New York Music Daily

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Category: gypsy jazz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NYMD: What’s your alltime favorite accordion concert?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Maureen Choi Quartet Bring Their Dynamic Flamenco String Sounds to Queen

Violinist Maureen Choi began her career as a singer; as the story goes, she switched to violin after a brush with death. She lives in Spain now, where she and her quartet play a passionate, dynamic blend of Andalucian, flamenco, Romany and South American sounds. The band’s latest album Ida y Vuelta (Round Trip) is streaming at Spotify; they’ve got a show coming up tomorrow night, July 1 at 8 at Terrazza 7, 40-19 Gleane St. just off Baxter in Elmhurst; cover is $10.  Take the 7 to 82nd St.

Choi plays the album’s Django-influenced opening, title track with a lingering restraint echoed by pianist Daniel Garcia Diego’s elegantly climbing lines until drummer Michael Olivera picks up the pace, and they wind their way up to a big crescendo….then they’re off again,

Bassist Mario Carrillo grounds the neoromantically biting waltz Vals O Vienes with a gritty pulse, Diego glimmering uneasily and then adding a little blues, Choi growing starker and more kinetic as the band takes it deeper into flamenco. The catchy, folk-tinged tango Valentia grows both more lush and propusive as Choi leaps and bounds, with a playful salsa interlude midway through, Choi’s plaintively sailing melody contasts with the low-key but balletesque elegance of Bolero Del Alba. A tightly wound remake of Besame Mucho, Elizabeth eventually diverges into flamenco jazz, Diego gracefully handing off to Choi’s achingly melismatic attack.

Choi’s remake of Mercedes Sosa’s Alfonsina y El Mar is a sweepingly dancing duet with guest bassist Javier Colina. Choi’s steely resonance and Carrillo’s growling, prowling drive pair off in Negra Presuntuosa, a trickily rhythmic Peruvian lando. Pianist Pepe Rivero gives the bolero Dama De Noche and understated bounce while Choi digs in hard, up to a wry trick ending that’s 180 degrees from the rest of the song

The album’s most lighthearted cut is Bilongo, a cha-cha. The quartet reinvent Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol as a martial shuffle and then fllamenco jazz;. They close the album with Gracias A La Vida, the Violeta Parra ballad made famous by Sosa, Choi’s spare, prayerful lead paired with Diego’s delicate, wistful piano. If flamenco fire, south-of-the-border melancholy or Romany rambunctiousness are your thing, you can’t go wrong with this band.

Stephane Wrembel Releases a Lavish, Charecteristically Edgy New Romany Jazz Album at Drom Tonight

Guitarist Stephane Wrembel made a name for himself as a stormy, erudite interpreter of Django Reinhardt, but his own body of work encompasses far more than that, using Romany jazz as a stepping-off point for his own distinctive ventures into Middle Eastern sounds and psychedelic rock. His lavish, dynamically rich, often poignant new double cd The Django Experiment is streaming at youtube. Disc one is mostly an imaginative mix of Django classics; disc two is mostly originals, in more of a jazz vein than what audiences get at his ongoing, legendary most-every-Sunday night 9 PM-ish residency at Barbes. He’s playing the album release show tonight, June 10 at 8 PM at Drom; hopefully by now you have your $15 advance tickets because it’s an extra five at the door.

The first disc opens with Nuages, Wrembel’s elegantly spare, resonant lines over Thor Jensen’s spring-loaded rhythm guitar, Ari Folman-Cohen’s bass and Nick Anderson’s drums. Wrembel takes somewhat the opposite approach with his tremolo-picking on the waltz Gin-Gin, then he and Folman-Cohen have fun working the chromatic edges of Bouncin’ Around, a close cousin to Brother Can You Spare a Dime.

Nick Driscoll’s clarinet spirals around and intertwines artfully with Wrembel on the jaunty Dinette. By contrast, Wrembel and Jensen max out the modal melancholy in a majestically spacious take of Troublant Bolero, up to a characteristically careening crescendo. It makes a good segue with the first of Wrembel’s originals, Windmills, a brisk, deliciously broodng waltz.

