New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: tango

A Bracingly Majestic Double Concerto and a Couple of Classy Museum Mile Gigs From Bandoneon Innovator JP Jofre

JP Jofre may be known as one of the world’s foremost soloists on the bandoneon, the little accordion that Astor Piazzolla catapulted to fame. But Jofre is also a brilliant and pioneering composer whose work transcends nuevo tango to encompass the neoromantic, indie classical and jazz. His latest and most ambitious project yet is the first ever Double Concerto for Bandoneon and Violin – streaming at Spotify – which he performs along with violinist Michael Guttman and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This won’t be on the bill at the Argentine-born composer’s next New York performance; instead, he’ll be leading his Hard Tango Band at the ongoing series of free 5:30 PM shows at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec 28 and 29.

Throughout the Double Concerto, there’s a great deal of conversational interplay between the bandoneon and the violin; reduced to lowest terms, Guttman is typically the good cop. Jofre, as usual, gets extraordinary dynamic range out of his instrument, from ominous low drones to chirpy flourishes at the top while the orchestra follows similarly challenging trajectories. Rhythmic shifts are constant and counterintuitive, and the whole unit follows them seamlessly, hardly an easy task.

Jofre opens solo before Guttman sails in overhead, building steely, unresolved intensity to usher in the explosively pulsing allegro movement. The orchestra tackle it with a meticulous but vigorous pulse, its bursts of counterpoint blending such disparate elements as orchestral Piazzolla, Debussy and the baroque. Guttman resolutely answers Jofre’s creepy chromatic loops, then the mighty dance ensues again.

Brooding Jofre atmospherics contrast with wistful Guttman violin, the orchestra and piano adding Tschaikovslan lustre in the adagio. An astringently leaping solo violin cadenza introduces the milonga and its impassioned pulse, rising and falling with Persian-tinged echo effects.

The album’s final three pieces, all duets, have specific titles beyond tempo indicators. Jofre’s rainswept washes and subtle insistence give Guttman a launching pad for his plaintively soaring lines in the elegaic Before the Curtain. Como El Agua maintains the mood with its slow tidal shifts and La Vie En Rose allusions, while Sweet Dreams is a more impassioned lullaby than you might expect. Whether you call this nuevo tango or classical music, it’s characteristic of the ambition and brightly focused melodicism that have defined Jofre’s career up to this point.

Mesmerizing Accordion Sounds Serenade Bryant Park, Again

As all of us in New York have been painfully reminded over the last few days, summer is far from over. But there’s a silver lining: the summer outdoor concerts aren’t over yet, either. One of the year’s best series so far – no surprise – has been the Bryant Park accordion festival. Considering how widely that little box has infiltrated cultures around the world, it’s also hardly a surprise that this may be New York’s most multicultural annual festival.

This past evening’s installment was characteristically sublime and eclectic. Laura Vilche is one of relatively few women whose axe is the even smaller bandoneon so widely used in tango music. She played very kinetically, rhythmically and also remarkably sparsely, underscoring the sheer catchiness of her sometimes slinky, sometimes brooding mix of Argentine and Paraguayan themes. Her dynamically shifting take of the Carlos Gardel classic La Comparsita was the biggest hit with the crowd gathered on the folding chairs and blankets provided for concertgoers. Then she packed up her gear and moved to another of the park’s five quasi-stages to serenade another group; many followed.

Where Vilche was spare and almost otherworldly direct, Latvian-born accordionist Ilya Shneyveys played lavishly and even epically throughout a set of original and often relatively obscure klezmer songs from across the Jewish diaspora. He opened his set by explaining that he was going much further afield, beyond horas and Hava Nagila, and he wasn’t kidding. With long, lingering, suspenseful intros building to waterfalling and then absolutely torrential volleys of notes, he used every second of the allotted time to air out every bracing chromatic and adrenalizing minor key in a series of dances and more subdued material. The highlight was a slowly crescendoing, rather mysterious diptych typically played as an introductory theme for wedding guests. “Cocktail music,” he smirked. He’s playing tomorrow night, Sept 6 at 9 PM at Drom with pyrotechnic Russian klezmer band Dobranotch to open this year’s New York Gypsy Festival; cover is $15 if you get tix before midnight.

As much fun as it was to watch those two musicians, the stars of this installment of the accordion festival were Eva Salina and Peter Stan. In two separate sets, they played a lot of the same material, completely differently the second time around. The mesmerizing Balkan singer and her longtime accordionist collaborator aren’t just frontwoman and accompanist: each is as integral to the music as the other. Toying with rhythm and taking their time making up intros, outros and meticulously thought-out solos, they brought a jazz sophistication to a blend of Romanian and Serbian tunes from across the Romany diaspora.

