New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: middle eastern music

Elegant, Intricate, Individualistic Guitar Instrumentals From Duo Tandem

Duo Tandem play gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic guitar music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines. Their new album Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi is streaming at Spotify. Guitarist Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left.

They open the record with the first of a handful of Cyprian Rhapsodie, a steady, brooding, briskly strolling minor-key blend of Romany jazz, the baroque and rembetiko. It’s essentially an overture to the triptych which follows. The first part is slower, with a spare Emirzade solo and a little more counteproint; the second is more sober and austere, with some magically nuanced echo phrases from Anderson over walking bass figures. The conclusion comes across as a sunny Mediterranean bouzouki tune with an unexpectedly moody bridge, the lead shifting from Emirzade’s precise walks and chords to Anderson’s bracing tremolo-picking.

The two slowly shift Valse No. 1 from melancholy to somewhat more animated terrain, with more of the album’s initial Greek Django atmosphere. The album’s sixth track, another rhapsody, has some coy call-and-response amid the Mediterranean baroque phrasing.

Valse No. 2 is more wistfully reflective, with lots of gentle twin lead lines. The three-part Turkish Suite begins with an enigmatic circular theme and variations, shifts to a slow, spacious, mutedly saturnine midsection and winds up with the album’s most intensely crescendoing, chromatically biting coda.

Romance has the most traditional baroque counterpoint on the record. The next rhapsody reprise makes a good segue, adding a little beachy Greek flavor to what otherwise could be Telemann or Handel. The album’s final suite, Three Fragments begins with could be a Django Reinhardt reinvention of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, continues with echoes of Debussy and Satie and concludes with surreal baroque Romany swing.

Likewise, the album’s epic closing number shifts from brooding chromatics to Bach-like interplay. This is a richly melodic showcase for Belevi’s distinctive, elegant compositions, which deserve the inspired interpretations they get from Emirzade and Anderson.

Rapturous, Haunting, Moroccan-Inspired Sounds From Ensemble Fanaa

One of the best albums to come out of New York in the last couple of years is Ensemble Fanaa’s often magical, mysterious debut, streaming at Bandcamp. The trio of alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Daro Behroozi, bassist/sintir player John Murchison and drummer Dan Kurfirst conjure up a sometimes hypnotic, sometimes stark interweave inspired by Moroccan gnawa music.

The opening track, Creation doesn’t seem to engage with North African traditions, but it’s a fun piece of music. Behroozi opens it, solo on bass clarinet, with a snort of overtones; slowly the trio work their way up from stillness. Kurfirst rattles the cage for contrast. Behroozi and Murchison – on bass – size up the space, peering through the cymbal mist, then they bring it full circle with a cheery, syncopated hook.

Murchison picks up his sintir (the band call it a gimbri; either way, it’s the Moroccan three-string bass lute whose distinctive, lightly boomy sound defines gnawa music) for Traces, Part 1, running a steady, catchy riff while Behroozi’s sax floats spaciously overhead. The trio reprise it later on the record, slowly building to a lithely circling, raptly catchy gnawa theme with Behroozi back on bass clarinet.

The trio keep the gnawa catchiness going, rising with a whisper to the surprise rhythmic shifts of Imram, Behroozi’s trilling microtones building a goosebump-inducing intensity. Murchison introduces the loose-limbed groove of Water Song, Behroozi’s spacious, gorgeously desolate sustained lines and increasingly searing microtonal melismas overhead. It’s the album’s most stunning track.

Kurfirst’s marvelous, misterioso, muted thump and rattle anchors Sujood, Murchison’s bass echoing that, Behroozi pouncing and spiraling with an otherworldly intensity.

From a spare, exploratory bass intro, the trio develop a spacious, brooding lattice spiced with the occasional biting chromatic riff in Now What, the album’s most improvisational number. They close with Yobati – Breath, the album’s most energetic track, shifting from a cheery bounce of an intro to a serpentine, undulating, uneasily keening gnawa theme. 

Ensemble Fanaa are still around, individually; all three members maintained busy schedules with other projects in jazz, African and Middle Eastern music until the lockdown. Fortuitously, Kurfirst has a handful of gigs coming up at the cube at Astor Place, staged by Concerts From Cars. Tonight, July 2 at 7 PM he jams with Ras Moche Burnett on sax, then on July 5, also at 7 he’s back with multi-reedman and trumpeter Daniel Carter, Rodney “Godfather Don” Chapman on sax and other artists tba. And then on July 8 at 7 Kurfirst and Carter return to the cube with fearless, politically woke trumpeter Matt Lavelle and supporting cast tba. 

