backed by this hemisphere’s only traditional Iraqi classical maqam ensemble (there will be other potentially transcendent Middle Eastern bands here next year). This past evening’s show was completely different: New York’s own traditional Javanese-style bell orchestra, Gamelan Kusuma Laras building hypnotically starry ambience for the audience to get lost in. It wasn’t clear when the show started – were the two brief introductory numbers just a warmup, everybody running the riffs to make sure they were in tune? – nor was it particularly clear when it ended. But in between, time stood still.

Ironically, as the once-ubiquitous gamelan and shadow puppet spectacles in Indonesia seldom take place these days outside of weddings and other special occasions, gamelans have become a meme on college campuses across the US. I.M. Harjito is one of the main reasons why. If an American-based gamelan are any good, it’s likely that the now Connecticut-based Harjito trained them. Seated amid the group’s bells, gongs and gender xylophones, he began the show playing starkly keening, acerbic phrases on the rebab fiddle, then switched between a couple of double-barreled drums. Interestingly, the the smaller of the got the boomiest sounds.

In front of the ensemble, guest singer Heni Savitri was spellbinding, calmly and methodically working very subtle variations on riffs in a scale that wasn’t quite whole notes and wasn’t quite pentatonic either. With her austere, bitingly resonant, otherworldly voice, she sometimes exchanged brief phrases with either the rebab, or one of the flutes played by a member of the choir seated to her left. For all the innumerable variations, the music was incredibly catchy: several blues-tinged riffs, rising from and then returning to a central note, lingered long after the show.

Gamelans have enough bells to make Edgar Allan Poe jealous, and this group are no exception. Surrounded by banks of bright, shiny brass bonang and smaller kenong bells, the men and women in charge built a glacially shifting interweave of spare polyrhythms, rippling and pinging and glimmering into the night. Behind them, two of the group’s percussionists accented turnarounds, sudden tempo shifts and transitions with a big rack of gongs and a bass drum. Meanwhile, the higher-pitched tones of the genders glistened and clinked, adding an extra layer of celestial gleam.

Gamelan lyrics typically draw on ancient Javanese mythology; in addition, Harjito had come up with a couple of originals encouraging the musicians to reach greater heights. But the night was best appreciated as a cohesive whole, a chance to go completely down the rabbit hole that Claude Debussy discovered in 1889 at the Paris Exposition, where he decided that gamelan music was the future – and shifted the paradigm for music everywhere outside of Indonesia.

The next concert staged at Roulette by Robert Browning Associates is a flamenco festival on March 28 of next year: details are still being finalized.

An Exhilirating, Revelatory Carnegie Hall Debut by the Aizuri Quartet

In their Carnegie Hall debut last night, the Aizuri Quartet played an exhilarating, “wonderfully quirky” program, as violinist Miho Saegusa grinningly characterized a lively, animatedly conversational performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in B minor, Op. 64, no. 2. And that wasn’t the highlight of the night. The suite of Komitas’ Armenian folk songs, via a colorful Sergei Aslamazian arrangement, were often gorgeously poignant. And Paul Wiancko‘s 2016 triptych Lift, an “ode to joy,” as violist Ayane Kozasa put it, was a thrilling, ceaslessly bustling, distinctly urban choice of coda. Wiancko is a cellist by trade: his work for strings takes maximum advantage of all those instruments can offer.

The theme of the night was “locally sourced” music inspired by the composers’ home turf that also resonated with the group members. Cellist Karen Ouzounian explained that the night’s five dances collected by Komitas – a Near Eastern musical polymath and proto Alan Lomax– were “a musical link for a lot of families in the diaspora to a distant home…a tiny window into Armenia.” Growing up in Toronto, she’d developed a passion for the repertoire, something the group clearly share.

The wistfully waltzing song without words they opened with set the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the night, lit up with Saegusa’s sparkling pizzicato. They’d revisit that plaintiveness with the third piece, a distantly Viennese-tinged waltz, Kozasa adding aching intensity with a solo toward the end. In between, a kinetic, celebratory number featured forceful call-and-response and a nimble pizzicato bassline from Ouzounian. The acerbic fourth tune, with its uneasy, Iranian-tinged modalities and stormy gusts, morphed into a jauntier waltz that set the stage for a bounciy vamping conclusion.

In the Haydn, violinist Emma Frucht got to indulge in some unusual single-string voicings that the composer had written for a string-playing buddy. The group reveled in the occasional puckish, peek-a-boo moment and coy instants of anticipation: they’d really taken the quartet apart to find all the best jokes. Dynamics were very hushed in the quietest passages, so that when the group really dug into the Romany-inspired minor-key phrases that Haydn would inevitably smooth out, the effect was all the more striking. Deft handoffs of neatly interwoven counterpoint between the instruments became more animated as the music grew more straightforwardly triumphant, to a playful coda.

