New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: klezmer

Soprano Meets Bass Reinvent Sephardic Treasures with Passion and Elegance

The new Sephardic Treasures album by the Soprano Meets Bass project – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous and expansive take on a very old idea. Classical ensembles have been appropriating ancient Jewish themes for centuries; this album is more eclectic, drawing on tango, flamenco and jazz as well. In general, the music is sleeker than you would expect from a klezmer or tango band playing this material. For those of us who don’t speak Ladino, singer Ana María Ruimonte gives the material much more clarity than most operatically-trained vocalists typically deliver. And she maintains power and edge through many of the melodies’ challenging, rapidfire melismas and ornaments.

This is a long, rewarding album: fifteen songs. Most of them are sad; kings typically do not fare well in them. Minor keys are everywhere, along with the occasional slashing Middle Eastern mode. Bandleader/bassist Alan Lewine puts on a master class in terse, purposeful solos, notably a triumphantly churning facsimile of flamenco guitar playing in a Romany-flavored anthem toward the end of the record.

Some of the songs have a full rhythm section, with Shai Wetzer on drums; others feature lighter percussion by Víctor Monge. Pianist Chano Domínguez, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, flutist Hadar Noiber,  Spanish guitarist Julián Vaquero and violinist Alicia Svigals all punch in purposefully, often with echoes of flamenco or the Balkans, when the vocals drop out, or in response to Ruimonte’s lyrical phrasing. She sings in character, whethe plaintive, pensive – or simply unable to keep a straight face, in a goofy nursery rhyme about a cat. That’s the album’s lone moment of comic relief.

In a handful of songs, she reaches for the rafters with arioso power, especially in a dancing, subtly shifting North African-influenced ballad. There are quieter songs and laments here as well, including one with a spare, hypnotic, almost Indian atmosphere, an almost completely rubato tableau, and a welcome departure into flamenco jazz. What a feast for fans of flamenco, klezmer and classical music alike

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.

Klezmer-Ish Put a Playful, Eclectic Spin on Gorgeous Old Jewish Melodies

There are plenty of bands who put a darkly improvisational spin on old Jewish folk songs, but Klezmer-ish are different. Take the version of the popular Klezmer Freilach, which opens their new album Dusty Road, streaming at Spotify. There isn’t just romping clarinet – that’s Thomas Verity on bass clarinet. There’s also cello, and bouzouki, and hints of Romany jazz, and a nebulous, suspenseful interlude midway through. Among other klezmer groups, Mames Babegenush are the obvious comparison, but Klezmer-ish are more lavishly textured.

The group strut in unison through the album’s second number, Padelasol Fetalor: what a commitment to staccato. They build an elegant, moody web of counterpoint in Volver, Marcel Becker’s bass anchoring the clarinet, Rob Shepley’s  imploring violin and Concettina Del Vecchio’s accordion weaving a veil and then piercing it.

September Sun comes across as a more hi-de-ho take on Django Reinhardt, with a spare, jaunty bass-and-guitar conversation. Becker’s wistfully bowed bass solo opens Kicho, eventually pairing up with lush, majestic accordion. A broodingly crescendoing bass-carinet-and- bass duet opens another popular standard, Hershel, kicking off a catchy minor-key romp by the whole band and then a ridiculous cartoon-horse interlude.

Spare bass clarinet and guitar pair off in Amud Ha’Esch, then pensively sweeping strings take over. I’m Confessin’ isn’t a klezmer tune, but this slowly simmering swing arrangement fits the instrumentation well. Django Reinhardt’s  Blue Drag works even better in this context, Shepley firing off the album’s most lusciously spiky guitar solo.

With its steady, ambling groove and unexpectedly psychedelic guitar, Give Me a Lift to Tzfat is the most chromatically tasty track on the record. The group pair a searchingly clarinet-fueled doina with a similarly moody, bluesy sher and close with the title cut, underscoring the fact that they excel the most with instrumentals.

A Broodingly Gorgeous New Album From Klezmer Innovators Shtreiml

Shtreiml have been taking the klezmer tradition to unexpected and interesting new places for a long time. Their latest album Har Meron is just out and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a suite of sorts, a dynamic, often pensive theme and variations that draws on many styles from across the Jewish diaspora, jazz, Balkan and latin music.

