New York Music Daily

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Category: gypsy music

A Rare Chance to See Haunting Large-Ensemble Turkish Music in the West Village

One of the most serendipitous developments in New York music this year is that Seyyah, who might be this city’s most epic Turkish band at the moment, have been playing more lately. Which is more impressive than it seems, considering that percussionist/singer Jenny Luna has been plenty busy with her own similarly haunting Turkish-Balkan band Dolunay. Pretty much everybody else in Seyyah plays with other bands as well. Tanbur lute player Adam Good is also in Dolunay, and lends his prowess on many stringed instruments to numerous other groups including sizzling rebetiko metal band Greek Judas. Oudist Kane Mathis has his own project, his Indian-tinged groove duo Orakel, and plays in Nubian band Alsarah & the Nubatones. Clarinetist Greg Squared is in Raya Brass Band (who played a sizzling set this past Saturday night at Barbes) and Sherita. Violinist Marandi Hostetter plays with slinky Egyptian bands Nashaz and Sharq Attack (some might say that they’re the same group) and others, as do percussionists Shane Shannahan and Philip Mayer.

Seyyah’s next gig is this Jan 15, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM at Cornelia St. Cafe. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum; the food at the downstairs West Village jazz boite is actually a cut above what most jazz club kitchens throw at you. Seyyah are also one of the latest bands with the good sense to release a live album, a free download recorded at Barbes last May on a live WFMU Transpacific Sound Paradise broadcast which also featured a rather rare, starkly intense set of Georgian folk tunes by guitarist Ilusha Tsinadze and his trio, plus a lustrous, hypnotic, tantalizingly brief handful of tunes by a subset of lavish, paradigm-shifting Indian carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective.

Seyyah’s set opens with Mahur Saz Seman, a catchy, bouncy, somewhat bittersweetly anthemic tune. As the song goes on, the trills of the clarinet and violin take it into more brooding territory before the main theme returns. Sultani Yegah veers between a jiggy, sea chantey-like bounce, and more wary, chromatically incisive interludes, with a spiky, moody tanbur solo. Hostetter takes centerstage with her microtonal nuance in the briskly flurrying, slashing Hicaz Zeybek, the set’s arguably best and most Arabic-inflected song.

Scampering percussion propels Hüzzam Oyun Havasi – like most of the songs here, it starts out with everybody playing the rippling, uneasy modal melody, then Good pulls away, then we get a moody, deliciously microtonally-spiced clarinet solo and a lively percussion break. The night’s coda is Çeçen Kizi, a wickedly catchy, broodingly intense, undulating theme with Hostetter leading the charge out this time. It’s amazing how good the sound quality is, considering how packed and noisy the bar was that Saturday night.

And if you’re going to Golden Fest this weekend, Greek Judas, Raya Brass Band and Dolunay will all be there on Saturday.

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A Night of Haunting, Adrenalizing, Poignant Sounds From the Greek Underground

University of Illinois music professor Yona Stamatis, a native New Yorker, was on a mission to find the real rebetika, the so-called “Greek blues.” The music actually doesn’t sound the least bit bluesy. Popularized by ethnic Greek refugees from Turkey and Cyprus, much of it bristles with the eerie microtones and slinky rhythms of Middle Eastern music. At its peak in the 1920s and 30s, it was the sound of the criminal underworld as well as the pro-democracy underground fighting a brutal dictatorship. Rebetika is still played in tavernas and on Greek tv, but all too often it’s watered down, sentimental or downright cheesy.

Acting on a tip, Stamatis tracked down a band playing it raw and oldschool in an Athens dive bar. The lead singer was the bar owner, Pavlos Vasileiou. The tavern is gone now – even Athens is under siege in a blitzkrieg of gentrification that may have triggered the deadly floods there last week – but the band lives on. Stamatis picked up her bouzouki and violin and has since taken the group, Rebetika Istoria – named after the saloon – on several North American tours. Saturday night at Roulette, they had the crowd dancing in the aisles throughout two dynamic sets of boisterous drinking songs, grim anthems and mournful ballads.

