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Category: gypsy music

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

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A Rare New York Appearance by an Allstar Balkan Crew

This blog was in the building but not in the room when Loza played what in turned out to be a pretty spellbinding set at Golden Fest 2018 back in January. That’s because there are five or six separate shows going on at once in different parts of the lavish, old-world Grand Prospect Hall, all through the night during New York’s funnest annual concert. Golden Fest 2019 takes place next January 18 and 19 and although it’s not clear if the allstar Macedonian group Loza are on the bill, there will be dozens of others who are just as good.

Loza are making a rare non-Golden Fest appearance tomorrow night, Nov 20 at 7 PM at Barbes, opening for perennially entertaining, spectacular Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party. Fortuitously, WFMU made a field recording of the band’s Golden Fest set, available as a free download at the Free Music Archive.

The first number is a slinky, Middle Eastern tinged number, Vedran Boshkovski’s snakecharmer wood flute soaring over Adam Good’s frenetically picked tanbura lute. Seido Salifoski supplies a rat-a-tat beat on his big tapan drum underneath Corinna Snyder’s stark vocals.

The second tune is a bouncy major-key dance that could pass for Neapolitan, aside from the Macedonian lyrics. Boshkovski switches to zurla – the haunting, otherworldly trumpet-like Balkan reed instrument that sounds like a less drony Scottish bagpipe – for the final two tunes. The first is a trickily syncopated, chromatically edgy instrumental; the second is a more hypnotic epic with an icepick solo from Good. In both instances, the zurla’s keening microtones are just a hair enough outside traditional western harmony to be truly scary. Download this and crank it up if you need a jolt of adrenaline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sold-Out Revelry With Balkan Brass Monsters Raya Brass Band at Symphony Space

There’s something refreshingly new and exciting happening in what might seem to be an unexpected space on the Upper West Side. This past evening, Raya Brass Band sold out Symphony Space, delivering a wickedly tight set that was just feral enough to seem like the six-piece Brooklyn Balkan collective were about to leave the rails at any second. They didn’t really do that until the end of the show, when they left the stage and went down into the crowd of dancers gathered at the front of the stage.

That’s right – dancers packing the floor at Symphony Space.

How did this neighborhood institution, best known for its annual classical music marathons and the NPR shows that tape there, suddenly get so cool? They’ve got a new series they call Revelry, where if you’re thirty or under, you can get in for twenty bucks – ten dollars less than older folks have to pay. Meanwhile, the downstairs bar stays open throughout the show and afterward. But you can get a drink at any club in town. What’s most exciting about this series is that Symphony Space is bringing in fresh talent that’s probably never played the Upper West Side before. They’ve imported some of the roster of bands from Barbes – Brooklyn’s best venue – and from other scenes as well.

Raya Brass Band packed Barbes back in January, but they always do that. It was dowmright inspiring to see them do the same in upper Manhattan in a space four or five times as big. Although they varied their tempos from funky to lickety-split, and their meters from a straight-up 4/4 to who knows what – some of these Balkan beats are impossible to count unless you have to play them – the show was more like one long jam with a thousand dynamic variations. There were a couple of Macedonian-style vamps where the group would shift back and forth between major and minor…an endlessly delicious series of sharp-fanged chromatic riffs…a klezmer-inflected number late in the set…and a final slinky, darkly glistening river of Ethiopian jazz after over an hour onstage.

Co-founder Greg Squared played the whole show on alto sax this time out, making it look effortless as he flickered between microtones, occasionally playing through an octave pedal for a spacy, techy effect. Trumpeter Ben Syversen didn’t spar with him as much as simply trading off long, goosebump-inducing volleys of chromatics – although he did a little jousting with accordionist Max Fass. Who is the band’s true anchor, providing rich washes of sound that were serendipitously up in the mix (sometimes the accordion gets lost at a place like Barbes) .

Nezih Antakli provided the boom on a big standup tapan drum, while fellow percussionist Kolja Gjoni played a standup kit: nobody could have asked for more cowbell. Tuba player Steven Duffy brought both slithery vintage Bootsy Collins basslines as well as pinpoint-precise oompah, and finally the kind of funny WAH-wah solo that every tuba player ends up having to take at some point.