A Darkly Bristling, Inspired Masterpiece From Gordon Grdina and His Quartet

Gordon Grdina‘s guitar work can be as thorny and dense as his playing on the oud is poignant and haunting. His latest album Coopers Park – streaming at Bandcamp – is as darkly complex and compelling as anything else he’s ever released. This is not an album for those with short attention spans: it’s music to get lost in and return to for new discoveries every time.

Brisk, knottily clustering, close-knit riffage from the bandleader, alto saxophonist Oscar Noriega and pianist Russ Lossing punch in alongside Satoshi Takeishi’s drums as the album’s epic title cut gets underway. An allusive march ensues with echo phrases and divergences, down to whispery deep-space exchanges which grow more chromatically menacing as Grdina pushes further toward the perimeter. Just like Matt Mitchell on Grdina’s Nomad album, Lossing is often in the bad-cop role here. Noriega’s searching, muezzin-like lines over Grdina’s grimly congealing guitar multitracks are spine-tingling. After a long, sad decline, they bring it full circle.

The version of the album’s second track, Benbow, previously released on Nomad, was “Inspired by a California hotel which reminded Grdina of the one in The Shining and gets a spacious but gritty solo guitar intro, a long, tightly clustering crescendo and an evilly glittering Mitchell solo,” as this blog put it back in January. With Noriega’s ghostly bass clarinet over Lossing’s surreal glimmer, this particular take is a completely different animal, much more spare and haunting.

Noriega’s brooding Balkan-tinged flutters open Seeds II over Takeishi’s boomy beat, developing a slow, qawwali-ish groove, guitar and sax an uneasy pair, Lossing’s wry wah-wah Rhodes off to the side. A moody, squirrelly improvised midsection grows more sepulchrally lingering as Lossing switches back to piano. The monster walk out is a tasty payoff: after seventeen minutes, these guys have earned it.

Grdina really takes his time with a sparse, enigmatic solo introduction to Wayward, an improvisation. Lossing joins in with a decisive calm, Noriega and Takeishi quietly phantasmic. Menacing ripples rise from under the lid until everyone takes a turn in jauntier directions. Noriega’s bass clarinet work over a paraphrase of the Seeds II outro, rising from full-toned Middle Eastern ominousness to an explosive coda, could be the high point of the album.

The group wrap it up with Night Sweats, building from funky, circling Balkan-tinged syncopation to an outro that brings the whole album full circle. Grdina works fast; he has yet another album, with his chamber jazz septet, out hot on the heels of this one.

Edgy, Trippy, Dubwise Middle Eastern Grooves From Taichmania

Israeli group Taichmania take edgy Middle Eastern themes and mash them up with synthesizers, occasional rock instrumentation and trippy electronics that often descend into woozy dub. Their album Seventh Heaven is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Arabesk has a gracefully sweeping, poignantly microtonal Egyptian orchestral theme teleported to the digital age with techy trip-hop textures and a searching ney flute solo from Itzhak Ventura. Yaniv Taichman’s bitingly tasty chromatic saz lute ripples over Yoni Meltzer’s bass synth and wry portamento textures in the dubby See Ya at Six or Seven. By contrast, there isn’t any discernible Middle Eastern melody in the slowly waltzing squiggles and pulses of Hashual Manar.

The album’s title track is a trickily rhythmic blend of jaggedly bubbly saz and sweeping synth orchestration, Lior Ozeri’s bass looping a Mission Impossible theme riff; they take it out with a lingering saz solo as the rhythm drops out. In Saba, the group run Taichman’s clangy Turkish axe through a mixer for wafting echoes, then through a wah as Sharon Petrover’s drums shift to a slower, syncopated martial beat.

A lively pizzicato violin loop joins the circling morass of Rumorizit, then this special guest picks up his bow for plaintive swoops, dives and shivers. Gorgeously bittersweet saz rings out over spare, syncopated bass in Samai as warpy atmospherics pass through the sonic picture.

Tribe has echoes of electric Balkan Romany jazz, a booming bass solo and an unexpected qawwali beat emerging from the shadows. Martian Party is the album’s funniest track, with a New Order quote and a strutting disco beat. The band close with a lickety-split circle dance, Caprice. Fans of the New York Gypsy All-Stars and other acts who electronicize haunting Middle Eastern sounds, like the Spy From Cairo, will dig this album.

