New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: middle eastern music

A Small Gathering for Haunting Turkish Music at Barbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haunting, High-Voltage Balkan and Middle Eastern Sounds from Oud Mastermind Mehmet Polat

One of the most richly dynamic albums of recent months is Mehmet Polat‘s Quantum Leap, with his eclectic band Embracing Colours. The oud virtuoso and composer’s latest releas, a mix of influences from Andalucia to the Balkans and the Middle East is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Expanded Lives, is stunningly intense, a wounded minor-key anthem that builds to a long, flamenco-tinged, flurrying crescendo from the bandleader. Accordionist Bart Lelivelt joins the dance as it reaches a peak, then the rhythm section – bassist Hendrik Müller and drummer Joan Terol Amigo – pull the song back to more elegant drama.

They don’t waste a second to segue into Dancing Statues, a suspenseful accordion-bass conversation setting off a fiery, pulsingly insistent Balkan dance with a deliciously edgy, chromatic accordion solo, with the bandleader adding his own scampering, misterioso lines. Playing the Time Away is more pensive, with a series of carefree oud/accordion exchanges.

The band stay in animated dance mode with the tricky metrics of Falseta Mesopotámica, Polat firing off a percussively incisive solo, singer Ciğdem Okuyucu adding her spacious, ripely melismatic voice to the mix. They follow with Segue – good as that joke is, this bridge is a particularly interesting one, shifting from a kinetic scramble to a wary, brooding bowed bass solo, picking up with renewed intensity and eventually coming full circle.

Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans’ airy microtones join with the accordion to introduce the slow, stately, Palestinian-inflected anthem All Connected: with the trumpet moving into stark blues, it could be the album’s most hauntingly gorgeous track.

The aptly titled, saturnine Breathing Again is another stunner, Polat’s allusively chilling, spacious solo giving way to Imamyar Hasanov’s plaintive, imploring kamancheh fiddle. The quote at the end is too good to give away: let’s say it’s a happy ending appropriate for the current political climate.

The band follow Polat’s steady, sternly catchy solo piece Conveyed Emotions with Contemplation, a big, powerful, serpentine, Balkan-spiced showstopper. Then Polat and Müller edge their way into the shapeshifting Entropy – with the exchanges between Polat’s soaring vocals and Michalis Kouloumis’ stark violin, it’s the closest thing to current-day, electric Black Sea jazz here.

Lelivelt’s portentous accordion taqsim kicks off A Deserved Distraction – it seems designed as a welcome, pedal-to-the-metal diversion in the wake of so much haunting intensity. The group close with Aftermath, a grimly beautiful tableau that wouldn’t be out of place in the Mohammed Abdel Wahab catalog: Polat’s insistent, minimalist solo is impossible to turn away from. What a breathtaking record.

Polat’s next concert is on January 31 at at the Lutherkirche Sudstat, Martin-Luther-Platz 4 in
Cologne, Germany.

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

Transcendent, Exhilarating, Haunting Iraqi Sounds at Roulette

For the past couple of years, impresarios Robert and Helene Browning have been booking a transcendentally good series of shows at Roulette, featuring artists from across the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. Those performances ought to be good: Robert Browning Associates have been doing this for over forty years, so they’ve built a vast talent base to draw from. While this season’s series of concerts is as wildly diverse as usual, the central theme this year is music from across the Arabic-speaking world. Saturday night’s show by impassioned Iraqi crooner Hamid Al-Saadi with Safaafir – this continent’s only classical Iraqi maqam ensemble – was as epic, and entrancing, and hauntingly relevant as any concert in New York this year.

They’d played at Lincoln Center this past March, and then a couple of times afterward, but this was a welcome opportunity to cut really cut loose. The Lincoln Center show featured songs that were somewhat shorter – ok, less than twenty or thirty minutes long – and seemed heavier on the more humorous material. But music from the Arabic-speaking diaspora is deep. In one haunting, dynamically rising and falling interlude at this show, Al-Saadi addressed the fleeting hope for relationship bliss, then the healing power of maqam riffage, then later the ever-present need to defeat occupying forces. You would expect no less from a socially aware narrative from Iraq from a century ago.

