New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: indian music

Frank London and Adeena Karasick’s Darkly Gorgeous New Album Salutes a Feminist Archetype

“You are bringing in the big guns, opening the sluicegates with your hyperdramatic extra sex, a swishy riff, pithy swift grifters…like a feisty zeitgeist, a forever Riviera,” poet Adeena Karasick freestyles, saluting her title character in one of the early tracks on the new album Salome: Woman of Valor, her new collaboration with iconic trumpeter Frank London., streaming at his music page. It’s a psychedelic, globally-inspired, feminist reclamation of the Salome archetype, recasting her as a fearless, indomitable, multi-faceted persona rather than uber-slut. Typically, Karasick’s intricate, wickedly playful, erudite solo spoken world interludes are spaced in between the individual songs here.

The enticement builds over an echoey wash from Shai Bachar’s electric piano, Deep Singh’s tabla and London’s lyrically pensive trumpet in the album’s first musical number, Song of Salome. As it goes on, London channels more of the acerbic, chromatic edge and meticulous melismas that have characterized his sound as one of this era’s great klezmer and Balkan brass players.

Playing with a mute, he introduces a bracing, suspenseful Ethiopian theme over a chilly, techy haze in Garden of Eros, Karasick celebrating the pleasures of the flesh amid the “cinders of avarice.” London shifts to a hypnotic mashup of Ethiopiques, qawwali and Romany psychedelia in Drown Me, exchanging terse, soulful trumpet riffs with a swirly synth as the tabla holds down the groove.

Dance of Desire has a darkly slinky trip-hop ambience, Karasick deviously referencing a half century or more worth of lyrics, from Wilson Pickett to Leonard Cohen as London’s trumpet teases the listener. Bind Me has a gorgeously brooding, contrapuntal Hasidic melody and a metaphorically loaded lyric: this Salome doesn’t like being restrained.

To introduce Johnny, Karasick sends a shout out to Jean Genet and other bad-boy figures before London’s balmy trumpet and tersely circling, uneasy piano enter the picture. Martyrology, a grisly chronicle of Jewish mystics tortured and murdered over the years, makes a chilling contrast, followed by a haunting, Middle Eastern and Indian-tinged interlude from London that brings to mind Ibrahim Maalouf.

London returns to an anthemic mix of murky Ethiopiques and woozy psychedelia in Yes I Will Yes Say Yes. He shifts to the Middle Eastern freygish mode for the undulating Dance of the Seven Veils, part klezmer, part Palestinian shamstep, featuring an imploring vocal cameo by Manu Narayan . The group return to dusky, forlorn Ethiopian ambience to wind up the record with Kiss Thy Myth. Look for this one on the best albums of 2020 list here, scheduled for the end of the year.

A Global Cast of Characters Reinvent Classic Indian Themes With a Massive Webcast

There’s no small irony in that the annual 24-hour Ragas Live Marathon broadcast wouldn’t go global until a moment where live music had been illegalized in most parts of the world. The good news is that this year’s performances – which began as a radio broadcast on little WKCR in Brooklyn – have spread to include artists performing live on their own turf around the world. In keeping with the festival’s esthetic, this year’s lineup features an allstar cast both from within the Indian raga tradition as well as the worlds of jazz, latin music, classical music and klezmer, among other styles. This year it’s streaming at wkcr.org startimg at 7 PM on Nov 21 and going until 7 the following evening, Nov 22, as well as via video link from Pioneer Works.

Past years have featured a lot of jazz musicians who’ve found nirvana in Indian music. As usual, the ever-growing multitudes in the Brooklyn Raga Massive collective, who founded the festival, are widely represented. This year’s stars include but are hardly limited to avant garde icon (and Indian music devotee) Terry Riley, legendary tabla personality Zakir Hussain, kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, coastal Venezuelan trance-dance bandleader Betsayda Machado, Middle Eastern jazz trumpet visionary Amir ElSaffar and klezmer powerhouse Andy Statman.