Frontman Jason Rosenblatt builds minor-key suspense and majesty at the piano in the overture, trombonist Rachel Lemisch’s vivid, brooding resonance over Josh Fink’s bass and Thierry Arsenault’s flurrrying drums. Trumpeter Alexis French and saxophonist Tevet Sela take lyrical turns out in front of the band in the rather stern, pulsing variation that follows

Rosenblatt breaks out his signature instrument (shtreiml is the Yiddish word for harmonica) in the understatedly stark nigun that follows, percussionist Bertil Schulrabe providing a slinky Middle Eastern-tinged undercurrent. Then they pick up the pace with a lively, southern Balkan-flavored linedance tune, a hazy, hypnotic bridge at the center.

Rosenblatt keeps that misty, bucolic ambience going in the next number as the horns play an elegant, ancient-sounding theme spiced with doublestops. Lemisch leads the group with a melismatic grace through a variation on the title theme, Rosenblatt’s piano adding eerie glitter, up to a rapturous intertwine between the horns. Then Sela takes a turn out front as the group strut and swing with an allusively chromatic, Serbian tinge.

There’s barely suppressed joy in the pulsing horn piece afterward. Rosenblatt’s gracefully ornamented harmonica lines sail over the muted, slinky groove that follows. The album’s most epic track is also its most enigmatic and lithely jazz-oriented, Sela taking the album’s most intricately energetic solo.

They wind up the record with a trickily rhythmic, cleverly voiced dance, the sax finallly reaching for the rafters, and a  brisk, brassy sirba to close on a high note. It’s an apt coda for an album marked by reserve and thoughtful, dusky tunesmithing rather than the unleashed wildness of so many klezmer party bands.

Niv Ashkenazi’s Lyrical Debut Album Celebrates Obscure Composers Imperiled or Murdered During the Holocaust

On a musical level alone, Niv Ashkenazi’s debut album Violins of Hope with pianist Matthew Graybil – streaming at Spotify – is a work of extraordinary beauty that reflects the vast scope of Jewish music throughout history. The backstory is even more inspiring. On one hand, this is a collection of both virtually unknown and relatively obscure repertoire by Jewish composers who were either driven from their homes or murdered during the Holocaust, along with a couple of famous pieces from the classical and film music canons.

Ashkenazi’s axe is one of dozens of violins played by Jews during the Holocaust, rescued by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein and detailed in James A. Grymes’ book, which shares its title with this album. This particular European model, crafted sometime between 1900 and 1929, has a remarkably warm tone and a Star of David inlay in mother of pearl on the body. It may have been played in the death camps, or one of the ghettos: no one knows for sure. The purpose of the project, and this album, is to return both the music and these instruments to their rightful place in our culture.

Robert Dauber’s Serenade, a song without words, is the cellist-composer’s only surviving work. Graybil’s lightly acerbic staccato and Ashkenazi’s aching lyricism echo both Schubert and Rachmaninoff. Dauber – son of jazz violinist Dolf Dauber – wrote it while imprisoned at Terezin. He died in captivity at Dachau in 1945.

Ernest Bloch’s 1923 Nigun features Ashkenazi soaring, spiraling and trilling against a drone over Graybil’s alternately hypnotic and rippling chromatics, a theme and variations on a gorgeous, dramatic medieval cantorial melody. John Williams well-known, klezmer-inspired Theme from Schindler’s List gets apt contrast between Graybil’s austere piano and Ashkenazi’s wounded, almost imploring intensity.

Julius Chajes’ 1939 piece The Chassid slowly rises to a triumphant strut in the Middle Easter-tinged freygish mode, the composer obviously inspired by the short time he spent in exile in the Holy Land before settling in Detroit.

Rising from hypnotic minimalism to a vigorous, neoromantic peak, contemporary composer Sharon Farber’s Bestemming: Triumph celebrates Dutch Resistance hero Curt Lowens, who saved not only scores of Jews but also a pair of downed American airmen during the war. The composer joins Graybil at the keys; Tony Campisi speaks Lowens’ own words, watching the survivors make their escape.