The band goes back to the Django catalog for a bubbly, lickety-split take of Place de Broukere, followed by the bucolic desolation of Carnets de Route,Wrembel’s moodily magical mashup of Django and Pink Floyd. The up-down dynamics continue with the coyly strutting Djangology and then Wrembel’s plaintively mined take of Sasha Distel’s Ma Premiere Guitare. Disc one winds up with Wrembel’s wistful waltz Jacques Prevert followed by a roller-coaster ride through Django’s Minor Swing. the bandleader channeling Wes Montgomery up to a mightily plucked bass solo and finally a stampede out.

The second disc begins with the epically vamping Douce Ambience. It perfectly capsulizes the confluence of Middle Eastern modalities and Romany swing that Wrembel first began mining around ten years ago, the guitarist’s understated unease in contrast with Driscoll’s relentless centrifugal force on soprano sax, Anderson taking it out with a long hailstorm of a solo. Viper’s Dream is pretty close to the Django version, with a little wryly bouncing Tal Farlow thrown in.

A waltz by Bamboula Ferrret benefits from Wrembel’s judicious, occasionally tremolo-picked phrases mixed into an attack that’s equally precise and resonant: all those notes don’t just vanish into thin air. Boston, another waltz, begins wistfully, grows more elegaic and then Wrembel builds a long, growling upward drive. Then the band flips the script with the toe-tapping shuffle Double Scotch, Driscoll adding dixieland effervescence.

Reinhardt’s midtempo stroll Tears reveals itself here as the source of a Beatles hit that Big Lazy likes to take even deeper into the shadows. Nanoc, which is Wrembel’s Caravan, opens with a levantine slink and slithers further off the rails from there. Then he makes a surreal juxtaposition with Django’s Louis Jordan-influenced Heavy Artillery, which is anything but. After that, Minor Blues is middle ground, more or less, Wrembel adding an understated intensity, part Wes Montgomery, part psychedelic rock, with a long, practically frantic sprint out.

Interestingly, the album’s best track isn’t one of the barn-burners but Wrembel’s slow, hushed, allusively flamenco-ish Film Noir. Raising the ante again, Driscoll’s clarinet infuses Songe d’Automne with an indian summer breeze. The final cut is the enigmatically balmy ballad Anouman, ironically the closest thing to straight-up postbop here. Over and over, Wrembel reaffirms his status as paradigm-shifter and one of the world’s most engaging, original innovators in Romany guitar jazz.

Miklos Lukacs’ Bewitching Cimbalom Unlimited Play an Epic Album Release Show at Drom

The mysterious, bewitchingly rippling cimbalom is the national instrument of Hungary, more or less. While it’s best known to American audiences as a staple of Romany music, rock acts from Judy Henske to Hazmat Modine have used it. It looks like a harpsichord without the keys; like its oldest descendant, the Egyptian kanun, it’s played with mallets. Miklos Lukacs is the Jimi Hendrix of the instrument. In his hands, it doesn’t just ring and resonate: it whirs and purrs, and flickers, and sometimes roars. Last night at Drom, Lukacs took the cimbalom to places it’s never gone before, in a magical album release show for his new one, Cimbalom Unlimited, joined by Harish Raghavan on bass and Eric Harland on drums.

Lukacs’ stately, spaciously suspenseful, allusively modal intro set the tone for the night: after awhile, his epic songs became part of an even more epic tapestry that stretched from India, to the Middle East, to Harlem in the 1950s. As the rhythm crept in, the trio built to a pulsing, leapfrogging, relentlessly pouncing drive, Lukacs waves’ of melody shifting toward the blues rather than the Middle East, but again, not going there directly. Raghavan added the first of more than one bubbling cauldron of a solo as Harland deftly syncopated the torrents of beats. Lukacs’ axe is a percussion instrument, so it was no surprise to see his rapidfire attack on the strings echoed by his bandmates. The only surprise was the cold ending. a playfully recurrent trope all night.

