New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: middle eastern music

Yet Another Haunting, Exhilarating Album From Oud Master Mehmet Polat

Oudist Mehmet Polat hails from the Urfa region of Turkey, a hotspot for cultural cross-pollination for centuries. So it’s hardly a surprise to hear how individualistically he blends traditional Turkish sounds with Arabic, African and Andalucian music in addition to American jazz rhythms. Every year, he seems to put out a new record that always ends up on the best albums of the year page here. The latest one, The Promise – streaming at Bandcamp – will definitely be on the best of 2020 list here next month. In general, it’s Polat’s at his most upbeat and optimistic.

While Polat’s custom-made oud has a couple of extra bass strings, the electrifying opening track here, Firefighters is more of an exploration of the upper registers, peaking out with a series of incisive chords after a long build through enigmatic Balkan-tinged modes over Daniel van Huffelen’s bass and Joan Terol Amigo’s drums.

Polat builds an almost teasing, unresolved suspense in the second track, Nature Hits Back, before spiraling and then descending to the depths over percussionist Ruven Ruppik’s many textures and shifting rhythms. Pathfinder is a catchy, anthemic, dynamically vamping number over elegantly syncopated, boomy frame drum by Alper Kekeç.

Polat teams up with Sinan Arat on ney flute and Kekeç on frame drum again for Footprints, a hypnotically pulsing, mysterious, mostly one-chord jam. Then he completely flips the script with the spare, funky Permission, featuring a starkly melismatic solo from kamancheh fiddle player Elnur Mikayılov.

Polat and the opening track’s rhythm section hint that they’re going into qawwali as Swinging in Hands gets underway, but instead they go off on a bouncy West African kora-inspired tangent and end with a spacious bass solo. The undulating Fidelity to İstanbul makes a good, upbeat segue.

Guest Shwan Sulaiman contributes an expressive, dramatic vocal in Being the Voice over a scampering backdrop with echoes of North African rai music. Polat breaks out his loop and distortion pedals for Symbolizations, the most overtly psychedelic track here.

The real stunner here is Nêterseno, with haunting clarinet and defiantly populist vocals from Mikail Aslan and trebly tenbur lute by Cemil Qocgiri, picking up with a fiery flamenco groove before coming full circle. Polat plays a darkly incisive, melancholy solo over a drone in the lament Nothing Is Yours and closes with My Cultural Womb, a syncopated, edgily modal number reflecting influences from Turkey to Egypt.

Beware of Greeks Bearing Loud Guitar Amps

Balothizer are among the most recent heavy psychedelic bands to realize how delicious haunting old Greek folk tunes sound when you crank up the volume and hit the distortion pedal. The obvious comparison is New York’s own Greek Judas, who, like Batholizer, are one of the few rock acts releasing new material these days. Check out the Brooklynites’ latest single, Snakey Song, which is probably the most succinct number in their repertoire of heavy metal versions of hash-smoking and protest songs from the 1920s and 30s..

Balothizer have a whole new album, Cretan Smash, streaming at Bandcamp. The eerie Arabic-influenced chromatics and fearless pro-freedom content of music from Crete are everywhere here, starting with the epic, defiant first track, Jegaman, kicking off with a slashing cadenza from guest violinist Stratos Skarakis. Frontman Nikos Ziarkas multitracks sizzling electric lute riffs over Pav Mav’s gritty, galloping bass and Steve J. Payne’s pummeling drums as the song veers between speedmetal and a slow, relentlessly doomy sway.

The second track is Peace, a slow, grimly stomping anthem until the shreddy stampede out. You want grim? The third number, Aleppo – a bitter exile’s tale – gets reinvented as sort of Greek Motorhead, but with more of a hypnotically propulsive drive, while the fourth, Ponente Levante, a vengeful chronicle of finding nothing but trouble in the world, has an even faster, circling attack.

Foustalieris, a popular tune with a witheringly metaphorical revolutionary message, has elegantly echoey acoustic twin lutes to kick things off, then the band barrel through to a long wah-wah stoner jam. They close the record with their most epic number here, Anathema, a shoegazy slowcore tune. Watch for this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year.

Greek Judas – Snakey Song

Edgy, Slinky, Lusciously Allusive Middle Eastern Jazz From Enrique Haneine

Drummer Enrique Haneine writes an ambitious, individualistic and often very captivating blend of succinct riffage, Middle Eastern-inspired themes and grooves. The lineup on his album Unlayered – streaming at Bandcamp – reflects that individualism, a three-horn frontline over a steady, bouncing rhythm section, facilitating lushnesss but more often than not a series of cleverly interpolated individual voices. Which means there’s a lot to sink your ears into here. The obvious comparison is the (otherwise pretty incomparable) Brooklyn chordless trio Ensemble Fanaa. If you love jazz and Middle Eastern music, this will push all your buttons.

