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Category: tango

Ridiculous, Virtuosic, Outside-the-Box Fun From Joyride

It takes a lot of nerve to make music as amusing as Joyride‘s. Their irreverent reinventions of famous classical and jazz themes are as funny as they are outside-the-box. Whoever heard of an accordion-and-oboe arrangement of Bach’s Air on a G String, with a jazzy bridge? Throughout their debut album – streaming at Spotify – the duo of oboist Colin Maier and multi-keyboardist Charles Cozens have unrelenting, sometimes snarky fun and show off an impressive fluency throughout a wide variety of styles.

Maier cuts loose with his sizzling chops in what could be the most ridiculously over-the-top version of Tiger Rag ever recorded. Their Piazzolla-inspired piano-and-oboe version of Flight of the Bumblebee is pretty ridiculous, too – the punchline is way too good to give away.

Cozens goes back to accordion for Rhapsody in Light Blue, where the duo reinvent the Gershwin theme as a quasi-fugue before stretching it out. The most cynically spot-on track here is Isolation Blues, a ragtime-flavored reflection on endlessly exasperating plandemic restrictions.

Klezmer Fun is aptly titled, beginning with a brisk take of a famous hora, Maier adding subtle multitracks and shivery trills through an unexpectedly low-key interlude. Czardahora is a more harmonically adventurous take on the same formula. Tango de la Noche has Cozens on both piano and accordion, along with a similar mashup of popular nuevo tango riffs.

They close with La Fiesta, where Cozens and then Maier spin through supersonic riffage in what sounds like a loving spoof of flamenco jazz. One caveat: when you make a playlist out of this, ixnay on the little jokey skits in between some of the songs.

A Lush, Impassioned, Majestically Symphonic Celebration of the Astor Piazzolla Centenary

2021 being the hundredth anniversary of Astor Piazzolla’s birth, there’s been a wave of new albums celebrating both the iconic Argentine composer, and nuevo tango in general. Uruguayan conductor Gisele Ben-Dor has made a career out of championing South American composers, and has commissioned bandoneonist Juanjo Mosalini for new works and arrangements of Piazzolla classics. The result is a lavish, breathtaking, passionate new album, Piazzolla Cien Años, with Boston’s Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, streaming at Spotify.

Their new version of the Concerto for Bandoneon (also known as Aconcagua) is a real stunner, with even greater majesty and colorful contrasts than the composer’s own recordings. Opening with bursts and bubbles from the strings, the ensemble build in a flash to an insistence that borders on anguished, in keeping with a familiar Piazzolla trope. There’s a bittersweet lull before the stabbing rhythm kicks in again: Ben-Dor teases the orchestra up, but plaintively. The crescendo with timpani, insistent piano and bursts from the string section at the coda is breathtaking.

Mosalini parses the moody chromatics of the moderato second movement judiciously, giving way to a similarly wary, stellar harp solo, the orchestra brightening this deep-sky scenario somewhat, a consistently gripping dichotomy,. The final presto movement is combustible, the flames of the strings flickering in over the relentless insistence of the rhythm section before Mosalini’s wryly reflective solo. Bellicose, rumbling suspense and the wave motion of the strings echo the rising tide of big chords on the bandoneon as it winds out.

Mosalini’s first piece here is Toma Toca, his steady, rapidfire lines awash in a vast mist that picks up with a determined bounce. The other is Cien, dedicated jointly to Piazzolla and Mosalini’s grandfather:. The latter’s Pugliese traditions come to the forefront, an often ambiguous dance amidst trickily punching syncopation and pillowy ambience in the background. Tantalizingly brief solos from violinist Kristina Nilsson, violist Anne Black and cellist Steven Laven complete this cosmopolitan tableau.