When she wasn’t blazing through fast, spiky thickets of notes on her bouzouki, Stamatis was shading the music with uneasy, often microtonal midrange washes on her violin. Bouzouki player Nikolaus Menegas took several edgy solos of his own and sang in a measured baritone. Intense, impassioned singer Eleni Lazarou also took several turns on lead vocals and played a mean baglama on several of the more Middle Eastern-flavored numbers while guitarist Vangelis Nikolaidis anchored the music with his steady acoustic guitar riffage. And group founder/crooner Vasileiou brought plenty of gravitas to the lyrics, playing stark, incisive lines on his tzoura, a smaller counterpart to the bouzouki.

Stamatis explained that much of the setlist comprised the classics most requested by crowds at the old Athens boite. What was most fascinating about this show was that while a lot of the material was iconic, much of it was not, with more obscure songwriters featured alongside big names like Yiorgos Mitsakis and Vassilis Tsitsanis.

Booze factored into pretty much every narrative beyond the usual breakup scenario, whether looking to find the party in the American west in one surreal travelogue, or just running around the Greek isles. There were wry, funny relationship-gone-awry numbers like Apostolis Hatzichristos’ The Bum’s Complaint, Mitsakis’ The Beautiful Gypsy Girl – covered by Brooklyn metal band Greek Judas – and a harrowing closer to the second set, a haunting Mitsakis dirge commemorating a 1917 massacre of striking workers.

There were also recurring allusions to political troubles and repression but not much that was specifically revolutionary, a common trope in music made under repressive regimes. The long series of encores – the band must have played six or seven of them – was where the biting minor keys and influence of music from Turkey and points further east took centerstage, and the band reveled in them. Some consider rebetika the Greek national music, but that’s not a universal opinion considering its association with the Ottomans.

This concert was staged by Robert Browning Associates, who for the past few years have been bringing a spectacular variety of acts from around the world to this city. The next one is at their home base, the refreshingly laid-back and sonically welcoming Roulette, on December 2 at 8 PM with Gamelan Kusuma Laras, who are joined by Javanese gamelan luminaries Darsono Hadiraharjo, Midiyanto and Heni Savitri. Cover is $25.

A Tantalizing Taste of Golden Fest Last Night at Trans-Pecos

It’s not likely that the WNYU folks had Golden Fest in mind when they booked three of New York’s most exciting bands to play Trans-Pecos last night. But the triplebill of riveting Macedonian duo Glas, hotshot oudist Kane Mathis and haunting Turkish band Dolunay are all vets of the annual Brooklyn mecca for sounds from across the Balkans and the Middle East as well. Golden Fest 2018 takes place next January 12 and 13; this was a hint of the kind of wild intensity and stark rapture that will be in almost absurd abundance there that weekend.

Glas, the duo of tamburist/kaval player Vedran Boškovski and singer Corinna Snyder, opened the night. This was more a showcase for her elegance and subtlety than the floor-to-ceiling power and feral microtones of her vocals in pioneering Bulgarian choral trio Black Sea Hotel. Boškovski made it look easy, steadily strumming his open-tuned tambura, alternating between allusive, hypnotic modes and more ominous, acerbic Middle Eastern-flavored tonalities. He brought more of a stark, rustic touch to a couple of songs, backing Snyder’s wary cadences with stark, overtone-infused lines on the kaval, a wooden Balkan flute.

That Snyder speaks the language further enables her to channel the relentless grimness in these old songs. The road is treacherous, highwaymen are everywhere, war is omnipresent, all omens are bad and love is fleeting. Their most riveting number was a dirge, a guy kidnapped by the enemy giving his last goodbyes. They closed with a somewhat more upbeat number: so you’re already engaged? Let’s elope anyway!

Mathis is the not-so-secret weapon in Alsarah & the Nubatones, filling the enormous shoes left behind by the late, great oudist Haig Magnoukian. Leading a trio with a percussionist on boomy dumbek goblet drum and House of Waters’ Moto Fukushima on eight-string bass, he opened with a hypnotically circling, rippling West African-flavored number that sounded like a tune for the kora – an instrument Mathis also plays virtuosically. From the three went into a serpentine Middle Eastern theme, Mathis adding fiery chords to the mix early on, Fukushima’s solo going off into hard bop before finally making an emphatic, chromatic flourish of a landing. Mathis’ endless, machinegunning flurries in his closing epic left his rhythm section wide-eyed: it’s hard to think of anyone else in town who can play as hard and fast, yet as precisely, on any instrument.