The big takeaway here; if you live on the Upper West or points further north, Revelry at Symphony Space is the place to be on Thursdays nights. The next show is Oct 18 at 7:30 PM with the charming, female-fronted Avalon Jazz Band playing cosmopolitan European swing. And if you’re up for a shlep to Barbes, Greg Squared is playing there every Sunday night in October at 7 PM with a rotating cast of New York Balkan and Middle Eastern talent. Psychedelic Romany jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel plays there afterward at about 9:30 with his band.

Newpoli Play a Grand Finale At This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

Friday night at Drom, a crowd of women in brightly colored dresses twirled in front of the stage as the resonant clang of a couple of mandolas rang out from the stage above them. Newpoli percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo spun out a slinky clip-clop beat on his big round tamburello while violinist Karen Burciaga and multi-reed player Dan Meyers sent their contrasting textures wafting and bounding through the mix, bassist Jeff McAuliffe cutting through with a biting, trebly tone. The band’s two charismatic frontwomen, Carmen Marsico and Angela Rossi left the stage and went down to join the fun. The only thing missing at the grand finale of this year’s New York Gypsy Festival was the pervasive smell of garlic and basil. Then again, the kitchen at Drom turns out cuisine from points further north and east.

Newpoli specialize in Italian folk music, but they play more originals than traditional material, and their influences are global. They’re as dynamic a jamband as they are a dance band. Meyers’ most electrifying solo was a long, otherworldly, tone-bending one on which he played zurla, the Balkan reed instrument that looks like a cornet but sounds like a lower-register oboe. By contrast, Reijonen’s most riveting moments onstage came during a suspenseful, Arabic-tinged, chromatic intro. Burciaga danced through an endless supply of punchy phrases, often in tandem with the mandolas, Bjorn Wennas often switching to acoustic guitar.

The two women who lead the band make a striking contrast. Petite and intense in a green tie-dyed print, Rossi often evoked the otherworldly microtones of the Balkans. Tall, blonde and swaying in her long linen summer dress, her eyes closed much of the time, Carmen Marsico has more of a classic American soul voice. Throughout the night, the two would often trade off verses as well as leading the dancers during two pouncing, edgy tarantellas, the first a shapeshifting original, the second a more rustic traditional number.

Their original material, many of the songs drawn from their most recent album Mediterraneo, has understatedly potent relevance. Marsico introduced the night’s most anthemic number. ‘Na Voce Sola (One Single Voice) as a revolutionary call to unite against fascism (something the Italians unfortunately knew as intimately as Americans do now). Other songs traced themes of displacement, whether in times of war or otherwise, the womens’ voices harmonizing with as much resilient elegance as fullscale minor-key angst.

Toward the end of the show, they tackled a traditional tune which on the new album is about ten minutes long and, for non-Italian speakers at least, becomes pretty interminable. Onstage, they made short work of it – literally – cutting it down to about half the time and keeping everybody, dancers and listeners, in the game as Meyers’ wood flutes punctured through the hypnotic bounce. Newpoli’s next gig is at 8 PM on Oct 12 at the Avalon Theatre,
40 E Dover St. in Easton, Maryland; general admission is $25.

Feral, Carnivalesque Klezmer and Balkan Sounds From the Lemon Bucket Orkestra

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra distinguish themselves in a crowded field of high-voltage klezmer and Balkan bands with their feral, otherworldly sound and sizzling chops. They don’t just pillage the usual repertoire of freylekhs and bulgars: they go way back, blending the phantasmagorical elements of Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian and Jewish sounds that proliferated over a hundred years ago. The best musicians know no boundaries, and the Lemon Bucket Orkestra personify that sensibility. Their latest album If I Had the Strength is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re playing the latest installment of this year’s New York Gypsy Festival tonight, Sept 26 at 8 PM at Drom. It’s $20 at the door and worth it.

The album opens with a brief, somberly chromatic march fueled by Michael Louis Johnson’s muted trumpet and a walking bassline and ends with a hushed folk tune. In between it’s a wild party. The lickety-split stomp of Crooked immediately sets the scene, with wildfire riffage from bagpipes and James McKie’s violin over a brisk sousaphone/drums pulse from Ian Tulloch and Jaash Singh, Mark Marczyk and Stephania Woloshyn taking turns on vocals. They take it out with a tantalizingly brief stampede that could have gone on as long as these guys could have physically been able to play it.