Ben-Dor’s choice to record Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires as a suite, as the composer eventually did after taking decades to complete them, pays off mightily in the context of Mosalini’s turbocharged arrangement. Ben-Dor lets the tension go to redline as Verano Porteño gets underway, setting up a poignant moment passed from Laven to Mosalini. The perils of the fall, wintry reflection and disquiet, and finally a distantly Vivaldiesque, guarded optimism appear in turn. Mosalini’s choices of turning over pivotal moments to moody cello and impassioned violin, in addition to the expected, lilting moments for solo bandoneon, add depth and textural richness.

The ensemble wind up the record with Mosalini’s new arrangement of Libertango, rising from a hushed, practically Lynchian suspense to a mutedly string-driven anthem. Other bands blast headlong through this piece, playing up the political subtext. Mosalini’s decision to leave that as a bristling undercurrent – as the composer typically would – packs a much more subtle wallop. It’s characteristic of the freshness that pervades the album, a lock for one of the best of 2021.

Gorgeous, Provocative, Timely New Tango Sounds From Los Tangueros del Oeste

2021 is the Astor Piazzolla centenary. The notoriously combative godfather of nuevo tango would probably be asking us right now, “Why aren’t you fighting harder?” Whatever the case in your part of the world, the fight for reason and normalcy is growing toward critical mass right now, and to inspire us, we have a vast number of recordings which were assembled over the web during the lockdown. One of the most gripping is Los Tangueros del Oeste‘s new album Alma Vieja (Old Soul), streaming at Spotify. It’s a transcontinental collaboration by a colorful, expert cast of tango musicians helmed by bassist Sascha Jacobsen and crooner Manuel Berterreix. This is a gorgeous and cutting-edge record.

The opening instrumental, Reflexión coalceses out of a dissociative, polyrhythmic introduction to a stern, unhurried theme, Charles Gorczynski’s bandoneón wafting over Pablo Estigarribia’s glittering piano lines as Carlos Caminos’ guitar fingerpicking mingles into the mix. Violinist Ishtar Hernandez signals a dip toward longing, then the ensemble pick up the energy again. It’s all the more impressive considering that all the individual tracks were recorded remotely in very different sonic environments.

Berterreix makes his entrance on the album’s defiant title track, an anguished sendoff to loved ones (and loved places) lost during the lockdown. The music slowly sways along over an echoey drum machine pattern; here, it’s Adrian Jost’s pulsing bandoneon that’s subtly echoed by Estigarribia.

Jacobsen’s stately, ominously strutting bass propels the instrumental Bordoneo y 2020, referencing the classic tango Bordoneo y 900. María Volonté’s heartfelt spoken word introduces El Rumbo de mi Corazón, a surreal mashup of nuevo tango and reggaeton. The instrumental La Máscara portrays the most loaded image in the world since March of 2020 with a sinister, phantasmagorical strut, aching violin and dramatic piano: clearly, Jacobsen gets the big picture.

The brooding Milonga de los Muertos is basically a trip-hop tune, a requiem for Jacobsen’s grandmother, whom he lost on the Day of the Dead in 2019. La Historia de Zola Lapiz (an anagram of a certain famous composer’s last name) is spiced with the occasional Piazzolla reference. That drummer Ari Refusta and percussionist Marlon Aldana were able to overdub themselves seamlessly into the mix – bolstered by Lewis Patzner’s cello – is impressive, to say the least. The conflagration at the end is one of the high points of the album.

The bouncy, carefree Carreta Antigua (Old Carriage) borrows from indigenous Argentine music – it’s practically a cumbia beat. A Pampa Cortés – a salute to the famous tango dancer – has an aptly lithe but also wary sway and a clever interweave of counterpoint. Un Bajo de Magia (Bass Magic) is a playful vehicle for Jacobsen’s multitracks on a small orchestra’s worth of basses, Gorczynski winding around before pianist Seth Asarnow adds a carnivalesque touch.

