New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: jazz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irrepressibly Fun Cosmopolitan Swing from the Avalon Jazz Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Richly Tuneful, Darkly Majestic Twinbill in Gowanus on the 22nd

In terms of majestic sweep, cinematic scope and clever outside-the-box humor, it’s hard to think of a more interesting group in big band jazz than the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra. They’re playing Brooklyn’s home of big band jazz, Shapeshifter Lab on Feb 22 at 9 PM. Another excellent ensemble, violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, opens the night at 8. Cover here is usually in the $10-15 range and has yet to be determined by the venue, at least according to their concert calendar.

The most recent (full disclosure: only) time this blog was in the house at one of the jazz orchestra’s shows was on a muggy night in September of 2015 at Shrine up in Harlem. Since that was a long time ago, it’s reasonable to expect their set to be somewhat different. While it’s overly reductionistic to characterize Baker’s work as marked by tectonically shifts and Seguine’s by picturesque narratives and sardonic, sometimes dark humor, those qualities factor heavily into their respective writing. Here’s what happened at that show many months ago.

An uneasily steady, insistent piano melody gave way to lustrous atmospherics with wordless womens’ voices sailing overhead. As the piece went on, it shifted further toward the macabre: Darcy James Argue seems to be a big influence on this one. A trumpet fluttered and finally flared as the enigmatic lustre grew and the rhythmic drive rose, then the piece finally went down an echoey rabbit hole into fullscale terror as the piano anvilled sardonically through the mist.

The next number on the bill began by building a stately, steady, similarly enigmatic atmosphere that went in just as much of an ominous direction as the first, an apprehensively bending tenor sax solo over grimly massed sustain from the orchestra; then they pounced along, sax going full steam, over a beat that was practically ska. They ended it quietly and suddenly with more of that insistent piano riffage.

A stormy brass-and-vocalese intro kicked off the tune after that, but then the band pulled back quickly in favor of a hypnotic, resonantly pedaled piano melody, vocalese hovering overhead. A cascading piano melody over moody modal changes kicked off the next lush series of waves, up to a mighty crescendo, a surreal drums-and-vocals interlude, a stuck car horn-like passage, a bit of a pause and then a return to calm moodiness. Looking back, this was a pretty dark set!

From there the group took a slow, relentless series of upward climbs in the next piece, punctuated by a fluttering and eventually wailing tenor sax solo, then a slowly strolling, saturnine lustre that made a long launching pad for a trombone solo that eventually fell away mournfully. The carnivalesque, latin-tinged theme that followed had to be a Seguine composition: nobody writes like her, and this was a blazing good time spiced with wry, evil cartoon trombone, a pirate’s-boot strut, twisted nickelodeon piano and more than one peek-a-boo ending. And that was just the first set.

Considering how much time has passed since this show, it’s hard to picture just who, out of a handful of familiar faces, was in the group, other than Baker on reeds and Seguine conducting out in front of the group with a confident grace. The ubiquitous Ben Kono on alto sax, probably, and Scott Reeves on valve trombone, maybe. Seguine and Baker’s compositions are so much fun to play that they always get top-tier talent for their infrequent gigs: if big band jazz is your thing, miss this one and be sorry later.

Yet Another Smart, Playful, Tuneful Album and a Week at the Vanguard by Miguel Zenon

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon is the rare bandleader who’s been able to keep a group together not only for months but years. In this increasingly challenging climate, that’s a major achievement. More than anything, Zenon’s new album Tipica – streaming at NPR – documents a hard-working band at the pinnacle of jazz technique and composition, a bunch of thoroughly road-tested tunes played by a band with intuitive chemistry. Zenon’s tunes literally leap from the page, impactfully and often poignantly. Variations on circular piano riffs are a recurrent trope. Although Zenon draws on his Nuyorican heritage as well as sounds from across the Americas, it would be shortsighted to pigeonhole his work as latin jazz. Tuneful postbop may be a much broader category, but that description encompasses the many, many flavors of his music. With his quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole –  he’ll be airing out those numbers at the band’s upcoming stand at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM starting on Valentine’s Day and running through the 19th of the month. Cover is $30 which includes a drink.