Riveting, Haunting Flamenco-Tinged Armenian Sounds From Vigen Hovsepyan

Imagine you’re in Paris the first weekend of October, 2017. You’re in the midst of a crowd gathered on a barge docked alongside the Seine.

Nobody’s wearing a mask.

On the stage in the back, a man sings in a powerful, expressive baritone, in Armenian, wailing on an acoustic guitar and, occasionally, on a cajon. He’s backed by a slinky rock rhythm section, plus a pianist with an inclination toward minor keys and slashing chromatics. The music has a simmering intensity with flashes of flamenco. The crowd roar in appreciation after every song.

You can experience the highlights of the two concerts guitarist/bandleader Vigen Hovsepyan played at the intimate quayside venue Peniche Anako – the rive droite counterpart to Brooklyn’s Bargemusic – on his album Live in Paris 2017, streaming at Spotify. Fans of the iconic Souren Baronian’s work with guitarist Adam Good will love this music, especially since brilliant duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan is on it.

Electric pianist Havard Enstad introduces his gorgeous, allusively chromatic opening number, The Immigrant, then the woody, reedy microtones of the duduk float and stab overhead. Hovsepyan picks up his acoustic guitar for the suddenly crescendoing second number, Zepyuri Nman, with sabretoothed piano and shadowy duduk over a punchy groove.

The night really explodes when Hovsepyan delivers the starkly dancing anthem Habrban as Enstad switches to cello. Then he goes back to play angst-fueled, glittering piano alongside Hovsepyan’s melismatic intensity in the first slow ballad of the night, Gulo.

The group ramp up the suspense throughout Kanchum Em Ari Ani, bass and duduk rising mournfully above the slow, dirgey sway. Chkolyan’s aching upper-register crescendo over Enstad’s neoromantic angst in the towering anthem Zulo is absolutely transcendent.

The duduk gets subsumed in the percussive drive of Dikranagerd: as the band speed it up at the end, the connection to Palestinian shamstep is just a step away. From there they edge toward skeletal Balkan funk with Mairyam and then get a singalong going with the women in the crowd with an epic, ecstatic take of Ertank Mer Yegir Moush Hanina Koshari. Chkolyan adds hypnotic sorcery with his long, otherworldly trilling solo out.

Hovsepian sings a low-key solo version of Charles Aznavour’s La Boheme in Spanish, setting up the wounded chromatics of the album’s final, darkly majestic ballad, Lusnyak Gisher. Midway through the record, there’s a long drum solo – a break for the band, maybe? – that could have been left on the cutting room floor. Otherwise, this is a souvenir of what was obviously an amazing weekend. How serendipitous that we can listen to it now – and let’s resolve to never, never, let politicians create another situation where crowds can’t gather for transcendent moments like this.

Edgy, Upbeat, Relentlessly Uneasy Greek Psychedelia From Trio Tekke

Trio Tekke play Greek psychedelia that looks to the Middle East as much as it does to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s. Zola Jesus‘ most straight-up psychedelic adventures are a point of comparison, as are the first wave of 90s revivalists like Annabouboula, although Trio Tekke have a sparser, less dance-oriented sound. Their new album Strovilos – meaning “whirlwind” – is streaming at Bandcamp.

The first cut is Tempest of the Dawn, a spare, Middle Eastern-tinged melody emerging from Antonis Antoniou’s echoey, allusively Middle Eastern flavored tzouras lute, Lefteris Moumtzis’ guitar, Colin Somervell’s bass and Dave DeRose’s drums. The lyrics are in Greek, although the album comes with translations: this one is a trippy bacchanal narrative. That’s a common theme throughout the rest of the album.

Electric bouzouki clangs and Farfisa organ blips in and out in the similarly spare, more mysterious On the Street, pulsing along on a tricky 10/4 beat with fuzztone bass. Then the band work their way up out of a pensive lauto intro to a creepy, watery, hypnotic groove in Rotten Luck

Fueled by a piercingly gorgeous, chromatic electric bouzouki melody from Antoniou, the rembetiko art-rock drinking anthem I Erase the Day has a slow, syncopated pulse: imagine Greek Judas without the heavy metal thump. Moumtzis’ lingering guitar contrasts with the ring of the bouzouki over a muted, dancing beat in the album’s title cut: it’s anything but stormy.

The band go back to strangely altered, more optimistic rembetiko atmosphere with The First Day, echoing the days when prisoners of the brutal dictatorship of the 30s languished in jails, plotting their escapes. In Breathless Shriek, the band continue that theme more darkly, without the metaphors, over balletesque syncopation with starry, incisive guitars and keys.