Everything heats up at the end of the album. El Bombero (The Fire Truck) is the closest thing to psychedelic cumbia here, complete with Berterreix’s rap. True to its title, the cheery, Italian-flavored El Torbellino (The Whirlpool) has an increasingly complex web of rhythms, vocally and otherwise.

The final number is Zamba Zefardim, continuing the venerable Piazzolla tradition of blending tango with Jewish melodies. His early years living next to a synagogue would serve him well as a composer; Jacobsen draws on his own Sephardic background in the album’s most lushly dynamic, orchestral instrumental.

A Richly Individualistic Celebration of the Astor Piazzolla Centenary

The Astor Piazzolla centenary has disappeared without a trace so far this year. Like the Beethoven 250 celebrations, one can only imagine how many Piazzolla-centric concerts have been cancelled by the lockdowners. Piazzolla’s Argentine home turf may have a history as a beacon of democracy for the rest of Latin America, but that history has been scarred by intermittent bouts of brutal repression and 2020 was one of those years.

As you would expect, there have been a lot of celebratory Piazzolla albums released recently as well. One of the most imaginative and original of the bunch is the Astor 2020:  La Historia Continúa compilation – streaming at Spotify  assembled by guitarist Adam Tully and featuring an allstar cast of nuevo tango talent. Some of these compositions reference Piazzolla classics; others offer a similarly innovative sample of the creativity Piazzolla has inspired over the years.

Pantaleon, by the Pablo Murgier Cuarteto makes an absolutely gorgeous opener, Alex Musatov’s shiveringly expressive violin over the bandleader’s lyrical, neoromantic piano, Lautaro Muñoz’s bass and Federico Biraben’s bandoneon slowly busting a hole in the clouds. Flutters, sudden flares and an achingly soaring violin solo complete this masterpiece.

Agustín Guerrero’s Ciberespacio 2020 gets a bizarre, blippy synth intro from the bandleader before Julio Coviello’s bandoneon and Martín Rodríguez’s guitar hit a tricky but blazing, rhythmically challenging King Crimson drive. An icy, bassy synth interlude takes the song further toward Emerson Lake and Palmer terrain.

Exequiel Mantega’s elegant precise piano chords and Agustín Silberlieb’s low-key flute mingle in the Fain-Mantega project’s Construcción, finally rising to a leaping intensity. The circling polyrhythms between Cesar Rago’s violin, Fernando Otero’s electric piano, Tully’s guitar, Juan Pablo Navarro’s bass, Patricio Villarejo’s cello and eventually Nicolás Enrich’s bandoneon in Otero’s Amarilla are starkly, hypnotically intoxicating. Faro, by Martín Sued is a rivetingly carnivalesque solo bandoneon piece rich with eerie tritones and strange harmonies that grow more and more anthemic.

Tully and his trio contribute Trilonga 2020, with a slowly crescendoing contrast between spiky guitar and Shino Ohnaga’s murky, eerily hypnotic piano, with the occasional role reversal or boogie-woogie interlude. A noir clave slink from Adrián Enríquez’s piano anchors Bernardo Monk’s En el Camino, the most triumphantly orchestral number here, with Javier Kase’s violin, Emiliano Guerrero’s bandoneon and Monk’s sax conversing overhead. His increasingly badass solo is one of the album’s high points.

Manija, by Los Púa Abajo is a surreal mashup of Django Reinhardt swing and nuevo tango, fueled by the incisive, spiraling twin guitars of Ángel Colacilli and Leandro Coratella.. Adios Astor, by bandoneonist Adrián Ruggiero begins as a steady, rather menacing funeral march, hits an austere, wounded Facundo Canosapiano piano interlude that Nicolás Acosta’s bass brings up slowly, the bandoneon and then Coratella’s guitar delivering a defiantly triumphant, “told you so” theme to the foreground before a chillingly muted ending.