Raghavan began the next number just as the bandleader had opened the first one, Lukacs lurking on the perimeter with an icy glimmer. Slowly and enigmatically, the two exchanged places as Lukacs developed a plaintive, elegaic theme, Harland spicing the swaying rhythm with the occasional snowshower of cymbals or ominous snare hit. Spaciously clustered spirals rippled and pinged against Harland’s increasingly propulsive, circular phrases as momentum grew, up to a deceptively simple Kashmiri-inflected theme. Each instrument pulled against the center, seemingly hoping to break completely free, then Lukacs picked one of the eeriest chromatic phrases of the night to loop unwaveringly, for what seemed minutes on end as Harland navigated a vortex of his own.

A bass solo over Lukacs’ lingering, menacing tritones opened the next number, the cimbalom edging toward melancholy ballad territory and then pouncing but never quite hitting it head-on: the suspense was unrelenting. Lukacs doesn’t just use mallets; he uses his hands for a muted inside-the-piano-style approach, at one point using the handles instead when he wanted to get really spiky. From its starry, solo cimbalom intro, the third song of the night was arguably the best, a twisted, labyrinthine Balkan jazz lounge theme – a Black Lodge of Sarajevo.

From there, menacing tritone-laced pavanes alternated with long, majestic Harland crescendos, Raghavan alternating between mournful, low bowed washes and ominously percolating cadenzas. Along the way, Lukacs alluded to the moody maqams of the Middle East, the hypnotic hooks of India and the occasional flicker of postbop piano jazz but never completely let any of those ideas coalesce and define the music. Clearly, he’s invented something the world has never heard before and wants to keep it that way.

Lukacs’ next gig is in Athens at the Technopolis Jazz Festival on May 27 at 10. Another enticingly syncretic, esoteric show a little closer to home – the kind that Drom specializes in – is happening there on June 9. It’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Who plays when is still up in the air, but it really doesn’t matter since all of these acts are a lot of fun. Advance tix are a bargain at $20 and still available as of today.

A Rare New York Show and a Killer Album from Paris Combo

Long before the Squirrel Nut Zippers were a gleam in anybody’s eye, or there was such a band as the Flying Neutrinos – remember them? – Paris Combo were swinging the hell out of a sound that was part 20s, part 30s and part 80s, at least when they started. Since then, they’ve maintained a devoted fan base on their side of the pond, but they make it over here too infrequently. Their French lyrics are sardonic, playful and funny; likewise, their music has a lot more edge and bite than your typical goodtimey swing band, which makes sense considering that they got their start when punk rock was still current. These irrepressible, ever-more-eclectic Parisians are making a rare New York stop at City Winery on Feb 21 at 8 PM; $25 admission is available, meaning that you can stand somewhere within shouting distance of the bar and not feel stressed about buying expensive drinks.

Paris Combo’s latest album Tako Tsubo – a Japanese term for the very real cardiological effects of heartbreak – is streaming at youtube. The opening number, Bonne Nouvelle (Good News) is a real stunner, part tarantella rock, part Romany swing. Frontwoman/accordionist Belle du Berry understates the narrative’s ominous undercurrent: it’s about playing with fire, more or less.

Pianist David Lewis opens Je Suis Partie (I’m Out of Here) with an uneasy minor-key glimmer, du Berry channeling moody angst as the band leaps into a bouncy groove from bassist Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac and drummer François Jeannin. Then Lewis supplies balmy trumpet over guitarist Potzi’s breezy, cosmopolitan swing shuffle in the album’s title track, with a droll, tongue-in-cheek hip-hop interlude.

Anemiques Maracas is one of the album’s funniest numbers, part Morricone soundtrack spoof, part yuppie satire. Profil does double duty as balmy, vampy retro 60s ye-ye pop and snide commentary on internet dating. Notre Vie Comme un Western (Our Life As a Western) opens as a surprisingly uneasy waltz and then takes on a cynical bolero-tinged atmosphere, Europeans equally mesmerized and mystified by American cultural imperialism.

