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Tag: Amir ElSaffar

Gravitas and Great Fun at Tomas Fujiwara’s Stone Residency This Week

Tomas Fujiwara isn’t just one of the most sought-after drummers in jazz; he’s also one of the most concisely tuneful drummer-composers out there. Among his fellow percussionists, the only one whose work ranks with his over the past few years is John Hollenbeck, although Fujiwara’s compositions are a lot less byzantine and more improvisationally oriented. He’s doing a stand this week at the Stone, with shows nightly at 8:30 PM through this Sunday; cover is $20. The one that everybody’s going to want to go to – and get to early – is Saturday night, April 14, with his two-guitar Triple Double sextet, which includes both Mary Halvorson and Ava Mendoza on guitars. The “Double Double” show tomorrow night – Halvorson and Bill Frisell on guitars, Fujiwara and Kendrick Scott on drums – will also obviously sell out.

Last night’s performance was a rapturous trio set with Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and Ole Mathisen on tenor sax, reflecting the musicians’ long association and camaraderie. On one hand, it was something of a reprise of their transcendent set in January of last year at the Fridman Gallery, except that ElSaffar was at the helm that time. This time out they played two numbers, the second a practically fifty-minute suite punctuated by numerous pregnant pauses. Both works gave the group plenty of space to expand on somberly terse, translucent phrases with brooding harmonies, crescendoing  judiciously through a long series of variations.

The opening tune had more of Fujiwara’s signature wit, in this case popping up in “wait-for-it” moments that weren’t quite vaudevillian, and droll flourishes leaping out of a series of altered press rolls. ElSaffar, who’s usually a cipher onstage, couldn’t keep himself from grinning. And the trumpeter’s influenced seemed to permeate the whole set, at least as far as gravitas is concerned – although his role here was to simmer and percolate when he wasn’t exchanging long tectonic phrases with Mathisen. Fujiwara built suspense with mallets on the toms, developing a slowly rising series of waves punctuated by lots of space and some wry doppler and echo effects.

His persistent, protean presence permeated the long suite, whether with muted mallet murmurs, brushy mist or finally a sober sway when he broke out his sticks. Mathisen, charged with the darker role here, lingered in the shadows or moved forward with a moody melodicism, sometimes trading off with ElSaffar or anchoring the trumpet’s increasingly complex, cellular spontaneity.

The crowd was intimate; it was akin to sharing a backstage moment with some of this era’s greatest jazz minds. “Come back tomorrow,” Fujiwara grinned; it’s a good bet some of them will. As a reminder to those who haven’t been to the Stone recently, the old Avenue C space is gone for good; the shows are now held in the comfortable ground-floor Glass Box Theatre at the New School at 55 W 13th St.

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Aakash Mittal at National Sawdust: A Major Moment in New York Jazz This Year

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s sold-out show with his Awaz Trio at National Sawdust on the 11th of this month was as mysterious as it was mischievous – and delivered an unmistakeable message that this guy’s time has come. The obvious comparison is Rudresh Mahanthappa, another reedman who draws deeply on classic Indian melodies and modes. But Mittal doesn’t typically go for the jugular like Mahanthappa does: a more apt comparison would be visionary Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who joined Mittal onstage for the second half of the program alongside guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan, who played both the boomy mridangam as well as a small, tabla-like hand drum.

Mittal has been simmering just under the radar in New York for awhile but has been increasingly in demand over the past year, playing with both both ElSaffar’s large ensemble and Pulitzer-winning singer/composer Du Yun, who gave him a rave review for an onstage introduction. The trio of Mittal, Okazaii and Swaminathan opened with a seven-part suite of night raga themes reinvented as jazz. Mittal explained that he’d written it during his a year in Kolkata studying traditional Indian sounds, and that his purpose was to redefine the concept of a nocturne to encompass both mystery and mirth. One suspects he had an awfully good time there.