The album’s poppiest and most playful number is the taverna dance tune Shooting Star. With its incisive riffs, Karmic is the closest thing here to classic 70s British psychedelia: think early Genesis with Greek fretted instruments instead. The trio close the record with Electric Sighs, a Romany-tinged waltz with dub echoes. Further proof that the best psychedelia these days comes from places far from where it was invented.

A Mighty, Epic, Surreal Double Live Album From King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

Australian rock can be very surreal, and there’s none more surreal than psychedelic road warriors King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard‘s vast catalog. They put out albums at a frenetic pace, have a passion for edgy Middle Eastern tonalities and don’t show any sign of slowing down. Their latest release, Chunky Shrapnel – streaming at Bandcamp – is a lavish double live lp recorded at several European festivals last year. It’s the band at their most squalling, three-guitar intense: the swoosh and swirl of many of their studio records gets switched out for a roaring attack and a deliciously Balkan-tinged triptych at the end.

After a murky, ambient soundscape, the band launch into the sarcastic faux-lounge of The Rover. About three minutes in, they take a pause and then shift into high gear for some Os Mutantes tropicalia, a haphazard guitar solo from frontman Stu Mackenzie kicking off a long quasi-funk jam.

The group take their time straightening out the rhythm as they segue into the wryly titled Wah Wah, Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s organ lingering behind the guitars of Joey Walker and Cook Craig, As drummers Michael Cavanagh and Eric Moore pound away, they shift right into the jubilantly galloping, metal-tinged Road Train.

Lucas Harwood’s tricky, loopy bass riffage propels the distantly Middle Eastern-flavored Murder of the Universe, ablaze in oscillating guitar distortion. They hit a hardcore drive with the furious eco-disaster parable Planet B, winding down to a boomy bass loop. A London crowd goes nuts for a silly drum solo; then the Lizards (Wizards?) pick up right where they left off with a pummeling, acidic take of Venusian 2, from a Milan gig.

Hell is pretty much straight-up thrashmetal, with more of a delicious Middle Eastern chromatic tinge: it’s one of the record’s high points. The White Denim-style pseudo-soul of Let Me Mend the Past makes a jarring segue, even with its tastily shrieky guitar break.

The Turkish-flavored Inner Cells, with its tricky tempos, suspenseful keys and icepick bass, is another killer cut. The synth cleverly picks up that same Balkan riff and runs with it in Loyalty, switching out eventually for brooding mellotron. They continue the magnificently dark, dancing interlude with Horology and cap off the record with practically twenty-minute take of A Brief History of Planet Earth, part Grateful Dead, part Doors LA Woman with a little Balkan punk and Jethro Tull mixed in. This is one of the best albums these guys have ever made – and they’ve made a bunch.

The Kronos Quartet Explore Spare, Haunting Iranian Themes with Singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat

Today’s album is Placeless, by the Kronos Quartet with singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a frequently austere, often haunting Farsi-language song cycle exploring themes of displacement and alienation. It’s an inventive blend of Iranian, Indian and western classical sounds utilizing texts by Rumi, Hafez and more contemporary poets.

On the album’s first few tracks, the vocals are front and center, strings a little further back in the mix, rising up in the later numbers. The title track has a dramatic, melismatic crescendo bookended by tense, shivering ambience. My Ruthless Companion has spare, dancing, catchy looped phrases over a jaunty, strolling groove. With its achingly gorgeous resonance, My Tresses in the Wind is a ghazal, more or less, and the high point of the record.

Spiky, marching pizzicato and unsettled, hazy washes of sound alternate in I Was Dead, up to a cold, mysterious ending. Cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt’s spare, plaintive lines rise and dip amid violinists David Harrington and John Sherba’s airy textures in the woundedly anthemic, Russian-tinged ballad Endless Embrace.

Misled Fate is a completely unexpected, steady, minimal theme with echoes of both Appalachian folk and new wave music. The Sun Rises has spare, ambient strings behind the two singers’ starkly brooding conversation, vocals panned left and right in the mix, their voices finally handing off to the quartet’s similarly plaintive, slightly baroque harmonies at the end.

Likewise, Vanishing Lines, a lush, striking waltz, comes across as a mix of elegantly medieval European and moody Iranian sounds. The Might of Love has a dancing pulse underneath one of the album’s sultriest vocals. The singers and strings return to uneasy, close-harmonied atmospherics in Far Away Glance and raise the unsettled intensity in the crescendos of Leyli’s Nightingale.