If this sounds intriguing, dial up a random raga on the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s even more massive Ragas Live Festival album, streaming at Bandcamp. Virtually everything on this record – probably the most epic album released by any New York group this century – is worth hearing. It’s been sitting around this blog’s archive for the past couple of years, and a couple of hours’ worth of listening only scratches the surface. For fans of Indian sounds, it’s a serendipitous look at where the music is going – and what we will be enjoying in concert after we liberate ourselves from the lockdown.

Magical Mini-Ragas From Rare 78 RPM Records Now Available on Album

The new compilation How the River Ganges Flows – streaming at Bandcamp – has a rare PR tagline worth repeating. Third Man Records calls it “A transcendent collection of carnatic violin performances captured on 78 RPM disc between 1933 and 1952.” This is their second batch of newly digitized and sonically enhanced tracks from archivist Christopher King’s collection of global rarities. The first one, a mix of mostly unreleased Greek recordings titled Why the Mountains Are Black made the best albums of the year list in 2016. This one threatens to do the same this year.

On one hand, ragas that top out at about the three-and-a-half minute mark would never have existed if not for the limits of early recording technology. Which makes the work of the six violinists here all the more impressive: imagine Tschaikovsky trying to condense the Pathetique Symphony into a three-minute hit.

Each of these guys plays with small-group instrumentation that varies from song to song. Tabla is a ubiquitous presence (and happily very present in the new mixes). Mridangam may also be, although those boomy lows could simply be a by-product of the original recording process.

By comparison, a lot of contemporary Indian violinists are tame: swoops and dives and microtonal magic permeate this record, even beyond the point where an Indian mode diverges furthest from the Western scale. Case in point: Paritosh Seal’s careening melismas and brisk chromatics in Raga Ahir Bhairi.

Seal is also represented on five other tracks. He bends into far limbo and trills meticulously over  a tanpura drone on Raga Darbari Kanada. He leaps and bounds joyously in Raga Sur Malhar, lilts through Raga Bageshree and plays with even more of a singing quality in a recording simply titled Thumri, which speeds up tantalizingly for maybe twenty seconds of a coda. His three-plus minutes of Raga Adana make a bittersweetly gorgeous closer to this lusciously tuneful album, which comes on gatefold vinyl with extensive liner notes plus artwork by R. Crumb.

But the other artists here offer even more fire, flash and breathtaking skill. Shri Gajana Karnad plays Raga Thodi with wicked spirals and rapidfire precision, then basically makes Raga Tilak Kamod into a shivery stand-alone coda.

Muthi and Mani break up a section of Raga Aberi into two 78 sides: the uneasily rippling, quasi-Japanese diatonics seem to be coming from a santoor, but the instrument actually turns out to be a piano. Likewise, Swaram Venkatswamy Naidu makes an A-side and B-side out of Raga Thanam, building a plaintive alap into a similarly brooding duet. The most rustic and weatherbeaten recordings here are T. Chowdiah playing a jaunty bit of Raga Hamir Kalyani and then giving some lightning-fast ornamentation to Raga Manirang. Must listening for Indian music fans.

Dreamy, Enchanting Indian Sounds From Falu and Karyshma

Karyshma were basically an Indian jamband back in the 90s when they first started out. What differentiated them from the legions of hippies twenty years earlier who learned a few raga riffs and then tried to make rock out of them is that Karyshma’s core members all came out of Indian traditional music. Their new album Someday – streaming at Soundcloud – is much more oriented toward those deep roots, a mix of starry songs from over the centuries. This auditory thali is a korma spiced to nuanced perfection, rather than the vindaloo of the group’s early years.

They open with Yara, a delicate, slinky vintage Bollywood anthem, frontwoman Falu’s tender melismas rising over a delicate web of acoustic guitar and mandolin textures from Soumya Chatterjee. Gaurav Shah’s moody bansuri flute builds hypnotic crescendos in tandem with the elegant clip-clop Rajasthani beat of Deep Singh’s tabla. It’s a very poetic song, Falu contemplating whether happiness is possible despite separation, and sorrow, and constnnt change. “I try to mend my slit wrists with these broken bangles,” is the crux of the story.