He didn’t waste any time unleashing his daunting extended technique with some uneasy riffs punctuated by otherworldly overtones and microtones, yet throughout the rest of the night he held those devices in store for where he really needed them. Likewise, he chose his moments for puckish accents and sardonic chirps that got the crowd laughing out loud; as the show went on, Okazaki and Swaminathan got in on the act as well. Which made for apt comic relief amidst the lustrous, glimmering and often sparsely plaintive phrasing that pervaded the rest of the suite and the evening as a whole.

Mittal peppered the dreamlike state with lively, often circling, edgily chromatic phrases: he likes lights in the night, but he knows the dark side of the bright lights just as well. Okazaki ranged from spare, emphatic accents, often in tandem with Swaminathan, to expansive, lingering chords, to long interludes where his spiky phrasing evoked a sarod. The evening’s biggest crescendo fell to Swaminathan, and she welcomed a chance to bring some thunder to the gathering storm.

ElSaffar joined the group for the final numbers, opening a brand-new suite – which Mittal had just finished a couple days before, based on a poems by his sister Meera Mittal – with a mesmerizing series of long tones where time practically stood still. From there he and Mittal developed an increasingly animated conversation, through alternately lush and kinetic segments underscoring the influence that the trumpeter has had on the bandleader: it was a perfect match of soloists and theme. The group closed with what Mittal offhandedly called a jam, but it quickly became much more than that, a jauntily voiced mini-raga of its own laced with both utter seriousness and unleashed good humor. Both Mittal and ElSaffar’s music is full of gravitas and sometimes an almost throttle-like focus, but each composer also has a great sense of humor, and that really came to the forefront here.

This was the final show in this spring’s series of concerts at National Sawdust programmed by Du Yun, focusing on composers of Asian heritage who may be further under the radar than they deserve to be. The next jazz show at National Sawdust – or one that at least skirts the idiom with a similar outside-the-box sensibility – is by thereminist Pamelia Stickney with Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba and Stuart Popejoy on keyboards on March 28 at 7 PM; advance tix are $25 and highly recommended.

Amir ElSaffar Refines His Majestic, Transcendent New Middle Eastern Jazz at NYU

Why would anyone want to see the same band play the same piece more than once? For starters, there are always plenty of surprises when Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound make their way through Not Two, the visionary multi-instrumentalist/composer’s 2017 suite. From this perspective, was a third time a charm? On one hand, it’s hard to imagine a more transcendent performance of this lavish, titanic work than the album release show in the financial district last June, where they played the whole massive thing. On the other, their show last night at NYU’s Skirball Center was plenty rapturous…and uproariously fun.

Much of the suite is absolutely harrowing, but ElSaffar has a devastating, deadpan wit, and this time out he was in a particularly good mood. A Chicagoan by birth, he was clearly psyched to bring the band back, “Fishtailing all the way,” from a deep-freeze midwestern tour.

What they play is a new kind of music, based on Middle Eastern maqam modes and microtonal scales, but with majestic, sometimes ominous, often stormy group crescendos which draw on the bandleader’s time in Cecil Taylor’s improvisational big band. Although Not Two – whose title speaks to the pitfalls of manichaean thinking – is a fully composed score, ElSaffar will shift gears and call on any number of soloists depending where the seventeen-piece orchestra is going in the moment.

By comparison to the suite’s live debut at Lincoln Center in April of 2015 and then the epic album release show, this one was shorter and seemed more concise. Although much of it is brooding, even shattering, the whole group seemed to be stoked to be off the road and back on their home turf. Maybe as a consequence, solos all around seemed more animated as well – with the exception of tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen’s two long, methodically suspenseful upward tangents while the band coalesced in a somber grey mist behind him.

The crowd gave their most breathless applause for cellist Naseem Alatrash, whose elegaic, mournfully circling solo early in the suite refused to cave in to any kind of easy resolution. Likewise, he and ElSaffar’s violist sister Dena – leader of the similarly paradigm-shifting, somewhat smaller ensemble Salaam – held the audience rapt with their poignant dialogue a little later on.

Percussionist Tim Moore anchored the suite’s most haunting segment, Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son) with a chillingly echoing, funereal thump on frame drum as the group slowly swelled in an invocation of longing and loss. On the other side of the emotional equation, it turned out that the title of Penny Explosion looks back to ElSaffar’s childhood, when he and his sister would fill a jar with pennies – and then dump them on a tile floor, to max out the reverb.