Wiancko’s triptych had a cinematic restlessness, a hive of activity built around several intriguing thematic variations. The ensemble kicked it off memorably with a shiver of harmonics, quickly hitting a bustle that brought to mind Charles Mingus’ mid-50s work. Seemingly tongue-in-cheek rounds of pizzicato gave way to circular, Philip Glass-ine phrasing and some of the night’s most unselfconsciously lustrous harmonies between the violins. As the piece went on, lively swoops and dives along with a long series of short, colorful solo spots for each of the instruments mingled with hazy atmospherics, Debussy-esque echoes of ragtime and a return to a frenetic cityscape to tie up any possible loose end. What appeared to be a sold-out crowd exploded with a series of standing ovations.

The Aizuri Quartet’s next New York gig is Dec 15 at 11 AM at Subculture, playing a program TBA; cover is $20, which includes coffee and breakfast snacks. Concert Artists Guild, who sponsored this show, also have a characteristically innovative series of performances from future stars of the serious instrumental music world. Their next one is Feb 11, 2020 at 7:30 PM back at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, with pianist Yi-Nuo Wang playing works by Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Brahms, Chen-yi Lee and Liszt; tix are $30.

High Voltage Latin Jazz with Dayramir Gonzalez & Cuba enTRANCe at Lincoln Center

It would probably be overhype to call pianist Dayramir Gonzalez the missing link between Eddie Palmieri and McCoy Tyner. But at his thundering, intense show last week Lincoln Center, Gonzalez and his booming ensemble Cuba enTRANCe strongly brought to mind both of those two icons. With a crushing lefthand attack, stampeding the entire length of the keys, Gonzalez’s intensity never relented. Nobody knows better than he does that the piano is a percussion instrument.

If that wasn’t enough, Gonzalez made sure he had plenty more torrential beats on hand, with both drums and congas in the band: each player got plenty of time in the spotlight and used it explosively. Contrastingly, Gonzalez’s bassist – playing a five-string model with an extra B on the low end – held the center, tersely and calmly, with his judicious, resonant slides and the occasional chord to drive a big crash home.

The quartet opened with a shapeshifting, majestic jazz waltz, introducing the calm/frenetic bass/piano dynamic that would last the duration of the night. The second number, Moving Foward, was a bristling, modally-charged epic, the thunder punctuated by Gonzalez’s glistening cascades and a couple of more moody, suspenseful interludes where the rhythm dropped back.

He explained that as a kid, he’d followed his mom’s advice that “Una sonrisa abre puertas,” building on that idea with Smiling, a more pointillistic, leaping number. He brought it down afterward with a solo ballad from his debut album, Grand Concourse, which was party salsa jazz and part late Beatles. The rest of the set was just as dynamic: loopy, catchy riffage over polyrhythms; more glistening, darkly vamping tableaux that were part salsa and part Chopin; sad boleroish balladry and pouncing, carnaval-esque party themes. Gonzalez spoke eloquently to the similarities between the refugee crisis in Europe and the one further south on this continent; he even sang a little. The crowd clapped along, hitting a salsa groove without any prompting. Right now, Gonzalez seems to be better known in Europe than he is here, and that’s a crime. His next gig is on Dec 4 at 8 PM at Vibrato Grill Jazz, 2930 N Beverly Glen Cir in Los Angeles; cover is $30.

The series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues tonight, Dec 2, with an earlier, 7 PM show featuring Strings & Skins, who combine Colombian and Haitian dance grooves. There are also many other performances in the neighborhood until 9; if you can handle the cold, follow the sound.

Jessie Kilguss Brings Her Subtly Sinister Songcraft and Soaring Voice to Gowanus Next Week

There was a four-song stretch in Jessie Kilguss‘ set last week at 11th Street Bar that was as evocative and mysteriously enticing as any show anywhere in New York this year. The first song was What Do Whales Dream About at Night, which was both enigmatic, and quirky, and had an ambitious sweep. Kilguss kept the jaws of fate open with Great White Shark, then sang the most haunting song of the night, The Master, one of the best of her folk noir masterpieces. Sinister as it seems, it’s actually a shout-out to Leonard Cohen, arguably Kilguss’ biggest influence

Then Kilguss and her jangly four-piece backing band careened through House of Rain and Leaves, a broodingly steady grey-sky narrative. With her calmly nuanced, crystalline voice soaring to the highs and murmuring among the lows, Kilguss channeled distant disaster and sudden menace as well as sardonic detachment. She knows that singing is acting, which makes sense since she built a career as a stage actress before plunging into songwriting more or less fulltime. She’s playing on an intriguing acoustic bill on Dec 4 at 7 PM at Mirror in the Woods, a tea shop at 575 Union St. in Gowanus. Take the R to Union St. and walk away from the slope. The other acts on the bill range from similarly strong tunesmiths like dark duo Lusterlit (Kilguss’ bandmates in lit-pop collective the Bushwick Book Club),, soulful cello-rocker Patricia Santos, Americana songstress Andi Rae Healy and some open mic lifers.

