New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: klezmer

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. 

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hynoptic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Golden Fest 2019: Still New York’s Wildest Concert Weekend After More Than 30 Years

The chandeliers at the gilded age wedding mansion were shaking. People were bodysurfing. As usual, the lines to all-you-can-eat buffet were insane. A lot of famliies brought their kids. How lucky those gradeschoolers were to be able to indulge their wildest inner animals at an evening of sounds that were “Alternately lyrical, mournful, ecstatic and spooky, that used to be the soundtrack of everyday life back in the day,” as one band playing Golden Fest last night put it.

Macedonian quartet Niva (reviewed here at the 2017 edition of the annual weekend festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music) get credit for that description, which pretty much speaks for the other seventy or so bands on the bill. Every January, many of the best groups from across the US and around the world bring everything from Serbian brass music to Ukrainian choral repertoire, Romany dances and Black Sea songs to Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

How does last night’s show compare with previous festivals? Same old. The big ballroom was a human kaleidoscope of linedancers, but people were cutting a rug in the somewhat smaller rooms too. The buffet was delicious (that garlicky skordalia – yum) and there were plenty of opportunities to grab a plate after the big lines had finally subsided. And the music was sublime.

That there would still be an audience in New York in 2019 large enough to fill a space the size of the Mercury Lounge to see multi-instrumentalist Amir Vahab play his haunting Iranian sufi songs goes against conventional thinking. But it’s further proof that if you give people good music, they’ll come out.

Likewise, watching the crowd converge on the stage and then the center of the ballroom like a giant accordion during whirlwind clarinetist Michael Winograd’s dynamically sizzling romp through a series of klezmer dances was viscerally breathtaking.

The other bands’ tightness and intensity were pretty much unrelenting, on the kind of daunting level that any musician would want to reach when playing to an audience full of icons from the worlds of microtones, minor keys and weird time signatures. Multi-reedman Greg Squared and trumpeter Ben Syversen matched meticulous articulation to raw redline power throughout Raya Brass Band’s torrentially bouncy attack – that’s where the bodysurfing started. Three flights up, a little earlier in the evening, the larger, more undulating Veveritse Brass Band played what also could have been the tightest set of their career – and they’ve been doing this for the better part of ten years as well.

The accordionist in the night’s first band, Cocek Nation – a motley assemblage of up-and-coming student musicians – took a solo that could have been Ray Manzarek. That’s cool in itself – what’s even cooler is that there are  kids in the group who haven’t yet made it to middle school who are expected to improvise, schooled by some of the best in the business.

Upstairs in the Mercury-sized room, singer Eva Salina parsed the most poignant corners of a tantalizingly brief set of reinvented Romany ballads and dance tunes, her longtime accordionist Peter Stan exchanging cascades and flitting riffs with her. It could well have been the night’s most conversational performance. No matter how many times you see so many of these bands, they never play anything exactly the same way.

Armenian jazz sage Souren Baronian may be best known for deep soul and long, mesmerizing solos, but this time out he was hilarious. After a characteristically serpentine, poignant soprano sax number, he picked up his duduk, then bubbled and burbled through a wry series of variations that just would not stop. These days more than ever, everybody wants to play with him: oudist Adam Good eventually relinquished his seat to another first-rate Middle Eastern lutenist. 

Slavic Soul Party’s weekly Tuesday residency at Barbes is a Brooklyn institution, and it gets loud there. As much as fun as those shows have been over the years, they don’t compare with last night’s constantly morphing, deviously funk-tinged, explosive performance in the big ballroom where they could really play to the rafters. A floor below, Szikra channeled otherworldly, rather stately centuries-old Hungarian themes, maxing out the moody lows with both cello and gardon (a percussion instrument that looks like a cello but functions more like a muted bass drum).