Their first take of a catchy dance number, imploring Romany husbands to come home to their wives and kids from faraway jobs, was very straightforward. The second was slower and much more plaintive. Jaunty dance rhymes contrasted with haunting ballads of loss and longing. Both musicians’ fearsome technique was in full effect, whether Stan’s supersonic volleys of chromatics and grace notes, or Salina’s minute, microtonal melismas and ornamentation.

Next week’s first episode of the festival is on Weds Sept 12, starting at 5:30 PM with a phenomenally good lineup including but not limited to Ismail Butera playing Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music, Will Holshouser’s Indian-influenced accordion jazz, Shoko Nagai’s mix of klezmer and Japanese folk, and Sadys Rodrigo Espitia’s oldschool Colombian cumbia and vallenato. The festival’s grand finale is two days later, on Sept 14, and starts a half hour earlier.

Spellbinding Singer Maria Cangiano’s New Album Rescues Undiscovered Piazzolla Treasures From Obscurity

Maria Cangiano and Astor Piazzolla share Italian heritage as well as passion for taking tango to new and transcendent places. She takes the title of her new album, Renacere – streaming at Spotify – from the lyrics from Piazzolla’s Prelude For the Year 3001. Which makes sense – Piazzolla was always shifting the paradigm, blending jazz, classical and a long list of other influences into tango, and Cangiano does the same here. Along with material that’s easy to pigeonhole as nuevo tango, there’s also Cuban-flavored danzon, rhumba, candombe and several detours into jazz and even 90s pop at the end. The songs’ and instrumentals’ new arrangements, by pianist Miguel Pereiro and guitarist Hernán Reinaudo, do justice to Piazzolla’s dedication to the cutting edge.

The tracklist mirrors Piazzolla’s career trajectory, from sideman in Anibal Troilo’s orchestra, to Europe and New York, then back to Argentina where he distilled everything he’d absorbed in his travels. The album opens with an especially jazz-flavored take of Llueve Sobre Broadway, alto saxophonist Bernardo Monk’s contemplative lines over Pereiro’s incisive chording and scurrying phrases. Fabián Bertero’s tensely vibrato-infused violin dances over similarly incisive, flashy piano in Milonga de la Anunciación.

Cangiano’s wide-angle vibrato maxes out the drama in Pequeña Canción Para Matilde, a rumba spiced with the nimble flamenco touches of Quique Sinesi’s guitar. Bertero’s violin again takes centerstage in Fugitiva, with a long, high-lonesome solo to kick it off. Llanto Negro, a candombe number that’s been a highlight of Cangiano’s live show for years, opens with some irresisitibly fun echo effects and tiptoes along on the misterioso pulse of bassist Nicolás Zacarías and percussionist Quintino Cinalli.

A spare, plaintive piano intro, Cangiano’s similarly poignant vocals and Snesi’s elegant fingerpicking follow in Aire de la Zamba Niña. Preludio Para el Eño 3001 features Piazzolla’s grandson Pipi on percussion, Pereiro artfully switching up the syncopation, edging between postbop jazz and Debussy-esque glimmer through a series of playful trick endings. Sinesi’s muted, pensive picking makes an apt introduction to Graciela Oscura; Pereiro’s somberly flickering piano is the album’s musical high point.

Los Amores de Noviembre slinks along with a tropical danzon groove, Pereiro’s incisive phrasing pushing it further toward jazz. His spacious, noir intro to a dynamic, nocturnal take of Vamos Nina builds a lingering intensity, up to a pulsing series of peaks in tandem with Roberto Amerise’s bass.

Monk’s meticulously flurrying. spiraling sax returns in Greenwich; Cangiano’s forlorn, tortured melismas will give you chills. The album ends with Piazzolla’s big enchilada, Libertango, Julián Vat’s flute weaving in and out until Pipi Piazzolla takes it into trip-hop territory. As rich and evocative as the playing on this album is, it would be even more of a treat to hear more of Cangiano’s otherworldly, evocative voice: here, she’s sort of the Carol Lipnik of nuevo tango.

A Richly Haunting New Tango Album and a Harlem Release Show by Sofia Tosello

Great singers are used to getting called on to sing all sorts of widely different styles, and Sofia Tosello is no exception. She’s just as comfortable fronting experimental trance-folk duo Chuño as she is with classic and nuevo tango. Her latest album, Lluvia Fue – streaming at her music page – is a real cloudburst of intensity, a mix of iconic and lesser known tango ballads from across the decades. She’s playing the album release show on Dec 8, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the newly reopened and remodeled Minton’s uptown. Cover is $15; as far as minimums, a seat at the bar is your most cost-effective move.