Al-Saadi’s voice is raw, often bristling with overtones: he holds back nothing. It was also in much better shape than at the Lincoln Center gig. Throughout this show, he’d either open a song with a big, resonant, potently melismatic crescendo, or he’d tease the audience (and his bandmates) to where he’d cut loose in the middle of a song.

Pretty much everybody else in the band sang along, or in a call-and-response. Bandleader Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena – the world’s most talented brother-sister team – gave Al-Saadi an alternately slinky and pouncing groove. Tim Moore’s dynamic, slyly shapeshifting dumbek beat fueled the concert’s peaks, when George Ziadeh’s oud, Amir’s pointillistic santoor or Dena’s otherworldly, rain-drenched joza fiddle were going full steam. Solos tended to be tantalizingly short.

The concert followed a roller-coaster trajectory, punctuated by several breathtaking vocal peaks. The ensemble began rather enigmatically, then broodingly and expressively worked their way up from enigmatic modes that roughly corresponded to the western whole-tone scale, to a fiery couple of concluding numbers seething with chromatics, microtones and a desire to rid the world of invaders, whether Ottoman or British. The pair of women on backup vocals added layers of depth to an already lavish and searing blend of sounds.

The Brownings’ concert series at Roulette continues this Dec 7 at 8 PM with legendary Javanese bandleader I. M. Harjito directing Gamelan Kusuma Laras in a program of rippling, hypnotic traditional bell orchestra sounds; general admission is $30.

47soul Bring Delirious Dance Grooves and Sharp Political Relevance to Lincoln Center

In keeping with this month’s Halloween theme, there is a contingent here in the US that doesn’t want groups like exhilarating Palestinian hip-hop band 47soul here. But Lincoln Center is home to every New York community, as impresario Jordana Leigh reminded last night. A big crowd drawing heavily on Arabic-speaking young people from across the diaspora watched raptly, everybody with their phones out, a circle of dancers dipping and shimmying in front of the stage.

The quartet’s Arabic lyrics are excellent, drawing on centuries of allusive, symbolically loaded antiauthoritarian tradition. Graffiti artists vault border walls and random travelers get caught in police headlights, Fences, roadblocks and surveillance are everywhere. There was a line in one of their opening numbers, Mo Light, that translated as “If I could buy my home, I’d do that.” No wonder their music is so restless. Even the most lighthearted tunes, like Move Around, have double entendres: Palestinians are no strangers to relocation, voluntarily or via Naqba.

With electric guitar, electronic and organic percussion and swirling, keening mini-synth, their music can be as enveloping and atmospheric as it is propulsive They opened with a vampy two-chord quasi-reggae number, echoed a little later by a reggaeton-influenced detour into trip-hop. They didn’t even bother to change chords for the hypnotically majestic song in between, the thump of the standup tapan drum underneath looming minor-key string synth ambience.

They really hit their stride and got the guys in the crowd triwrling their keffiyehs with a thumping, syncopated dabke groove, the microtones of the synth shivering over the thump of the tapan and the syndrums, the guitar running  through the kind of warpy tone-bending patch that Mary Halvorson uses a lot. Everybody knew the big dabke anthem after that, jumping around defiantly as the big choruc kicked in.

“Sold out by the left, right when you left, why, you’re not filming?” was the most telling line in the slow, ominously emphatic Machina, a searingly imagistic account of life under an occupation, from the band’s latest album Balfron Promise. After that, they went back to the slinky, pulsing minor-key dabke, dipping back and forth between a watery vortex of sound. Everybody in the group – synth player Z the People, guitarist El Jehaz, drummers Walaa Sbait and Tareq Abu Kwaik all contribute vocals, even when they’re playing pretty complicated stuff.

Ther was some turnover in the crowd before Afrotronix, all the way from Chad via Montreal, followed with a cantering electroacoustic performance. Interestingly, almost all of their beats were organic, the group’s guitarist nimbly building live loops and pulling samples from a laptop to energize the people on the floor while the group’s dancer got a shiveringly intense workout at the front of the stage.

The next nation represented in the ongoing mostly-weekly series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. is Cuba. Chanteuse Melvis Santa and her band are on the billlnext Thurs,, Oct 10 at 7:30 PM  These shows are very popular, so get there early if you’re going.