Ohnaga’s grittily insistent, brooding piano pairs off with Emilio Longo’s similarly incisive, dancing, circling bass in La Tomajena. The concluding Odisea, by violinist Ramiro Gallo is surprisingly short, at under five minutes, and bizarrely multistylistic, built around a jovial oldschool soul riff, followed by increasingly complex variations from his quintet with Adrián Enríquez on piano, Federico Santisteba on bandoneon, Lautaro Muñoz on bass and Santiago Vera Candioti on guitar. It’s as sophisticated as it is ridiculous. How fortuitous that Tully and crew would wrap up the recording just days before the lockdown.

Two Gorgeous, Rare Accordion Concertos to Celebrate an Icon

In celebration of the Astor PIazzolla centenary, classical accordionist Jovica Ivanović and the Ukrainian Chamber Orchestra have released a whole album of two of the rarest pieces in the symphonic repertoire: the accordion concerto.

Titled Piazzolla and Galliano, it features majestic works by the iconic Argentine bandoneonist and also by the great Richard Galliano and is streaming at Spotify. Both pieces are absolutely gorgeous and meticulously performed. That both soloist (Ivanovic is Serbian) and orchestra come from accordion-rich cultures might have something to do with it. In a smart bit of programming, the decision to program these two works together, rather than Piazzolla and rehashed Piazzolla from one of his innumerable acolytes, pays off mightily.

Ivanović and the ensemble open with Piazzolla’s Aconcagua, which begins with an insistent but light-footed pulse, staccato accordion matched by the strings and spiced with sweeping piano cascades. The first accordion solo is characteristically dynamic: echoey but traditionally tangoesque, then when the orchestra drop out Ivanović gets to show off some jaunty lyricism. The group bring back an elegant sweep that never lets up no matter how turbulent the music grows.

Ivanović takes his time with a sagacious, reflective solo to open the moderato second movement. Again, the balance between judicious piano and lush strings is striking, even as Ivanović bring back the delicately dancing introductory theme. They attack the gusty concluding movement with a similar dynamism, its bracing chromatic moments, bursting rhythms and momentary detours into wistfulness. 

The opening movement of Galliano’s Opale Concerto is marked allegro furioso: Ivanović’s machete accents and icepick staccato contrast with the looming unease and Tchaikovskian color from the orchestra, as well as his rapidfire lines over a catchy, anthemic bassline from massed low strings.

The lyrical variations, artful echo effects and bittersweetly reflective moments diverge momentarily toward a brooding tarantella in the moderato malinconico second movement: it’s arguably the album’s most captivating interlude. Ivanović and the orchestra provide an air-cushioned ride over some pretty rocky terrain as the coda descends to a nocturnal grandeur, and then a final salute which is the only place where the Piazzolla influence cannot be denied. What an impact he made, and it’s still resonating almost thirty years after we lost him.

Transcending a Grim Era in New York with Pedro Giraudo’s Tango Quartet at Barbes

Saturday night at Barbes, Pedro Giraudo thanked a small but raptly attentive audience for their bravery in coming out for his show there with his brilliant tango quartet. Pretty much everybody sitting at the bar drifted into the music room when the band started; not a single person in the crowd showed any sign of ill health.

Inevitably, everyone who writes nuevo tango gets compared to Astor Piazzolla, but Giraudo is the rare composer who’s earned that distinction. Over the past few years, his monthly Saturday night Barbes residency has grown to the point that this was an unlikely opportunity to actually be able to get in to see him at the moment the show began.

As intricately intertwining as his songs are, he’s a very terse bass player who’s more interested in melody and texture than flash, fingerpicking as well as bowing a handful of the more darkly luxuriant numbers. Violinist Nick Danielson swooped and dove, plucking out sparks of pizzicato along with stiletto minor-key riffs and contrastingly silky atmosphere in the quieter tunes. Bandoneonist Rodolfo Zanetti exchanged similarly dynamic, sometimes slashing, sometimes gently resonant washes of sound alongside Ahmed Alom, the group’s spectacular pianist, whose rapidfire cascades and nimbly crushing chordal attack were understatedly spectacular to watch. Players who have that kind of raw power and precision to match are hard to find.