The second number is Bhooli, a ghazal with a similarly warm, bittersweetly pensive vocal, Singh’s flurrying tabla contrasting with a floating backdrop. Beeghi, a gorgeously sweeping monsoon-season nocturne, is even more enveloping, Falu’s voice rising to celestial heights.

Chatterjee’s guitar adds a low-key Americana undercurrent to Nadi, Singh’s swaying rhythm evoking a woman on a swing by the river, missing her boyfriend. They close the album by making a joyously organic dancefloor anthem out of the mystical Raga Bhairavi. Chatterjee breaks out his sarangi and Singh is a one-man percussion orchestra, employing a small arsenal of drums from across the Hindustani subcontinent.

Rare, Individualistic Indian-Inspired World Premieres from the ARC Ensemble

In recent years the ARC Ensemble have made an extraordinary commitment to rescuing the works of relatively unknown but brilliant Jewish composers from obscurity. The latest in their series is the world premiere recording of Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann, streaming at Spotify. Kaufmann, born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1907, fled Prague for the seemingly unusual destination of Mumbai in 1933, just ahead of the Nazis.

The choice of Mumbai was more than just an attempt to find a safe haven: as a student, Kaufmann had fallen in love with Indian music, and that passion would eventually lead him to become one of the foremost European-born authorities on it. After almost a century, his 1936 violin piece based on Raga Shivaranjani remains Air India’s main theme.

This fearlessly individualistic album features string quartets as well as pieces for smaller and larger ensembles (Kaufmann also wrote symphonies and operatic works), all composed during Kaufmann’s time in India. The first work here, played by violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violist Steven Dann and cellist Thomas Wiebe, is the String Quartet No. 11. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before. A somber cello drone anchors an enigmatic, whole-tone-centric raga melody that the quartet take dancing in the brief, five-minute opening movement.

The searching quality of the second movement is visceral; the wistfulness afterward evokes both Indian and Celtic music. The four musicians follow the warmly fleeting third movement to a triumphantly strutting coda.

Raum and pianist Kevin Ahfat open the Sonata No. 2, Op. 44 for Violin and Piano in the poignant netherworld where carnatic music meets the blues scale, and follow a much livelier tangent: listening to the tracks here in sequence, it becomes clear that Kaufmann doesn’t like to stay in one place very long. Ahfat’s motives ring sparely and spaciously behind Raum’s lyricism in the second movement; the two pick up the pace to bring the piece full circle.

String Quartet No. 7 is basically a raga for strings. It begins lustrously and more chromatically charged, with an uneasily bustling sway and clever echo effects that add unexpected Iranian flavor. The contrast between somber foreshadowing and shivery intensity in the second movement is intense; the stark third movement brings to mind Bartok if he had taken his recording rig across the Indian Ocean instead of the Mediterranean. The group wind it up with a jaunty, acerbic final two movements that Kaufmann manages to wrap up in one big, bouncy ball.

Ahfat and clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas play a clarinet arrangement of the Sonatina No. 12  for Violin and Piano, its broodingly hypnotic ambience punctuated by eerie chimes and more than a distant shadow of klezmer music. The two hit an unexpected romp and ending with a pastorale that’s the most distinctly European interlude here.

Violinist Jamie Kruspe and cellist Kimberly Jeong join Ahfat and the string quartet for the album’s concluding work, the Septet for Three Violins, Viola, Two Cellos, and Piano. Rimsky-Korsakovian glitter and phantasmagoria pulse through its dynamic shifts, the strings serving as rhythm section much of the time.

