New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: klezmer

Partying Around New York with Mames Babegenush

Danish klezmer band Mames Babegenush played Drom Friday night at around midnight. Saturday they were at Mehanata, the notorious Lower East Side Bulgarian bar, until the wee hours. Sunday they played an afternoon show in the basement of Gustavus Adolphus Church in Gramercy, then took the party a few blocks north to the Carlton Arms Hotel. They’d played the church in the past, beginning with the day after the honcho there had seen them late one Saturday night at the old Zebulon in Williamsburg – and invited them to play the next day. And they took that gig. Fatigue and alcohol do not seem to affect these guys at all.

Bracing Jewish minor-key folk dances are the loosely connecting thread among the band’s often exhilarating catalog of originals and popular standards from throughout Eastern Europe, Spain, the Middle East and the Balkans. Throughout about three hours of music yesterday, there were all sorts of wry conversations, lots of sparring, spine-tingling solos and a couple of sprints to the finish line. One of the best of the solos was a slinky, bristling chromatic series of climbs and descents, using a horn voicing, and played by bassist Andreas Mollerhoj. Bass solos are usually a bad idea; this guy got all of two throughout the afternoon and left you wanting more.

One of this band’s most distinctively unorthodox features is drummer Morten Aero’s kit. He kept a steady thud going with his right foot on a kickdrum, a snare and hi-hat set up to his left where he’d rattle off vaudevillian rimshots, often using his hands for hypnotic Middle Eastern beats. Straight in front of him was a tsmibl, the Ukrainian Jewish zither that may be the forerunner of both the Hungarian cimbalom and the Iraqi santoor. As he hammered the strings, they seemed both a little muted and a hair sharp, consistently across the scale, adding a subtle and absolutely otherworldly edge, especially in the music’s quieter moments.

Clarinetist and bandleader Emil Goldschmidt matched precision to dynamics, whether soloing or harmonizing with the sax and flugelhorn. Lukas Bjorn Rande shifted between a welcome, smoky grit on tenor sax and a gorgeously plaintive tone on alto, obviously influenced by the great Bulgarian player Yuri Yunakov, a guy he’d had the good fortune to study with. On flugelhorn, Bo Rande reached for the rafters with imploring, searing cadenzas and a handful of slithery, electrifying trills, often matched by accordionist Nikolai Kornerup.

Throughout the set, influences from Romanian brass music, to Andalucian balladry, Turkish laments, suspenseful Ukrainian horas and relentlessly flurrying Greek hill country music filtered through the songs, seldom staying in one place for long. Maybe the greatest thing of all about Jewish music is that it’s so well-traveled, and this group completely get that. The only weird thing was that nobody other than the band members were on their feet dancing (although this generation’s most dangerous American klezmer clarinetist, Michael Winograd, was in the house and bouncing in his seat). Mames Babegenush are at Golden Fest this coming Saturday night, Jan 18 at 8:55 PM (they run a tight ship there) in the big ballroom, among dozens of similarly high-voltage bands from across the Balkans, Mediterranean and Middle East.

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.

A Wild, Diverse Klezmer and Balkan Brass-Fueled Show at the Mercury at the End of the Month

Danish band Mames Babegnush blend acerbic Eastern European klezmer music with brooding Nordic sounds. They bring a brassy intensity to rousing dance numbers as well as moodier, slower material. They’re playing a very synergistic twinbill put together by the World Music Institute at the Mercury on August 27, with the perennially boisterous, similarly dynamic Slavic Soul Party – who are as adept at hip-hop horn music as they are at Duke Ellington and the Balkan sounds they made their name with – opening the night at 7 PM. $20 advance tickets are very highly recommended; the venue has them behind the counter when the doors open at 5 PM on weekdays.

For a good idea of what Mames Babegenush’s inventive original tunes sound like live, check out their live album Mames Babegenush With Strings, recorded on their home turf in 2016 and streaming at Bandcamp. As you’ll notice by the time the first track is over, the recording quailty is fantastic: there’s no audience noise and the clarity of the individual instruments is pristine without being sterile. The opening tune, bookeneded by pensive string interludes, is Tornado Albastru, built around a rapidfire, catchy, minor-key clarinet riff from Emil Goldschmidt. The horns – Lukas Bjorn Rande on sax and Bo Rande on flugelhorn – join with accordionist Nikolai Kornerup over the tight pulse of bassist Andreas Mollerhoj and drummer Morten Aero.