The album opens with Academia, drawing on Zenón’s work raising the next generation of jazz greats at New England Conservatory. A tensely circling piano riff, Zenon’s lithely dancing, exuberant lines and Cole’s subtle snowflake cymbal accents kick it off. There’s some judiciously multitracked, interwoven sax as it hits a jaunty crescendo; Perdomo’s drive from enigmatic back toward the dancing main theme is typical of how he builds momentum. The ending is way too fun, and too funny, to give away, especially since the band reprises it elsewhere here.

The ballad after that, Cantor sends a shout-out to Zenón’s buddy Guillermo Klein, expanding from Perdomo’s tight clusters to balmy and rippling, with a Zenon solo that finally bursts in to flame. With Perdomo’s subtle humor, neoromantic glimmer and blues, Ciclo makes a great segue; the passage where Glawischnig shadows the bandleader is a recurrent meme with this band in concert.

The album’s title track begins with Perdomo running an altered salsa riff, then Zenon wryly syncopates it, Perdomo bringing hints of vintage swing to his signature lyricism, Cole circling the perimeter with a solo as he pans the speakers. Sangre de Mi Sangre is next, a tenderly pulsing ballad inspired by the composer’s four-year-old daughter, with a whispering, tiptoeing Glawischnig solo.

Zenon recycles a Glawischnig solo from the 2009 tune Calle Calma as a central theme in Corteza, the sax bobbing and weaving with a richly cantabile feel: this really is a song without words. Likewise, Entre Las Raíces – “Between the Roots” – is assembled around a Perdomo solo from Street View: Biker, from the pianist’s Awareness album. A wryly scurrying group improvisation opens it; Zenon echoes both Albert Ayler and Joe Maneri in the kind of vein that the title implies. Zenon likens Cole’s intricate work on the album’s closing diptych of sorts, Las Ramas (The Branches) to a drum etude. One quibble with this track: let’s leave whistling on albums to the likes of Paul Simon, huh?

Raptly Tuneful Middle Eastern-Flavored Pastorales From Surface to Air

It would have been fun to see Surface to Air at Barbes last night. The trio – guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, who rarely plays acoustic, alongside bassist Jonti Siman and tabla player Rohin Khemani – also doesn’t play out much either. Their sparse, warmly tuneful, hypnotically intriguing album is available as a name-your-price download from Bandcamp.

The opening track is aptly titled Simple: built on an elegantly catchy rainy-day minor-key theme played with meticulous touch by Goldberger, it centers around a kinetic tabla rhythm. Heysatan is even more spare, Goldberger’s gentle, purposeful, catchy tune again centered around the rhythm section’s steady anchor. Siman’s similarly easygoing bass intro is a clever fake: as the briskly saturnine, Palestinian-tinged theme unwinds, it sounds like an acoustic sketch for a David Lynch soundtrack set in the most war-torn territory in Gaza. Siman’s drone anchors a suspenseful interlude that Goldberger spins and spirals out of with hints of Django Reinhardt.

The slow, somber Odalisque is sort of a bolero counterpart to a Trio Joubran-style Middle Eastern dirge. Matanzas is Goldberger’s platform for using a catchy, melancholy flamenco-inflected theme to set up a swoopy, morose bass solo. With its steady sway, Arcana follows a steadily crescendoing folk noir tangent that brightens as it goes along.

The Sleep in Your Eyes opens with a dusky, sepulchral improvisation, builds to a spare, galloping pulse and then recedes back to spacious, pensive solo guitar. The final track is the ballad Waltz for Celia, the closest thing to postbop here, spiced with the occasional levantine or south Asian riff over rather ominous low-end percussion, with a gracefully uneasy bass solo.

Is this Middle Eastern music? Sure. Indian music? Rhythmically, yes. Jazz? Why not? Download this delicious disc and decide for yourself. Thanks to Barbes for booking this fantastic band, who otherwise would have flown under the radar here. Goldberger is in constant demand in New York as a sideman and plays with a ton of groups, notably violinist Dana Lyn’s psychedelic, ecologically themed Mother Octopus outfit.

Wild and Rapturous Improvisational Magic in Ridgewood on Super Bowl Sunday

As yesterday’s wryly named Super Bolus at Footlight Bar in Ridgewood got underway, it felt strange just to sit and watch  Typically, improvising musicians all end up playing with each other. Fifteen minutes into the show, that moment appeared. The long trip to the Cloisters a couple of weeks ago to jam a Pauline Oliveros chorale turned out to be useful practice!