Part Django swing, part tongue-in-cheek spy theme, D’Heidi has a wide-eyed sarcasm that recalls the group’s Dutch 80s/90s contemporaries Gruppo Sportivo. The slashing wordplay of Specimen comes across as a French counterpart to New York murder ballad duo Charming Disaster. Just title of Mon Anatomie Cherche un Ami – part Doors, part Chicha Libre – takes that cleverness to to the next level,

Vaille Que Vaille (Somehow) follows a pretty savage faux-Spanish waltz sway: it’s an oldschool existentialist cautionary tale. The faux-reggae Cuir Interieur (Leather Seats) is just plain hilarious: if the Tubes had been good French speakere, they might have sounded something like this. The album winds up with Orageuse (Stormy), which is funny because it’s hardly that – it’s a balmy before-the-rain scenario, at best. Every time you listen to this, you discover something new and amusing, which might well be poking fun at you too. Count this as one of the best albums to come over the transom here in the past several months.

Irrepressibly Fun Cosmopolitan Swing from the Avalon Jazz Band

The Avalon Jazz Band’s new album Je Suis Swing – streaming at their music page – was made for swing dancing, first and foremost. It’s irresistibly charming, and cheery, and fun. The Franco-New York group mine a century’s worth of bouncy continental jazz sounds, from Romany guitar shuffles, to Belgian musette and classic chanson. The group’s musicianship is first-rate and fast; even if they didn’t have the winsome presence of singer Tatiana Eve-Marie out in front of the band, they’d still be a lot of fun to listen to. They’re playing this Feb 15 at 8 PM at Guadalupe Inn at the corner of Knickerbocker and Johnson Aves. in Bushwick; cover is $8. Take the L to Morgan Ave.

The album kicks off with the Djangoesque shuffle Menilmontant, Tatiana channeling the song’s wistfulness in a delivery that’s airy and sunny but just as crisp. Guitarist Olli Soikkeli’s spiraling, spiky Romany leads fly above the muted chords of fellow six-stringer Vinny Raniolo, augmented by violinist Adrien Chevalier and accordionist Albert Behar while bassist Brandi Disterheft supplies the groove.

Coquette gives clarinetist Evan Arntzen a chance to for some droll tradeoffs with Chevarlier; Tatiana sings in English. She switches back to French for the brisk title track and its period-perfect 1920s vernacular; after a jaunty Arntzen solo, one of the guys takes a turn on the mic for a verse in French, guessing that it’s Chevalier.

La Complainte de la Butte has a bittersweet, waltzling lilt fueled by Behar’s turbulent chords; Chevalier kicks in a dancing solo. Tatiana goes back to English for their version of the jazz standard I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, recast as Romany swing with a blithe alto sax solo followed by more fiery ones by Arntzen and Chevarlier. Stompin at Decca is a vehicle for precision and raw adrenaline alike from Soikkeli and Chevalier. Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup, with its droll code-switching, sounds like a more over-top take on something by Charles Trenet from the 40s. C’est Si Bon outdoes pretty much every other version in the chipperness department; the waltzing instrumental Songe D’Automne makes a somber contrast until the band hits the turnaround and then swings the hell out of it.

Tatiana makes the labyrinthine volleys of lyrics to Le Soleil et la Lune sound easy as the band shifts between blithe and moody. They Djangify Sweet Sue, with some coy call-and-response between Tatiana and the band; their version of Rosetta a little later is much the same. Ironically, the album’s best song is the matter-of-fact, melancholy, pastorally-tinged Seule Ce Soir (Alone Tonight).

Their version of J’ai Ta Main (Holding Your Hand) is a study in dark/light contrasts.They reinvent Clair de Lune as a balmy but wary slowdance number with Arntzen’s nuanced clarinet balanced by Soikkeli’s highwire guitar work and Chevalier’s pensively soaring violin. The album winds up with Qu’est-ce Qu’on Attend (What Are We Waiting For?), a high-class party anthem. If you might be wondering how Avalon Jazz Band stuff a grand total of sixteen tracks onto the album, it’s because only a few of them top the three-minute mark. Quick, get back out there on the floor!

