New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: middle eastern music

The East West Trio Deliver a Stunning, Haunting, Armenian-Inspired Performance at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Witnessing organist Marina Omelchenko slowly work her way up through the eerie chromatics of an ancient Armenian lament last night at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was nothing short of sublime. It became even more so when duduk player Oganes Kazarian, situated at the opposite end of the church, joined the somber majesty with his meticulously modulated, mournful phrasing. Throughout the concert, whether playing against the organ, with soprano Tehmine Zaryan, or with both, he employed such a wide-angle vibrato that no matter how horizontal or enveloping the melody got at times, his inflections were always adding an otherworldly sparkle of overtones.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a duduk – the rustic, plaintively woody-toned Armenian oboe – paired with a church organ? Just the premise of the concert was impossible to resist, and for the most part the three individualists of the East West Trio delivered on the promise of such a deliciously textured sound. Kazarian kept his modes muted and reserved throughout a rapt duet with Zaryan toward the end of the performance. When paired with Omelchenko, especially in her arrangements of a handful of Armenian hymns and traditional numbers, he was much more forceful, a brand-new stop in an almighty beast, the church’s Kilgen organ.

Zaryan hit a spine-tingling crescendo at the end of a Schubert aria early on; a concluding Andrew Lloyd Webber ditty was impossible to redeem. But getting there was an often breathtaking rollercoaster ride. Omelchenko began with cinematic and then cantabile Bach and then worked her way to triumph with all the stops out, through the stately power of a Tcherepnin overture. Yet despite all the fireworks, the quieter Armenian melodies were the most hauntingly resonant.

St. Patrick’s has not only a very eclectic series of free organ concerts, typically at 3:15 PM on Sundays, but also an intriguing series of classical performances that often involve the organ in some way. The next one is this Sunday the 27th at the usual time with organist Heitor Caballero playing a diverse program of works by Bruhns, Guilmant, Sebastian Duron and Flor Peeters.

Advertisements

A Gorgeously Kinetic, Restless New Album by Haunting, Dynamic Violinist Layale Chaker

It may be early in the year, but the leading contender for best album of 2019 so far is Lebanese violinist Layale Chaker’s hauntingly kinetic Inner Rhyme, which hasn’t hit her music page yet but is due out momentarily. Chaker is equally at home in the worlds of Middle Eastern and western classical music. A member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – co-founded by Daniel Barenboim and the late, great pianist Edward Said – she’s also the only composer ever commissioned by the Bayreuther Philharmonike Orchestra, who premiered her Violin Concerto No. 1 last year. Bayreuth: Beirut – makes sense right? She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Jan 22 at 8 PM at the Stone (now located in the Glass Box Theatre on the first floor at the New School at 55 W 13th St). Cover is $20.

The album’s premise is ambitious: to create a purely musical suite encompassing the rhythmic cycles of classical Arabic poetry, in the process developing a new instrumental style incorporating the lyrical accents of the words which have been part and parcel of classical Middle Eastern music for the better part of the past thousand years.

Return to Jaykur, the album’s opening track, has a brooding sway, pianist Phillip Golub and bassist Nick Dunston building a tersely dancing interchange beneath Chaker’s imploring upward circles as cellist Jake Charkey scorches the lows. After the fire, the music recedes to a resonant but propulsive elegance in the same vein as Marcel Khalife’s orchestral works.

Ushaq is a stark, intense, chromatically haunting number set to an increasingly fluttering beat and a bass drone. Relentless, true to its title, gets a stabbing, insistently catchy,  minor-key pulse, its restlessness as much a function of percussionist Adam Maalouf’s rhythm, which hints at bolero but never quite goes there. Dunston’s pitchblende melismas signal a spare, plaintive Chaker solo.

A bracing, suspenseful early-morning miniature for violin, bass and percussion sets the stage for the Mikhammas Suite, rising from a strikingly minimalist, emphatic syncopation to an energetic dance. The second part follows the same path, fueled by Charkey’s slashing low-register riffs. The conclusion is much slower, just short of a dirge, opening with Golub’s gleaming chords, then gaining momentum as Chaker develops moody variations on a biting chromatic melody.