Back in the ballroom, Eva Salina took a rockstar turn on the mic front of Balkan organ band Choban Elektrik, a sleekly swaying presence: they were in more trad mode than usual, compared to their usual epically psychedelic sound. Saxophonist Ariane Morin of Amerike Klezmer Brass stunned the crowd with her poignant microtones, especially in the quartet’s opening number, over the pulse of accordionist  Ilya Shneyveys. And the bodysurfing reached critical mass with the night’s gargantuan headliners, What Cheer? Brigade. That the Providence street band were able to be so searingly tight as balloons bounced off their trumpets and tubas and the crowd around them squeezed closer and closer speaks to their fearlessness as much as their chops.

Watching from a comfortable balcony seat, nibbling on a choice morsel of salty kashkaval cheese, having switched by now from whiskey to coffee, it was impossible to think of a better way to end the best concert of 2019.

Except maybe by being down on the floor with the band. See you at Golden Fest 2020.

For those who want to brave tonight’s sinking temperatures, there’s a post Golden Fest Balkan blowout at the Jalopy starting at 6:30 with Cocek Nation followed at 7 by dynamic, subtle all-female klezmer band Tsibele, at 8 by the Romany-flavoed Sarma Brass Band and at 8 by the ferocious Novi Hitovi Brass Band, Cover is $10, there’ll be “nobody turned away,”and all  proceeds will benefit the Cocek Nation’s trip to the Balkans later this year. 

The Best Concert of 2019 Is Just a Week Away

You don’t have to stay at Golden Fest until two in the morning. But pretty much everybody does. And an awful lot of those people are still dancing, eight hours after the festivities started. In terms of raw thrills, year after year, there is no other New York concert that can match this blissfully entertaining annual weekend festival of Balkan, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Slavic music and food. Golden Fest 2019 is this January 18 and 19 at the magnificent, old world Grand Prospect Hall on the south side of Park Slope, Brooklyn, just up the hill from the Prospect Ave. R station.

If doesn’t take much effort to discover a dozen or more acts you’ve never heard before, especially if you spend time in the smaller upstairs rooms rather than the big ballroom where most of the big brass bands play. You can also catch just as many of the best New York Balkan bands, or mix it up. At any moment, there’s always something worth seeing on at least four or five different stages spaced throughout all four floors of the mansion.

If the festival has one defining qualtiy, it’s that the earliest acts on the bill are just as good as the headliners, even if they tend to be little quieter. For this blog, the game plan for last year’s big Saturday night Golden Fest blowout as well as the year before was to see as many new acts as possible. Both times, the lure of some of this city’s most explosive bands proved too much to resist.

In their own quiet way, the Slaveya Women’s Choir – whose muted, otherworldly close harmonies spanned from Bulgaria to the Caucasus – were every bit as captivating as New York’s own Romashka. It was frontwoman Inna Barmash’s birthday, and she put on a party for the ages, with strings and guitar and tuba blasting behind her blissfully edgy wail, through one minor-key romp after another. That group had a great run back in the zeros; fifteen years or so later, they sill kick out the jams. Happily, their set was recorded; you can download it for free, and read a more detailed review here.

Where the Slaveya Women’s Choir had migrated so enigmatically between notes, the Istanbul Trio – fretless guitarist Ertugrul Erkisi, singer/percussionist Aslihan Erkisi and oudist Fatih Bayram – did the same, with even more edgy intensity and a classical Turkish focus. They would play an even more haunting show a couple of days later at Barbes under a different name.

The rest of the night was a crisscross between intended destinations and diversions. So many good bands, so little time. Here was where the hardcore triage set in. Kavala – a livewire Macedonian/Greek spinoff of Zlatne Uste, the festival’s founding icons – or Loza, a relatively rare meeting between the haunting oud of Adam Good and the similarly poignant vocals of Corinna Snyder? In this case, Loza won out.

How do you choose between the slinky, epic Dolunay and a rare New York appearance by the more cinematic Wind of Anatolia? In this case, the latter, a no less intense Turkish band won out. As the night went on, Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat wove plaintively undulating, trickily syncopated melodies, oudist Scott Wilson and Efendi put a twisted psychedelic rock spin on many of those same sounds and the nine-piece Novi Hitovi Brass Band made crazed jams out of searing minor-key Serbian riffs for the better part of an hour.

