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Category: middle eastern music

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.

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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, foggy 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. 

Plaintive Kurdish Sounds From Aynur in Her US Debut

In her American debut this past evening at the New School, Turkish-Kurdish singer Aynur channeled hundreds of years’ worth of brooding, often imploringly insistent ballads while adding unexpected elements of jazz and even a little rock, some of which worked, some of which didn’t. Throughout her almost two hours onstage, she ranged from a cool, unembellished mezzo-soprano delivery, to achingly shivery melismatics and several instances where she’d build crescendoing variations on a mantra of sorts. The material was heavy on singalongs that rose to triumphant, or almost vengefully swaying dances, which made sense considering that much of her repertoire focuses on the struggles of women in times of hardship and war as well as on a personal level.

Pairing her with the brilliant clarinetist Kinan Azmeh was a genius move. At first, he’d echo her with long, low, looming phrases. Then as the show gathered steam, the two indulged in some playful jousting, culminating in a jaunty duel where he pushed her further and further into some coy jazz scatting.

But the interludes that resonated with the audience the most and generated the most spontaneous response, sonically and otherwise, comprised the more traditional anthems. There, she was at her most forceful and intense, tanbur lute player Cemil Qocgiri supplying vast dynamics that ranged from elegantly plaintive opening taqsims, to hypnotically circling minor chords, some unexpectedly rocking, jangly riffs and serpentine leads in tandem with pianist Salman Gambarov.

When the piano was shimmery and lustrous, and at its most spare, Gambarov added useful ballast and overhead sheen. But it’s hard to play postbop jazz and remain in a single mode without straying, and since many of the songs in the set were essentially one-chord jams, the piano’s intimations of the blues and a little funk were far enough outside the songs’ harmonies to the point where they became jarring, both melodically and rhythmically. Obviously, this group’s raison d’etre is to rescue a repertoire that goes back centuries and put it in contemporary context, but the piano isn’t a traditional Kurdish instrument. A harmonium, or a microtonal accordion, would have made more sense.

This show was the inaugural concert of the World Music Institute’s new season: for decades, they’ve been counted on to delivery a vast variety of sounds from around the world rarely heard in the United States, let alone in this city. The next concert on the calendar is on Oct 13 at 8 PM at the Murmur Ballroom, the old synagogue on the way to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, featuring cameos from all 25 members of the global cast of the OneBeat collective currently on tour. General admission is $15.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade Bring the Exhilarating Future of Egyptian Music to Brooklyn

Friday night at Roulette, oudist Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade treated the crowd to a dynamic, exhilarating look at the future of Egyptian classical music. Abozekry has immersed himself in the centuries-old muwashashat tradition and played some of his most exhilarating moments during the most traditional pieces on the program. Yet it quickly became clear that he’s delved into blues and jazz, and some artsy rock, and he knows hip-hop too. But what was most impressive, and ultimately most thrilling about the show was how distinctive and majestic his music is. Karkade aren’t just a bunch of hippies who’ve learned a couple of Arabic modes and think that something like salsa might sound especially exotic if played on Middle Eastern instruments. They’re Middle Eastern virtuosos with boundless curiosity – and access to youtube.

The night’s opening number was a red herring. Effortlessly and spaciously, Abozekry threw some minor-key blues licks into a relatively spare, bouncy number and then deviated towards postbop jazz. The rest of the evening was grounded in the epic sweep and stark intensity of the Levantine classical tradition with judicious enhancement from pretty much every corner of the planet.

The band were brilliant. Ney flutist Mohamed Farag played with a strikingly resonant, gusty tone: there were times when his alternately plaintive and sepulchral microtones sounded almost like a duduk. Violinist Lotfi Abaza delivered similarly nuanced filigrees and flickers, most of the time doubling either Farag or Abozekry’s lines – it would have been rewarding to have heard more of him by himself. Mohammed Arafa on dohola (a double-ended hand drum a tad bigger than a dumbek) and Karim Nagi on riq swung hard through rhythms that swayed and galloped and turned on a dime, and made all that look easy. Arafa’s tongue-in-cheek, peek-a-boo solo about midway through was the concert’s most unselfconsciously amusing moment – clearly, these guys are having a great time on this tour.

Their excursions through a quartet of serpentine levantine themes rose and fell, mysterious and ultimately triumphant: Abozekry has breathtaking speed and precision on the fretboard, but his tantalizingly brief solo work in those pieces were the only points during the night where he really put the pedal to the metal. There was also a hypnotic rondo with the oud, violin and ney each playing subtle variations on three separate, interwoven riffs. In the evening’s most otherworldly, atmospheric epic, Abozekry’s broodingly emphatic anthemic chords bookended a vast, nocturnal soundscape.