There was a lot of Piazzolla in the set, from the vivid, relentlessly leaping shark-fishing scenario Escualo, to a rapturous, moodily drifting take of Milonga Del Angel, to a considerably more biting, kinetic tune. But it was Giraudo’s originals that everybody had come out for. The high point of the night was Impetuoso,a relentlessly suspenseful, turbulently crescendoing depiction that Alom finally brought to a searing, icepicked, percussive peak.

Cicada, complete with wry insectile calls from bandoneon and violin, was a lot more carefree and playful. Alom’s pointillisms glittered most brightly in a newer, more serpentine minor-key tune; a bit later, Giraudo reminded how waltzes are a big part of the tango tradition, with both a strikingly spare, almost minimally elegant one of his own, along with a brief detour back to the early days of tango in Argentina. From there they picked up the pace to close the show with a couple of characteristically rising and falling originals.

Grim conjecture prevailed afterward at the bar. Giraudo spoke of hopefully resuming his residency next month. What’s the situation with the bar now? “Chaos,” as one insider somberly put it. Barbes has been booked so smartly over the years that nights which are slow at other venues are moneymakers here. The official response to the coronavirus scare forced the club to go dark, at least for the foreseeable future. How long can any other venue in town survive? How are all the people who work in any kind of service industry – living from paycheck to paycheck, piecing together shifts, dogwalking gigs and such – going to be able to make rent next month, let alone now? In hushed, serious tones, old friends weighed the odds of every possible dire scenario.

Barbes successfully got through a hard patch when hit with unanticipated building-related costs in 2017: more than eight hundred people contributed to their fundraiser and a benefit concert at Drom in June of that year. Saturday night, several customers enthusiastically considered another one. Others simply wondered how long they could stay here. “I think I’ve got about another month left in New York,” a famous immigrant novelist mused. Another patron contemplated making a new start, away from this climate of fear, with relatives who have a house further north. That we should all be so lucky.

Transcendence and Inner Torment in Lesley Karsten’s Astor Piazzolla Biodrama That’s Not Tango

Over the past couple of years, Lesley Karsten has staged her mesmerizing Astor Piazzolla biodrama That’s Not Tango in larger and larger halls around New York. The project’s sold-out Jazz at Lincoln Center debut Tuesday night came across as a big victory, no matter how turbulently or quixotically she portrayed the life of the godfather of nuevo tango.

Early on we learn how his manager felt about him: “Onstage, he was a god. Offstage, he was a sonofabitch.” That quote is emblematic. Karsten sees the iconic composer and bandoneonist as a guy with a chip on his shoulder that he can’t – or won’t – get rid of, a defiant paradigm-shifter utterly consumed by dedication to his art at the expense of pretty much everything else.

She’s gone on record as surmising that he would have appproved of his role being played by a woman, and while we’ll never know the answer, it’s plausible, especially considering the quality of the musicianship behind her.

Karsten introduces him speaking posthumously – and in what could be a considerable stroke of irony, rather reflectively – from some sort of limbo. What’s he doing there? Setting the record straight, he wants us to know. The extraordinary group Karsten has assembled for this project – Brandt Fredriksen on piano, Nick Danielson on violin, Pablo Aslan on bass and the guy who may be this era’s greatest bandoneon player, JP Jofre – leap and swing and bluster through a mix of Piazzolla hits and a handful of more obscure numbers in between Karsten’s narration.

What might be most impressive about Karsten’s depiction of Piazzolla is how closely she focuses on the music. Piazzolla the character offers no shortage of drama as he rises from crippled toddler to smalltime thug, reluctantly taking up the bandoneon just to please his dad, then having a eureka moment when he hears his Hungarian neighbor playing Bach on the piano. The young Piazzolla’s dad – a hard man, and apparently a harder man to please – nonetheless was quick to act on his son’s passion. Karsten – whose background is documentary filmmaking – does not affect an accent, or a man’s voice. This tough-talking, foul-mouthed, often caustically cynical protagonist comes across as plenty macho regardless.