Delirious, Transcendent, Rare Syrian Music with Wajde Ayub at Roulette

Isn’t it bizarre how some chromatics and modes which have come to be associated with the macabre in western music actually connote transcendence and joy at points further east? In his concert Saturday night at Roulette, Syrian singer Wajde Ayub and his lavish orchestra ranged far beyond the famous hijaz mode that so many western musicians have appropriated for everything from Hollywood faux-exoticism to heavy metal menace. Yet it was in that maqam, with its flat-three and flat-five intervals, that he delivered the most thrills of the night. And there were a lot of them.

In his introductory remarks, impresario Robert Browning – whose Associates had booked this show – spoke of how Ayub, a protege of legendary Syrian crooner Sabah Fakhri, was a throwback to the great tarab singers of the 1930s. He wasn’t kidding – it’s impossible to think of a more electrifying way to kick off this year’s series of global music events at Roulette.

Ayub sings on two levels: intense and more intense. The raw power in his meticulously modulated, melismatic baritone was undiminished throughout practically two hours onstage. People line-danced up front by the stage, clapped along and were invited to join in, boisterously, in many call-and-response choruses throughout the night.

The Aleppo-born Ayub is a rare master of Syrian wasla themes and variations, utilizing both settings of classical Arabic poetry and simpler, singalong folk tunes. Much of the repertoire serves as the roots of this era’s dabke music and habibi pop. With the brief flick of a hand, he led the dapperly dressed orchestra – women in black, men in matching black suits with orange ties – through a vast series of dynamic shifts. The music was sometimes majestic and elegant, sometimes stomping and careening, at other times plaintive and delicate.

What was most striking was how much of a singing quality the instrumentalists brought to the performance. There weren’t a lot of instrumental taqsims (improvisations), but the group made them count. Violinist Michael Abdullah got the most of them; oudist Zafer Tawil also kicked in some frenetic flurries along with kanun player Jamal Sinno’s incisive, lingering ripples and pings. Bassist John Murchson and cellist Khalid Khalifa provided a rich, low undercurrent, often doubling each others’ lines over the mighty percussion section of Johnny Farraj on riq (tambourine), Mahmoud Kamil on tabla and Mohammad Almassri on boomy katim frame drum. Violinist Insia Malik and ney flutist Naeif Rafeh added contrasting airy melody overhead.

Classical Arabic and modern spoken Arabic are quite different, so the subtitles projected during the first three songs were useful for everyone, not just those for whom English was a first language. The lyrics spoke to the age-old, shattering power of female beauty, which Ayub saluted both with imploring and gloriously impassioned resonance. There was also a point where the two women singing in the chorus – Zahra Alzubaidi and Nesma Mohamed – exchanged fond “aw, wasn’t that sweet” looks during one of Ayub’s more forceful variations on a hijaz phrase. Clearly, he’d hit a mark with his colleagues.

Robert Browning Associates’ next concert of Middle Eastern music at Roulette is on Oct 19 at 8 PM with legendary percussionist Pejman Hadadi leading a spellbinding Iranian trio with Saeed Kamjoo on kamancheh fiddle and Kourosh Taghavi on setar lute; cover is $30.

Middle Eastern-Tinged Jazz Intensity and an Upper West Side Album Release Show From Brilliant Bassist Petros Klampanis

Petros Klampanis is a highly sought after bassist in the New York jazz, Middle Eastern and Greek music scenes. He’s also a fantastic composer, combining elements of all those styles and more. His darkly intense latest album Irrationalities, a trio recording with pianist Kristjan Randalu and drummer Bodek Janke, is streaming at Spotify. He’s playing the release show on Oct 9 at 8:30 PM at Symphony Space; advance tix are $27.

The opening track, Easy Come Easy Go, has a sprightly, shuffling groove, Randalu’s glittering lines over fluttery percussion that subtly shifts toward clave as the piano grows more wary and modal: this mix of moody Middle Eastern and salsa-jazz is more than a little bittersweet. Klampanis’ use of eerie close harmonies and allusively levantine melody throughout the record raises the intensity several notches.

Seeing You Behind My Eyes follows the rises and falls between a similarly brooding tone poem and lithely dancing, judiciously spacious variations that finally peak out with Randalu’s spiraling, tumbling solo before coming full circle. The album’s title track makes gritttily majestic jazz out of a tricky Indian carnatic vocal theme, artfully melding uneasy chromatics with warmer hints of trad balladry and a masterfully intertwining piano solo. The false ending is a cool trick as well.