Szymon Laks’ resolute spirit shines through in his 1935 work Trois Pièces de Concert. The composer and Holocaust hero saved several of his fellow musicians from death at Auschwitz, survived the death camp and continued his career after he was liberated. Here the duo shift from a carefree baroque dance to unexpectedly marionettish riffage, a balmy barcarolle, and a lively conclusion which comes across as an update on Corelli.

The Ukrainian-born George Perlman taught violin in Chicago until his death at 103. His 1929 Dance of the Rebbitzen is a beautifully lilting miniature in freygish mode. As its title implies, pioneering Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim’s tenderly waltzing 1945 Berceuse Sfaradite looks back to Sephardic traditions.

The well-known classical number here is Kaddish, from Ravel’s Deux Melodies Hebraïques, in a terse, crystalline 1924 arrangement by Lucien Garban. The duo conclude the album with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words, a partita from 1952. They follow a steady upward trajectory through the brooding opening pavane, to a similarly wary Ballad and conclude with a Sephardic Melody that echoes the composer’s early immersion in European neoromanticism.

New Takes on Rare, Otherworldly Klezmer Recordings to Ease Your Lockdown Pain

Among the glut of musical webcasts that have sprung up since the beginning of the lockdown, one of the most fascinating and entertaining ones is klezmer violinist Ilana Cravitz‘s Nign a Day project, streaming daily at her webpage. She’s assembled an allstar team of string players from around the world, each playing a half-hour solo program of lively dances and party music from the legendary Moishe Beregovski collection. Many of the artists involved offer insights into the nuts and bolts of these stark, ancient songs as well as the occasional archival clip.

Beregovski was a Russian counterpart to Alan Lomax. Beginning before World War I and continuing until about 1950, Beregovski assembled a vast collection of Jewish folk tunes from across what was then the Soviet Union. Tragically, that heroic preservation work essentially cost him his life. Stalin found out about him and had him imprisoned in the gulag in 1951. In 1956, his health broken, Beregovski was released; he died in obscurity five years later.

His collection of wax cylinder recordings was rediscovered in Kiev after the fall of the Soviet Union and has since become a source of global fascination. Cravitz’s project is at about the halfway point now; New York’s Zoe Aqua and Deborah Strauss are featured on May 14 and 15, respectively. The performances are archived at Cravitz’s youtube channel. Thanks to May 10 guest Alicia Svigals for the heads-up about this.

A Quietly Harrowing Holocaust-Themed Debut Album From Dana Sandler

Singer Dana Sandler is releasing her debut album I Never Saw Another Butterfly today in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a poignant, individualistic, searingly relevant record – streaming at youtube – inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, a collection of art and poetry by children imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp. Sandler likes disquieting modes: some of her songs bring to mind 80s rock band the Police, others the klezmer music she’s immersed herself in beyond her usual jazz idiom.

Each of the album’s sections is dedicated to poets in captivity there whose names we know – Pavel Friedmann, Franta Bass, and Alena Synkova-Munkova, one of the fewer than one hundred out of fifteen thousand children to survive the camp – as well as two other young poets whose names we don’t.

The first track, Dear Pavel is a brooding feature for Peter Kenagy’s flugelhorn over Carmen Staaf’s piano, Jorge Roeder’s bass and Sandler’s husband Austin McMahon’s drums. Sandler’s setting of Friedmann’s poem Butterfly, which inspired the book title, is a rippling, klezmer-tinged art-song, swaying on the wings of Staaf’s piano. “It went away, I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye,” Sandler sings wistfully: who wouldn’t do the same under the circumstances.

A brief, moody duet between clarinetist Rick Stone and Roeder introduce the diptych Home/The Old House, a setting of Bass texts beginning with an overcast intensity and lightening with the prospect of a possible return home – after all, many of the victims in the camps had no idea of the kind of horrors that lay in store. Sandler’s toddler daughter supplies the ending and bravely hits all the notes. After that, The Garden, a spare vocal-piano duet, is all the more hauntingly elegaic for its simplicity.