Building from an unexpectedly funky drive, he led the band into a pouncing, wickedly catchy theme and variations: Bootsy Collins taking a Land Cruiser out into the desert dunes. They closed with a similarly incisive, balletesque theme referencing the obviously busy and animated Cairo cafe whose name they’ve appropriated for the band (it also means hibiscus).

The show was staged by Robert Browning Associates, who continue to bring some of the most magical and relevant global programming to this city. On Sept 29 at 8 PM at Roulette they’re staging a fascinatingly unorthodox lineup of sitar, shehnai (Indian oboe) and tabla played by the trio of Mita Nag, Hassan Haider and Subhen Chatterjee; advance tix are $30. And Abozekry’s ’s next performance is tonight, Sept 23 at the Flynn Center, 153 Main St. in Burlington, Vermont; tix are $25.

Transcendence and Joy with Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes

Every year here, sometime in December, there’s a list of the best New York concerts from over the past twelve months. Obviously, it’s not definitive – nobody has the time, and no organization has the manpower to send somebody to every single worthwhile concert in this city and then sort them all out at the end of the year.

But it’s an awful lot of fun to put together. Legendary Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian has a way of showing up on that list just about every year, and he’ll be on the best shows of 2018 page here, too. This past evening at Barbes, he and his Taksim ensemble – Adam Good on oud, son Lee Baronian on percussion, Mal Stein on drums and Sprocket Royer on bass, tucked way back in the far corner – channeled every emotion a band could possibly express in a tantalizing fifty minutes or so onstage. Surprise was a big one. There were lots of laughs, in fact probably more than at any other of Baronian’s shows here over the past few years. There was also longing, and mourning, and suspense, and majesty and joy.

Baronian came out of Spanish Harlem in the late 40s, a contemporary of Charlie Parker. Considered one of the original pillars of Near Eastern jazz, as he calls it, Baronian immersed himself in both bebop and what was then a thriving Manhattan Armenian music demimonde. In the years since, he literally hasn’t lost a step. Much as he can still fly up and down the valves, and played vigorously on both soprano sax and clarinet, his performances are more about soul than speed and this was typical. Some of his rapidfire rivulets recalled Coltrane, or Bird, but in those artists’ most introspective and purposeful moments. And neither dove headfirst into the chromatics to the extent that Baronian does.

He opened with a long, incisively chromatic riff that was as catchy as it was serpentine – a typical Baronian trait. Good doubled the melody while Royer played terse low harmonies against it, the percussion section supplying a solid slink. Baronian’s command of Middle Eastern microtones is still both as subtle and bracing as it ever was as he ornamented the tunes with shivery unease as well as devious wit.

Throughout the show, he’d often play both soprano and clarinet in the same tune, then put down his horn and play riq – the rattling Middle Eastern tambourine – while other band members soloed. The night’s two funniest moments were where he led them on boisterous, vaudevillian percussion interludes with as many cartoonish “gotcha” moments as there was polyrhythmic virtuosity.

Where Baronian made it look easy, Good really dug in and turned a performance that, even for a guy who’s probably one of the top half-dozen oudists in New York, was spectacular. Brooding, ominously quiet phrasing quickly gave way to spiky, sizzling tremolo-picking, pointillistic volleys of sixteenth notes and a precise articulation that defied logic, considering how many notes he was playing. Getting the oud sufficiently up in the PA system helped immeasurably – oud dudes, take a look at this guy’s pedalboard, for the sake of clarity and a whole lot more.

The night’s best number also happened to be the quietest and possibly the most epic – considering how many segues there were, it sometimes became hard to tell where one tune ended and the other began. Baronian played this one on clarinet, looming in from the foghorn bottom of the instrument’s register and then rising with a misty, mournful majesty. As the song went on, it took on less of an elegaic quality and became more of a mystery score. Royer’s spare, resonant groove, Stein’s elegant rimshots, the younger Baronian’s otherworldly, muted boom and Good’s shadowy spirals completed this midnight blue nocturne.

They picked up the pace at the end of the show, taking it out with a triumphant flourish. On one hand, that Baronian chooses Barbes to play his infrequent New York gigs (he’s very popular in Europe) is a treat for the cognoscenti, especially considering how intimate Brooklyn’s best music venue is. But if there’s anybody who deserves a week at the Vanguard or Jazz at Lincoln Center, it’s this guy.

Watch this space for upcoming Baronian Barbes gigs. In the meantime, Good is playing one of his other many axes, guitar, with slashing, careening heavy psychedelic band Greek Judas  – who electrify old hash-smuggling anthems from the 30s and 40s – tomorrow night, Sept 8 at Rubulad. It’s a lo-fi loft space situation with a Burning Man vibe – fire twirlers, space cake and absinthe could be in the picture. Cover is $10 if you show up before 9; email for the Bushwick address/info.

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.

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.