The picturesque Alight Here has wry humor – why can’t this bird make up its mind? – before a flamenco-ish drive kicks in, Golub’s spare piano contrasting with persistent staccato from the bass. The album’s most epic number, On the Trunk of an Olive Tree is the one place where the band expand into jazz: the lush yet highly rhythmic work of Tarek Yamani comes to mind. The group conclude with a brief, hazy postlude.

Chaker explains her mission with characteristic eloquence: “Much like our free-spirited Bedouins, our music does not know of the disintegration of the Fertile Crescent into several little states, nor of the dividing of land and history. It does not know anything either about the birth of crisis and striving for existence, identity and domination in between those freshly pencil-drawn frontiers. It testifies of the forever-intertwined, common destiny shared by every grain of soil and water, every soul living in the different lines of that newly-decided map. From the cradle to the grave, in nuptial festivals as in funerals, the very same rhythms and melodies trace and mark every stage of life for Assyrians, Syriacs, Kurds, Arabs and Gypsies. What could transcend geopolitical deals and whirlwinds more than that thought?”

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!

Globalfest 2019: Esoterica Rules, Again

Special thanks to Globalfest staffer Neha Gandhi, whose quick thinking, quiet diplomacy and efforts beyond the call of duty (and complicity in trying to create a teachable moment) made it possible for this review to appear

The premise of Globalfest in its early days was to connect talent buyers with booking agents representing acts from around the world. Youtube may have rendered that innovation obsolete, but every January, both crowds get together in New York to party on the company dime….and see some great music. The public comes out too. “I didn’t expect to see you here!” draws a response of “I didn’t expect to see you either!” Friends from the swing jazz or country blues scene discover a possibly secret, shared love for middle eastern music, and so forth. In 2019, more than ever, esoterica rules.

Sets are staggered in different areas of the venue throughout the night so that everybody can get a little taste of everything. As usual, last night’s show had more flavors than Dosa Hut (in case you haven’t already been seduced by the New York area’s most ambitious purveyors of sublimely delicious, crunchy Indian wraps, you are in for a treat).

Over the last couple of years, the artists on the bill have often represented a forceful backlash against anti-immigrant stridency, and last night was no exception. Both the whirlwind Palestinian rap-rock-reggae crew 47SOUL and magical Mexican chanteuse Magos Herrera – backed by string quartet Brooklyn Rider and drummer Mathias Kunzli – articulated fierce responses against wall-building.

But that issue was just a small part of each act’s many-faceted performance. 47SOUL spoke not only for the rights of Palestinians and Syrian refugees but for full-scale global unity against encroaching tyranny, through a blend of Arabic hip-hop, surreal dub reggae and keening, synthy habibi dancefloor pop. Likewise, Herrera drew on practically a century of pan-latin balladry, protest songs, classical and indie classical music, over a backdrop that was as propulsive as it was lustrous. It’s rare to see a string quartet play with as much sheer vigor as violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicholas.

It would have been fun to have been able to catch more of the spectacularly dynamic Debashish Bhattacharya, who alternated between rapidfire raga intensity on veena, and some unexpectedly balmy, twinkling slide guitar work in a Hawaiian slack-key interlude, joined by his similarly masterful daughter Anandi on vocals along with a first-rate tabla player.

Likewise, it was tantalizing to watch from behind the drums, relying on the monitor mix, throughout most of the night’s best-attended set, by theatrical Ukrainian band Dakh Daughters. The theatrical all-female group came across as a Slavic gothic mashup of the Dresden Dolls and Rasputina. In matching white facepaint and forest-spirit dresses, they paired ominous cellos against creepy piano chromatics and spritely flute over slow, ominous beats, switching off instruments frequently. As with so many artists whose cultures have been under attack, there’s no doubt plenty of grim subtext in their phantasmagorical narratives.

Since headliner the Mighty Sparrow had cancelled, the night’s largest ensemble were oldschool Cuban salsa band Orquesta Akokán, shifting through sparsely pummeling charanga-style passages, slinky mambos at various tempos, a lickety-split tonguetwister number and a machinegunning timbale solo that might have been the most adrenalizing moment of the entire night.