The loudest band to arguably ever play the festival was psychedelic rembetiko band Greek Judas, who reinvent the Middle Eastern-flavored sounds of the Greek gangster underworld and antifascist resistance movements in the 20s and 30s. The twin guitars of Adam Good and Wade Ripka (who doubled searingly on lapsteel) pummeled the crowd in one of the smaller side rooms, frontman Quince Marcum channeling a mad Dionysis in front of the band.

After midnight, the option to simmer down just a little with the elegant jazz of Tavcha Gravche – guitarist Dan Nadel, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and bassist Daniel Ori – was a welcome chance to sit down and get lost in their improvisations, the night’s closest approximation of an American idiom. Zurli Drustvo -Tamberlaine and Drew Harris with percussionist Jerry Kisslinger – and Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions provided a surreal blast of fresh air with their microtonal zurla oboes

By the way, this is not how most people do Golden Fest. The big crowd hangs out by the big stage and gets down with a ferocious brass band lineup (clarinet wizard Michael Winograd’s titanic klezmer orchestra seemed to be the biggest hit – and largest ensemble – at this past year’s festival). And here’s a secret about the food: wait til midnight, you’ll be shocked by the quality and the quantity of what’s left over after the lines and lines of hungry dancers have finally satiated themselves. Although there are a lot of talented people circling the room and cutting a rug, there are no judgments if you’re a first-timer. Golden Fest 2019, here we come!

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

Feral, Carnivalesque Klezmer and Balkan Sounds From the Lemon Bucket Orkestra

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra distinguish themselves in a crowded field of high-voltage klezmer and Balkan bands with their feral, otherworldly sound and sizzling chops. They don’t just pillage the usual repertoire of freylekhs and bulgars: they go way back, blending the phantasmagorical elements of Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian and Jewish sounds that proliferated over a hundred years ago. The best musicians know no boundaries, and the Lemon Bucket Orkestra personify that sensibility. Their latest album If I Had the Strength is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re playing the latest installment of this year’s New York Gypsy Festival tonight, Sept 26 at 8 PM at Drom. It’s $20 at the door and worth it.

The album opens with a brief, somberly chromatic march fueled by Michael Louis Johnson’s muted trumpet and a walking bassline and ends with a hushed folk tune. In between it’s a wild party. The lickety-split stomp of Crooked immediately sets the scene, with wildfire riffage from bagpipes and James McKie’s violin over a brisk sousaphone/drums pulse from Ian Tulloch and Jaash Singh, Mark Marczyk and Stephania Woloshyn taking turns on vocals. They take it out with a tantalizingly brief stampede that could have gone on as long as these guys could have physically been able to play it.

They follow Fate, a growly, tensely stalking miniature with Goodbye, the violin holding the down the bassline as the sousaphone takes a a coyly blithe solo, mingling with Woloshyn’s shivery vocals; then they pounce their way through a catchy series of chromatics and crescendos, with spiraling, wildfire solos from Julian Selody’s clarinet and Marichka Marczyk’s accordion.

They rip the riff from Whole Lotta Love for the bassline to Soldat, violin and clarinet in tandem delivering tight country dance riffage, Johnson’s trumpet holding the center. Freedom has a rat-a-tat Serbian-style brass band pulse, clever call-and-response riffs and a completely unexpected psychedelic bridge.

The album’s most rustically surreal track is When, a brief, majestically crescendoing number glimmering with eerily ornamented vocal harmonies. From there the band segue into Palinka, an equally surreal Balkan cumbia mashup with tasty, chromatically slashing solos from violin, accordion and bagpipes and a coyly chirping flute solo out.