The band burn through the music with reckless abandon matched by expertise, no doubt due to the fact that both Jofre and Aslan are first-rate nuevo tango composers themselves. Fredriksen’s dynamism, from muted snippets of Bach, to an absolutely chilling, emotionally depleted, mostly-solo take of Soledad, to the leaps and bounds of Michaelangelo 70, ranges from flash to poignancy. Danielson, whose spare, suspenseful solo kicks off the night’s opening number, Lo Que Vendra, also gets plenty of time in the spotlight. At the end of the show, Karsten introduced Jofre as “Astor Piazzolla,” his whirlwind cadenzas and rich color palette giving voice to every shade the little bandoneon can conjure.

The noirish pulse and chromatics Piazzolla loved so much underscore just how deeply the klezmer music he heard as a kid, growing up next to a synagogue on the Lower East Side, affected him. Karsten also takes care to quote him on Bach, Cab Calloway, Ellington and especially Bartok. At the other end of the telescope, he’s even more quotable when it comes to much of tango – including a cruelly spot-on account of the kind of dancers who can be found at a milonga. There are also personal vignettes, ranging from Piazzolla’s estrangement from his children to his regrettable if tense relationship with the Videla dictatorship during the Dirty War of the 1970s.

One of the most telling moments in the show is an absolutely heartwrenching, revelatory tour through the backstory of Adios Nonino, Piazzolla’s requiem for his father and ironically one of the most traditional pieces in the Piazzolla repertoire. He’d been between sets at a gig in the Caribbean when he got the news; afterward, he went back on and played the second show of the night. Unable to communicate his grief with his family, he locked himself in his room with his bandoneon and wrote what he considered to be his greatest piece. The rest of the material on the bill focuses on Piazzolla’s most lavish ambitions, from the coy baroque allusions of Fuga y Misterio to the gritty intricacies of Tres Minutos Con la Realidad. What Ellington did with the blues, Piazzolla did with tango: this show will inspire anyone who loves his music as well as the many, many influences that went into it.

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.

Catch the Pedro Giraudo Tango Quartet While You Can

Bassist Pedro Giraudo plays a ton of gigs with well-known classical and jazz groups, but his great love is the nuevo tango music he grew up with in Argentina. Since the late zeros, he and his Tango Jazz Quartet have maintained a regular monthly Barbes residency, which has become so popular that if you don’t show up early for his Nov 10, 8 PM show, you won’t be able to get in. Hard-hitting, brass-fueled newschool latin soul/boogaloo dance band Spanglish Fly headline the night at 10.

Giraudo’s magnum opus so far is his majestic, often haunting Cuentos album with his big band, where he draws on classical and tango themes as well as contemporary big band jazz. But he brings a lot of that same towering majesty and gravitas to the Barbes gigs. What’s most impressive is how economical   Giraudo is with his own material, playing a tight pulse with the rhythm section without many embellishments.

Typically, Giraudo mixes up his own material with Piazzolla classics as well as new arrangements of classic and obscure Argentine tango dating as far back as the 1920s or even earlier. This blog was in the house for his January and June shows as well as his gig last month, where with violin, piano and drums, he channeled an intensity and drama that would have made Piazzolla, his big influence, proud.

Occasionally Giraudo will reach for his bow in a particularly angst-fueled, windswept moment, but mostly he plays with his fingers. The piano spirals and cascades, the violin whirls and soars plaintively. This is music that originated in Spain but really found a home in South America where it was infused with the often haunting tonalities of the indigenous music there, and Giraudo brings it all full circle. Enjoy this monthly treat while it lasts, because it’s becoming too popular for a small-club gig.

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.