Mohamed Saleh was charged with delivering a handful of the evening’s most pensively resonant solos, both on oboe and english horn. To his left, JD Parran took over the lows on bass sax and also joined the hazy ambience on clarinet. Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal took two of the night’s most acerbic, intense, chromatically slashing solos; guitarist Miles Okazaki remained in even more low-key, terse mode.

Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz reveled in the opportunity to fire off endless volleys of microtones while pianist John Escreet punctuated the rings and ripples with an exploratory precision. Oudists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh built a devastating rustle, eventually joined by buzuq player Tareq Abboushi and bassist Carlo DeRosa, as the night’s vertigo-inducing final number, Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, built steam through several surreal variations on themes from throughout the suite. Drummer Adam Cruz, clearly psyched to get the chance to step in, gave the music a spring-loaded swing. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan’s stygian bubble was a river of sound all its own, underground.  Driving the highest peaks and most poignant lulls, the composer began with stately ripples on his santoor, rose eventually to blisteringly aching volleys on trumpet and also sang in an impassioned, microtonal baritone.

At the end, they flipped the script with a vaudevillian encore that had everybody laughing out loud: comic relief wasn’t such a bad idea after the intensity. ElSaffar’s next show with this ensemble is on March 3 at 8 PM at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach; cover is $25/$20 stud/srs.

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

The 100 Best Songs of 2017

This is a playlist. Click on each song title to stream it, click on the artist name for their webpage.

It was tempting to pick one of the segments of the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s new release, Fukushima, as the best song of the year. But the single most relevant and mesmerizing album of 2017 is best heard as a contiguous suite. Taking one of its five movements out of context would spoil the experience. And it’s nowhere to be found online at the moment, anyway.

In lieu of that, the single best song of 2017, Kitten, by Dennis Davison, is still in the embryonic stage. It wasn’t released by a record label, or even recorded in a studio. It reached this blog as a voice memo, just vocals and guitar in a practice space. The frontman of cult favorite psychedelic band the Jigsaw Seen has written a lot of great songs over the years, but this one is the most harrowing. On the surface, it’s about a homeless guy who finds a kitten. He’s in trouble: he lives by the exit sign. And this is not a sweet love-conquers-all narrative. It’s a wish song – and a portrait of terminal depression as vivid and chilling as anything Phil Ochs or Ian Curtis ever wrote. And it’s as catchy as it is depressed.

Rather than trying to rank the other 99 songs here, they’re listed in rough chronological order of when they were either received or witnessed onstage. Rather than regurgitating the Best Albums of 2017 list, this one has a lot of songs that either haven’t been officially released, or were just so amazing to see live over the past year that it wouldn’t be fair to exclude them. Same rules as last year: one song per band or artist. Otherwise, half this list would be Ward White and Amir ElSaffar, and that would be counterproductive. You can go down the rabbit hole with any of the hundred artists on this list all by yourself without any further help from this blog.

Ward WhiteCoffee Maker
A pair of accomplices grow more desperate by the hour in this catchy yet characteristically enigmatic, Charming Disaster-esque post-murder narrative. The way White caps off his guitar solo is as cruel as it is priceless. From the even more inscrutable As Consolation, best rock album of 2017.

Jack GraceGet Out of Brooklyn
The baritone Americana crooner’s somber, heartbreaking requiem for a pre-real estate bubble New York. “The place held its own ground, the rivers separated where you bothered to go – really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in.” From the album Everything I Say Is a Lie.

The Dream Syndicate  – Like Mary
The most harrowing track on Steve Wynn’s recently regrouped, legendary 80s band’s new album How Did I Find Myself Here is a catchy, tensely muted, grim portrait of a woman who may be a child killer…or just an Oxycontin casualty.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son)
A vast, oceanic Iraqi-flavored lament from the paradigm-shifting trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist’s Middle Eastern orchestral jazz group’s latest album Not Two. 