Kilguss’ other songs at the East Village show last week were subtler and somewhat more lighthearted. She opened, playing swaths of chords on harmonium, with Spain, a pensive blend of new wave and vintage soul and continued with Strangers, an opaque mix of Guided By Voices and Blondie, maybe. She closed the show with an unexpectedly upbeat Lori McKenna cover and then an almost completely deadpan take of a big radio hit from one of the most awful chick flicks of the 80s, a moment where nobody in the band could keep a straight face all the way through. Kilguss will probaby bring just as much angst, and menace, and ridiculous fun to the Brooklyn gig: it’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

Transcendent, Exhilarating, Haunting Iraqi Sounds at Roulette

For the past couple of years, impresarios Robert and Helene Browning have been booking a transcendentally good series of shows at Roulette, featuring artists from across the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. Those performances ought to be good: Robert Browning Associates have been doing this for over forty years, so they’ve built a vast talent base to draw from. While this season’s series of concerts is as wildly diverse as usual, the central theme this year is music from across the Arabic-speaking world. Saturday night’s show by impassioned Iraqi crooner Hamid Al-Saadi with Safaafir – this continent’s only classical Iraqi maqam ensemble – was as epic, and entrancing, and hauntingly relevant as any concert in New York this year.

They’d played at Lincoln Center this past March, and then a couple of times afterward, but this was a welcome opportunity to cut really cut loose. The Lincoln Center show featured songs that were somewhat shorter – ok, less than twenty or thirty minutes long – and seemed heavier on the more humorous material. But music from the Arabic-speaking diaspora is deep. In one haunting, dynamically rising and falling interlude at this show, Al-Saadi addressed the fleeting hope for relationship bliss, then the healing power of maqam riffage, then later the ever-present need to defeat occupying forces. You would expect no less from a socially aware narrative from Iraq from a century ago.

Al-Saadi’s voice is raw, often bristling with overtones: he holds back nothing. It was also in much better shape than at the Lincoln Center gig. Throughout this show, he’d either open a song with a big, resonant, potently melismatic crescendo, or he’d tease the audience (and his bandmates) to where he’d cut loose in the middle of a song.

Pretty much everybody else in the band sang along, or in a call-and-response. Bandleader Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena – the world’s most talented brother-sister team – gave Al-Saadi an alternately slinky and pouncing groove. Tim Moore’s dynamic, slyly shapeshifting dumbek beat fueled the concert’s peaks, when George Ziadeh’s oud, Amir’s pointillistic santoor or Dena’s otherworldly, rain-drenched joza fiddle were going full steam. Solos tended to be tantalizingly short.

The concert followed a roller-coaster trajectory, punctuated by several breathtaking vocal peaks. The ensemble began rather enigmatically, then broodingly and expressively worked their way up from enigmatic modes that roughly corresponded to the western whole-tone scale, to a fiery couple of concluding numbers seething with chromatics, microtones and a desire to rid the world of invaders, whether Ottoman or British. The pair of women on backup vocals added layers of depth to an already lavish and searing blend of sounds.

The Brownings’ concert series at Roulette continues this Dec 7 at 8 PM with legendary Javanese bandleader I. M. Harjito directing Gamelan Kusuma Laras in a program of rippling, hypnotic traditional bell orchestra sounds; general admission is $30.

Fresh New Interpretations and Dazzling Technique from Conrad Tao at Carnegie Hall

Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, pianist Conrad Tao delivered a performance that offered a glimpse of an unselfconscious bon vivant sensibility along with daunting, world-class chops and and frequently astonishing insight into a very diverse program.

Tao played with such precision and and evenness of attack that even the night’s most staccato passages had fluidity. He leveraged the thrill factor with an old orchestral trick, beginning pieces or developing themes from a whispery pianissimo so that when things got loud, they seemed even louder. But what was most impressive is that he’d spent a lot of time under the hood with these works, figuring out exactly what makes them purr…or roar.