The most haunting song of the entire night was an original by another oudist, Dolunay’s Adam Good, evoking the shadowy majesty of the Trio Joubran with his brooding resonance. Where Snyder had been all about distance and solemnity and mystery, Dolunay frontwoman/percussionist Jenny Luna went for the jugular with her plaintive, angst-fueled melismas. Violinist Eylem Basaldi echoed that poignancy, playing achingly beautiful, low-midrange, grey-sky washes of microtones, almost as if she was playing a cello.

Dolunay like diptychs and segues of all kinds; this time, they did sets of threes. Most of their material is on the slow and somber side, and this was typical. Most of their songs are about absence and longing: boyfriend goes off to war or over the mountains, never to be seen again, ad infinitum. Plus ça change, huh? What was new was getting to hear Luna sing in Ladino, the Sephardic Spanish dialect, in a couple of moody Andalucian-flavored numbers, something she’s especially suited to since she’s a native Spanish speaker. Dolunay’s next gig is on an amazing triplebill with feral yet supertight original Balkan group Raya Brass Band and hard-grooving Balkan/reggae/rock band Tipsy Oscart at Littlefield on Nov 30 at 9 PM; cover is $10.

La Mar Enfortuna Lead a Haunting Guided Tour of Sephardic Music at the Jewish Museum

There was a point last night at the Jewish Museum where La Mar Enfortuna guitarist Oren Bloedow, playing a gorgeous black hollowbody Gibson twelve-string, hit an achingly ringing, clanging series of tritones. Violinist Dana Lyn answered him with a flittingly menacing couple of high, microtonal riffs. It was like being at Barbes, or the Owl, except on the Upper East Side.

That good.

For four years now, the Bang on a Can organization has been partnering with the Jewish Museum for a series of concerts that dovetail with current exhibits there. This time out, La Mar Enfortuna’s starkly beautiful Sephardic art-rock and reinventions of ancient Jewish themes from across the Middle East and North Africa were paired with the ongoing Modigliani show.

Since the 90s, Bloedow and his charismatic chanteuse bandmate Jennifer Charles have been the core of similarly haunting, sometimes lushly lurid noir art-rock band Elysian Fields. Likewise, this show built a dark but more eclectic atmosphere. At their quietest, bassist Simon Hanes – who otherwise looked like he was jumping out of his shoes to be playing this material – switched to acoustic guitar, for a spare duo with Bloedow on an ancient Moroccan song whose storyline was a possibly hashish-influenced counterpart to the Sleeping Beauty myth.

The band slunk through a salsa-jazz verse to a ringingly otherworldly, anthemic chorus on an original, Charles singing a lyric by Federico Garcia Lorca in the original Spanish. Bloedow, who was in top form all night as sardonically insightful emcee, noted that the band had played that same song just a few yards from where the fascists had taken Garcia Lorca into the underbrush and then shot him in the back.

Charles also sang in Farsi, Ladino and Arabic. The early part of the set featured more minimalist, lingering ballads; drummer Rob DiPietro sat back from his kit and played a hypnotic dance groove on daf frame drum on one of them. Matt Darriau began the set on bass clarinet; by the end, he’d also played a regular-size model and also bass flute, fueling the songs’ moodiest interludes with his sepulchral, microtonal, melismatic lines.

The closest to an over-the-top moment was when the band danced through the original Sephardic melody of a big Vegas noir ballad that’s been used umpteen times for Hollywood approximations of exoticism. The night’s most hypnotic song was another Moroccan number that strongly brought to mind Malian duskcore rock bands like Tinariwen. The high point was a slowly crescendoing original that rose to a mighty peak, fueled by Bloedow’s majestically resonating chromatic chords.

The Bang on a Can series at the Jewish museum continues on February 22 of next year at 7:30 PM with similarly otherworldly Czech violinist/composer/vocalist Iva Bittova and her ensemble; tix are $18 and include museum admission.

Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna Foreshadow This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

Saturday night at Drom, Pascuala Ilabaca didn’t let the heavy accordion slung across her shoulder keep her from bounding and dancing across the stage in front of her tight but feral band, Fauna. The Chilean singer/multi-instrumentalist became the latest in a long, long list of international stars to make their New York debut at Drom: they’re the kind of high-voltage act typically found at the East Village club’s annual New York Gypsy Festival. That annual celebration starts this Oct 8 at 8 PM with a very rare NYC appearance by Macedonian brass band Prilepski Zvezdi, and also includes Zlatne Uste, NYC’s first and arguably most authentic, explosive Balkan brass unit. Advance tix are $15.

Singing mostly in Spanish with a bright, precise, sometimes dramatic flair, Ilabaca addressed the crowd mostly in English, explaining several of the lyrics for the linguistically challenged. She didn’t pick up her accordion until after the first number, a bouncy parlor pop tune with distant hints of Asian folk music, bassist Christian Chino Chiang playing flute on the intro. From there they picked up the pace with a carnivalesque intensity, part uneasy circus rock, part pan-latin dance band, part psychedelic outfit.

From a bolero-tinged ballad, they shifted gears with the first of their reimagined Violeta Parra ballads, this one a growling one-chord jam, their excellent acoustic guitarist Juan Nuñez switching to Strat for a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre feel. Chiang and drummer Jaime Frez kept a tight focus as the rhythms changed from the hint of a bolero to a couple of cumbias where Nuñez channeled Los Destellos great Enrique Delgado with his spiky, spiraling phrases.

Meanwhile,clarinetist Miguel Razzouk added an ominous edge with his brooding, Middle Eastern-tinged melismas and chromatics. He kept that intensity going when he switched to alto sax: it was akin to Chicha Libre with a better singer and Kinan Azmeh sitting in on reeds – that good.

Midway through the set, Ilabaca moved to piano and built a similarly shadowy, moody ambience with her own edgy chromatics, neoromantic art-rock flourishes contrasting with low, lingering atmospherics. The high point of the night might have been when a big anthem hit peak velocity, the group cascading up and down on a biting Indian raga riff, over and over again.

Or it might have been the encore, which had to be the alltime most macabre version of the Parra classic El Gavilan. That one’s a metaphorically-charged tale of a woman who gets torn to pieces by hawk. The band opened it slowly and took their time building to a harrowing, frantic crescendo, Ilabaca wailing “Gavilan,” over and over again as the group rose to a terrified squall. As foreshadowing for both the festival at Drom and Halloween month, it was unbeatable.

Abraham Brody Brings His Mystical Reinventions of Ancient Shamanic Themes to Williamsburg

Lithuanian-American violinist/composer Abraham Brody covers a lot of ground. In a wry bit of Marina Abramovic-inspired theatricality, he’ll improvise as he stares into your eyes, a most intimate kind of chamber concert. He also leads the intriguing Russian avant-folk quartet Pletai (“ritual”) with vocalist-multi-instrumentalists Masha Medvedchenkova, Ilya Sharov and Masha Marchenko, who reinvent ancient Lithuanian folk themes much in the same vein as Igor Stravinsky appropriated them for The Rite of Spring. The group are on the bill as the latest installment in Brody’s ongoing series of performances at National Sawdust on Oct 5 at 7:30 PM. Advance tix are $20 and highly recommended.

Brody’s album From the Dark Rich Earth is streaming at Spotify. It opens with the methodically tiptoeing It’s Already Dawn, its tricky interweave of pizzicato, vocals and polyrhythms bringing to mind a male-fronted Rasputina. The ominously atmospheric Leliumoj goes deep into that dark rich earth, disembodied voices sandwiched between an accordion drone and solo violin angst.

Green Brass keeps the atmospheric calm going for a bit and then leaps along, Brody’s wary Lithuanian vocals in contrast with increasingly agitated, circular violin. Aching atmospherics build to a bitterly frenetic dance in Orphan Girl.  In Linden Tree, a web of voices weaves a trippy round, joined by plaintively lustrous strings.

Father Was Walking Through the Ryefield begins with what sounds like an old a-cappella field recording, then dances along on the pulse of the violin and vocal harmonies, rising to a triumphant peak. Oh, You Redbush, with its hazy atmosphere, and insistently crescendoing bandura, reaches toward majestic art-rock and then recedes like many of the tracks here. Likewise, the mighty peaks and desolate valleys in The Old Oak Tree.