Kenagy’s flugelhorn returns to take centerstage in Dear Alena, another grey-sky theme. Synkova-Munkova was a fighter, and that defiance is visceral throughout the lyrics and Staaf’s tightly wound, kinetically precise riffs. The band follow with the tensely modal, swinging I’d Like to Go Alone, which has two ominous, richly resonant clarinet solos: Stone takes the first, Sandler’s old bandmate Michael Winograd the second, utilizing the melody of Ani Ma’amin, an imploring klezmer tune no doubt written out frantically by composer Azriel David Fastag in a cattle car on his way to Treblinka.

Tears, the last of the Synkova-Munkova poems, gets an especially tender interpretation from Sandler and a hopeful, low-key solo from Roeder over Staaf’s plaintive, lingering chords. With Sandler maintaining her modal unease over the horns and clustering piano, Dear Anonymous  speaks for itself.

Staaf’s glittering rivulets and Stone’s sailing alto sax solo reflect the escape metaphors implicit in On a Sunny Evening. The band close the album on a hopeful note with Birdsong/Butterfly Reprise. The heroic spirit of those would-be escapees is something to consider as we tackle a considerably less lethal crisis here at home.

A Long-Awaited, Darkly Brilliant Gem of a Debut Album From Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore

Over the past couple of years, trumpeter Ben HolmesNaked Lore trio became one of the most consistently edgy, entertaining bands in the Barbes scene. Considering how many dozens of other great artists rotate through Brooklyn’s best (and currently shuttered) music venue, that’s a major achievement.

But Holmes has been a mainstay, playing everything from klezmer to ska there since the zeros, and guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan have long resumes in jazz that slinks toward the Middle East. With this group, the goal is to reinvent old klezmer themes and introduce new ones. If you’re a fan of old Jewish folk tunes from across the diaspora, you’ll hear a lot of familiar minor-key riffs here, beamed down to a completely new planet. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open the album with a diptych, Invocation 1/Snake Money, an airy, spacious, allusively chromatic trumpet solo leading into a suspensefully pulsing, flamenco-tinged groove. From there Shepik’s fleet-fingered flurries and Shanahan’s snakecharmer beats underpin the bandleader’s lively, spacious, klezmer-infused phrasing. Ibrahim Maalouf’s most upbeat work comes to mind.

The second track is titled 543, a Smile, and Bullshit, reflecting Holmes wry stage presence as well as the whole group’s immersion in Balkan music. This one has a tricky groove that seems Macedonian, deliciously biting upper-register chords from Shepik, trumpet floating and trilling uneasily overhead..

Shepik plays clanging, overtone-laden Portuguese twelve-string guitar in the steady, jauntily strolling, tantalizingly gorgeous Swamplands Chusidl and sticks with it in the hypnotically circling Interlude on Avenue J, a throwback to the more postbop jazz-inflected style Holmes mined on his Balkan jazz record Gold Dust.

Another crystalline, unsettled trumpet taqsim, Invocation II leaps and bounds, introducing The Dust of Unremembering; Shepik runs a moody acoustic guitar loop as Shanahan fires off machinegunning riffs and Holmes hangs low and ominous, a stormcloud above all the scampering.

The Sunbeast Emerges, with its moody bolero tinges, is another killer track: it sounds like a Serbian take what could be a catchy, incisive Michael Winograd tune, no surprise considering how much time Holmes has spent in the clarinetist’s band. Shepik’s spiraling, spine-tingling solo is one of the album’s high points.

Two Oh No’s and an Oh! no No! is not a Yoko Ono paraphrase: it’s a dusky, Indian-flavored theme built around a Shepik chromatic loop, Holmes moodily choosing his spots over Shanahan’s clip-clop attack, the guitarist adding a wickedly Middle Eastern solo.

First We Were Sad, Then We Danced is a pretty self-explanatory hora, a high-voltage concert favorite: the trio add smoldering flamenco flavor and then an absolutely surreal new wave rock pulse. They wind up the album with the unselfconsciously poignant waltz All Together, a subtle mix of klezmer, pastoral American jazz and the Balkans.

All of these guys have done great work over the years but this is a high point for everybody in the band. No wonder they’ve stuck together so long. If it makes sense to put up a best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year – if New York still exists at the end of the year, if we all exist – this will be on it.