The Sadies – The Good Years
A brisk shuffle beat beneath hypnotically lingering guitars in this chilling Nashville gothic elegy for a disastrous marriage: “She couldn’t wait to clean out the place he occupied.” From the album Northern Passages.

Alice Lee – Your Blues
A savagely lyrical, spot-on soul anthem for the era of Ferguson and Eric Garner from the ex-New York singer/multi-instrumentalist’s brilliant new album The Wheel.

Charming Disaster – What Remains
The New York noir supergroup– led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – slink their way through this chillingly allusive post-murder narrative inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s The River. From the album Cautionary Tales.

Los WemblersSonido Amazonico
A brand-new version of the eerie, slinky national anthem of psychedelic cumbia, which the Peruvian band wrote and first recorded almost fifty years ago. This one’s a lot longer and more psychedelic than any other version in existence, Chicha Libre’s included. From their unlikely and amazing comeback album Ikaro Del Amor.

 Sofia TalvikLullaby
Catchy, anthemic and resolutely optimistic on the surface: “Still you wish you were dead.” When the Nordic Americana songwriter played this at the American Folk Art Museum this past spring, you could have heard a pin drop. From the album Big Sky Country.

Castle Black – Broken Bright Star
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s evil, spare icepick intro kicks off this slowly marauding anthem that eventually explodes in a fireball of reverb. From the album Trapped Under All You Know.

Morricone YouthClunes Town
Del Shannon mashed up with Ennio Morricone – makes sense, right? – with distantly ghostly multitracked Karla Rose vocals. From the band’s Mad Max soundtrack

LusterlitCeremony
Frontwoman/drummer Susan Hwang gives this long, creepy, ineluctably crescendoing, chromatically-charged Cormac McCarthy-inspired anthem her most luridly Lynchian vocal ever. From the album List of Equipment.

Lorraine LeckieAmerica Weeping
Leonard Cohen died the day before the fateful 2016 Presidential election. This careening psychedelic riff-rocker is the eclectic bandleader’s anguished response. Free download!

Son of SkooshnyUntold History
With Steve Refling’s keening slide guitar, this is one of the band’s harder-rocking numbers, Mark Breyer’s chillingly autobiographical account of growing up amid all sorts of familial and social Cold War-era dysfunction. From the album Matchless Gifts.

Aimee MannLies of Summer
Slow and lush, heavy like a thunderstorm, this mutedly depressed orchestral rock tale doesn’t reveal whether the narrator is addressing a prisoner or a dead person until the very end. From the album Mental Illness.

Brian Carpenter & the ConfessionsCity on Fire
The Ghost Train Orchestra trumpeter/bandleader plays keys and guitar and lends his baritone voice to this brilliantly Lynchian band, duetting with chanteuse Jen Kenneally in this slinky, bolero-tinged smash. They managed to steal the spotlight from Big Lazy on a Friday night in the East Village last month, no joke. 

Changing ModesDust
Awash in orchestral keys and troubled close harmonies from the band’s two frontwomen, this slowly crescendoing apocalypse anthem makes an apt coda to the New York art-rock band’s brilliant album Goodbye Theodora.

James Williamson and Deniz TekNo Sense of Crime
The best and most death-obsessed track from the Stooges’ immortal Kill City album, reinvented as lush, poignant, similarly opiated acoustic parlor rock. Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy adds plaintive high harmonies, with violin from Petra Haden. From the killer, wryly titled ep Acoustic K.O.

Miramar  – Sin Ti
A psychedelically Lynchian, allusively Middle Eastern-tinged bolero, the highlight of the Virginia group’s show at Drom back in January.

Joshua GarciaThat’s the Way You Drop a Bomb
Oldschool first-wave-style folk revival narrative as one of the crew of the Enola Gay might have heard it. Chililng beyond belief, and a staple of the New York songwriter’s live show.

Greek JudasKontrabandistas
A drug-smuggling anthem from the 1930s Greek underworld reinvented as searing, menacing, twin guitar-fueled metal. From the band’s brand-new debut album. 