The hypnotic opening track, Behind the Missing Whisper has a tasty, mysterious slink and artful, conspiratorially triangulated harmonies between Catherine Sikora’s tenor sax, Thomas Heberer’s trumpet and Christof Knoche’s bass clarinet over the undulating pulse from Haneine and bassist Jay Anderson.

The band put on the Ritz with a vampy mashup of Steve Coleman, salsa jazz and circular indie classical in the album’s second number, Luculent Jiggle (these titles seem generated by Google Translate in 404 mode), with trumpet, sax, bass clarinet and bass alluding to the Middle East in turn, but never quite going there.

A staggered, suspiciously deadpan quasi-funk drive propels Thriving Ring, Sikora taking an allusively chromatic solo. Queen of the Underground makes a good segue, a circling, bouncy, syncopated groove and an enigmatic trumpet loop underscoring brooding sax and bass clarinet solos, down to a steadily strolling bass interlude

Dance of Endless Encounter is a pulsing, Egyptian-tinged number with a lusciously modal sax solo, more straightforward trumpet and a priceless moment where the bass clarinet…well…disappears, because the rest of the band decide to jump back in! Likewise, Seldom Disguise has a subtly crescendoing, serpentine groove, building to a biting, rather cynical three-way conversation between the horns

The Sweetest Finding is built around enigmatic variarions on a sober but emphatic chromatic theme, with a droll, completely deadpan bustle and triumphant chaos. Likewise, the deadpan humor in Illustrious Bickering: some people want to bring this optimistically Middle Eastern-spiced theme to its logical conclusion, but there are diversions, a sax battle with the rhythm section and an irresistibly cartoonish coda: an Israeli wall parable, maybe?

The band revert to staggered, staccato synopcation in Oust No More, a vehicle for fiery extended-technique solos for the horns. There are hints of qawwali in the subtle but direct exchanges of voices in What of What We Are: Heberer finally goes for the grit that’s been waiting to bust loose here. The slow Ellingtonian lustre of Once, Knoche’s Lebanese blues at the center, comes as a shock until you realize the band have been building up to this understatedly gorgeous payoff all along. A stealth contender for best jazz album of 2020

Mahsa Vahdat Releases a Profoundly Multi-Layered Album For Our Time

Why did the lockdowers outlaw live music? For the same reasons the Taliban in Afghanistan and the slave traders in the Caribbean did. The arts are subversive by definition: they encourage people to question their situations, and the lockdowners won’t settle for anything less than total obedience to their most egregious and ridiculous whims. In that sense, Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat’s new album Enlighten the Night – streaming at Spotify – is subversive. Using the words of both iconic Persian poets as well as contemporary lyricists, she celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. If there was ever an album for our time, this is it. And what a great title!

Vahdat is joined by a familiar supporting cast of pianist Tord Gustavsen, bass player Gjermund Silset and drummer Kenneth Ekornes, playing arrangements by Atabak Elyasi. They open with The Act of Freedom, a spare, steadily shuffling, bittersweetly minor-key celebration of self-determintion (that’s a very prosaic summary of Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari’s lyric).

Vahdat’s clear, wounded voice channels desolation and longing over graceful solo bass in the album’s second track, Where Is the Home of the Wind, with a lyric by Forough Farrokhzad which could be about a lost love or a lost world – or both. She channels a more muted, haunting resignation, matched by Gustavsen’s haunting, quasi-bolero sparseness in Farewell, a setting of a well-known desert tableau by Saadi.

Vahdat’s aching melismas flutter over stately piano in Precious Cup, a reflection on impermanence and the first of a handful of Omar Khayyam settings. The second, The Roses and the Meadow follows a similar theme more somberly. The most fleeting – and arguably optimistic – of all is If I Were God. Light electroacoustic touches come to the foreground in Lovelorn, which is basically 180 degrees the opposite.

Bootarab – a Rumi poem celebrating enlightened leaders, party musicians and much more – has a balletesque bounce and oud voicings from the piano along with a touch of jazz. The album’s title track, with an allusive Jafari lyric about a triumphantly prowling bird of prey, has otherworldly kamancheh leaps and bounds from guest Shervin Mohajer.

Vahdat’s distantly imploring nuance matches the subtle hope for solidarity in Nima Youshij’s poem The Moon Beams, one of the album’s most Arabic-tinged track. The glimmer of hope in Ney Davoud – the album’s most skeletally epic track and a lost-love lament – is much the same. Gustavsen’s use of close harmonies to mimic the microtones of classical Persian modes is masterful, as is Silset’s crepuscular bowing.

The Dawn, with a lyric by Ahmad Shamloo, is the album’s most grimly metaphorical moment. Vahdat imbues the closing lyric, Simin Behbehani’s calmly defiant I Will Build You Again, My Country with guarded optimism over Ekornes’ clip-clop beat and Mohajer’s plaintive kamancheh. She couldn’t have picked a better moment to release this austere, inspiring record. You will see this on the best albums of 2020 page in December if such a page can exist.

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.