He opened with David Lang‘s Cage [sorry dude, titles are capitalized around here], a brisk study in single-note counterpoint and a shout-out to the famously silent American composer. Tao’s matter-of-factness and exactitude enhanced the music’s hypnotic feel: others might not have played this as a nocturne, and that’s their loss.

Others also definitely would not have played Bach’s Tocccata in F Sharp minor, BWV 910 with as much spaciousness, and dynamics, and probably with less or even none of the judicious rubato that Tao would return to again and again throughout the evening. But in so doing, he revealed the love ballad at the heart of the work, its fondly jubilant righthand melody cleverly cached amid the composer’s outwardly morphing phrases. Obviously, Bach on the piano is inevitably going to be iconoclastic: this was as rewarding to hear as it must have been fun to play, Tao gritting his teeth and raising his eyebrows as the web grew more complex.

Another work that got even more time under the microscope, as far as extracting every ambitious flicker of modernity, was Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in A minor, Op. 39, no. 2. Harmonically, it’s almost shockingly more adventurous than the rest of those relatively brief High Romantic iano pieces, most of which he wrote in the 1890s. This one dates from 1917, foreshadowing where he’d go with the Third Piano Concerto and its incessantly shapeshifting jazz-influenced rhythms and flourishes.

Tao delivered Julia Wolfe‘s Earring with acerbity and meticulous, often pointillistic rhythm. There seemed to be a man-versus-machine narrative prefiguring her John Henry suite; here, the machine grew more and more human, with a belltone poignancy. To close the first half of the evening, Tao returned to Lang for another 1990s composition, Wed, an increasingly plaintive, restless, frequently carrilonesque ballad written as a salute to a couple who got married while the bride lay dying in the hospital.

The centerpiece of the second half of the program was a breathtakingly expressive and fresh performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Counterintuitively, the high point was also the quietest section, awash in resonant, lingering phrases, the contrast even greater considering how fast Tao had scampered, if not particularly loudly, through the introduction. Lilting cantabile passages stood out amid minor-key unease and a dance that seemed not only rather Russian but almost phantasmagorical, as Tao worked the dynamics up and down, all the way through to a puckish coda.

There were a couple of misfires too. It’s one thing to program a study in spastic/resonant contrasts, but two? At least the Jason Eckart piece eventually wound down to a blackly suspenseful reflecting pool…but getting there, as the rhythm was epileptically jerked around any time the music could have coalesced, was torture. Which is not to say that ugly music can’t be meaningful or impactful, but this could have made its point in a tenth the time, never mind the Elliott Carter piece it was paired with. And the mawkishly inept freak-folk of Daniel Johnston is no less artless or awkward at Carnegie Hall than it would be on open mic night at any grungy, overpriced Bushwick beardo bar.

Rare Intimacy with the King of Calypso, the Mighty Sparrow at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center impresario Viviana Benitez introduced Thursday night’s show by the Mighty Sparrow with a quote from a recent interview he’d given to Vivien Goldman. The octogenarian king of calypso had explained succinctly that singularity is no longer the order of the day, and that if there’s ever been a time for the people to unite, this is it.

That’s as political as he got. With his powerful, protean baritone as colorful as ever and his usual outrageous sense of humor, he led an exuberant, eight-piece New York backing unit through a set of classics from throughout his seventy-year career. Calypso and soca lyrics often have a powerful social awareness, but this show was packed mostly with scampering, irrepressibly devious, innuendo-driven dance tunes. It’s hard to imagine Bob Marley’s 1970s work, dancehall reggae toasters like Yellowman, or for that matter a lot of hip-hop, without Sparrow paving the way.

The brief Q&A before the show set the tone. With his signature blend of sagacity and deadpan wit, Sparrow was as funny when he deflected a question as when he was willing to offer an answer. “I remember your music being very sexual for that time,” a Caribbean woman a few decades younger asserted, before inquiring whether or not he writes his own songs. Sparrow didn’t answer, didn’t move a muscle, as chuckles broke out among the crowd. Later, asked if he had a favorite song, he declared he didn’t think he’d ever done one he didn’t like, which spoke volumes for the performance.

The night’s funniest number was Pussycat, with harmony singers Erica Smith and Rembert Block coyly punching in on the refrain “Afraid pussy bite me.” The song is all the more classic for being completely G-rated. Sparrow’s so afraid of this little kitty that he’s never going to touch pussy again – but wait, some pussy doesn’t have teeth. And by the way, who got the scissors to cut pussy’s whiskers?

The salsa-spiced Sparrow Dead was just as amusing in a completely different way, flipping the script on anyone who’d dare hate on a legend. Thinly veiled, suggestive references were everywhere, from the tongue-in-cheek Mr. Walker,, to the sardonic No Money No Love, to the thunderingly macho Congo Man. and finally the witheringly cynical, anti-imperialist 1956 hit Jean and Dinah. The whole massive knew the words and sang along lustily.