The flugelhorn takes centerstage on the sleekly swinging yet persistently uneasy Timofei’s Hora, then Kornerup gets a lush solo. The aptly titled View From a Drifting Room features some gorgeously melismatic, Balkan-tinged clarinet over tectonically shifting sheets of sound from the rest of the band.

They follow that with The Mist, a precise, poinpoint, stingingly chromatic tune that compares with Frank London‘s most recent, lustrously orchestrated work. Olympia is a big ra-a-tat romp, all the horns blustering together, spiced with some clever, vaudevillian work from the rhythm section, a catchy, tersely balletesque bass solo and a wickedly serpentine one from the flugelhorn.

Sepulchral harmonics from the strings -Andrea Gyafras Brahe and Lisa Marie Vogel on violins, Sisdel Most on bratsch and Live Johansson on cello – introduce the somber Fundador, the band finally coalescing into stately waltz time.

Balkan-flavored clarinet and muted trumpet float over a precise pulse in Mountain Dance. Dream City has an opaque string intro and slashingly bubbling unison horn riffage in the Middle Eastern freygishe mode. Opening with a lyrical bass-and-flugelhorn solo, the ballad Point 9 is the closest thing to golden-age American jazz here.

My Turkish Princess has a pulsing levantine groove, lavish, enigmatic harmonies that veer in and out of Middle Eastern chromatics, and one of the album’s most bracing solos from the sax. The most expansive and Romanian-tinged number here, Strannik has a delicate swing, a hushed yet biting sax solo and achingly moody Balkan clarinet. The final track is Podolian Prom, a rousingly edgy clapalong wedding dance that could a stripped-down Fanfare Ciocarlia. If you like your minor-key music as elegant as it can be energetic, Mames Babagenush are the band for you.

Wildfire Klezmer and Reinvented Cumbias at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

Sometimes you have to light a fire under a musician to get them to elevate their game. Sunday afternoon on the Lincoln Center plaza, it was as if somebody, i.e. Mr. Sun, had taken a blowtorch – or a steam pipe, at least – to klezmer clarinetist Michael Winograd and his wryly named band the Honorable Mentshn. Onstage, Winograd is usually all business, generating thrills with his horn and his often sublimely catchy, subtly witty tunesmithing. This time, he was in rare form as a raconteur.

Maybe that was the heat…or maybe he was still riding the high of a return from his latest European tour. A heckler in the crowd suggested he take off his coat. “Dad, be quiet, I told you to stay in the car,” was Winograd’s response. Later, he alluded to how sardonic the title of his new album Kosher Style is: see, at a kosher-style restaurant, you can get a brisket sandwich with mustard and a pickle, but they also give you a piece of cheesecake at the end.

And this show was a feast, drawn mostly from the new record. Winograd was at the top of his game with his whirlwind trills, leaping and bounding through slashing chromatics and bracing minor keys with typically unwavering, crystalline, wind-tunnel focus, no matter how fast the music became. Trumpeter Ben Holmes had a similar, meticulously modulated resonance, often in tandem with trombonist Dan Blacksberg. The group’s bassist fingerpicked rather than using the traditional bow, while drummer Dave Licht switched from sticks to mallets and back, flickering his hardware, vaudeville style and then stomping with abandon through the colorful rhythms of one of the new numbers, Theme from David and Goliath.

Pianist Carmen Staaf got to employ her jazz chops most clearly in a moody, muted, especially plaintive take of Scenes From a Kosher Restaurant. The afternoon’s opening number, Bar Mitzvah Bulgar, was a blast right from the ridiculously catchy first few riffs. Likewise, the slower Dinner in Bay Ridge was a launching pad for a succession of brief, slashing solos from the horns, with a nifty interweave at the end. With its blend of gravitas and fire, It Pays to Buy the Best was a shout-out to Manischewitz, Winograd informed everyone They balanced out the somberness of a couple of slow horas with a boisterous diptych of wedding tunes to wind out the show.