The sonics on the album match the unaffected, raw power of Tosello’s vocals, thanks to Fernando Otero’s brilliantly stark, uncluttered production. He plays piano, joined by Pedro Giraudo on bass, Nick Danielsonon on violin, Yuri Juarez on guitar, Adam Fischer on cello and Omar Massa on bandoneon. It opens with the stormy angst of Piazzolla’s Siempre Se Vuelve a Buenos Aires, the slashing string arrangement underscoring the longing and regret in Tosello’s narrative. In a sense, it’s the key to the album: tango may be a Spanish rhythm, but it was fermented and transformed in Argentina.

Likewise, the strings shift from nebulosity to a moody fugue in the Roberto Calvo title track, Tosello rising from misty acerbity to a full-throttle wail and back. She brings a coy cabaret rusticity to the torrential narrative in the first of the vintage Juan Carlos Cobián pieces here, Hambre. The other, Nostalgias, gets a strikingly spare, vivid treatment with just the strings and guitar behind Tosello’s dynamic, dramatic delivery.

Guest guitarist Adam Tully adds spiky flamenco flavor to another number from the guardia vieja, Jose Razzano’s colorful Tortazos, while Otero teams with Tosello for a lingering, stunningly nuanced piano-and-vocal take of José Dames’ Fuimos, adding jazz color and hints of Debussy that would no doubt strike a chord with Piazzolla. Sebastian Piana’s De Barro is a return to sardonically lyrical, pulsing milonga-room flavor, fueled by the strings and Juarez’s incisive guitar.

Tosello maxes out the cabaret theatrics in José Maria Aguilar’s Al Mundo Le Falta un Tornillo, matched by the tongue-in-cheek, strutting strings; the sad waltz Tu Pálida Voz, a 1943 hit for Charlo-Homero Manzi, follows a similar blueprint.

Osvaldo and Emilio Fresedo’a Vida Mia, popularized by Dizzy Gillespie, gets a glimmering, spaciously expansive piano-and-vocal treatment underscoring the solitude and abandonment in Tosello’s voice. The group follows the enigmatic tropicalia of Nestor Basurto’s Conjuro del Alba with the alternately marionettish and sweeping pulse of Eladia Blazquez’s Contame una Historia. The album closes aptly with Anibal Troilo’s La Ultima Curda, arguably the most haunting of Otero’s many brooding, clenched-teeth string arrangements here. 

It’s a Great Summer for Middle Eastern Music in New York

While much of the New York City parks system is on the highway to privatized hell – both Central Park Summerstage and the Prospect Park Bandshell series are selling ticketed seats to free concerts now – we haven’t yet reached the point where free summer concerts here have been whitewashed and yuppified to the point of irrelevance. Meanwhile, serendipitously, there have been some new publicly accessible concert series popping up, keeping the hallowed tradition of free summer concerts here alive.

One public space that’s been flying more or less under the radar until recently is Bryant Park. It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the transcendent performance by slinky Middle Eastern ensemble the Bil Afrah Project, who opened the final night of this year’s Accordions Around the World festival there. Obviously, it would have been fun to stick around for the whole night, which ended with a wall-to-wall sea of revelers celebrating Colombian Independence Day.

The park’s overseers had the good sense to put the festival in the hands of tireless, intrepid impresario Ariana Hellerman (publisher of the irreplaceable Ariana’s List of free summer events). Over the course of the month, she drew from her roster of two hundred of New York’s finest accordionists (yes, there are that many) for a series of performances that reinforced the instrument’s portability across cultures, a powerful if compact vehicle for musical cross-pollination. 

In barely a half hour onstage, the Bil Afrah Project – who dedicate themselves to recreating Ziad Rahbani’s iconic 1975 Bil Afrah suite of reinvented Lebanese and Egyptian love and love-gone-wrong ballads- raised the bar for the rest of the evening dauntingly high. Rahbani has since gone on to be called the Lebanese Bob Dylan, although many others, none of whom sound anything like the American Nobel Laureate, have been given that label. Rahbani – son of famous chanteuse Fairouz and songwriter Assi Rahbani – was nineteen when he pulled a band together to record it. The suite doesn’t have much of the acerbically fearless political sensibility that characterizes his later work: its populist message is much subtler, grounded in its achingly wistful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes bucolic themes.

Group members, notably oudist Brian Prunka, accordionist Simon Moushabeck, ney flutist Bridget Robbins and violinist Sami Abu Shumays took turns playing plaintive taqsims as segues between songs. The most incisive, intense of these was from buzuq player Josh Farrar, who remained very prominent in the mix. John Murchison, a connoisseur of Middle Eastern bass, made his debut concert on kanun a memorable one as well. And riq tambourinist Michel Merhej Baklouk, who played on the original album, was present and added an almost defiantly crescendoing solo toward the end of the suite as the edgy chromatics, uneasy microtonal modes and graceful sweep of the music rose and fell over the pulse of Sprocket Royer’s bass and Jeremy Smith’s darbouka. Then emcee Rachelle Garniez took the stage and treated the crowd to some similarly incisive banter and her own noir-tinged material.