Cocoon, a furtively jungly miniature for percussion, sets the stage for Heroes with its delirious unison riffage over a tight, tricky, Macedonian-flavored dance rhythm, up to a misterioso Bulgarian vocal interlude by guest soprano Measha Brueggergosman. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

A Wild Night With Dobranotch to Kick Off This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

Dobranotch means “good night” in Russian. It’s a very understated way of describing the crazy, exhilarating dance party they put on this past evening at Drom to open this year’s New York Gypsy Festival. The Russian klezmer band romped and blasted through a fiery set of originals and radical reinventions of more traditional material, showing off their virtuoso chops as well as an irrepressibly boisterous sense of humor.

Klezmer dance music is fun by definition, but these guys are beyond the pale. There was a point about midway through their set where their their guest dancer, Lea Elisha, went twirling across the floor in front of the stage, her mane of curly hair flying, an unstoppable human gyroscope. Meanwhile, frontman/violinist Mitya Khramtsov played behind his back, Hendrix style.

OK, that’s common enough. Next, he played with his bow behind his back and his violin tucked under his arm.

Then he stuck his bow down his pants and fiddled the violin on the bow – without missing a catchy minor-key riff. After bowing with his mouth, then sticking the bow in the dancer’s mouth and fiddling it, he finally handed the bow to a surprised audience member and had him do it.

Ilya Gindin, the band’s not-so-secret weapon, started the show on alto sax, then switched to oboe, firing off lickety-split spirals and slashing chromatic trills. Then he switched to clarinet. Slowly and methodically, he disassembled the instrument between verses, moving further and further up the scale until there was nothing left to play but the mouthpiece and then the reed. By then, it was all he could do to slowly bend a note up to where it was supposed to be, but nobody wanted the joke to stop.

Beyond the theatrics, this is an incredibly tight party band. More often than not, Khramtsov and the horn section would lock in on their harmonies while Gindin did his thing. Roman Shinder fired off fast flurries of banjo chords as Evgeny Lizin thumped out the groove on a big tapan bass drum and accordionist Ilya Shneyveys fleshed out the sound with rich washes of chords and elegant filigrees.

Khramtsov took a couple of stark, strikingly rustic departures into otherworldly weaves of microtones, veering away from the center before leaping back into the traditional western scale. The best original of the night was an epic, darkly Bessarabian-flavored anthem written by trombonist Grigory Spiridonov, who puffed out staccato basslines when he wasn’t harmonizing with tenor saxophonist Max Karpychev and the rest of the group.

They reinvented the iconic Algerian protest anthem Ya Rayyeh as a gruff but similarly sardonic Russian brass tune. Likewise, they turned a shapeshifting Macedonian bagpipe dance into what Khramtsov termed a “gypsy rhumba,” although it sounded more like a Turkish tango. They finally wound up the night with a third encore, gathered on the floor in front of the audience. An unexpectedly slow, lushly benedictory, moody concluding anthem with edgy solos all around couldn’t douse the crowd’s energy.

The New York Gypsy Festival continues at Drom on Sept 14 at  9:30 PM with the eclectic Underground Horns celebrating ten years of mashing up Balkan, New Orleans and latin brass sounds. You can get in for ten bucks in advance.

Mesmerizing Accordion Sounds Serenade Bryant Park, Again

As all of us in New York have been painfully reminded over the last few days, summer is far from over. But there’s a silver lining: the summer outdoor concerts aren’t over yet, either. One of the year’s best series so far – no surprise – has been the Bryant Park accordion festival. Considering how widely that little box has infiltrated cultures around the world, it’s also hardly a surprise that this may be New York’s most multicultural annual festival.

This past evening’s installment was characteristically sublime and eclectic. Laura Vilche is one of relatively few women whose axe is the even smaller bandoneon so widely used in tango music. She played very kinetically, rhythmically and also remarkably sparsely, underscoring the sheer catchiness of her sometimes slinky, sometimes brooding mix of Argentine and Paraguayan themes. Her dynamically shifting take of the Carlos Gardel classic La Comparsita was the biggest hit with the crowd gathered on the folding chairs and blankets provided for concertgoers. Then she packed up her gear and moved to another of the park’s five quasi-stages to serenade another group; many followed.