This was part of the annual Heritage Sunday program assembled by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. Over the last few years, it’s always been one of Lincoln Center Out of Doors‘ most consistently entertaining events, and this was no exception. A Puerto Rican bomba ensemble had opened the festivities. The afternoon closed with a serpentine and often hypnotic if somewhat abbreviated set by Inkarayku, who reinvent old cumbias and Andean panpipe tunes from what’s now Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Watching them bounce their way through their relentlessly catchy set in their matching purple ponchos while a series of circle dances spontaneously erupted in the crowd by the edge of the stage was a reminder of where the first wave of classic psychedelic cumbia bands like Los Destellos and Juaneco Y Su Combo got their inspiration. Inkarayku’s take on cumbia and ancient mountain melodies is more acoustic, although this particular edition of the band also featured a string synth player who doubled on traditional flute.

Singer/syndrum player Romina Cárnica Navarro delivered a lilting, catchy number in the original Quechua language; otherwise, when the tunes had lyrics, they were in Spanish. Frontwoman Naomi Sturm’s high harmonies were grounded by flute player Carlos Moises Ambia’s expressive, dramatic baritone while charanga player and lead guitarist Andres Jimenez’s spiky lines intertwined with acoustic guitarist Adam Negrin’s bright chordal work. Bassist Erico Benavente’s trebly groove kept the dancers twirling.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tonight, July 31 at 7:30 PM out back in Damrosch Park with a group led by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington saluting the pioneering women of jazz and early rock. The eclectic lineup includes but is not limited to vintage Americana maven Rhiannon Giddens, Afro-Cuban singer Xiomara Laugart, legendary AACM singer/organist Amina Claudine Myers and formidable jazz vocalist/bandleader Charenée Wade.

Lavish, Exhilarating New Klezmer Sounds and a Lincoln Center Gig From Clarinetist Michael Winograd

The cover of clarinetist Michael Winograd’s wildly adrenalizing new large-ensemble album Kosher Style – streaming at Bandcamp – captures him at Coney Island. It’’s winter. Facing north, just past the cantina, he raises his horn. The Thunderbolt and Parachute Jump loom in the background, sepia-toned. It’s retro, but look closely and it’s obviously in the here and now, just like the new vinyl record.

This album is all about thrills, and minor-key electicity, and sabretoothed chromatics, with all sorts of devious references that hardcore fans of the klezmer demimonde will get. Winograd worked up a lot of this material at a frequently spine-tingling weekly residency at Barbes a couple of years ago, and his bandmates sound like they’re jumping out of their shoes to play this stuff. His clarinet and Ben Holmes’ trumpet are the two main solo instruments, although the rest of the band blazes as well. Winograd is bringing this party to Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where he and the group will be playing on July 28 at 3 PM on the plaza in front of the Beaumont Theatre. Puerto Rican bomba crew Redobles de Cultura open the afternoon at 1; psychedelic Incan folk band Inkarayku close the show at around 4.

Winograd opens the record – and a lot of his live shows – with the title track, built around a rapidfire two-bar clarinet riff. If there was such a thing as Jewish dixieland, this would be it. Dave Licht’s drums tumble and rustle up a storm, Ken Maltz’s bass clarinet smokes and then Holmes takes over the big hook right before the end. All this in less than two and a half breathless minutes.

The Bar Mitzvah Bulgar has a steady, almost stern pulse: clearly, the adults are in charge at this particular simcha. Is that wistful trumpet solo a signal that they might not be so happy to see their little one pass into adulthood? Winograd’s crystalline, meticulously trilling solo after that lifts the mood and the party really starts to cook.

Scenes From a Kosher Restaurant is a moody hora of sorts, swaying along with Carmen Staaf’s stately piano and Jordan Sand’s bass, Sanne Möricke’s accordion in tandem with the clarinet as a famous Beethoven riff peeks out from the background. The International Hora has the whole ensemble pulsing tensely behind the bandleader’s edgily precise articulation. The sober syncopation is the same in Dinner in Bay Ridge, a gorgeously wistful, crescendoing number, Holmes eventually taking over from Winograd, the group weaving around the melody as it winds out.