Kaufmann was an interesting guy, but sadly his early success in Europe did not springboard the same kind of acclaim elsewhere, and his father and many relatives were murdered by the Nazis. He composed for Bollywood and the radio; became the first conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony (and drew an impressive amount of European talent there); played piano alongside a promising violinist named Albert Einstein; and ended his career at the University of Indiana. Fans of pioneering cross-pollinators like the Brooklyn Raga Massive, and innovative violinists like Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu, will love this music.

Guitarist Sharon Isbin Pushes the Indian Music Envelope

Perennially adventurous guitarist Sharon Isbin has a couple of ambitious new albums out: the first, a Chris Brubeck concerto for guitar and orchestra, the second a landmark collaboration with Indian sarod virtuosos Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash. Titled Strings for Peace, it’s a terse collection of four classic ragas, streaming at Spotify. Kyle Paul’s arrangements are pristine and uncluttered, giving all the musicians plenty of room for individual contributions. Isbin’s judicious use of chords adds welcome, lowlit color and resonance.

The first is By the Moon, an interpretation of Raga Behag. Isbin’s delicate but determined phrasing and Amaan Ali Bangash’s warmly nocturnal melismas open this popular evening theme with lustre and subtlety. Amit Kavthekar’s tabla signals a shift to a joyously dancing series of rises and falls. The blend of sarod and guitar sometimes evokes a sitar, but with subtle timbral differences; Isbin turns out to be more likely to back Bangash than he does behind her stately, steady, strolling riffs.

Ayaan Ali Bangash takes over sarod duties on the album’s second track, Love Avalanche, a moody, suspensefully waltzing, barely four-minute take of Raga Mishra Bhairav. Romancing Earth, a.k.a. Raga Pilu features the family patriarch, first tantalizingly allusive, then engaging Isbin in a saturnine exchange. The suspense as he shadows her is masterfully orchestrated; there’s a rather coy ascent and then the two declare victory over relentless unease.

Ayaan Ali Bangash returns for the final track, Sacred Evening, an arrangement of Raga Yaman, There’s a starry sense of longing in the alap; the brittleness of the guitar (Isbin varies the amount of reverb from section to section) contrasts with the warp and speed of the sarod. It’s a bit much when they hang on a riff that’s been appropriated by a million fusion bands, but they redeem themselves with an unexpected and innovative coda. If you love Indian music and can handle some thoughtful harmonic innovation, you’ll should hear this album

Epically Intense, Cinematic Indian Grooves and a New Album From Red Baraat’s Sunny Jain

To what degree is drummer/composer Sunny Jain‘s new album Wild Wild East – streaming at Bandcamp – simply the latest release by his wild Indian brass band Red Baraat? For one thing, it’s more stylistically vast, mashing up that band’s blazing, brass-fueled bhangra with classic Bollywood grooves, surf and spy themes, Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack ambience, and majestic 70s art-rock. Jain’s next gig is leading Red Baraat from behind his massive doublebarreled dhol drum at Symphony Space on March 10 at 8 PM; you can get in for $30.

The new album’s title reflects both the chaotic unease that an immigrant experiences, and also turns the traditional American cowboy archetype inside out. As Jain sees it, immigrants are the new cowboys, blazing a trail for the West, relegating the old model to what it is: a swaggering, pistol-packing menace to society, and especially to newcomers here.

Jain kicks off the record with Immigrant Warrior, a brisk, flurrying epic built around a lavishly arranged action theme that begins as a Bollywood-flavored dancefloor stomp and rises to titanic heights with Grey McMurray’s layers of searing guitars,  Pawan Benjamin’s catchy, matter-of-fact alto sax carrying the tune. The title track is more swirlingly suspenseful, with chanteuse Ganavya’s echoey, wordless midrange vocals over tightly clustering syncopation.

Benjamin’s trills and bends build a bracing microtonal edge over the enveloping raga ambience in Osian, as Jain subtly pulls it onto the rails out of a tumbling introduction, guitar growing more deliciously jagged as the band gather steam. In a lot of ways the ominous hip-hop tune Red, Brown, Black is the key to the album; “I love my country but they think I’m ISIS,” guest rapper Haseeb muses early on in a grim struggler’s narrative.