LIkewise, the polyrhythms between bass and piano as Thalassia Platia gets underway: what seems to be a wistful waltz turns out to be far more conflicted, with its aching lushness and a biting, upper-register bass solo. No Becomes Yes goes in the opposite direction, a rather stern, sometimes eerie melody expanding as the group let some sun burst through the clouds, although that’s not as simple as that might seem. Lots of persuasion going on here, apparently.

Klampanis winds up the album with its most epic number, the Nat Cole ballad Blame It On My Youth, cleverly triangulating the rhythm and adding a delicious surprise at the end. There are also a couple of coy miniatures, Temporary Secrets 2 and 3, blending urban found sounds with glockenspiel and a catchy bass riff. Purposeful, relentlessly tuneful and distinctively original, this is a stealth contender for one of the best jazz albums of the year

Amir ElSaffar Brings Middle Eastern, Slavic and Jazz Sounds to Otherworldly New Places at Lincoln Center

The annual Jazztopad Festival in Poland is one of Europe’s major jazz events. They advocate fiercely for Polish artists worldwide and commission scores of new works, focusing on blending jazz and contemporary classical sounds. They’ve also been staging events here in New York for the past several years, ostensibly to entice Americans to make the trip over. It’s smart marketing

To open this year’s Manhattan edition at Lincoln Center last night, multi-instrumentalist Amir ElSaffar led a group including Wacław Zimpel on bass clarinet, Ksawery Wójciński on bass and the strings of the Lutosławski Quartet through the Amerrican premiere of his raptly enveloping Awhaal for String Quartet. Seated at the santoor, ElSaffar opened the piece with a bright, enticing riff and slowly unwinding, rippling variations, much like a muezzin’s call or a phrase on his primary instrument, the trumpet.

ElSaffar – one of the most distinctive and unselfconsciously brilliant composers in jazz or anywhere else these days – has made a career blending maqam music from across the Arabic-speaking world with both large and smallscale improvisation, and this performance was typically celestial. Slowly and majestically, the music rose, fluttering violins over portentous, low modalities from the cello and bass: the work of Kurdish compoer Kayhan Kalhor came strongly to mind.

Zimpel added a simple, emphatic fanfare; the strings descended uneasily, micrtonally, ElSaffar singing soulful vocalese in his resonant, melismatic baritone. With the santoor just a hair off, tonally, from the strings, this was where the otherworldly magic really started to kick in. The strings fueled a lilting dance that grew more somber as the volume rose and Wójciński’s off-kilter yet hypnotic rhythm dug in, Zimpel wailing on his clarinet.

The second movement was much more kinetic, with ElSaffar on trumpet, spiky, circular pizzicato from the violins blending with an austere, Egyptian-tinged phrase which became more lush and enveloping over a swaying 6/8 groove. Together the group developed a series of lively echo phrases, part Afrobeat, part Philip Glass.

Using his mute, the bandleader drew the music into a deliciously suspenseful, hypnotically pulsing snakecharmer theme, capped off by a shivery, spine-tingling microtonal cadenza. The group opened the third movement with a bubbling, Appalachian-tinged theme and shifted toward acidic, insistent, blustery Moroccan jajouka, drawing a raucous round of applause from what had been a silent, rapt crowd.

The tension grew toward breaking point as the fourth movement and its overlays from the strings gathered steam, the drifting tonalities taking on more of an Indian edge. A hazy pastoral recede and rise evoked the tone poems of Rachmaninoff as much as Hindustani ghazals, ending hushed and prayerful. Obviously, with the amount of improvisation going on, one can only wonder what the piece will sound like next time out.

ElSaffar’s next gig playing this material is a free performance tomorrow, Saturday, Sept 28 at 11 PM at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in his hometown Chicago. In Poland, festivities begin at the Jazztopad Festival on Nov 15. And the next free show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Thurs, Oct 3 at 7:30 PM with Chadian electronic group Afrotronix and electrifying Palestinian hip-hop/reggae/habibi pop band 47soul. If you’re going, get there as early as you can becuuse this one will sell out fast