A Rare, Spellbinding Set of Moldovan Yiddish Music and More in Midtown

It was almost three weeks ago that the encroaching fear which has since paralzed most of this city threatened to turn a concert by the Vienna Yiddish Duo at the Austrian Cultural Forum into a very sad, lonely Purim party. While not every ticketholder to the sold-out show was there, a robust crowd turned out and were rewarded for their bravery, as a staffer there put it.

In terms of the material on the program, it was fascinating to witness two Moldovan musicians playing it since so much of the klezmer we hear in New York has origins in Romania, or the badlands bordering Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland. And yet, over and over again, pianist Roman Grinberg and clarinetist Sasha Danilov reaffirmed that delicious, chromatic connection shared by so much music from across the Jewish diaspora. Through lilting sher dances, a couple of boisterously bouncing freylachs, a plaintive doina and a hora that the two finally took to the rafters with a big crescendo, they reveled in those bracing minor keys.

But that wasn’t the case with everything on the bill. Grinberg has a gruff baritone, a flair for the theatrical and strong, emphatic chops on the piano. Over and over again, Danilov blew the crowd away with his reed-warping microtones, crystalline sustained lines, a couple of superhuman displays of circular breathing and rapidfire, perfectly precise volleys of notes that went faster and faster as Grinberg spurred him on. Several of those numbers – including a surprisingly un-schmaltzy, angst-fueled take of the ballad Mein Yiddishe Mama – reflected a warmly consonant classical influence, no surprise coming from a Vienna-based group.

There was plenty more lighthearted material on the bill as well. Grinberg seemed surprised that everybody in the crowd knew Tumbalalaika, which drew some chuckles. The duo’s fleet-fingered take of A Bisschen a Mazel (A Little Luck) was as wryly amusing as it could have been, along with a soaring take of the Yiddish theatre ballad I Love You Much Too Much, complete with a slashing Astor Piazzolla quote toward the end.

“This wasn’t on the program, but I think we should play it,” Grinberg told the crowd before launching into Abi Gezunt, another dark-tinged cabaret number whose cynical message is basically, “Well, at least you have your health.” The two got serious at the end, with a whirlwind, crescendoing, Moldovan take of the Klezmer Freylach and then a bittersweet, rather gorgeous ballad with a message of hope: “When you go over the bridge, never be afraid,” Grinberg reflected somberly.

The Austrian Cultural Forum’s schedule of performances has been shut down until further notice, pending the outcome of the coronavirus scare.

Calmly Yet Adventurously Exploring Slavic Vocal Traditions with Kitka

All-female Bay Area choral ensemble Kitka love exploring vocal traditions from Eastern Europe to parts of the former Soviet Union. Beyond that eclecticism, they distinguish themselves with their collective vocal range: this unit has strong contraltos to balance out all the soaring highs. Their vast twenty-two track album Evening Star is streaming at Bandcamp. Although a lot of their material is very rhythmically sophisticated, there’s a mystical, reassuring calm to much of it, a welcome antidote to the terror of the coronavirus scare.

The opening medley of Bulgarian carols is a lot of fun, with a very cool contrast between an increasingly complex, stately web of counterpoint and a triumphant “wheeee” bursting from every corner of the stereo picture. That contrapuntal complexity returns again in songs from Romania and Latvia.

They have just as much fun with the eerie close harmonies and swooping, melismatic ornamentation of several more Bulgarian and Serbian tunes. They spice a Latvian round with strange, surreal, looming percussion. In one of the Ukrainian tunes, a couple of the group’s most distinctive voices add striking timbres over an increasingly delirious backdrop anchored by boomy bass drum. The group interpolate a a Greek tune – with a swooping, melismatic Indian flavor- within a brooding Appalachian-tinged folk song, the only one from these shores here.

The album also includes a calm, Renaissance-tinged Russian hymn; a spare, hypnotic Georgian piece and a triptych of Yiddish lullabies over a wafting midrange drone. There are love songs, laments and a peasant work song. Among all the solos, the single mightiest one is at the end of a steady, swaying Ukrainian number. They wind up the album with a Yiddish tune and finally break out the accordion, memorably. In the centuries before the magic rectangle took over the collective imagination, this is what people used to do with their time.