Aye Meri Del Kahin Aur Chal has a swaying, machinegunning bhangra beat, catchy multitracked surf guitar and a big raga crescendo. Bhaagi is a stormy ghazal set to a trip-hop beat, followed by Blackwell, a languid, carefree tableau with balmy bansuri flute. Hai Apni Dil to Aawara is the album’s biggest musical mindfuck, a carnatic country waltz.

The bansuri returns, but much more darkly, in the lingering twists and turns of Turnse Lagi Lagan, which in its quietly brooding way might be the album’s strongest track. From there the band segue up slowly into a gathering storm in Maitri Bhavanu, Ganavya’s melismatic vocals imploring overhead. The clouds finally burst in Brooklyn Dhamal, closing the album with a barreling drive through a blend of Peter Gunne theme and Sufi music. Whether you call this dance music, film music, Indian music or its own unique creation, it’s one of the best albums of the year as well as a snapshot of where American music will be headed in the decades to come…assuming we survive four more years of the Trumpies. It’s starting to look really ugly at this point.

A Brooding, Indian-Tinged Silent Film Score From Guitarist Rez Abbasi

Guitarist Rez Abbasi‘s score to Frank Osten’s 1929 silent film A Throw of Dice echoes the movie’s Indian milieu, shifting moods on a dime along with the narrative. The soundtrack is streaming at Bandcamp. Abbasi’s next gig is Feb 26 at 8:30 PM at the Bar Next Door, leading a trio with Rashaan Carter on bass and Luca Santiniella on drums; cover is $12.

The movie opens with Mystery Rising. which is more opaque than outright mysterious, a jazz waltz with distant carnatic tinges from Pawan Benjamin’s bansuri flute and percussionist Rohan Krishnamurthy’s flickering accents, Abbasi’s acoustic guitar and Jennifer Vincent’s cello adding somber contrast. There’s even more of a sense of foreboding in Hopeful Impressions, a strolling trio piece for guitar, cello and Jake Goldblas’ drums.

Abbasi hits his sitar pedal for the bubbly Love Prevails against Goldblas’ wry faux-tabla rustles. Likewise, the guitar-sitar voicings and swoopy backward-masked riffs of Facing Truth seem to be played with one eyebrow raised. Abbasi goes back to acoustic alongside Benjamin’s spare soprano sax for a miniature, Amulet & Dagger, then picks up his Strat again for the unexpectedly catchy, uneasily art-rock tinged diptych Blissful Moments. Anchored by Vincent’s hypnotic bass pulse, Seven Days Until News keeps the brooding ambience going.

With its moodily descending and then circling chromatics, Duplicity is one of the most haunting interludes here (full disclosure: nobody at this blog has seen the film). Jugglers, a lively little bit of carnatic jazz, is more straightforward than the title implies. As for Snakebite, it’s a brief, tectonically shifting tone poem.

The way Abbasi orchestrates the cello/sax harmonies to mimic a harmonium in Moving Forward is especially artful. Wedding Preparation turn out to be less harried and stressful than simply straightforward: even as the rhythms diverge, it’s the album’s most recognizably postbop jazz moment. A relaxed pastoral feel recedes for more anxious tonalities in Morning of the Wedding, lingering throughout the quiet foreboding of Gambling Debt.

Dissociative individual voices flutter throughout Boy Changes Fate, giving way to the tensely anthemic, pastoral stroll of Falsehood. Vincent picks up her cello, Benjamin his bansuri for a bit in Changing Worlds, obviously a key moment with its understated syncopation and troubled sax crescendo.

Abbasi grafts a Terry Riley-esque loop atop the crescendoing stalker theme Chase For Liberation and brings the score full circle with True Home. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s small-ensemble adventures in jazz, or guitarist Jonathan Goldberger‘s more cinematic work ought to check this out.

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.