The performances on the festival’s next-to-last night fit in perfectly with its eclectic sensibility as well. Over the course of the early part of the evening, Erica Mancini played jaunty oldtimey swing, then made noir mambo out of the old standard St. Louis Blues. Shoko Nagai began with airy, austere Japanese folk themes and then went deep into the dark, kinetic chromatics of the klezmer music she loves so much.

Will Holshouser, best known for his exhilarating speed and high-voltage solos, flipped the script with his own thoughtful, methodically shifting originals, occasionally alluding to Indian modes: as a pioneer of the pastoral jazz revival, he deserves far more credit than he’s been given. And a beautiful blue-eyed blonde in the crowd called out Eduardo de Carvalho for the masculinity of his playing. That’s not to say that the other performances weren’t strong, but there was plenty of muscle in his confident, impassioned, unselfconsciously soulful, rustic runs through a mini-set of forro and tango.

Circling back to the Middle Eastern theme, there are a couple of upcoming shows that shouldn’t be missed. On July 29 at 8 at the Lynch Theatre at 524 W 59th St., haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran  perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 tix are still available. And on August 10 at 10 PM, legendary, ageless Armenian-American jazz reedman Souren Baronian leads his amazing band at Barbes.

An Insider Look at This Year’s Amazing Accordion Festival at Bryant Park

The annual accordion festival at Bryant Park continues with a couple of amazing shows tomorrow, July 19 at 6 PM and then the grand finale, which starts at 5 on Friday the 21st with the haunting Lebanese sounds of the Bil Afrah Project ,with Gregorio Uribe headlining and leading a wild celebration of Colombian Independence Day at 9 PM.

If you’ve spent any time at the festival over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed a tall blonde woman calmly making her way across the park, taking lots of pictures and getting lots of hugs from accordionists. She always seems to have a Mona Lisa smile on her face. Then again, you’d be smiling too, if you ran an accordion festival.

That irrepressible impresario is Ariana Hellerman, who’s also the publisher of the indispensable Ariana’s List of free summer concerts and events all over New York. Backstage Sunday night at the Innov Gnawa show on the Upper West Side, Hellerman shared some history and some secrets:

New York Music Daily: First, I just want to say thanks for finding so much sonic bliss, and sharing it with us. I think your festival should be a yearlong event. Any hope for making it longer this year?

Ariana Hellerman: I have ideas, but nothing is set in stone – yet. Stay tuned!

But in general, my work is around making arts accessible to people and I get most pleasure from producing in public space – parks, plazas, etcetera. Because of winter weather, it becomes more difficult to work in these places. I’m beginning to think about public spaces that exist indoors. If anyone has ideas, I’m always open.

NYMD: How do you find these people? Other than googling “accordionist NYC”?

AH: I have a few sources. Before I was invited to help design this series, Bryant Park had lone accordionists strolling around the park once a week. The Park had about fifteen people on their roster. When I came on board with the “Accordions Around the World” idea – and with the hopes of making the series more of a destination for the park -, I brainstormed all the local accordionists I knew in New York. Because my interest is mainly music from around the world, I tried to think of all the bands I knew who had accordion – and there were quite a few. In addition, I racked the brains of others and scanned the webpages of some of my favorite venues and festivals – Barbes in Brooklyn and the annual Balkan music festival, Golden Fest were amongst the lot.

In 2013, the first year of this incarnation of the series, I was able to find thirty additional accordionists. I continue to do this type of research regularly so that we can be more inclusive of new styles and musicians. But because the series is becoming more of a destination, many people have begun to reach out to me. Over the last five editions, my list has grown to 470 accordionists!

NYMD: Does you own personal taste in accordion music include tango, cumbia, klezmer, Middle Eastern, tarantella, Celtic, cajun and jazz?

AH: Yes. While I like some genres more than others, my priority is sharing culture. Even if my ears don’t agree with the sound, I continue to be inclusive because this is “Accordions Around the World” and we want as many styles of music represented in the series.

NYMD: I always find myself having to explain to people why I think the accordion is one of the three coolest instruments in the world – the oud and the church organ being the other two. Do you find yourself having to do the same sort of thing? What do you tell people?

AH: When I tell people I curate an accordion festival, I’m usually met with a “Really????,” followed by a surprised or disgusted look, and then a sheepish giggle. My usual spiel in response is: “You know, when Americans usually think of the accordion, they think of polka, Lawrence Welk, and yesteryear kitsch. But, in many parts of the world, it’s one of the most important instruments to convey the sound of the region. And in New York, we are lucky to have access to many of these cultures.” And then I outline the cultures.