The triumphantly incisive Wedding Sher is just as catchy, a long, six-minute launching pad for bracing solos from Winograd and Holmes. Online Polka seems suspiciously close to a boisterous Italian opera theme, while Brooklyn Pursuit – a popular encore at shows – has a frantic noir bustle and some of Winograd’s most thrilling lines here.

The album’s most dynamic number, Manhattan Beach Doina shifts through a brassy, Andalucian-tinged intro to a spare jazz piano piano-and-clarinet interlude and a series of false starts: just when you think it’s going to explode, it’s over. Theme From David and Goliath bristles with contrasts: Winograd’s impetuous clarinet fanning the flames of a lush, stately backdrop over waves of cymbals.

Soulful clarinet-trumpet harmonies fuel the brief Kiddish Club. It Pays to Buy the Best has an opulent, pulsing hora sway; Winograd winds up the album with a crashing, loose-limbed diptych, South Brooklyn Bulgars. The icons of the American klezmer movement of the 50s – guys like Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein, who brough their fearsome chops and improvisational flair to brooding melodies from the old country – would be proud of how far Winograd has taken the tradition. You’ll see this on the top ten albums of the year list here in December if Trump doesn’t blow us all up first.

Slashing Blues and Klezmer and Noir Sounds with Book of J at Barbes This Month

Saturday evening at Barbes, it was an awful lot of fun to witness the contrast in styles between guitarists Jeremiah Lockwood and Steve Ulrich. Lockwood, who’s one-half of Book of J and also leads the Sway Machinery, is a live wire, tremolo-picking sharply feathery flurries, plucking out jaggedly incisive phrases and plaintive blues licks on his vintage National Steel model. Ulrich, the film composer and Big Lazy leader was a predator waiting for his prey, cool and calm and distantly resonant, then in a flash going in for the kill with his Les Paul.

He was the special guest at Book of J’s weekly 6 PM Saturday residency at Barbes this month, which is no surprise considering that he and Lockwood have been conjuring up plenty of sinisterly spiky sounds in an on-and-off collaboration that dates back to the early zeros. Rocking a classic punk rock mohawk, Book of J frontwoman Jewlia Eisenberg joined them for one of several lesbian Jewish ballads – “There’s lots of them,” she grinned, singing with triumph and passion over Lockwood’s gritty, chromatically-fueled chords and Ulrich’s signature, lingering noir accents.

Classic Barbes moment. There aren’t many venues left in New York where you can see this kind of cross-pollination creating deliciously new musical hybrids, even if they only last for a few minutes.

The rest of the set was just as diverse. Watching Ulrich play spare, purposeful, purist oldschool Chicago blues was an unexpected treat; then again, the guy can play pretty much anything. Likewise, Lockwood moved methodically from hypnotically emphatic, Malian-inspired phrasing to a ripsnorting cadenza or three and gentle, poignant jangle. The two guitarists went into allusive noir with Mood Indigo, then took another stab at the Ellington catalog, edging their way into a take of Caravan that was more of a slow, wary procession through the desert, keeping an eye out for US drones and Soviet warplanes. Their version of an uneasy Big Lazy big-sky theme had the same menace just over the horizon.

Eisenberg and Lockwood’s most riveting number together was a gorgeous klezmer tune in the Middle Eastern freygish mode, written by a famous Argentine singer and member of what was for a long time the largest Yiddish-speaking community outside of Europe and later, Israel. Lockwood introduced a slower, more allusively rapturous number as being written by an early 20th century cantor who’d chosen his daughter as his successor. That move didn’t go over with the synagogue elders, so the cantor quit. “When somebody dies, where do you say kaddish?” a friend once asked the guy. “In my garden,” he replied.

Book of J return to Barbes tomorrow night, July 20 at 6 with special guest Brian Chase on drums, playing from a new song cycle based on the work of Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin. Big Lazy are back at Barbes as well on July 26 at 10; Singer/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande’s edgy parlor pop band Bad Reputation – who continue to build a rich catalog of English translations of songs by badass 1940s-70s French songwriter Georges Brassens – open the night at 8.