The ensemble alternate between occasional emphatic chords, shifting washes of sound and unexpected pauses in The Color of Moonlight. Angst-fueled, acidic swirls from the strings contrast with the often tenderly impassioned, anthemic vocals of Lover Go Mad. They close the album with Eternal Meadow, an allusively majestic, modal melody awash in disquieting echo effects. The Kronos Quartet have put out an awful lot of good albums, going back almost fifty years; this is one of the best.

A Small Gathering for Haunting Turkish Music at Barbes

Last Thursday night at Barbes, the bar was pretty deserted. There were two people in the audience for Dolunay‘s practically ninety-minute set of haunting, slinky Turkish songs. One of the two used to book music at a now-defunct Williamsburg venue. The other was darkly distinctive photographer Galina Kurlat, who started working at that same venue when she was still in college, having her first gallery shows, and refining the broodingly rustic tintype technique that would eventually earn her acclaim.

Kurlat’s significant other is Adam Good, who plays oud in Dolunay, as well as with many other electrifying New York Balkan and Middle Eastern acts. Dolunay’s set began slowly and elegantly, frontwoman Jenny Luna holding down a steady, boomy clip-clop beat on her dumbek goblet drum as Good and violinist Eylem Basaldi ornamented the songs’ plaintive, minor modes with bracing, often ominous microtonal accents. Sometimes they’d exchange riffs; other times, on the simpler, more Macedonian or Greek-tinged songs, they’d play twin leads while Luna’s voice soared from suspenseful lows to a poignant, similarly melismatic intensity.

Luna typically likes to play sets of three songs; this time, tunes appeared in pairs. Good switched to the tinny, jangly tambura lute for one Bulgarian-flavored number where Luna and Basaldi harmonized eerily – who knew that Basaldi had such a fantastic, similarly poignant voice?

When the show hit a more suspenseful lull, Luna switched to the more muted frame drum, then the group brought the relentless, haunting intensity back. When not singing in Turkish, the trio joked grimly about the future, to the point of speculating that this could be their last gig – or last Barbes gig, anyway. At this point in time, we can still be optimistic and expect them to be back at this recently shuttered treasure of a venue, at their next scheduled gig there this coming summer. At the moment, there’s beeen some scuttlebutt about temporarily repurposing the club as a rehearsal space.

Gorgeously Intense, Slinky Iranian, Arabic and Jewish Sounds and a Joe’s Pub Show From the All-Female Divahn

Galeet Dardashti is the scion of an Iranian Jewish vocal dynasty, the daughter of renowned cantor Farid Dardashti, and granddaughter of legenary classical singer Younes Dardashti. On her new album Shalhevet – streaming at Spotify – with her acoustic all-female Jewish/Persian/Arabic band Divahn,– she keeps that passionate flame alive, with soul, gravitas and influences from across the Middle East. Divahn are playing the album release show on March 7 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub; general admission is $20.

The opening track, Ya’Alah is so catchy you don’t realize it’s a one-chord jam until the group finally take it doublespeed, with a starkly soaring Persian violin solo from Megan Gould. By the time they reach the end, they’re going quadruplespeed. Are we having fun yet?

Oseh Shalom gets a spare, melismatic violin-and-vocal intro before the rhythm section kicks in with a stately majesty, Dardashti’s vocals reaching an imploring peak. Am Ne’ermanay slinks along on a darkly chromatic, cleverly arranged, increasingly stygian bass-and-tabla groove.

Kamancheh fiddle swoops eerily and bass bubbles suspensefully over Eleanor Norton’s cello drone as the band gather steam in Ayni Tzofiah – then they’re off, with a fiery, Egyptian-tinged drive and achingly intense vocals from Dardashti again. Divahn’s take of Leha Dodi, a classic Israeli melody that’s become a staple throughout much of the klezmer diaspora, is gorgeously spare. With tar lute, echoey percussion, shivery strings and Dardashti’s wide-ange melismas, Khazan is true to its title, rising to a fluttering coda.

Layered with subtle vocal counterpoint over Sejal Kukadia’s hypnotic tabla sway, the Indian-tinged Hamavdil is the album’s gentlest, most lighthearted track. The band pick up the pace with austere, chromatic strings in the big, powerful anthem Banu Choshech and wind up the record with the even more darkly majestic, propulsive El Nora Alilah. You don’t have to speak Hebrew, Arabic or Farsi to appreciate this group’s livewire intensity and singalong anthems.