I also think the accordion is cool because it’s an instrument of immigration, migration, and connections. You can hear similar sounds in Cajun music – which traveled from Quebec to Louisiana with obvious French influence prior – and forró from the northeast of Brazil. Many immigrants from all over Europe – Italian, German, Jewish, Polish, etcetera – came to the US in the late 19th/early 20th century and brought their music forms with them. This continues today with more recent immigrant communities such as Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Accordion usually sparks conversation and each week in the park, I almost always hear “You know, my grandfather/grandmother/father/mother/aunt/uncle played the accordion.” I like that many people of very different backgrounds have a personal connection to the instrument.

NYMD: Can you give us a capsule history of the Bryant Park Accordion Festival? How did it start? You’ve been doing it for four years now….

AH: Dan Biederman, the president of Bryant Park, took a trip to France and stumbled upon an accordionist in a park and was enchanted. Since Bryant Park has Parisian elements, the experience made him want to create a similar, serendipitous experience. For a few summers, a accordionist would stroll around for a few hours. It was nice, but people weren’t coming to chase after the lone musician.

I have a blog, arianaslist.com, where I share free cultural events in New York. Many people in the field read the blog since I write about their events and because I provide ideas on how to make the arts more accessible to audiences. In spring of 2013, Ethan Lercher, the executive producer of Bryant Park Presents, their cultural arm, contacted me. He had read one of my blog posts that described my experience at the Festival Vallenato in Valledupar, Colombia. I had just come back from living in Colombia and had attended a festival of Vallenato music, a Colombian genre that focuses on the accordion. He asked, “what do you know about accordion?” He wanted to make the accordion more prominent in the Park’s programming. My response was, “I don’t know that much but what fascinates me about the instrument is how it’s played in so many cultures.” From there, we began to explore the idea of “Accordions Around the World.”

NYMD: Are you happy with how the festival has gone this year, with rescheduling and all?

AH: It’s been wonderful. This is the first season that we’ve had our “Accordion Picnic” format for the entirety of the series. In the past, the audience and passer-bys were invited to stroll around to see accordionists play two-hour sets in different pockets of the park. This year, the accordionists come to the audiences: each accordionist plays a 15 minute set before another comes in. This way, if an audience member sets up shop in one location, they will hear eight styles of music over the two hour span. There are also six stations around the park so people can “chase” the music or artist they would like to hear.

Since we’re eager to provide a good experience for audience members, Bryant Park provides blankets to borrow, encourages picnics, and even sells alcoholic beverages that can be consumed on the lawn. It’s lovely and we’ve noticed an uptick in attendance.

NYMD: Yeah, I should say. Another thing I want to mention is that there’s no sonic competition with shrieking alarms on city buses. And it’s also a lot easier now that you don’t have to chase the accordionist.

AH: With this format, the artists are also able to engage with the other accordionists, and see other styles of music on the accordion. My secret hope is that I’m sparking relationships between accordionists ,and new, exciting projects will come from this!

NYMD: What highlights do you have to share? I’ve seen so many great acts – Rachelle Garniez, Simon Moushabeck ,Guillermo Vaisman,,Melissa Elledge , so many others. Who have you seen that really floored you this year?

AH: We have incredible artists in the series. I can’t choose one! They’re all near and dear to my heart. In this moment, the Brazilian artists in this series really stand out: I love Felipe Hostins who is from Santa Catarina, Brazil. He grew up playing polkas, which was the main accordion music in his hometown in the south of Brazil. Today he is helping to lead the forró movement in New York. Vitor Gonçalves has been playing choro, an instrumental genre which originated in 19th century Rio de Janeiro, his hometown. As a trained jazz musician, he also incorporates a lot jazz into his sets. Eduardo de Carvalho lives in Newark and has mainly played restaurant gigs to date. He is ready for a bigger stage with his incredibly strong sertanejo and forro. Rob Curto grew up in a Sicilian family but spent many years living in Brazil. Today he shares his blend of bluegrass and forró with us. These four players are so incredibly strong. But again, we have so many incredible artists in these series. If we had time, I would tell you about each and every one!

NYMD: Can I ask you, you’re a pianist. Why aren’t you an accordionist, you obviously love the instrument so much…and it’s a lot easier to take an accordion with you when you move. I realize also that this isn’t a fair question, you could ask me the same thing and I wouldn’t have a really good answer for you…

AH: Accordion never even seemed to be an option while I was studying classical piano. And now I’m a music appreciator more than a musician. Though because I know so many accordionists, it has crossed my mind to take up lessons and to become (or more likely, fail at becoming) the singer-songwriter-rockstar I am in my dreams. 

NYMD: You lived in Colombia and Argentina. To what degree did that influence your accordion fixation?