The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof: More Relevant Than Ever

Believe everything you’ve heard about the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene‘s production is fresh, the acting and singing are strong, the casting is smart and the music is both extremely dynamic and classy. Potentially vaudevillian moments are muted in favor of a gravitas that’s sometimes lush and sweeping, at other times austere and plaintive. At a time when people from Syria to Colombia are being forced from their homes to seek refuge thousands of miles asway, and when Jews from Pittsburgh to Poway, California are being murdered, this familiar old story has never been more relevant. And the fact that the narrative concerns daughters breaking free from patriarchal domination shouldn’t be overlooked either.

While the ongoing Manhattan run at Stage 42 marks the Yiddish version’s first American series of performances, Shraga Friedman’s Yiddish translation from the original English is not new: the Polish-Israeli actor and director debuted it in Israel in 1966. However, it is probably safe to say that despite the huge revival of Yiddish as a spoken language, the vernacular probably hasn’t changed much since then.

This is a long production, over three hours including a brief intermission, but it flies by. For non-Yiddish speakers (or those of us who only know terms of endearment and curse words), there are English and Russian supertitles – and some actual Russian sprinkled into the dialogue when the cossacks enter to stir up trouble. The entire cast seem at ease with the language throughout both the narrative and the musical numbers. Friedman’s translation not only rhymes but also pretty much matches the meter of the original songs, although a close listen reveals many instances where both the Yiddish and Russian take some clever poetic license.

As Cencral patriarch Tevye, Steven Skybell brings a curmudgeonly charisma but also an unselfconscious vulnerability to a role that in other productions all too frequently is done completely over the top. As his long-suffering wife Golde, Jennifer Babiak plays her cynicism as survival skill – and also gets to thrill the crowd with her vast, minutely nuanced, operatic vocal range. In a neat bit of casting, Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) towers over her shy, nebbishy would-be fiance Motl (Ben Liebert). The rest of the cast – notably Jackie Hoffman, as barely tolerated busybody matchmaker Yente, and Joanne Borts, as Tsayt’s namesake ghost of a grandmother – bring as much resonance as sardonic humor to what are in many cases multiple roles.

The music is rich and often symphonic in scope. Andrew Wheeler conducted the orchestra with remarkable restraint and attention to detail. The group only cut completely loose in the klezmer dance numbers, which were as boisterously chaotic as anyone would want. Clarinet wizard D. Zisl Slepovitch snuck from behind the curtain to the corner of the stage where he bopped and fired off an all-too-brief series of biting chromatic riffs. As the eponymous Fiddler, Lauren Jeanne Thomas sometimes mimes and sometimes plays, but either way her timing and dynamics are perfectly precise.

At last night’s performance, the two best numbers were the tantalizingly brief, rustically ambered Sabbath Prayer – a momentary showstopper for Bobiak – and a sweeping, lingering version of the bittersweet, saturnine ballad Sunrise, Sunset. If I Were a Rich Man gets translated as Ven ikh bin a Rotschild, along with some sly wordplay that’s not in the original. Hannah Temple’s accordion along with the trumpets of Clyde Daley and Jordan Hirsch, and Daniel Linden’s trombone, brought equal parts fire and poignancy to the traditional tunes, especially at the end.

Beowulf Borritt’s stark, minimalist set design creates a striking milieu for the people of Anatevka and the never-ending succession of trouble they have to face. In one of many subtle strokes of staging, a fabric backdrop seems to be repaired, between acts, in a way that would befit one of the central characters. And the simple change of language helps immeasurably in creating a defamiliarizing effect. So you think you’ve seen Fiddler? You should see this one. Shows are Tues-Sun, generally at 8 PM with matinees as well. While the performances have been selling out for months, discount rush tickets are sometimes available.

Hauntingly Triumphant Klezmer and Classical Sounds Fill Central Park

This past evening Central Park was ablaze with music that stretched back as far as several thousand years, if you believe the liturgy. Either way, the best of those ancient Jewish cantorial melodies were as catchy and anthemic as they were darkly rustic, which is the point. The choir isn’t likely to get up to full steam if the tunes aren’t there.

Most of those tunes were sung by the New York Cantors, the trio of  Azi SchwartzYanky Lemmer and Netanel Hershtik flanked by a robust crew of backup singers. This time, rather than inciting a friendly cantorial smackdown like they did two years ago, very memorably, their Central Park Summerstage performance was all about harmony and tradeoffs. At their best, they were spectacular. Hershtik’s operatic baritone soared and implored, echoed by Schwartz from time to time as hometown hero Lemmer gave each a wide berth and stayed subtle and low-key for the most part.