Spare rainy-day piano echoes and then builds to angst-fueled neoromanticism in the distantly imploring I Asked. Strings echo sepulchrally as the ominous, enigmatic Litvak gets underway. Then the band build an otherworldly maze of echoing vocal counterpoint behind Brody’s stark violin in Trep Trepo, Martela.

The group revisit the atmosphere of the opening cut, but more gently, in Green Rue, at least until one of the album’s innumerable, unexpected crescendos kicks in. The final cut is the forcefully elegaic piano ballad A Thistle Grows. Fans of Mariana Sadovska’s bracing reinventions of Capathian mountain music, Aram Bajakian’s sepulchral take on Armenian folk themes or Ljova’s adventures exploring the roots of The Rite of Spring will love this stuff.

Smart, Innovative, Unpredictably Brilliant Newgrass Guitarist Jon Stickley and His Trio Hit Williamsburg This Weekend

Guitarist Jon Stickley gets major props for his daunting chops, mashing up bluegrass with jazz, Romany and south-of-the-border sounds. His instrumentals follow unexpected tangents through all those styles and more, with a bright, cinematic effect. He and his trio’s 2016 ep, Triangular is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re playing the Knitting Factory on Sept 17 on a strange but solid triplebill. Skronky Chicago guitar improvisers Tacoma Narrows open the night at 8, followed by Stickley and then Minneapolis newgrassers the Last Revel headlining at 10: $12 adv tix are available.

The album’s opening track, Blackburn Brothers gives you a good idea of where Stickley’s coming from. It opens as a shuffling, moody, minor-key bluegrass tune but then Stickley throws some fluid Romany jazz phrases in, echoed by violinist Lyndsay Pruett as drummer Patrick Armitage keeps a steady, swaying beat. They make straight-ahead, emphatic rock out of it at the end.

Plain Sight has a wary, dancing, insistent pulse – with different instrumentation and a heavier beat, this cinematic theme could be metal, at least until the trio hit a warmly windswept big-sky interlude midway through.

Palm Tree is a jaunty tropical number set to a tricky beat: as Stickey flatpicks and spirals around, Brazilian psychedelic rainforest jammers Forro in the Dark come to mind. With its constantly shifting chords,Echolocation is the killer track here, Stickley’s fluttery tremolo-picking adding border-rock ambience to a brisk, gorgeously bittersweet, Lynchian theme. Stickley even sticks a baroque fugue in toward the end!

Manzanita, the final cut, blends verdant Britfolk, bluegrass and a little Doorsy latin noir over a propulsive, steady beat. No doubt this album and the rest of Stickley’s innovative catalog  will be available at the show: Punch Brothers, eat your heart out.

A Spicy Midsummer Taste of Golden Fest at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

It’s a fair bet that rustic Carpathian acoustic music-and-dance ensemble the Cheres Folk Orchestra, Malika Kalontarova’s otherworldly tar lute-driven Tajik group, explosive Georgian crew the Dancing Crane Ensemble, and exhilarating Albanian music stars Merita Halili & the Raif Hyseni Orchestra have played Golden Fest, the nation’s most electrifying Balkan music festival, which takes place every January in Brooklyn. So it’s no surprise that these four acts’ show Sunday afternoon turned out to be the highlight of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival so far.

The Tirana-born Halili has a wide-angle vibrato that she engages like a high-speed guitar tremolo for a spine-tingling effect that sparkles with microtones along the sharpest edges. Hyseni, who hails from Kosovo, played the entire show with a big smile on his face: if you had his speed on the accordion, you’d be smiling too. He saved his two most supersonic, almost menacingly chromatic flights for one tantalizingly brief solo, and an intro anchored by Halili’s stark vocalese,\ where the rest of the band looked at each other, amazed and mystified about where they were expected to leap in.

When the moment came, they were ready, every bit as adrenalizing as the vocals and accordion. Their reedman doubled on clarinet and alto sax, often playing each during parts of the same song with a relentlessly volleying, microtonal, melismatic attack. Their Albanian bassist and guitarist held the center throughout the tricky changes, propelled by a jazz drummer with a playfully uneasy, boomy thump on his toms. They opened with a brisk ba-bump number that edged from blithely major-key to bracingly minor, then later bounced their way through a dance tune that had a happy-go-lucky Mexican feel. But the best numbers were the wild ones in 7/8 time, the whole band stampeding furiously as if to get out of the way of the Soviet tanks that drove this music underground for so long.