Saturday Night at Golden Fest: Best Concert of 2017, Hands Down

Game plan for last night’s big blowout at this year’s Golden Fest was to see as many unfamiliar bands as possible. That wasn’t difficult, considering that there were more than sixty Balkan and Balkan-influenced acts playing five different spaces in about eight hours at Brooklyn’s magnificent Grand Prospect Hall. The way things turned out, it was fun to catch a few familiar favorites among a grand total of fifteen different groups. Consider: when the swaying chandelier hanging over Raya Brass Band looks like it could crash on top of them at any second, and sax player Greg Squared has launched into one of his signature, supersonic volleys of microtones and chromatics, and singer Brenna MacCrimmon is belting at full throttle over a machinegunning beat, there’s no resisting that. You just join the line of dancers, or step back, take a hit of tequila  – or whatever your poison is, this is a party – and thank the random chance that you’re alive to see this.

If you’re hell-bent on being a counterintuitive concertgoer, you can kick off the evening not with the fiery brass music that the festival is best known for, but with something along the lines of the brooding Romany and klezmer guitar folk of charismatic singer Zhenya Lopatnik’s four-piece acoustic band, Zapekanka. Their set of Romany laments, drinking songs, and a folk tune that foreshadowed Django Reinhardt turned out to be a lot more bittersweet than the Russian cheesecake whose name they’ve appropriated.

It was good to get a chance to see Niva – kaval player Bridget Robbins, tamburists Corinna Snyder and Kristina Vaskys and tapan drummer Emily Geller – since they don’t play out as much as they used to, considering their members are busy with other projects. This was a recurrent theme throughout the festival. A straw poll of informed participants picked percussionist Jerry Kisslinger as king of the night, so to speak: he was scheduled to play with seven different groups, jams not included. He wasn’t part of this band. The quartet joined voices for about a half an hour of ethereal close harmonies over hypnotically circling rhythms, a mix of Macedonian dances and tunes from just over the Bulgarian border, even more lavishly ornamented with bristling microtones. Meanwhile, the circle of dancers in the upstairs Rainbow Room – much smaller than the venue’s magnificent ballroom – had packed the space to almost capacity.

Driven by Gyorgy Kalan’s austerely cavorting, rustically ornamented fiddle, the trio Fenyes Banda kept the dancers going with a mix of Hungarian and Transylvanian numbers. As raw and bucolic (yet at the same time very musically sophisticated) as that group was, it’s hard to think of an ensemble on the bill more evocative of a get-together in a village square in some distant century than Ta Aidhonia. The mixed choir harmonized in a somewhat subdued, stately set of Thracian dances, backed only by bagpipe and standup drum. The dancers didn’t quite to know what to make of this in the early going, but by a couple of songs in they were back out on the floor.

By half past eight, it was finally time to make a move downstairs for the mighty Kavala, who played a considerably more contemporary update on late 20th century Macedonian brass music, propelled by electric bass and drums. Trubas bubbled and blazed through fiery chromatic changes until finally, practically at the end of the set, star tenor sax player Lefteris Bournias took one of his signature, wildfire, shivery solos. Back upstairs, Ornamatik took a similarly electric sound further into the 21st century, the music’s fat low end anchored by nimble five-string bassist Ben Roston and frontwoman/trombonist Bethanni Grecynski. Their slinky, shapeshifting originals brought to mind Brooklynites Tipsy Oxcart (who were also on the bill, and deserve a shout for their incendiary, stomping set of mostly new material at Barbes Thursday night).

While the Roma Stars entertained the dancers in the big ballroom with woozy P-Funk synth in addition to the brass, ageless Armenian-American jazz sage Souren Baronian held the Rainbow Room crowd rapt. The octogenarian reedman’s most mesmerizing moment came during a long, undulating modal vamp where he took his clarinet and opened the floodgates of a somberly simmering river of low-register, uneasily warping microtones. And then suddenly lept out of it with a hilariously surreal quote – and the band behind him hit the chorus head-on without missing a beat. As far as dynamics and judiciously placed ideas and unselfconscious soul go, it would be unfair to expect other musicians to channel such a depth of feeling.