Where Vilche was spare and almost otherworldly direct, Latvian-born accordionist Ilya Shneyveys played lavishly and even epically throughout a set of original and often relatively obscure klezmer songs from across the Jewish diaspora. He opened his set by explaining that he was going much further afield, beyond horas and Hava Nagila, and he wasn’t kidding. With long, lingering, suspenseful intros building to waterfalling and then absolutely torrential volleys of notes, he used every second of the allotted time to air out every bracing chromatic and adrenalizing minor key in a series of dances and more subdued material. The highlight was a slowly crescendoing, rather mysterious diptych typically played as an introductory theme for wedding guests. “Cocktail music,” he smirked. He’s playing tomorrow night, Sept 6 at 9 PM at Drom with pyrotechnic Russian klezmer band Dobranotch to open this year’s New York Gypsy Festival; cover is $15 if you get tix before midnight.

As much fun as it was to watch those two musicians, the stars of this installment of the accordion festival were Eva Salina and Peter Stan. In two separate sets, they played a lot of the same material, completely differently the second time around. The mesmerizing Balkan singer and her longtime accordionist collaborator aren’t just frontwoman and accompanist: each is as integral to the music as the other. Toying with rhythm and taking their time making up intros, outros and meticulously thought-out solos, they brought a jazz sophistication to a blend of Romanian and Serbian tunes from across the Romany diaspora.

Their first take of a catchy dance number, imploring Romany husbands to come home to their wives and kids from faraway jobs, was very straightforward. The second was slower and much more plaintive. Jaunty dance rhymes contrasted with haunting ballads of loss and longing. Both musicians’ fearsome technique was in full effect, whether Stan’s supersonic volleys of chromatics and grace notes, or Salina’s minute, microtonal melismas and ornamentation.

Next week’s first episode of the festival is on Weds Sept 12, starting at 5:30 PM with a phenomenally good lineup including but not limited to Ismail Butera playing Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music, Will Holshouser’s Indian-influenced accordion jazz, Shoko Nagai’s mix of klezmer and Japanese folk, and Sadys Rodrigo Espitia’s oldschool Colombian cumbia and vallenato. The festival’s grand finale is two days later, on Sept 14, and starts a half hour earlier.

A Promising, Characteristically Eclectic Start to This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

This year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival runs through Sept 14 and promises to be as rapturously fun as last year’s was. On Wednesday evenings starting at 5:30 PM, a rotating cast of accordionists play half-hour sets of an amazingly eclectic range of music. This year there are five sets happening simultaneously, which created some dissonance on opening night when one group was going full steam while their neighbor played a quiet ballad. But the music was sublime.

For a connoisseur of accordion music – and who wouldn’t want to be one, right? – it’s always a triage. Forro or klezmer? Irish folk-punk or cumbia? The advantage of staggered sets is that you get multiple chances to see your favorite player or style of music. This week it was easy to choose a set by the brilliant and erudite Christina Crowder to begin the evening. Most of her numbers were minor-key Jewish wedding tunes, including a bouncy one about giving away the family’s youngest daughter, along with a mysterious, enveloping theme typically played early in the day for relatives of the betrothed. She romped through a jaunty bulgar and another, more somber tune, both of which contained the Twilight Zone riff. Late in the set, she treated the crowd to a Moldavian tune whose title translates roughly as “Freestyle Over This Groove.” Crowder didn’t rap; instead, she built an ambience that was as kinetic as it was hypnotic.

After that, it was time to head to the southeastern corner of the park for an even livelier set of oldschool cumbia and vallenato – “Colombian country music,” as accordionist Foncho Castellar termed it. Backed by a couple of percussionists, he played button accordion. The trio romped through some very brisk cumbias before the even more rustic stuff about peasants in the big city, or way out on the frontera, dancing, partying and chasing women.