After a duo set with trumpeter Daniel Levine, where Rallidae tenor saxophonist Angela Morris had introduced a jaunty Mardi Gras theme of sorts and the two had gracefully  intertwined with it, eventually taking it down to misty ambience and then back, she left the stage and went into the crowd.

Drawing us closer to her, she led what seemed for a minute to be a ditzy yoga mantra – “Beauty is above me, below me, around me,” that sort of thing. Instead, it turned out to be a round where she encouraged everyone to sing either a specific part or a sustained note. The resulting web of voices and close harmonies that converged on a warm center was as otherworldly as it was fun to be part of. In moments like this, there’s no thinking involved. Anyone can do it: the music tells you what it needs, all you have to do is pay attention. That’s pretty much what everybody on this often rapturously fun bill did in over three hours of music. 

As organizer Dave Ruder put it, the premise of the show was either improvisation, new material or reinventions of previously released compositions from other members of the Gold Bolus circle.

Anne Rhodes of Broadcloth joined voices with Anais Maviel, who anchored Sam Sowyrda’s virtuosic vibraphone work on the evening’s next improvisation with her minimalist pulse on a small-scale kora lute. Rhodes’ full, emotive soprano contrasted with Maviel’s more low-key nuance and extended technique, trombone and trumpet-like sputters included, while Sowyrda rippled and pinged and bowed his bells for sepulchral textures, at one point taking the music so far down that it was almost imperceptible. That, or he was just messing with the audience.

Kills to Kisses leader and bassist Lisa Dowling blended haunting Middle Eastern allusions and fiery but terse flamenco riffs into a dynamic set of Kate Bush-inflected art-rock loopmusic. Arguably the high point of the show was when oboeist Dave Kadden, of Invisible Circle, played volleys of microtonal tension against a central tone, his diabolical. virtuosically jajouka-esque phrasing manipulated by a guy with a laptop, which sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. By itself, the echo effect wasn’t ultimately even necessary, although admittedly it did add a deliciously dark resonance. This was a relentlessly searching, imploring call to arms. Amir ElSaffar played a very similar one of these solo on trumpet at a gig earlier in the year and this was every bit as inspiring. Clearly, it’s a meme among players of wind instruments.

Singing and playing guitar, Ruder – joined by Dowling and saxophonist Erin Rogers, on soprano – had fun with a number about being unable to move in a straight line, literally and metaphorically. Solo on accordion, Brian McCorkle sang a dadaesque, viciously sarcastic Rogers suite on a love-versus-money theme, and had a great time chewing the scenery: the audience loved it. In contrast, the trio of Morris, Sowyrda and keyboardist Ellen O ended the show with a raptly Eno-like ambient soundscape.

This show was typical of the Gold Bolus stable. Many of the artists lean toward the theatrical or performance art; their home base is the Panoply Performance Lab space in Bushwick. And Dowling is at the Gateway, 1272 Broadway in Bushwick on Feb 23, time TBA. Take the J to Gates Ave.

Dave Fiuczynski Lifts Off to a Better Planet Than This 

Last night at Drom Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif played one of the most exhilarating and sophisticated shows of the past several months in this city. Fiuczynski might be the best guitarist in the world: he is without the doubt the most individualistic. His musical language is completely his own. If it had words instead of notes, it would be part Hindi, part French, part Arabic and part Korean, with some Chinese and plenty of English too. His double-necked, microtonally fretted guitar enables him to play in microtonal scales without bending notes, as well as in the standard western scale. His 2012 album Planet Microjam is one of this century’s half-dozen most innovative and arguably best releases. His latest microtonal project, Flam! Blam! Pan-Asian MicroJam may not have the subtlest title, but the music continues Fiuczynski’s epic quest to find the most magical places in between the notes, drawing from just about every musical tradition around the globe.