They follow Fate, a growly, tensely stalking miniature with Goodbye, the violin holding the down the bassline as the sousaphone takes a a coyly blithe solo, mingling with Woloshyn’s shivery vocals; then they pounce their way through a catchy series of chromatics and crescendos, with spiraling, wildfire solos from Julian Selody’s clarinet and Marichka Marczyk’s accordion.

They rip the riff from Whole Lotta Love for the bassline to Soldat, violin and clarinet in tandem delivering tight country dance riffage, Johnson’s trumpet holding the center. Freedom has a rat-a-tat Serbian-style brass band pulse, clever call-and-response riffs and a completely unexpected psychedelic bridge.

The album’s most rustically surreal track is When, a brief, majestically crescendoing number glimmering with eerily ornamented vocal harmonies. From there the band segue into Palinka, an equally surreal Balkan cumbia mashup with tasty, chromatically slashing solos from violin, accordion and bagpipes and a coyly chirping flute solo out.

Cocoon, a furtively jungly miniature for percussion, sets the stage for Heroes with its delirious unison riffage over a tight, tricky, Macedonian-flavored dance rhythm, up to a misterioso Bulgarian vocal interlude by guest soprano Measha Brueggergosman. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

A Rare Appearance by Wild Romany Party Band Romashka at This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

At the peak of their late zeros popularity, Romashka were rivalled only by Gogol Bordello and maybe Luminescent Orchestrii among New York Romany party bands. Frontwoman Inna Barmash, one of the world’s greatest klezmer singers, has a diamond-cutter clarity that’s almost scary. Her husband Ljova Zhurbin is one of this era’s most eclectic and brilliant violists. They don’t play live as much as they used to, but when they reconvene it’s like they never left off and the party starts all over again. They’re bringing their signature blend of slashing minor keys, acerbic chromatics and fiery Russian Romany dances to the latest installment of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival at Drom this Sept 20 at 8 PM; adv tix are $15. It’s going to be a little taste of Golden Fest a few months before the annual Balkan blowout takes place next January 12 and 13 in Brooklyn.

Unless they’ve been keeping their gigs a big secret, the most recent Romashka gig was at Golden Fest 2018, and it was killer. Fortuitously, their set was recorded and is available as a free download at the Free Music Archive. They kick it off with Hochu Lyubit, a scampering, pulsing dance, Jeff Perlman’s clarinet bubbling, Zhurbin weaving through one ominous chromatic after another, then giving way to guest trumpeter Frank London’s triumphant solo as guitarist Jai Vilnai skanks and jangles. With her intense, melismatic delivery, Barmash gives it an extra shot of dramatic angst at the end – it was her birthday, so she was especially amped.

From there the band take a detour into a couple of acerbic Romanian dance numbers. Veering in and out of the western scale, Rustemul sounds like the theme to a village that time really forgot, a rustically surreal, coyly bombastic theme pushed along by Ron Caswell’s tuba and Chris Stromquist’s drums. Tocul is a lot more lighthearted and lickety-split.

Ljova’s delicate incisions and London’s plaintive trumpet matched Barmash’s distant, nuanced poignancy throughout a muted Russian tango, Serdtse. Her insistent attack and ornamentation in Loli Phabay – “Red Apple,” a Russian Romany tune – is pretty wild, in contrast with Vilnai’s jaggedly precise, Middle Eastern tinged jangle and clang.

Perlman fires off triumphant trills while Holmes smolders throughout the old Romany hit Shimdiggy. Barmash goes to redline right off the bat as the band launch into the edgy bounce of Zarnobila, taking a careening segue into a rapidfire take of Baro Faro to end their show with a blistering stampede out.

Although Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall wasn’t designed for electric bands, the sound quality is surprisingly clear and balanced. Get this set before it disappears (that happens sometimes at the Free Music Archive) – it’s one of this city’s great esoteric bands at the peak of their powers.

A Wild Night With Dobranotch to Kick Off This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

Dobranotch means “good night” in Russian. It’s a very understated way of describing the crazy, exhilarating dance party they put on this past evening at Drom to open this year’s New York Gypsy Festival. The Russian klezmer band romped and blasted through a fiery set of originals and radical reinventions of more traditional material, showing off their virtuoso chops as well as an irrepressibly boisterous sense of humor.

Klezmer dance music is fun by definition, but these guys are beyond the pale. There was a point about midway through their set where their their guest dancer, Lea Elisha, went twirling across the floor in front of the stage, her mane of curly hair flying, an unstoppable human gyroscope. Meanwhile, frontman/violinist Mitya Khramtsov played behind his back, Hendrix style.