Playing solo a floor above, guitarist/banjo player Amythyst Kiah held the crowd rapt with her powerful, looming contralto vocals, her tersely slashing chops on both instruments and unselfconsciously deep insights into the melting pot of Appalachian folk music. Blending brooding, judiciously fingerpicked originals with a similarly moody choice of covers, she went as far back as 18th century Scotland – via 19th century African America – and as far forward as Dolly Parton, with equally intense results.

The evening ended with an apt choice of headliner, Combo Chimbita, who kept the remaining crowd of dancers on their feet throughout a swirling tornado of psychedelic, dub-inspired tropicalia, merengue and cumbia. Frontwoman Carolina Oliveros, a force of nature with her shamanic, hurricane-force roar and wail, circled the stage as if in a trance. Behind her, guitarist Niño Lento, bassist/keyboardist Prince of Queens and drummer Dilemastronauta built smoky ambience that rose to frenetic electric torrents and then subsided, a mighty series of waves to ride out into an increasingly chilly night.

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.

Twisted Psychedelic Balkan Noir From Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores

The first track on Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores’ relentlessly creepy 2012 masterpiece Sister Death was a menacing, chromatically psychedelic Balkan art-rock epic aptly titled Fire Shuffle. The Rhode Island-based accordionist/bandleader opens his similarly brilliant, macabre new one, The Opposite – streaming at Cuneiform Records – in a similar vein, with Soft Motors. The difference is that this time he’s playing all the keyboards. In many cases, he overdubs his accordion, running it through several wildly diverse effects patches. This particular number is awash in an ever-closer circling web of catchy minor-key riffs, Redfearn a one-man Balkan orchestra. “Fear won’t stop til the mornings are soft,” horn player Ann Schattle sings, deadpan but troubled.

Tramadoliday is a deviously bouncy, chromatically juicy, increasingly orchestral danse macabre, Schattle’s horn wry and steady while Redfearn conjures up lysergic Stoogoid wah-wah, bass synth fuzz and Carnival of Souls organ around a wicked Balkan accordion riff.

Drummer Matt McLaren flits around on his rims for a good approximation of a vintage drum machine to propel the hypnotic, cell-like phrases of the album’s title track, its quasar pulse looming closer and closer. Carnivore has a carnivalesque, hurdy gurdy-like theme and dark, allusively chromatic variations: “Come, turn out the lights,” is the mantra. Finally, bassist Christopher Sadlers gets a juicy fuzztone riff of his own to run underneath Redfearn’s strobe attack.

The slightly more playful, hip hop-influenced There’s a Bat Living in My Room takes its inspiration from Redfearn’s former coke dealer, whose inability to resist getting high on his own supply resulted in hallucinations reputedly more prosaically troubling than the song title. Rend the Veil blends uneasy 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelic rock into a ba-BUMP theme for the Macedonian wedding from hell, with a sick, echoingly dissociative outro that segues into Possum, a shout-out to an old Redfearn pal who killed himself. It’s the album’s hardest-hitting and most Middle Eastern-flavored track, with a spot-on Redfearn approximation of a mighty metal guitar battle theme at the center.

The final cut, Pterodactyl, is the album’s longest epic: picture a 60s Bollywood band putting a dub reggae spin on the Buzzcocks’ Why Can’t I Touch It, if you can imagine that kind of time warp. As with the band’s previous album, look for this one high on the list of best albums of 2018 next month here.

Much as Redfearn is a spellbinding player in the purest sense of the word, it would have been even better to be able to hear Rose Thomas Bannister’s elegant organ work alongside his accordion. The similarly haunting noir psychedelic Brooklyn songwriter toured with Redfearn as a sidewoman back in 2015. Onstage, the contrasting textures and interplay between the two was unadulterated sonic absinthe.