Although two of the acts afterward, Eva Salina and Peter Stan, and tar lute player Amir Vahab’s quartet, came awfully close. While his singer bandmate reached gracefully for angst and longing and also unrestrained joy, Stan was his usual virtuoso self. At one point, the accordionist was playing big chords, a rapidfire, slithery melody and a catchy bassline all at the same time. Was he using a loop pedal? No. It was all live. That’s how the duo are recording their forthcoming studio album, reason alone to look forward to it. Vahab’s wary, panoramic take on classic Persian and Turkish sufi themes, and his gracefully intense volleys of notes over twin percussion and otherworldly, rippling kanun, continued to the hold the crowd spellbound

By this time in the evening, many of the dancers had migrated to an even higher floor for the blazing, often completely unhinged and highly improvisational South Serbian sounds of the Novi Hitovi Brass Band. By contrast, Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band rose to the challenge of following Raya Brass Band’s volcanic set with a precise, wickedly intricate performance of their own all-original material, complete with their shoutalong theme song to close on a high note. Trumpeter/bandleader Sam Dechenne’s command of microtones and moody Balkan modes matched Greg Squared’s devastating displays of technique, if in a somewhat more low-key vein.

Hanging in the smaller rooms for most of the night while the biggest names on the bill – organizers Zlatne Uste and trumpeter Frank London’s klezmer ensemble on the top end – entertained a packed house in the ballroom, reached a haunting peak with  a vivid, hauntingly serpentine, all-too-brief set of Syrian exile anthems and lost-love ballads by levantine ensemble Zikrayat. Frontman/violinist Sami Abu Shumays led the group through this alternately poignant and biting material, the night’s furthest divergence from the Balkans into the Middle East, with his usual sardonic sense of humor and acerbic chops.

Finally, at almost two in the morning, it was time to head down to the main floor for the night’s pounding coda, from the night’s most epic act, massive street band What Cheer? Brigade. At one point, it seemed as if there were as many people in the group, gathered onstage and on the main floor as there were dancers, all romping together through a handful of swaying brass anthems that were as hypnotic as they were loud. The group’s explosive drumline had a lot to do with that. By now, the tequila was gone; so was a pocketful of Turkish taffy and Lebanese sesame crunch filched from one of the innumerable candy bowls placed around the venue by the organizers. Although everybody had been on their feet all night long, the remaining crowd looked like they really could have gone until dawn if the music had kept going. As the party did: a couple of rounds of ouzo and Souren Baronian classics on the stereo at a friends’ place up the block turned out to be the perfect way to wind down the best night of the year, musically speaking.

Darkly Hypnotic, Intense, Cross-Pollinated Hungarian Sounds at Drom Last Night

Last night’s concert at Drom hit a harrowing peak with Hungarian trance-dance band Meszecsinka‘s frontwoman Annamaria Olah hidden behind her mane of long, flowing hair, wailing and flailing and crying out on the beat as her own voice echoed low and ominously in response, through a loop pedal. Guitarist/keyboardist Emil Biljarszki had explained beforehand that the song addressed an ancient Christian theme that he didn’t bother to elaborate on any further. “You’ll get it,” Olah told the crowd with an enigmatically wistful smile before bassist Árpád Vajdovich and drummer Dávid Krolikowski kicked off the big, crescendoing minor-key anthem with a hypnotic, insistently swaying pulse. Although this was an intimate club gig with pristine sound, it was easy to imagine a hundred thousand people at some European summer festival flailing and swaying in unison in response to Olah’s passion onstage. Whatever awestruck terror the song was meant to evoke – the apocalypse? A martyr meeting a particularly grisly fate? – it was impossible to turn away from

Earlier in the evening, two darkly psychedelic, Balkan-tinged folk-jazz acts – accordionist David Yengibarian and his trio, and Borbély Mihály Polygon – followed their respective opening jams with similarly captivating, disquieting numbers, albeit much more slowly and quietly. The opening trio’s was a mournful dirge that imbued a stark Hungarian folk theme with a haunted they-burned-down-my-shtetl resonance straight out of klezmer music. Saxophonist Mihály Borbély’s three-piece unit with pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés built shadowy noir cinematics that they slowly took in a slightly brighter, more improvisational direction. That they’d begun their set with a mashup of wild downtown John Zorn-style New York jazz and surf rock is just one example of how wildly eclectic the night was.