AH: Obviously living in Colombia became the inspiration for this series, as you know. And while I knew tango and the bandoneón – the free reed instrument played for tango – before living in Argentina, I was introduced to chamamé, a folk music genre from northeast Argentina, while living there. It is a fusion of Guaraní  – the indigenous population from this part of the world –  Spanish, German, Polish, and Ukrainian music. There were a lot of Eastern European immigrants to this region in the early 20th century. I’m thrilled that we have our first chamamé artist, Guillermo Vaisman in the series this season.

NYMD: Do you have a desert island accordion song? Or album? Or accordion song you’d want somebody to play at your wedding?

AH: No. Though I just stumbled upon a short clip I recorded of Felipe Hostins from last week’s edition and I’ve been listening to it on loop. He says its his original composition called “Minh’alma” (My Soul) and it’s chamamé – our artists are obviously inspired by all forms of music! It’s so good.

While I love accordion and I can identify when the music is really good, for me, this is about sharing culture with the people of New York. My work is all about creating live performance opportunities for artists and audiences alike. I get joy from seeing these connections made and the joy it brings others.

NYMD: What’s your alltime favorite accordion concert?

AH: Our Accordions Around the World Festival is always a highlight, obviously. But outside of the performances I curate… I always love Lila Downs and we’re lucky to have her accordionist, George Saenz in our series!

NYMD: Just saw her at Prospect Park at the end of last month. Amazing. Nice work getting him!

AH: Another experience that comes to mind – when I was in Argentina, one of my colleagues connected me to Chango Spasiuk, who is one of the most famous musicians down there, who is known for chamamé. He picked me up in a limo, along with his bandmates, and I got to watch his whole show from backstage. The experience was pretty cool!

NYMD: Tell me about closing night on the 21st, this Friday.Is this a bunch of debuts? Has the Bil Afrah project ever played anywhere elase before? How about Peter Stan’s new band? It’s gonna be amazing!

AH: The Bil Afrah Project has performed before but not in a setting that can yield this large of an audience – in past years, we’ve had about four thousand people. It’s very exciting. We’ve put the word out to the Lebanese and Arab community and we hope they will come out. Ziad Rahbani is one of the most important and known composers from the Arab World, son of the famous Fairuz.

Peter Stan’s Zlatni Balkan Zvuk is brand new and will be debuting at the Festival. In talking with Peter – of Slavic Soul Party fame – I asked him if he ever played traditional Serbian music since SSP is more of a jazz/funk Balkan brass group. He told me he didn’t think there would be a market for it. After he shared more information and shared examples of Balkan wedding music, I chose to disagree! All of the musicians in this group are from the Balkans  – including Peter’s son who is also an accordionist! – and have been rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. I’m really excited to welcome them, and was happy to provide the opportunity to Peter to be a bandleader for the first time. Given how amazing Peter is, I know this is just the beginning for them. 

The Bryant Park Accordion Festival – Pure Sonic Bliss

Wednesday night, the four corners of Bryant Park were awash in the blissful, plaintive, bittersweet and sometimes boisterously pulsing tones of many of New York’s most captivating accordionists. Booked by Ariana Hellerman, publisher of the irreplaceable free events and concert guide Ariana’s List – a primary source for a lot of what you find on the monthly NYC concert calendar here – opening night of this year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival featured music from France, Russia, Colombia, Ireland, Brazil, many other countries and all over the US as well. Hellerman’s setup – a single accordionist or small group situated in every corner of the park, as well as over by the fountain on the west side, works out perfectly since each act is far enough away from the others to ensure that there’s no sonic competition.

Performances are staggered, Golden Fest style, with brief fifteen minute sets and virtually no time lost between acts. Some of the accordionists rotate, so that you can catch more of them if fifteen minutes isn’t enough for you  – seriously, is fifteen minutes of accordion music ever enough?

A tour of the festival’s first hour was as rapturously good as expected. It was tempting to pull up a seat in the shade to be serenaded by the Wisterians’ poignant French musettes, or the great Ismail Butera’s edgy, supersonic take on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean sounds, or Phil Passantino‘s wildly spiraling Cajun songs. But just like Golden Fest, it’s like being a kid in a candy store here, a great way to discover dozens of new artists. For starters, Mindra Sahadeo played calmly lustrousIndian carnatic music, singing in a sonorous baritone and accompanied by his mom on mridangam, another woman to his right adding vocals. He was a ringer, considering that he was playing harmonium (there were also a couple of others on the bill playing the concertina).

Next, in the northeast corner, the charismatic Alan Morrow entertained the crowd. Is there anything this guy can’t play? Segueing breathlessly between styles, he fired off bits and pieces of songs across pretty much every conceivable genre. About a minute after Dave Brubeck, we got James Brown: “Say it loud, I’m a New Yorker and I’m proud,” Morrow grinned, and the audience agreed. By then he’d already made his way through classical, ragtime, jazz, hints of klezmer and finally the longest number of his set, the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin, which turned out perfect for the accordion – and for a second seemed that he was going to do the whole album version, complete with hazy string-and-poetry interlude.