In its heyday, cantorial music was as competitive and thrilling a sport as African-American gospel. This show was more socialist than pugilist, enhanced by the lush, velvety backdrop of a chamber orchestra including but not limited to Michael Winograd and Dmitri Slepovitch on reeds and Ljova Zhurbin on viola.

But as impassioned as the cantors were, the highlight of the night was trumpeter Frank London‘s brand-new suite Freylekhs – A Klezmer Fantasy for Orchestra and Trumpet. He gave it a gorgeous, Middle Eastern-tinged, modal solo intro, then the group entered with a supple pulse, then shifted from a stately minor key sway to a bit of a Klezmatics-style romp (London co-founded that legendary band) and an unexpectedly sweeping, majestic interlude with vivid echoes of Egyptian trailblazer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. They wound it up with an even punchier trumpet solo and a triumphant coda.

There was other music on the bill, but that didn’t measure up: centuries-old ngunim don’t translate easily to a cloying, cliched 80s-style power ballad format. And as if we haven’t already heard enough about the death of the corporate record industry, the night’s emcee announced that Universal Music’s big signing this year is…drumroll…Shulem, a twentysomething Israeli crooner whose seven-digit youtube pageviews may or may not be authentic. His voice is definitely the real deal: the guy can belt with anyone, and held the crowd’s attention with a lustrous contemporary classical ode to his home turf. But even a Yiddish second verse couldn’t redeem God Bless America from its association with Bush-era torture, murder and police state terror, both here and abroad.

Further to the north, it was redemptive to be able to catch the New York Philharmonic playing the final movements of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (which they’re reprising at 8 PM on Friday night in Prospect Park: you should go). Binoculars would have been a good idea: the Philharmonic in Central Park is probably the year’s biggest event there. With the array of speaker towers extending south of the stage, it was like watching Rachmaninoff at the Isle of Wight, loudly amplfified. But those of us in the back needed that sonic boost. And the music was everything it should be: delicate in the delicate parts, robust when needed, which was most of the time. The melancholy third movement seemed infused with some righteous anger; then again, that could have been the amplification. Maestro Jaap van Zweden brought his usual meticulousness to the music: he has transformed this orchestra like no other conductor in recent memory.

Sizzling Klezmer Jamband Yale Strom’s Broken Consort Get a Head Start on This Year’s Festivities

Violinist Yale Strom is the frontman of a sizzling klezmer group called Hot Pstromi. His new album Shimmering Lights, with his Broken Consort – streaming at Rockpaperscissors – is even hotter, a spine-tingling, dynamic, chromatically delicious mix of new arrangements of classic, un-cheesy Hanukah themes from across the diaspora. The Middle East and Andalucia are well represented throughout an album of what could be called first-class acoustic Levantine jamband epics.

Amos Hoffman’s oud taqsim, beginning with a distinctly funky Moroccan flair and spiraling upward, introduces the album’s bracing, opening epic, O Mighty Stronghold. When the sttrings come sweeping in after the first verse, the effect is visceral. Likewise, Alexander Greenbaum’s stark, stygian cello solo midway through, and the big, exhililating violin/cello duel between the bandleader and Greenbaum afterward. It’s yet another reminder of how rich the mutual source of classic Arabic and Jewish music is.

The Hanukah party anthem Khanike, Oh Khanike has a rustic, shapeshifting acoustic arrangement, frontwoman Elizabeth Schwartz’s assertive delivery over a spiky backdrop, mandolin contrasting with the rhythmic washes of the bass. Who except maybe Andy Statman would have expected the wry bluegrass breakdown midway through?

The ladino theme Bring Out the Tray is a stately processional: after seven more or less hypnotic minutes, the solos kick in, first the violin, then the oud, for a mighty payoff that winds up with another, slightly less ferocious duel for strings.

There’s a little guitar jazz from Hoffman to kick off Latkes, possibly the most exalted celebration of potato pancakes ever recorded: among the highlights are a doublespeed jam, biting cello giving way to bubbly electric guitar, a big violin crescendo, and some Eastern European flatpicking.