The band rose to the occasion, bouncing and bubbling. Pianist Phillip Nichols provided some lushly neoromantic solo intros along with a lot of driving, Cuban-influenced lines alongside lead guitarist Lane Steinberg,, acoustic guitarist Dave Foster, Louis Fouche on sax, Tom DeVito on drums and reggae legend Larry McDonald on percussion. The womens’ harmonies – Smith’s jazz nuance and megawatt smile contrasting with the more cabaret-influenced Block’s calm but brassy presence – raised the music’s steamy energy to tropical temperatures.

The Mighty Sparrow’s next New York appearance is at Joe’s Pub on Dec 7 at 7 PM; tix are $25. The mostly-weekly free concert series at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues with a rare Tuesday show tomorrow night, Nov 26 at 7: 30 PM featuring Afro-Cuban pianist Dayramir González & Habana enTRANCé. Smith and Foster are also playing with one of their other projects, the Gershwin Brothers, opening for a concert performance of Block’s new opera at the Treehouse at 2A at 9 PM on Dec 8.

Picturesque Brilliance and Rare Treasures at Vasco Dantas’ New York Debut

“Feel free to create your own story for each of these preludes,” pianist Vasco Dantas encouraged the big crowd who’d come out for his New York debut at Carnegie Hall yesterday. Playing from memory for the better part of two hours, he gave them a panoramic view from five thousand feet. The music didn’t need titles or explanations: whatever was there, he brought out in stunning focus.

The most highly anticipated part of the program comprised a very rarely performed, pentatonically-spiced suite, Portuguese composer Luis de Freitas Branco’s 10 Preludios. Interspersing these World War I vintage pieces with five from Debussy’s 1910 Book 1 might well seem ludicrous on face value. But in a particularly sharp stroke of programming, Dantas had rearranged them so that, at least for those familiar with the French composer, there was never a question as to who was who.

And Branco’s music in many ways is more Debussy than Debussy himself: what a discovery! An Asian influence, often gamelanesque, sometimes mystical, was ubiquitous, as were close harmonies that sometimes reached an aching unresolve. Taking his time to let the narratives unfold, Dantas revealed a lullaby cached inside the ripples of Branco’s first prelude, followed by the vigorously waltzing, chiming incisiveness of the second.

The first of the Debussy works, The Sunken Cathedral, was also a revelation in that the pianist bookended its opulent languor and nebulous mysticism around a sternly rhythmic midsection: this was one striking edifice rising from the depths! Other delightful Debussy moments abounded, particularly the deviously blithe song within a song in What the West Wind Saw, and the momentary fish out of water amidst the sun-splattered ripples of Sails.

The rest of the Branco preludes glittered with minute detail. Spare, wintry impressionism moved aside for sharp-fanged, modally-tinged phantasmagoria and a slightly muted mockery of a march. The most dramatic interlude was in Branco’s Modern Ride of the Valkyries, its grim chromatics bordering on the macabre. The most technically challenging was the Preludio No. 5, Branco’s own relentlessly torrential counterpart to Debussy’s famous hailstorm shredding the vegetation.

Dantas brought equally telescopic brilliance to an old favorite of the Halloween repertoire, Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Yet not once did he go over the line into grand guignol: he left no doubt that this was a requiem. Who would have expected the carnivalesque creepiness of The Gnome to be dignified, and balanced, with just as much quasi-balletesque grace? The Old Castle may be a familiar horror theme, but Dantas’ insistently tolling low pedal notes reminded that this was in memory of a most original friend.

There were a few points where Dantas brought the menace to just short of redline – those were truly mad cows! – but otherwise, this was about poignancy and reflection. Dantas’ unwavering, perfectly articulated, otherworly chattering phrases in Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks were spine-tingling. The contrasts between the elegant Samuel Goldenberg and his lumbering namesake from the boondocks were striking yet sympathetic. Similarly, the grief in Dantas’ vast, desolate interpretation of The Catacombs was visceral, as was the unexpectedly distant horror of Baba Yaga. And he drew a straight line all the way back to Beethoven with the long crescendos and false endings after the whirling, evilly gleeful peasant dance in The Great Gate of Kiev.

After a series of standing ovations, he encored with his own gleaming, moodily Chopinesque arrangement of the Burnay Fado, from his home turf, complete with sparkly ornamentation mimicking a Portuguese twelve-string guitar. Let’s hope this individualistic rescuer of obscure and forgotten repertoire makes it back here soon.