The New Pornographers – High Ticket Attractions
Motorik Pulp-style new wave satire of yuppie status-grubbing. Llittle do they know how much corporations are taking advantage of them. From the album Whiteout Conditions.

Kerem Guney – Sicak Bir Sevda
Is it fair to put a haunting Turkish psychedelic rock anthem from the late 70s – like the Doors with an electric saz – on a list of 2017 songs? It hasn’t been released outside Turkey until the Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation came out earlier this year. 

MeszecsinkaHajnalban (At Dawn) – fifteen minutes of evil shamanic post-Velvets Balkan crash and wail from this phantasmagorical female-fronted Balkan group. Another band who killed it back in January at Drom.

Jaye BartellSwim Colleen
With his deadpan baritone and reverb-drenched, spare guitar hooks, nobody’s better at allusive macabre narratives than this guy. From his album In a Time of Trouble, a Wild Exaltation.

Carol LipnikMy Piano
Stately, graceful art-rock eco-disaster parable: after all, pianos are made from trees. Her vocal crescendo will give you goosebumps. She and pianist Matt Kanelos held the crowd rapt with this at Pangea back in January.

The Jigsaw SeenMy Name Is Tom
A rare successful mashup of dark Indian raga theme and American psychedelic rock, and one of the LA band’s most iconic songs. They ripped the roof off with this at Bowery Electric back in March.. From their latest album For the Discriminating Completist.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
The iconic noir pianist and the brilliant jazz singer outdo Dylan’s original. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in this exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk. From their album Town & Country.

Rev. Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir End of the World
The fearless environmental activist and his mighty, roughly sixty-member choir opened their towering Prospect Park Bandshell set this past summer with this ominous original gospel tune: “Only so many beautiful days on earth!”

The Robert Sabin Dectet – Ghost
A portrait of a house whose occupant has just died, a somber belltone pavane punctuated with artfully suspenseful use of space and moody horns. From the bassist’s album Humanity Part II with his lushly cinematic large ensemble

Gacaltooyo Band – Ninkaan Ogayn (He Who Does Not Know)
Never before released outside of Somalia, this late 70s jam is a slow, haunting mashup of noir soul, Bollywood balladry, Ethiopiques and what sounds like J-pop – Somalian pentatonic scales come across as positively Asian in places here. From the compilation Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

The Mehmet Polat TrioEverything Is in You
Joined by kora and ney flute, the brilliant Turkish oudist shifts between otherworldly Middle Eastern modes, Asia and Africa in this pensive epic. From the album Ask Your Heart

Black Lesbian FishermenRagged Ritual
This trippy, practically fifteen-minute drone-rock dirge has subtle Indian raga allusions, moody Middle Eastern ambience and a slow build to a darkly majestically macabre, resonant swirl of organ and guitar. From the album Ectopic Apiary.

Hearing ThingsStalefish
A mashup of growling go-go funk, horror surf, Middle Eastern music and the Doors, it’s a staple of Brooklyn’s funnest band’s live show.

NO ICELeave Her Alone
Musically, it’s a bitter, fiery soul-rock anthem. Lyrically, it’s one of the year’s classiest numbers: cool guys don’t harass women. From the Brooklyn band’s amazingly multistylistic, fun debut full-length album Come On Feel the NO ICE.

Orkesta MendozaContra La Marea
The  briskly strutting noir centerpiece of the slinky psychedelic mambo/cumbia band’s latest album ¡Vamos A Guarachar!, brooding baritone sax and clarinet alongside bandleader Sergio Mendoza’s reverberating guitar multitracks.

The Trio JoubranLaytaka
The gorgeously fluttering, understatedly elegaic intro to the oud-playing brothers’ album and DVD A’Lombre Des Mots (In the Shadow of Words), their tribute to their longtime collaborator, iconic Palestinian poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish. They mesmerized the crowd with this at their Lincoln Center show this past June.

Doug Wieselman’s Trio S  Dreambox
A cello drone and flickers from the drums underpin the bandleader’s moody Balkan melismas. building to a ferocious, Macedonian-flavored dance – the high point of their new album Somewhere Glimmer.