After that, Susan Hwang – half of haunting literary art-rock duo Lusterlit – broke out her accordion for a deviously fun set. Backed by a djembe player, she opened with a coyly exasperated, new wave-flavored original, from her days with charming late zeros/early teens trio the Debutante Hour, concerning New York parking. Her funniest cover was a remake of the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters blues classic, which she titled Hoochie Koochie Woman. Another fun one was an original from her lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club, a thoughtful, quirky bounce told from the point of view of physicist Richard Feynman.

Like Hwang, Dolunay frontwoman Jenny Luna is best known as a singer and percussionist. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call her one of New York’s – and arguably the world’s – most riveting, shattering vocalists. She’s also a first-rate Balkan and Middle Eastern drummer. As it turns out, she’s a competent accordionist as well. Much as she got plenty of brooding, sometimes haunting atmospherics and chromatics wafting from her reeds, it was her voice that held the crowd spellbound,. She began with a moody tone  poem of sorts, then a couple of Rumeli (Balkan Turkish) laments that gave her a chance to air out both her soaring highs and haunting low register. She wound up the set with a jaunty if hardly blithe singalong, in Turkish – the chorus translated roughly as variations on “be my habibi.”

Next week’s installment of the festival, at 5:30 PM on Aug 22, features a similarly diverse lineup including but not limited to gothic Americana songwriter Sam Reider; the torchy, swinging Erica Mancini; edgy, avant garde-influenced chamber pop singer Mary Spencer Knapp; Argentine tango duo Tinta Roja and Mexican norteño crew Toro de la Sierra.

Book of J Reinvent Classic Spiritual Sounds With a New Album and a July Barbes Residency

Book of J are Sway Machinery guitarist/bandleader Jeremiah Lockwood and singer Jewlia Eisenberg of Charming Hostess. Each have brought an impassioned, vocally-driven approach to their own projects, equally informed by classic Jewish and African-American melodies and spiritual traditions. Together they reinvent those influences, from haunting, medieval Jewish piyutim love laments, to oldtime country blues and gospel. Their debut album is streaming at youtube. They have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes this July, a venue where the two have collaborated memorably in the past.

The new album opens with a steady version of the spiritual 12 Gates to the City, Eisenberg taking the lead, Lockwood’s harmonies shadowing her as he drives the song with his shivery acoustic slide blues work. Likewise, Lockwood’s nimbly tumbling phrases propel the gorgeous Agadelkha, Eisenberg’s raw vocals out front, up to an enigmatic chordal guitar solo. The verse sounds like an acoustic Balkan predecessor of the Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit: was Grace Slick into that stuff?

Lockwood switches to Telecaster for a boogie-flavored take of the country gospel tune Do Lord, Remember Me which they transform into an oldtime union anthem after a spiky Lockwood guitar solo. The duo exchange impassioned, conspiratorial vocals over Lockwood’s eerily tremoloing guitar in the Yiddish dirge Khavele; their hauntingly fluttering, sotto-voce, French/English take of Leonard Cohen’s The Partisan is much the same.

They go back to classic African-American gospel for Freedom Plow, adding unsettled indie rock chords underneath. Their call-and-response in the country blues-flavored Tell God is much more rustic. Then they do Sweet Inspiration as proto Ike & Tina Turner, with some sweet, Indian summer blues guitar riffage.

Eisenberg sings an unvarnished take of the lament Seven Sons Had Hannah over Lockwood’s spare, hypnotically Malian-influenced guitar. Tzir is the shortest, most whispery and most starkly gorgeous, bittersweet song on the album. The duo follow with Kum Mayn Kind, a distantly blues-inflected European lullaby

They do a final spiritual, My Sun Will Never Go Down as a turn-of-the-[past]-century Pete’s Candy Store number, with some starkly incisive picking from Lockwood, and close with a hushedly fervent, brooding interpretation of Fiery Love, an edgy Yiddish theme.

Lockwood always invites a whole slew of killer talent to his Barbes residencies; the July 14 edition with his sometime collaborator, Big Lazy noir guitar genius Steve Ulrich, should be particularly intense.