OK, that’s common enough. Next, he played with his bow behind his back and his violin tucked under his arm.

Then he stuck his bow down his pants and fiddled the violin on the bow – without missing a catchy minor-key riff. After bowing with his mouth, then sticking the bow in the dancer’s mouth and fiddling it, he finally handed the bow to a surprised audience member and had him do it.

Ilya Gindin, the band’s not-so-secret weapon, started the show on alto sax, then switched to oboe, firing off lickety-split spirals and slashing chromatic trills. Then he switched to clarinet. Slowly and methodically, he disassembled the instrument between verses, moving further and further up the scale until there was nothing left to play but the mouthpiece and then the reed. By then, it was all he could do to slowly bend a note up to where it was supposed to be, but nobody wanted the joke to stop.

Beyond the theatrics, this is an incredibly tight party band. More often than not, Khramtsov and the horn section would lock in on their harmonies while Gindin did his thing. Roman Shinder fired off fast flurries of banjo chords as Evgeny Lizin thumped out the groove on a big tapan bass drum and accordionist Ilya Shneyveys fleshed out the sound with rich washes of chords and elegant filigrees.

Khramtsov took a couple of stark, strikingly rustic departures into otherworldly weaves of microtones, veering away from the center before leaping back into the traditional western scale. The best original of the night was an epic, darkly Bessarabian-flavored anthem written by trombonist Grigory Spiridonov, who puffed out staccato basslines when he wasn’t harmonizing with tenor saxophonist Max Karpychev and the rest of the group.

They reinvented the iconic Algerian protest anthem Ya Rayyeh as a gruff but similarly sardonic Russian brass tune. Likewise, they turned a shapeshifting Macedonian bagpipe dance into what Khramtsov termed a “gypsy rhumba,” although it sounded more like a Turkish tango. They finally wound up the night with a third encore, gathered on the floor in front of the audience. An unexpectedly slow, lushly benedictory, moody concluding anthem with edgy solos all around couldn’t douse the crowd’s energy.

The New York Gypsy Festival continues at Drom on Sept 14 at  9:30 PM with the eclectic Underground Horns celebrating ten years of mashing up Balkan, New Orleans and latin brass sounds. You can get in for ten bucks in advance.

Mesmerizing Accordion Sounds Serenade Bryant Park, Again

As all of us in New York have been painfully reminded over the last few days, summer is far from over. But there’s a silver lining: the summer outdoor concerts aren’t over yet, either. One of the year’s best series so far – no surprise – has been the Bryant Park accordion festival. Considering how widely that little box has infiltrated cultures around the world, it’s also hardly a surprise that this may be New York’s most multicultural annual festival.

This past evening’s installment was characteristically sublime and eclectic. Laura Vilche is one of relatively few women whose axe is the even smaller bandoneon so widely used in tango music. She played very kinetically, rhythmically and also remarkably sparsely, underscoring the sheer catchiness of her sometimes slinky, sometimes brooding mix of Argentine and Paraguayan themes. Her dynamically shifting take of the Carlos Gardel classic La Comparsita was the biggest hit with the crowd gathered on the folding chairs and blankets provided for concertgoers. Then she packed up her gear and moved to another of the park’s five quasi-stages to serenade another group; many followed.

Where Vilche was spare and almost otherworldly direct, Latvian-born accordionist Ilya Shneyveys played lavishly and even epically throughout a set of original and often relatively obscure klezmer songs from across the Jewish diaspora. He opened his set by explaining that he was going much further afield, beyond horas and Hava Nagila, and he wasn’t kidding. With long, lingering, suspenseful intros building to waterfalling and then absolutely torrential volleys of notes, he used every second of the allotted time to air out every bracing chromatic and adrenalizing minor key in a series of dances and more subdued material. The highlight was a slowly crescendoing, rather mysterious diptych typically played as an introductory theme for wedding guests. “Cocktail music,” he smirked. He’s playing tomorrow night, Sept 6 at 9 PM at Drom with pyrotechnic Russian klezmer band Dobranotch to open this year’s New York Gypsy Festival; cover is $15 if you get tix before midnight.