The highlight of the hour – at least from this perspective – turned out to be Guillermo Vaisman, who played a tantalizingly brief set of chamame tunes. It’s a popular folk style that’s common on the Uruguay-Brazil border, like tango but less classically-tinged, or a more lively counterpart to candombe. And it’s hard to find in New York. Vaisman’s elegance and dynamics throughout a mix of waltzes and more upbeat material put him on the map as someone who would be even more enjoyable to see stretching out with a longer set.

The festival continues for the next two Wednesdays, starting at 6 PM. The July 5 show features, among others, the haunting and amazingly eclectic Melissa Elledge, playful avant garde jazz and Romany accordionist Shoko Nagai, and Jordan Shapiro, better known as the organist in Choban Elektrik, the Balkan Doors. Closing night is Friday, July 21 at 8, hosted by the mesmerizing Rachelle Garniez, featuring Middle Eastern, Brazilian and Colombian music, to name just three styles. And it’s free.      

The Maureen Choi Quartet Bring Their Dynamic Flamenco String Sounds to Queen

Violinist Maureen Choi began her career as a singer; as the story goes, she switched to violin after a brush with death. She lives in Spain now, where she and her quartet play a passionate, dynamic blend of Andalucian, flamenco, Romany and South American sounds. The band’s latest album Ida y Vuelta (Round Trip) is streaming at Spotify; they’ve got a show coming up tomorrow night, July 1 at 8 at Terrazza 7, 40-19 Gleane St. just off Baxter in Elmhurst; cover is $10.  Take the 7 to 82nd St.

Choi plays the album’s Django-influenced opening, title track with a lingering restraint echoed by pianist Daniel Garcia Diego’s elegantly climbing lines until drummer Michael Olivera picks up the pace, and they wind their way up to a big crescendo….then they’re off again,

Bassist Mario Carrillo grounds the neoromantically biting waltz Vals O Vienes with a gritty pulse, Diego glimmering uneasily and then adding a little blues, Choi growing starker and more kinetic as the band takes it deeper into flamenco. The catchy, folk-tinged tango Valentia grows both more lush and propusive as Choi leaps and bounds, with a playful salsa interlude midway through, Choi’s plaintively sailing melody contasts with the low-key but balletesque elegance of Bolero Del Alba. A tightly wound remake of Besame Mucho, Elizabeth eventually diverges into flamenco jazz, Diego gracefully handing off to Choi’s achingly melismatic attack.

Choi’s remake of Mercedes Sosa’s Alfonsina y El Mar is a sweepingly dancing duet with guest bassist Javier Colina. Choi’s steely resonance and Carrillo’s growling, prowling drive pair off in Negra Presuntuosa, a trickily rhythmic Peruvian lando. Pianist Pepe Rivero gives the bolero Dama De Noche and understated bounce while Choi digs in hard, up to a wry trick ending that’s 180 degrees from the rest of the song

The album’s most lighthearted cut is Bilongo, a cha-cha. The quartet reinvent Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol as a martial shuffle and then fllamenco jazz;. They close the album with Gracias A La Vida, the Violeta Parra ballad made famous by Sosa, Choi’s spare, prayerful lead paired with Diego’s delicate, wistful piano. If flamenco fire, south-of-the-border melancholy or Romany rambunctiousness are your thing, you can’t go wrong with this band.

Big Lazy: 2016’s Ultimate Halloween Band

What better way to kick off Halloween month, 2016 than with the world’s slinkiest, most shadowy instrumental trio, Big Lazy? They play both kinds of Halloween music, the trick-or-treat stuff as well as the sinister. In all seriousness, they’re a lot closer to the latter than the former. Guitarist/founder Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion return to their monthly first-Friday-of-the-month, 10 PM residency this coming Friday, Oct 7 at Barbes.

It’s a fair guess that the people who were running Punk Magazine back in 1976 caught the Ramones at CB’s more than a few times that summer. And at least some of the hippies at the Village Voice back in the 60s might well have seen Phil Ochs at Folk City more than once. If you buy the premise that this blog is to New York what, say, Punk Magazine was to this city forty years ago – or what the Voice was a decade before then – it makes sense that New York Music Daily would be in the house for several Big Lazy Barbes shows in 2016. The funnest one might have been the most recent and cleverly improvisational, where Lion was just plain having a ball with all sorts of counterintuitive rhythms and syncopation, and Michael Bates – who shares a jazz pedigree with Hall – took over on the four-string. Another fun set was a couple of months back when Kill Henry Sugar‘s Dean Sharenow, a frequent Ulrich film score collaborator, sat in on drums, bringing his signature snare sound along with a dry wit to match the bandleader’s unparalleled, bleak sense of humor.