Turbocharged Albanian folk has made a big comeback since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but many indigenous musicians steeped in dancer/bandleader Malika Kalontarova’s spare, hypnotically insistent Tajik Jewish repertoire have emigrated to Israel. This group is one of the few in this country to play this magical material. The group’s three tar lute players would often triple the lines of an allusively modal melody line over similarly stark drumbeats that varied from a straight-up thump to more intricate metrics. The effect was as exotic as it was antique: tar music from Iran and Kurdistan are reference points, but both of those cultures use scales closer to Arabic modes. It was easy to get lost in.

Both Cheres and the Dancing Crane Ensemble often took a seat when their dancers cavorted across the stage to recorded music; considering how fast this show was pulled together, there may not have been enough time to rehearse all the material. When the two groups played, drums and accordions figured heavily through a mix of spare mountain melodies and more straight-ahead minor-key material that edged toward the Balkans in places. The Ukrainians put rippling, incisive cimbalom front and center. The Georgians, in particular, took advantage of their time onstage to showcase the allusive tonalities of their brooding choral music, and the high-voltage moves of their dancers, guys in quasi-military getup with bullet embroidery, women floating and fluttering across the stage in a series of colorful long dresses.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow, August 12 with afternoon performances on the plaza: picturesque Americana songwriter/fiddler Amanda Shires at 2 is the highlight. Then out back in Damrosch Park popular, lustrously harmony-driven Americana rock veterans the Jayhawks hit the stage at about 8. Avoid the atrocious 6 PM opening act – the worst band ever to get booked for a Lincoln Center show – at all costs, even if that means you don’t get a seat.

Wild Balkan Band Tipsy Oxcart Bring Their Intensity to a Free Upper West Side Park Gig

Rule of thumb is that if a band is reasonably competent in daylight, they’re probably great after the sun goes down. Considering how wild Tipsy Oxcart can get at night, it was no surprise to see them kick out the jams last week at Madison Square Park despite taking the stage just after noon The fiery Balkan and Middle Eastern band have squeezed their way onto the summer parks concert circuit, and they’re doing that again this Wednesday, August 9 at 1 PM at the triangle at 66th and Broadway.

Their opening number was epic. Tricky syncopation, slashing chromatic edges, shifts into halfspeed, doublespeed, a tongue-in-cheek couple of reggae interludes and finally nto oldschool 70s disco were most of but not all of the picture. A big slowdown was punctuated by a feral, whirling Connell Thompson clarinet solo, the rampaging outro by a blistering  guitar solo.

Their second number had a flamenco-tinged pulse: the band ran its anthemically stairstepping hook up to a chilling, icy guitar solo played through a chorus pedal. Then the band switched up the rhythm artfully on the way out. They completely flipped the script with a slow, mournful Turkish-flavored number lowlit by the clarinet until the guitar and drums conspired to take it doublespeed just like the first song. By now, the park was full of black women pushing strollers full of white yuppie children; everybody danced as bassist Ayal Tsubery took a slinky snakecharmer solo that mimicked the blue notes of Thompson’s horn riffs.

The band hardly looked or sounded tired, but there was only so much showmanship they could indulge in: foot up on the monitor, looking mean, was about it. That was a far cry from their pre-album release show at Barbes right before Golden Fest, when Thompson and then accordionist Jeremy Bloom basically bumrushed the crowd: that was intense!

Microtonal trills from the clarinet, a bubbling-crude bass solo from Tsubery, more clever shifts between disco, funk and the Middle East from the drummer and  acidic atmospherics contrasting with blazing minor-key riffage from the accordion dominated the rest of the show. At least until the guitarist would take one of several feral machete-through-the-ganja-field chord-chopping solos. The only thing an onlooker could have possibly wished for was more volume, but there’s a legal limit to how much of that you can get in a public park when night shift people – if any still exist in the Flatiron District – are still asleep.

t the show up by Lincoln Center, the buildings are a lot closer to the little park, meaning more of an echo effect. If you’re in the area, it’s more fun than anything else you could probably do  on your lunch break. Is this blog going to be represented there? No. If you’re going to play hooky from work, you have to choose your spots.