That a concert like this could be staged at at moment where nationalist extremists threaten to wall off the kind of transnational cross-pollination responsible for such  riveting musical hybridization speaks to the potential power of resistance. Millions of people resonate to these sounds far more than to strident racist rhetoric or Twitter demagoguery. It’s up to us to mobilize and create an opposition to ensure that this kind of artistry, and the hope it represents, has the opportunity to move forward.

Because it would be a crime not to be able to witness Lukacs playing elegant blues, or channeling Carla Bley with a feral attack on the low strings of his of his ringing, overtone-laden Hungarian zither. What a shame it would have been to miss being able to enjoy the endlessly clever, tongue-in-cheek volleys of deadpan humor that Yengibarian’s drummer, Mark Badics, engaged in throughout the group’s tantalizingly short set – he’s ever bit as formidable as any of his American jazz counterparts, Tain Watts and Rudy Royston included. Or for that matter, to miss out on the chance to get lost in Meszecsinka’s mesmerizing mashups of otherworldly Bulgarian folk and lush European art-rock over irresistibly undulating beats.

This concert was staged by Music Export Budapest along with the Hungarian National Trading House, and the Balassi Institute, one of New York’s most vital cultural organizations, who champion Hungarian music, film, visual art and more. If you’re a true cosmopolitan New Yorker and you’re not on their email list, you’re missing out. In addition, this weekend’s slate of shows at Drom – Manhattan’s global music mecca – continues tonight and tomorrow with everything from darkly slinky psychedelic boleros, to Moroccan trance grooves, to classical Indian sitar music. Cover is only $10 each night; music starts at 7 and goes til past midnight.

Kamikaze Ground Crew Revisit Their Playfully Carnivalesque, Distinctively Erudite Downtown Sound at Roulette

Kamikaze Ground Crew played a somewhat under-the-radar but nonetheless historic reunion show at Roulette last week. Those in attendance might not have completely packed Barbes, where co-founder Gina Leishman played most recently, but they would have sold out the Stone and would have thrilled the tourists at Jazz at Lincoln Center, whether or not that crowd would have recognized them. And many of them would have. This downtown supergroup dates back to the early 80s, when they were a real circus band. There’s been some turnover in the lineup over the years: this was the 90s edition, Leishman more or less out in front and joined by Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Peter Apfelbaum on tenor sax, Doug Wieselman on multi-reeds, Marcus Rojas on tuba, Art Baron on trombone and Kenny Wollesen on drums and gongs Together they delivered a cinematic program that shifted elegantly from amusement to suspense, making tango out of Stravinsky, a wary stroll out of Stockhausen, kaleidescopically disasssembling noir cabaret and taking several detours in a sideshow direction.v

The funniest part of the evening, and the one that harked back most vividly to the band’s punk-jazz roots, was when everybody put down his or her horn and picked up a beer bottle. Bernstein had meticulously adjusted the level in each of them to deliver a specific pitch. Then the whole group blew a surprisingly tight horn chart on their bottles. All that extra beer didn’t seem to affect the trumpeter – although Leishman grinningly recounted how the whole band had to do a lot of drinking in rehearsal to get the part right.

She opened on piano, leading the band through a moody, carefully orchestrated, slowly pulsing new number, switching to alto sax and then back to piano. By the time the show finally wrapped up, almost two hours later, she’d also played baritone sax, ukulele and accordion. Apfelbaum provided judicious resonance and one of the night’s most mysterioualy captivating moments, a long, almost imperceptibly crescendoing solo while Wieselman spiraled artfully through the mix, Wollesen coloring the songs with his rims and hardware and finally the deep-space boom of the gongs. The brass alternated between looming, portentous swells and unleashed exuberance, Rojas opening one number with a solo that veered from comedic to a completely unexpected, frantic chase riff.