But the year’s best Big Lazy show – this blog has caught pretty much all of them – wasn’t at Barbes. It was at the Lively, a refreshingly laid-back basement bar located in the Meatpacking District, of all places. That joint had nice people working there, cheap drinks (at least by the standards of that neighborhood), a real stage in the back and a fantastic PA system. Sadly, this year’s strongest contender for “best Manhattan venue” barely lasted a couple of months.

But what a show Big Lazy played there. They ripped through Princess Nicotine, a machinegunning, barely three-minute minor-key ghoulabilly sprint that Ulrich wrote as a soundtrack piece to an obscure early 20s short film of the same name. The creepiest number of the night was Skinless Boneless, a slowly swaying, macabre tableau adrift in oceans of guitar reverb and tremoloing tritones. They didn’t do their serial killer strut version of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion No. 5, or their uber-noir cover of Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy, both of which they aired out at Barbes this past summer, but they did do the early Beatles hit Girl, reinventing it as a dirge in the same vein as their deadpan take of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me. And they did some new stuff, including one serpentine mini-epic that swung from neo-Nino Rota Fellini score, to more rocking and psychedelic, to sheer terror in places. As at Barbes, there were couples up front, dancing. Which is what noir is all about, anyway: grabbing what you can while the shadows close in.

The Manhattan Camerata Bring Their Lush, Stormy Tango-Fado Project to Lincoln Center Out of Doors

If you can’t resist epic string charts, stormy neoromantic minor-key melodies and elegantly angst-ridden female vocals, you will love the Manhattan Camerata‘s Tango-Fado Project, streaming at their music page. The premise is to connect the dots between Argentine tango and Portuguese fado music. Which makes sense, considering that tango was originally guitar music, just like fado, and how much the two styles have been transformed over the years – and how much sadness and drama and smoldering fire that each still channels. The Manhattan Camerata, with singer Nathalie Pires, are opening the night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on August 3 at 7 PM, followed by Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca. If you don’t want to take chances and need a seat, you can join the line that will undoubtedly snake around the park before the show; doors are at six. However, considering that throughout the festival so far there’s been plenty of room, at least in the rear of the park behind the arena, it’s pretty safe to say that you’ll be able to get in if you can’t arrive early or don’t want to wait in the blazing sun.

The album’s opening track, Fado Magala, Mas Importante sets the stage, the vivid woundedness in Pires’ voice rising with the towering waves of the orchestra: fado tune, fango beat and arrangement, Pedro H. da Silva’s spiky Portuguese guitar trading with incisive piano. An achingly crystalline violin solo kicks off the jaunty, balmy Tango Abril En Portugal, Daniel Binelli’s bandoneon mingling with the orchestra and piano amid the ensemble’s mighty swells.

The group does Minha Lisboa Querida as a bouncy, strummy folk tune. 1=3=7 rises out of an uneasy bell-like guitar intro, bandoneon spiraling overhead, then picks up steam with a fiery flamenco edge that builds to fullscale orchestral grandeur. The brittle vibrato in Pires’ voice matches the stately, haunting guitar-and-string cadences of Amor E’Fogo: if Jeff Lynne was Portuguese, he might have written something like this.

Viejo Buenos Aires has titanic orchestration elevating it above the level of generic sentimentality. Fado Tango Cansaco sets Pires’ full-throttle vocals and fluttery melismas against a starkly pulsing guitar/bass/bandoneon backdrop. Tanguito Cordobes has intricate counterpoint and dynamics worthy of a Carl Nielson symphony, while the da Silva’s Non-Absolutist Universal Anthem comes across as the missing link between Syd Barrett and Astor Piazzolla, packed with snazzy piano and bandoneon flourishes and sizzling tremolo-picked guitar.

The album winds up with Piazolla’s four-part Suite Troileana. Part 1, simply titled Bandoneon opens with a dramatically suspenseful Binelli solo, the piano and strings sweep in with a more enigmatic wistfulness and then rise with hard-hitting piano to even greater heights. Parrt two, Zita has a more stripped-down, puckish, Gershwinesque charm, up to an uneasily atmospheric bandoneon break and then the orchestra cuts loose again. The third segment, Whisky has jazz flair, and humor – both the upbeat and grim kind – to match its title. The suite concludes with Escolaso, building out of a precise, balletesque theme to a phantasmagorical intensity. that borders on the macabre. It’s a triumph for Binelli, da Silva, pianists Polly Ferman and Lucia Caruso, and the rest of the orchestra. As musical cross-pollination goes in 2016, it doesn’t get any more ambitiously successful, dramatic, or passionate than this.