Another Relentlessly Haunting Album and an Alphabet City Gig by Guitarist Gordon Grdina

Even by his own high-voltage standards, fiery jazz oudist/guitarist Gordon Grdina has really been on a roll making albums lately. Edjeha, with his Middle Eastern jazz quartet Marrow might well be one of the half-dozen best albums released this year. His other new one, Inroads, with his quartet of reedman Oscar Noriega, pianist Russ Lossing and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi blends haunting Middle Eastern chromatics with savage improvisation and even detours into snarling doom metal and Lynchian cinematics. This is deep, dark music. Their next gig is Nov 26 at 9 PM at the old Nublu on Ave. C; cover is $10.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – kicks off with a haunting, spaciously Satie-esque rainy-day piano tableau cruelly titled Giggles. The band follow with the album’s most epic track, Not Sure, opening with frenetic, polyrhythmic variations on a Balkan-tinged theme, disintegrating for a bit and then regrouping with a savage late 70s King Crimson focus and more of a Middle Eastern attack. Lingering psychedelic pulses give way to a brisk, twisted stroll that isn’t Britfolk or Egyptian but alludes to each of those worlds. From there the band scamper and then memorably blast their way out.

P.B.S., another epic, beginns with interchanges of creepy Rhodes and more stern acoustic piano, Grdina and Noriega – on alto sax – playing the morose central theme in tandem. A marionettish theme develops; Noriega’s microtonal, allusive circling beyond an increasingly tense center is pure genius. Deep-space oxygen bubbles escape the Sun Ra craft as solar flares loom ever closer, then sear the scenery:.Grdina’s merciless, resonant attack is breathtakingly evil.

Semantics is a brooding, morosely wafting duet for echoey, spare guitar and ghostly sax. The next epic, clocking in at practically ten minutes, is Fragments, the bandleader’s spare, spacious oud intro echoed by Lossing’s inside-the-piano flickers and muted rustles. The two develop a phantasmagorical catacomb stroll; then each band member takes a separate elegaic tour, only to reconvene with a frenetic hope against hope. Noriega’s looming foghorn solo at the end is another gloomy highlight.

The desolately crescendoing guitar/sax tableau Casper brings to mind Bill Frisell at his most disconsolate, or Todd Neufeld’s whispery work with trombonist Samuel Blaser. Kite Fight, a squirrelly and then assaultive Grdina/Noiriega duet introduces the album’s final epic, Apokalympic, Noriega eventually wafting in to join Grdina’s expansive postbop chordal guitar phrasing. Lossing’s arrival signals a turn toward franticness and terror, fueled by a scorching guitar/sax duel. The marionettish Macedonian psychedelic outro is irresistibly twisted. 

The group close with a Lynchian reprise of Giggles, Grdina’s angst-fixated, starry reverb guitar paired with Lossing’s close-to-the-vest, wounded neoromanticisms. Looks like Grdina has not one but two albums on the best of 2018 list here.

A Rare New York Appearance by an Allstar Balkan Crew

This blog was in the building but not in the room when Loza played what in turned out to be a pretty spellbinding set at Golden Fest 2018 back in January. That’s because there are five or six separate shows going on at once in different parts of the lavish, old-world Grand Prospect Hall, all through the night during New York’s funnest annual concert. Golden Fest 2019 takes place next January 18 and 19 and although it’s not clear if the allstar Macedonian group Loza are on the bill, there will be dozens of others who are just as good.

Loza are making a rare non-Golden Fest appearance tomorrow night, Nov 20 at 7 PM at Barbes, opening for perennially entertaining, spectacular Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party. Fortuitously, WFMU made a field recording of the band’s Golden Fest set, available as a free download at the Free Music Archive.

The first number is a slinky, Middle Eastern tinged number, Vedran Boshkovski’s snakecharmer wood flute soaring over Adam Good’s frenetically picked tanbura lute. Seido Salifoski supplies a rat-a-tat beat on his big tapan drum underneath Corinna Snyder’s stark vocals.

The second tune is a bouncy major-key dance that could pass for Neapolitan, aside from the Macedonian lyrics. Boshkovski switches to zurla – the haunting, otherworldly trumpet-like Balkan reed instrument that sounds like a less drony Scottish bagpipe – for the final two tunes. The first is a trickily syncopated, chromatically edgy instrumental; the second is a more hypnotic epic with an icepick solo from Good. In both instances, the zurla’s keening microtones are just a hair enough outside traditional western harmony to be truly scary. Download this and crank it up if you need a jolt of adrenaline.