They made an early Ellingtonian strut out of Robert Johnson’s Rolling and Tumbling, coalescing slowly out of a flutter of individual voices. A new diptych by Wieselman began as variations on a deceptively simple circular phrase and finally rose out of its slow, whirlpooling chart to more animated terrain. The night’s most overtly noir moments came during a Piazzolla number that shifted back and forth between bustling 50s noir jazz, dixieland flair and a murky interlude midway through. A couple of slow, altered swing numbers souned like the long buildups to the circus acts they probably were written for. And Leishman entreated the audience to listen closely to the Bach-like beauty in a Brecht-Weill number that she’d sliced and diced to bring out every bit of longing its central, canon-like melody before pulling it all together and singing the wistful song pretty much straight up.

Bernstein and Baron got to cut loose the most on a trio of boisterous New Orleans shuffles in the same vein as the former’s recent work with his band the Hot 9, with pianist Henry Butler. Since each band member is involved in so many other projects, there’s no telling if and when this group will reconvene. If there was any band who were before their time, this is them.

Beyond the indie classical and the avant garde stuff that Roulette programs – Glenn Branca is bringing his guitar orchestra here on Oct 8, which should raise the roof – the venue books a lot of jazz as well, no surprise since the space’s original Tribeca incarnation was a jazz loft. On Oct 16, veteran alto saxophonist Oliver Lake begins a contrasting two-night stand. The first night, trumpeter Josh Evans’ Quintet opens for Lake’s Big Band. The second night, Oct 18 pairs two especially interesting postbop trios: trombonist/crooner Frank Lacy with a rhythm section of Kevin Ray and Andrew Drury followed by Lake with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. Showtime is 8 PM; $20 adv tix are highly rcommended.

Sandcatchers Play a Magical Mix of Psychedelia, the Middle East and Pastoral Jazz

Guitarist Yoshie Fruchter has been involved with a ton of great projects, from John Zorn’s Abraxas to Frank London’s big band, but his most intriguing one may be his own. Fruchter plays oud in Sandcatchers, who could be described as a Middle Eastern pastoral Americana jamband. Their hypnotic, intricately intertwining, psychedelic instrumental mini-epics are unlike anything else in New York. The only group they bear any resemblance to, and that’s because of Myk Freedman’s resonant lapsteel, is the much louder if similarly psychedelic metal band Greek Judas (who have a gig coming up at Barbes on August 25 at 10). Sandcatchers have a weekly residency at Cheryl’s Restaurant, 236 Underhill Ave. in Ft. Greene on Wednesdays starting at around 8, which is where they’ll be tomorrow, August 17. There’s no cover charge; the closest train is actually the 2/3 to Brooklyn Museum.

Their show at Barbes a week ago was packed with all sorts of fun. They opened with a spiky, misterioso oud intro over drummer Yonadav Halevy’s misty cymbals and washes of pedal steel. From there they hit an understatedly somber minor-key groove with some wry tradeoffs between the oud and Michael Bates’ bass, with a trick ending and then a moodily scampering outro lit up with lonesome trainwhistle steel. After that they did what could have been a Macedonian highway theme, Fruchter’s purposefully strolling oud over vast, deep-sky atmospherics.

The next number was a slow, summery theme that slowly and deliberately moved into the shadows, much in the same vein as Big Lazy‘s big-sky cinematic mood pieces, with an enigmatically tiptoeing bass solo over sotto-voce clip-clop percussion. Halevy had brought a dinner bell, which he used for chuckles on more than one occasion.

The sternly pulsing chromatic anthem after that, with its blasts of steel and then a searing solo, was the closest thing they played to Greek Judas’ rembetiko metal. After that, Bates hinted at a classic Geezer Butler riff throughout a long bass intro that kicked off a slowly majestic, swaying Middle Eastern number, again shifting dramatically but seamlessly to the Great Midwest and then back with a big crescendo. With the steel going full blast over Fruchter’s elegant, purposeful oud, they were like a Middle Eastern Friends of Dean Martinez.

Halevy had tuned his kit like a series of goblet drums, ramping up the boomy, mysterious ambience to introduce the number after that, a mashup of blazing southern rock and what could have been a Greek hill country dance. After that they contrasted with a gentle, backbeat-driven nocturne. Then they got a little funky, winding up their set with their most eclectically expansive tune. These and many other flavors may appear in the mix tomorrow night.