Money Chicha – Tamborcita
The most epic number on the debut album by the Austin psychedelic cumbia monsters (a spinoff of the slightly less psychedelic Grupo Fantasma), simmering and swooshing with ominous chromatics, reverb guitar and dub tinges.

Ella AtlasLeave Me in Blue
The most darkly lingering, epically sweeping track on 2017’s best debut album, The Road to Now, the Lynchian first release by enigmatic singer Tarrah Maria and Lost Patrol guitarist Steven Masucci.

King Gizzard & the Lizard WizardOpen Water
A hash-smuggling Red Sea speedboat theme of sorts, it’s got an energetic, hypnotically shuffling, qawwali-ish groove, icepick staccato guitar and all sorts of eerie chromatic hooks. From the album Flying Microtonal Banana.

Timatim FitfitLiving in the City
A stabbing parlor pop tune, John Cale mashed up with the Handsome Family from the menacing, carnivalesque solo album The Sugar Man, a creepy side project by Orphan Jane accordionist Tim Cluff.

Omar SouleymanMawal
An uncharacteristically slow, hauntingly violin-driven refugee’s lament from the gruff Syrian-born crooner’s album To Syria With Love.

Clint Mansell – Wheatfield With Crows
With its shivery violins, lustrous long tones and darkly ambient washes, this is where the film composer’s score to the Van Gogh movie Loving Vincent breaks into a scream.

 What Cheer? Brigade Black Cannon
Sort of a swaying Balkan brass Hawaii 5-0; the stampeding doublespeed bridge and the breathless charge on the way out are the high points of the East Coast’s largest brass band’s album You Can’t See Inside of Me.

The Legendary Shack Shakers  – White Devil
“White is the color of hipsters,” frontman JD Wilkes snarls as this noir blues stomps along, flickering with out-of-tune piano and Rod Hamdallah’s screaming distorted guitar. From the album After You’ve Gone.

BobtownMagilla Lee
New York’s best folk noir band blend their charming voices for this blithely bouncy narrative about “true meditation through medication” with dire consequences. They slayed with this at this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival.

Nicole Atkins  I Love Living Here
A slow-simmering, crushingly sarcastic, angst-driven piano-and-horns anthem set in 2017 Brooklyn gentrifier hell. From the noir soul singer’s latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee.

Anbessa OrchestraNagatti Si Jedha
The Israeli-American Ethio-jazz band jam the hell out of this uneasily catchy, slinky, reverb guitar-driven anthem, a mashup of vintage soul and ancient African riffs, when they play it live. From their most recent ep.

Red Baraat – Gaadi of Truth
Fiery, chromatic horn-driven live bhangra with a little hip-hop flavor: like an Indian Slavic Soul Party. From the album Bhangra Pirates.

The Sirius QuartetSpidey Falls!
This high-voltage microtonal string epic is part Big Lazy crime jazz, part Bernard Herrmann, part Piazzolla and part turbocharged tarantella.

Rahim AlHajChant
The Iraqi-born oudist and his trio entertained the crowd at Lincoln Center this past spring with an intimate version of this uneasily bouncy, subtly sardonic theme inspired by his mom trying to keep her kids out of trouble. This video link above is the full orchestrated version

Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta – Red
Slinky, luridly organ-driven psychedelic cumbia mixed up withChicano Batman-style psychedelic soul. From the album Fonografic.

Nina Diaz – Star
Towering, angst-fueled noir punk cabaret, like a mashup of Vera Beren and Nicole Atkins. From the Girl in a Coma’s excellent debut album The Beat Is Dead.

Kalyani SinghEllis
An allusively grisly Ellis Island scenario set to a soaring Indian carnatic melody recast as gothic Americana – told from the point of view of a ghost. Or is she? You could have heard a pin drop when Singh sang this at the American Folk Art Museum last year. 

The NYChillharmonicBlumen
A lush, hypnotic, uneasily circling Radiohead-inflected epic from singer Sara McDonald’s mighty 22-piece New York band, who mash up big band jazz and symphonic rock. They raised the roof with this at Joe’s Pub last spring.