Withering Arabic Political Anthems and Swinging Noir Sounds at Youssra El Hawary’s US Debut at Lincoln Center

“We want our programming to be reflective of this city,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh said succinctly, introducing firebrand Egyptian singer/accordionist Youssra El Hawary this past evening for her North American debut. “She had an amazing song that went viral, part of the Arab Spring movement.” El Hawary has come a long way since her scathingly antiauthoritarian youtube hit The Wall six years ago.

She channels an angst and a noir psychedelic sensibility very similar to the French band Juniore. Yet she hasn’t lost any of the witheringly cynical political edge that brought her worldwide acclaim. ‘I can’t describe how emotional I am today,” she told the crowd, confiding that after her first show in Egypt, she thought she’d resign herself to going home and giving up on her dream. Sometimes good things happen to people who deserve them.

The blend of El Hawary’s chromatic accordion, Shadi El Hosseiny’s stalker electric piano and Sedky Sakhr’s wood flute in the night’s opening number, Kollo Yehoun, blended for an absolutely lurid mashup of late 60s French psychedelic pop and Egyptian classical songcraft. Tareq Abdelkawi’s buzuq added uneasily rippling intensity beneath El Hawary’s unselfconscious, airy Arabic-language vocals. She draws you in, whether understatedly moody or cool and collected.

Sakhr switched to harmonica for the second tune of the night, La Tesma Kalami, an anthemically strutting, shadowy Pigalle pop tune driven by Yamen El Gamal’s punchy bass and Loai (Luka) Gamal’s understaged drums. The anthemic, cabaret-tinged Kashkouli, as El Hawary described it, tackled issues of overthinking and fearlessness, Abdelkawi doubling the bandleader’s plaintive lead lines.

El Hawary rose gently out of El Hosseiny’s creepy, twinkling music box-like intro to a swaying, minor-key midtempo number, Mana Washi, Sakhr’s flute wafting and then bouncing as the band took the song further into straight-up rock territory. The title track to her album – which she translated as “We all go to sleep at night, wake up and forget” – swung through unexpected tempo shifts, torchy cabaret infused with Levantine energy. “That’s what we’ve been doing the last six, seven years,” she deadpanned.

Sakhr cynically went to great lengths to describe the noxiousness of Cairo bus exhaust in the city’s notoriously tangled rush hour traffic. Songs about things that literally smell like shit seldom have such a carefree bounce as Autobees, the jubilantly sarcastic number the band followed with. El Hawary didn’t hesitate to make the connection between the Cairo wall in her big hit and Trump’s proposed version on the Mexican border, which drew roars of applause as the band vamped and swung behind her: cosmopolitan elegance, pure punk rock energy.

Abdelkawi’s spirals and flickers lowlit the romantic angst of Baheb Aghib; then El Hawary brought the lights down with the bittersweetly lilting vocal-and-piano lament Bil Mazboot. The band went deep into swaying, crescendoing Cairo cafe land with the instrumental Sallem Zal Beit, a showcase for El Hawary’s accordion chops.

They reinvented the new wave-era French pop hit Maron Glacee with a droll calypso feel, then flipped the script with Jessica, a vindictively swinging kiss-off singalong directed at the ditzy French girl who stole her boyfriend. Despite differences in the band about how to translate Reehet El Fora, everybody agreed it was about the kind of sinking feeling that comes with having a Jessica around. With its neoromantic swirl, it was one of the night’s most stinging moments.

The band built a brooding fog behind her and then leapt into Hatoo Kteer, El Hawary skewering the Egyptian habit of stockpiling in case of crisis. She closed with Akbar Men El Gouda, the night’s most rock-oriented tune, then encored with a moodily catchy film theme that she credited as being a pivotal post-Wall moment in her career. 

You’ll see this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year. Lincoln Center’s mostly-weekly series of free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues next Thurs, Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with a rare New York performance of South African jazz featuring reedman McCoy Mrubata and pianist Paul Hanmer. Get there early if you want a seat.