Which makes the Madison Square Park series so tempting. They also have free evening shows there this month; the next one is jazz alto sax great Kenny Garrett, who’s there with his group on the 9th at 8:30 PM.

It’s a Great Summer for Middle Eastern Music in New York

While much of the New York City parks system is on the highway to privatized hell – both Central Park Summerstage and the Prospect Park Bandshell series are selling ticketed seats to free concerts now – we haven’t yet reached the point where free summer concerts here have been whitewashed and yuppified to the point of irrelevance. Meanwhile, serendipitously, there have been some new publicly accessible concert series popping up, keeping the hallowed tradition of free summer concerts here alive.

One public space that’s been flying more or less under the radar until recently is Bryant Park. It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the transcendent performance by slinky Middle Eastern ensemble the Bil Afrah Project, who opened the final night of this year’s Accordions Around the World festival there. Obviously, it would have been fun to stick around for the whole night, which ended with a wall-to-wall sea of revelers celebrating Colombian Independence Day.

The park’s overseers had the good sense to put the festival in the hands of tireless, intrepid impresario Ariana Hellerman (publisher of the irreplaceable Ariana’s List of free summer events). Over the course of the month, she drew from her roster of two hundred of New York’s finest accordionists (yes, there are that many) for a series of performances that reinforced the instrument’s portability across cultures, a powerful if compact vehicle for musical cross-pollination. 

In barely a half hour onstage, the Bil Afrah Project – who dedicate themselves to recreating Ziad Rahbani’s iconic 1975 Bil Afrah suite of reinvented Lebanese and Egyptian love and love-gone-wrong ballads- raised the bar for the rest of the evening dauntingly high. Rahbani has since gone on to be called the Lebanese Bob Dylan, although many others, none of whom sound anything like the American Nobel Laureate, have been given that label. Rahbani – son of famous chanteuse Fairouz and songwriter Assi Rahbani – was nineteen when he pulled a band together to record it. The suite doesn’t have much of the acerbically fearless political sensibility that characterizes his later work: its populist message is much subtler, grounded in its achingly wistful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes bucolic themes.

Group members, notably oudist Brian Prunka, accordionist Simon Moushabeck, ney flutist Bridget Robbins and violinist Sami Abu Shumays took turns playing plaintive taqsims as segues between songs. The most incisive, intense of these was from buzuq player Josh Farrar, who remained very prominent in the mix. John Murchison, a connoisseur of Middle Eastern bass, made his debut concert on kanun a memorable one as well. And riq tambourinist Michel Merhej Baklouk, who played on the original album, was present and added an almost defiantly crescendoing solo toward the end of the suite as the edgy chromatics, uneasy microtonal modes and graceful sweep of the music rose and fell over the pulse of Sprocket Royer’s bass and Jeremy Smith’s darbouka. Then emcee Rachelle Garniez took the stage and treated the crowd to some similarly incisive banter and her own noir-tinged material.

The performances on the festival’s next-to-last night fit in perfectly with its eclectic sensibility as well. Over the course of the early part of the evening, Erica Mancini played jaunty oldtimey swing, then made noir mambo out of the old standard St. Louis Blues. Shoko Nagai began with airy, austere Japanese folk themes and then went deep into the dark, kinetic chromatics of the klezmer music she loves so much.

Will Holshouser, best known for his exhilarating speed and high-voltage solos, flipped the script with his own thoughtful, methodically shifting originals, occasionally alluding to Indian modes: as a pioneer of the pastoral jazz revival, he deserves far more credit than he’s been given. And a beautiful blue-eyed blonde in the crowd called out Eduardo de Carvalho for the masculinity of his playing. That’s not to say that the other performances weren’t strong, but there was plenty of muscle in his confident, impassioned, unselfconsciously soulful, rustic runs through a mini-set of forro and tango.

Circling back to the Middle Eastern theme, there are a couple of upcoming shows that shouldn’t be missed. On July 29 at 8 at the Lynch Theatre at 524 W 59th St., haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran  perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 tix are still available. And on August 10 at 10 PM, legendary, ageless Armenian-American jazz reedman Souren Baronian leads his amazing band at Barbes.