Azeremos la Merenda has a pouncing flamenco groove, wary echoes of Turkish music, and an adrenalizing cello solo. Beshir Mizmor gives Strom a stately backdrop for some stratospheric sizzle. Schwartz indulges in some scatting in Eight Little Brothers, a Djangoesque Romany jazz remake, while La Fiesta de la Hanukia has echoes of flamenco.

With a punchy bass solo, more searing violin and crackling oud, L’chod Chanukah mashes up a scampering shtetl party theme with Django Reinhardt and some newgrass. The final cut is The Fool Over Yonder, an antifascist anthem from a few hundred years ago reinvented as low-key guitar swing that’s just as relevant today as it was back when it was probably played on oud, and a lot more slowly. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year. By the way – if you’ve read this far, would you still be here if the first sentence was something like “Here’s an album of old Hanukah songs that’s fun all year long?”

 

Alex Weiser Resurrects a Brilliantly Obscure Tradition of Jewish Art-Song

If you had the good fortune to work at an archive as vast as the YIVO Institute, as composer Alex Weiser does, wouldn’t you explore it? Weiser went deep, and here’s an example of what he found:

Wheel me down to the shore
Where the lighthouse was abandoned
And the moon tolls in the rafters

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
And see the stars flaming out, one by one
Like the forgotten faces of the dead

I was never able to pray
But let me inscribe my name
In the book of waves

And then stare into the dome
Of a sky that never ends
And see my voice sail into the night

Edward Hirsch wrote that poem; Weiser set it to music, along with eight other texts, on his new album And All the Days Were Purple (streaming at Bandcamp). Tuesday night at YIVO’s comfortable ground-floor auditorium,  an allstar sextet of 21st century music specialists – singer Eliza Bagg, pianist Daniel Schlossberg, violinist Hannah Levinson, violist Maya Bennardo, cellist Hannah Collins and vibraphonist Michael Compitello – played an allusively harrowing take of what Weiser made out of that Hirsch text, along with four other tersely lustrous compositions. That particular number was assembled around a plaintive bell motif; the other works on the bill shared that crystalline focus.

The premise of Weiser’s album looks back to a largely forgotten moment in Russia in 1908 where a collective of Jewish composers decided to make art-song out of folk tunes. Much as composers have been pillaging folk repertoire for melodies and ideas for hundreds of years, it’s refreshing to see that Weiser has resurrected the concept…and a revelation to see what he managed to dig up for texts.

In addition to a swirling, cleverly echoey, suspensefully horizontal instrumental interlude, the group worked starry, hypnotic variations on an ascending theme in Longing, a barely disguised erotic poem by Rachel Korn. My Joy, with text by Anna Margolin – born in 1887, eleven years before Korn – was much more bitter than sweet, a lament for an unfulfilled life. And the simply titled Poetry, a setting of a deviously innuendo-fueled Abraham Sutzkever poem, was rather stern and still – it’s the closest thing to an art-rock ballad as the album has.

For the concert, Weiser also created new arrangements of a handful of songs from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, with a similar stylistic sweep. A lullaby credited to Lazare Saminsky – who would go on to become music director at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El – and a rueful emigre’s lament by Alexander Veprik were allusively assembled around the kind of gorgeous chromatics and biting minor keys most of us tend to associate with Jewish themes. But a 1923 message to the diaspora by Joel Engel, another member of that circle, and a Saminsky setting of the Song of Songs, were more comfortably atmospheric. And the group took Weiser’s chart for a 1921 Moses Milner lullaby to unexpected heights on the wings of the strings. After the show, the audience filtered out for a mostly purple-colored food to celebrate the album’s release: honey-ginger cake from Russ and Daughters, who knew?

In addition to his work as a composer, Weiser is in charge of public programs at YIVO. The next musical performance is May 1 at 7 PM, with pianist Ted Rosenthal‘s jazz opera Dear Erich, inspired by his grandmother Herta’s letters from Nazi-occupied Germany to her son, who’d escaped to the US after Kristallnacht but was unable to get his parents out. Advance tickets are $15 and highly recommended.