Dalava – The Bloody Wall
A murder victim haunts the crime scene over almost imperceptibly crescendoing art-rock in guitarist Aram Bajakian and singer Julia Ulehla’s reinvention of this old Moravian folk tune from their latest album The Book of Transfigurations.

Electric YouthIt’s Them
The Canadian duo’s enveloping, slowly crescendoing take on a classic Lynch film theme – in this case, for a movie that never came out. From the album Breathing.

Mulatu AstatkeYekatit
The godfather of Ethio-jazz, backed by an impressively tight pickup band including keyboardist Jason Lindner and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, kept the uneasy, brassy groove going for almost fifteen minutes with this classic in Central Park back in August.

Los Crema Paraiso – Shine On You Crazy Diablo
The cinematic Venezuelan psychedelic trio have been playing their deadpan version of the Pink Floyd epic all the way through in concert. for more than a year now. They didn’t extend it all the way through at Barbes back in July, but it was still amazing how they can recreate it while adding wry dub tinges. This is a similar, relatively brief eight-minute studio version.

Melissa & the MannequinsCan’t Let Go
The latest deliciously catchy, jangly single from New York’s best new band of 2017; bittersweetly coy vocals, ringing guitars and a little vintage soul too. 

BrigaBela Sum
Mesmerizing singer Eva Salina and Balkan accordionist Sergiu Popa join the Quebecoise violinist on this broodingly gorgeous ballad from the album Femme.

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
The title track, and most distinctively chromatic, Balkan-flavored anthem from the debut album by New York’s largest and most explosive brass band.

 Sofia Rei – Arriba Quemando El Sol
The stark Violeta Parra peasant’s lament reinvented as relentless, marching art-rock fueled by Marc Ribot’s unhinged guitar. From the album El Gavilan.

Kelly GreenCulture Shock
A bustling, epic noir jazz theme that eventually descends into dissociative Sketches of Spain allusions, flutters loosely and then jumps back into the rat race again. Centerpiece of the album  Life Rearranged.

David Smooke & the Peabody Wind Ensemble – Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The epic, sixteen-minute title track to the toy pianist’s new album is a real cinematic showstopper. Horrified tritone cadenzas, thunderous swells, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and then toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.

Mike Neer’s Steelonious – Off Minor
Smoking steel guitar, organ and a rhythm section take Thelonious Monk’s classic to the next Lynchian level. From the band’s debut album.

Vigen HovsepyanGulo
The most haunting track on the powerful Armenian singer and multi-instrumentalist’s new album Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music is this slowly swaying 6/8 piano ballad.

La Mar EnfortunaAman Minush
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow and singer Jennifer Charles’ Sephardic art-rock side project made entrancing psychedelic rock out this darkly bouncy old tune at their November show at the Jewish Museum

Noura Mint SeymaliSoub Hanak
A microtonal duskcore anthem, the most straight-up rock number from the fearless jamband leader’s album Arbina.

Hilary DownesSecrets of Birds
The art-rock songwriter’s band take their deepest plunge into noir on the album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,”…yet, “I am not afraid of the  darkness in my way.”

Trina Basu & Arun RamamurthySindhu Bhairavi
Haunting, edgy, hypnoticallly dueling Indian violins – since this live recording from their amazing Noguchi Museum show in September is an audio-only clip, it’s tantalizingly hard to figure out who’s playing what.

The Hooten Hollers – Scrapper’s Lament
An amusing, amped-up oldschool country ballad about the joys of scrounging for scrap metal – a perfect job in these new depression times. From the band’s 2017 album.

Borbely Mihaly Polygon2/1
A bouncy, uneasy, staccato Hungarian bass clarinet/cimbalom/drums theme, one of the highlights of the trio’s amazing show at Drom back in January.

Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple DoubleLove & Protest
Mournful, spacious blues trumpet over a twin-drum stampede spiced with burns and scrapes from guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook: Wadada Leo Smith clarity and Amir ElSaffar majesty. From the group’s debut album.

River CultShadow Out of Time
Epic Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth slides into galloping post-Sabbath in this careening live track from the heavy psych band’s latest ep Live at WFMU.