This was a trio show. Fiuczynski opened with the Simpson’s Theme, which he proceeded to spin through a trippy prism of scales that exist only on Planet Microjam, along the way firing off energetic Indian sitar riffage, some wildly bent phrases typical of Korean gaegeum music,  and even a flurry or two of rapidfire postbop American jazz. Fiuczynski’s songs are slinkier than they are funky, and his low-key rhythm section kept a serpentine groove going throughout the set with the occasional rise to a four-on-the-floor pulse when the bandleader would hit a peak with a burning series of distorted rock chords. Throughout the set, the drummer stayed pretty chill while the bass player occasionally flavored a song with woozy textures via a wah and an octave pedal, in a subdued P-Funk vein. He also contributed one of the night’s most straight-up numbers, which the bandleader took further out toward Indian raga territory and then spiced with Asian phrasing, into territory that only Fiuczynski knows well.

After opening with the twisted tv theme, they sliced and diced a Russian klezmer melody into offcenter tonalities, with the occasional unexpected leap back toward the original minor key. Opening act Jonathan Scales joined the band during one of the later numbers and played vividly ringing Asian licks against Fiuczynski’s austere, uneasy microtonal chords and otherworldly, Messiaenic ambience. Throughout these epic themes, with their innumerable dynamic shifts, the atmosphere shifted artfully from austere and starlit to raw, stomping triumph. The best song of the night might have been Mood Ring Bacchanal, with its leap from resonant, allusively bent Asian phrasing to a tongue-in-cheek, emphatic oldschool disco interlude. The night’s last song blended wah-wah sitar licks, Orientalisms and slow spacerock with echoes of roots reggae.

Fiuczynski is a legend on the jamband circuit and will no doubt be making the rounds of summer festivals this year. Watch this space for future NYC dates. 

Lush, Lavishly Ambitious Big Band Jazz With Miho Hazama & M-Unit at Lincoln Center

Pianist/organist/conductor Miho Hazama writes big, blustery, fearlessly energetic big band jazz themes. Her music is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word: sophisticated, individualistic and innovative. There’s no one in the world who sounds like her. She loves dynamics – despite the heft of her compositions, half the time only half of her band, or even smaller subsets of the group, are playing. She loves bright, catchy hooks, and her material is obviously a ton of fun to play: a good percentage of New York’s top big band jazz talent comprise her epic large ensemble M-Unit. They have a gig at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Jan 25, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is pricy, $30, but this group is worth it. It’s good to see such an interesting band getting a chance to play to a more or less captive audience.

It was a lot of fun to catch the group playing one of the series of midday shows at another midtown spot, at St. Peter’s Church on the east side, back in August. Coventional wisdom is that musicians don’t really wake up til the sun goes down, but the group was a the top of their game despite the relatively early hour. Their first number, Mr. O opened with momentary pageantry from the strings, then quickly gave way to a clustering piano theme beefed up by the ensemble, then down to a bustling, bouncing alto sax solo over the rhythm section. Hazama’s chart gave the group a chance to have fun throwing big, bright splashes of color against the sonic canvas, piano adding a solo that rose to breathless, towering heights. A yakuza gangster undercurrent added devious suspense.

They followed with an enigmatic piano theme over a syncopated clave beat, vibraphone carrying the melody over a lustrous backdrop with hints of both Russian Romanticism and cheery 70s Philly soul, hitting another suspensefully rippling piano-and-rhythm-section interlude before the piece rose again. Like her colleagues Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck, Hazama loves unorthox pairings of instruments: this one featured bass clarinet in tandem with violin.

The string quartet opened the number after that, then backed as a moody flugelhorn solo quickly turned into a clever Rodgers and Hart quote. As the strings rose toward the end, a sense of melancholy and longing developed, increasing as the music dipped to the strings and piano. That’s typical of how counterintitively Hazama works.

Maybe predictably, Hazama’s earliest composition on the bill followed the set’s most trad, swinging trajectory. The most ambitious was the title track to her lavishly brilliant 2012 debut album Journey to Journey, anchored by a tensely circling piano riff while individual voices shifted in innumerable directions, an uneasily dancing alto sax solo in the center of it all. The group dipped to a charming, balletesque exchange of pizzicato strings, then rose to a vintage 70s soul riff and an explosive outro.

There was plenty of other material on the program, but that’s where the recorder ran out of juice. And it was hard to hear the band intros to keep track of who was playing what in the boomy church basement space. That won’t be a problem in the plush sonics at Lincoln Center.

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.

The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.

The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.

Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!

Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.

It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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