As much fun as it was to watch those two musicians, the stars of this installment of the accordion festival were Eva Salina and Peter Stan. In two separate sets, they played a lot of the same material, completely differently the second time around. The mesmerizing Balkan singer and her longtime accordionist collaborator aren’t just frontwoman and accompanist: each is as integral to the music as the other. Toying with rhythm and taking their time making up intros, outros and meticulously thought-out solos, they brought a jazz sophistication to a blend of Romanian and Serbian tunes from across the Romany diaspora.

Their first take of a catchy dance number, imploring Romany husbands to come home to their wives and kids from faraway jobs, was very straightforward. The second was slower and much more plaintive. Jaunty dance rhymes contrasted with haunting ballads of loss and longing. Both musicians’ fearsome technique was in full effect, whether Stan’s supersonic volleys of chromatics and grace notes, or Salina’s minute, microtonal melismas and ornamentation.

Next week’s first episode of the festival is on Weds Sept 12, starting at 5:30 PM with a phenomenally good lineup including but not limited to Ismail Butera playing Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music, Will Holshouser’s Indian-influenced accordion jazz, Shoko Nagai’s mix of klezmer and Japanese folk, and Sadys Rodrigo Espitia’s oldschool Colombian cumbia and vallenato. The festival’s grand finale is two days later, on Sept 14, and starts a half hour earlier.

A Promising, Characteristically Eclectic Start to This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

This year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival runs through Sept 14 and promises to be as rapturously fun as last year’s was. On Wednesday evenings starting at 5:30 PM, a rotating cast of accordionists play half-hour sets of an amazingly eclectic range of music. This year there are five sets happening simultaneously, which created some dissonance on opening night when one group was going full steam while their neighbor played a quiet ballad. But the music was sublime.

For a connoisseur of accordion music – and who wouldn’t want to be one, right? – it’s always a triage. Forro or klezmer? Irish folk-punk or cumbia? The advantage of staggered sets is that you get multiple chances to see your favorite player or style of music. This week it was easy to choose a set by the brilliant and erudite Christina Crowder to begin the evening. Most of her numbers were minor-key Jewish wedding tunes, including a bouncy one about giving away the family’s youngest daughter, along with a mysterious, enveloping theme typically played early in the day for relatives of the betrothed. She romped through a jaunty bulgar and another, more somber tune, both of which contained the Twilight Zone riff. Late in the set, she treated the crowd to a Moldavian tune whose title translates roughly as “Freestyle Over This Groove.” Crowder didn’t rap; instead, she built an ambience that was as kinetic as it was hypnotic.

After that, it was time to head to the southeastern corner of the park for an even livelier set of oldschool cumbia and vallenato – “Colombian country music,” as accordionist Foncho Castellar termed it. Backed by a couple of percussionists, he played button accordion. The trio romped through some very brisk cumbias before the even more rustic stuff about peasants in the big city, or way out on the frontera, dancing, partying and chasing women.

After that, Susan Hwang – half of haunting literary art-rock duo Lusterlit – broke out her accordion for a deviously fun set. Backed by a djembe player, she opened with a coyly exasperated, new wave-flavored original, from her days with charming late zeros/early teens trio the Debutante Hour, concerning New York parking. Her funniest cover was a remake of the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters blues classic, which she titled Hoochie Koochie Woman. Another fun one was an original from her lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club, a thoughtful, quirky bounce told from the point of view of physicist Richard Feynman.

Like Hwang, Dolunay frontwoman Jenny Luna is best known as a singer and percussionist. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call her one of New York’s – and arguably the world’s – most riveting, shattering vocalists. She’s also a first-rate Balkan and Middle Eastern drummer. As it turns out, she’s a competent accordionist as well. Much as she got plenty of brooding, sometimes haunting atmospherics and chromatics wafting from her reeds, it was her voice that held the crowd spellbound,. She began with a moody tone  poem of sorts, then a couple of Rumeli (Balkan Turkish) laments that gave her a chance to air out both her soaring highs and haunting low register. She wound up the set with a jaunty if hardly blithe singalong, in Turkish – the chorus translated roughly as variations on “be my habibi.”

Next week’s installment of the festival, at 5:30 PM on Aug 22, features a similarly diverse lineup including but not limited to gothic Americana songwriter Sam Reider; the torchy, swinging Erica Mancini; edgy, avant garde-influenced chamber pop singer Mary Spencer Knapp; Argentine tango duo Tinta Roja and Mexican norteño crew Toro de la Sierra.