Bridget KibbeyToccata in D
This is the famous J.S. Bach organ piece that’s been used in a million horror movies…played solo, matter-of-factly and celestially, on the harp. It’s as funny as it is subversive, but ultimately it’s still arguably the creepiest piece of music ever written. A downtown crowd at the Times Arrow Festival earlier this year didn’t know what to make of it. 

Dawn ObergNothing Rhymes With Orange
The most bleakly hilarious song of the year is this sharp, literary middle finger raised at “Putin’s little bitch” in the Oval Office. Title track from the parlor pop pianist’s latest ep.

Kacy & Clayton – A Certain Kind of Memory
A dead ringer for Jenifer Jackson in wounded dark country mode circa 2007, down to the slow, lingering, Richard Thompson-esque arrangement. From the album The Siren’s Song.

Super Yamba BandControl Per Capita (C.P.C.)
One of the Brooklyn psychedelic Afrobeat band’s most lavish, funky jams. They got a packed house at Barbes boiling over with this last summer. 

 Chicano BatmanThe Taker Story
A anti-imperialist broadside, part Isaac Hayes hot butter, part Gil Scott-Heron, with a hazy latin tint from the psychedelic latin soul stars’ latest album Freedom Is Free.

Marcellus HallStill in Range
The ex-White Hassle frontman treated a Williamsburg crowd to an unexpectedly slashing take of this deviously allusive, pouncingly catchy, sardonic social media-era critique last spring. From the album Afterglow.

The Klezmatics – The Yoke
A crushingly bitter Catalan dirge told from a slave’s point of view, the highlight of NYC’s original klezmer punks’ latest album Apikorsom/Heretics. They held a Central Park crowd rapt with this last summer. 

Agnes ObelTrojan Horses
Creepy horror-movie piano and dark low strings anchor the evil, whispery harmonies of this moody Nordic art-rock waltz from the album Citizen of Glass.

 Pokey LaFargeSilent Movies
An offhandedly stinging, sarcastically swinging oldschool soul anthem for an era of selfie overkill. He and his band motored through this at Bowery Ballroom back in July. From the album Manic Revelations.

Algiers – Cleveland
A fierce yet enigmatic anti-police violence anthem, part noir gospel, part postrock, part postapocalyptic film theme from the band’s second album The Underside of Power.

Paris ComboBonne Nouvelle
Big bustling noir swing tune with a bitter undercurrent from a darker, more lyrically hilarious French counterpart to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. From the album Tako Tsubo.

Bridget KearneyLiving in a Cave
Orbison noir through the prism of 2017 new wave revival. From the Lake Street Dive bassist’s excellent, catchy debut album Won’t Let You Down.

Gold DimeDisinterested
The side project by Talk Normal’s Andrya Ambro punctuates this surreal drone-rock epic with all kinds of delicious, darkly explosive riffage. From the band’s debut album Nerves.

The Dirty Bourbon River ShowPoor Boy, Rich Girl
A sly steamboat-soul slap upside the head of an easy target – but some targets deserve to be hit upside the head. From the album The Flying Musical Circus.

 Meaghan BurkeGowanus
A swirling, theatrical orchestrated rock lament from the charismatic cello rock songwriter’s new album Creature Comforts.

The Ed Palermo Big BandOpen Up Said the World At the Door
A wry big band jazz cover of the haphazardly careening Jeff Lynne cult favorite from the Move’s 1970 Looking On album that perfectly crystalizes the angst-fueled bustle the original was shooting for. From the album The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2.

Touched By GhoulMurder Circus
The title track from the darkly enigmatic, female-fronted Chicago punk/postrock band’s debut album works artfully cynical variations on a familiar carnival theme. 

 Marta SanchezScillar
The jazz pianist and her band artfully shift roles in this broodingly modal, looping, haunting elegy of sorts. From her new quintet album Danza Imposible.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80African Dreams
“Conscious capitalism doesn’t exist,” the torchbearer of the original Nigerian Afrobeat legacy remarked at his Central Park show this past summer before launching into this pouncing, undulating cautionary tale for those who might want to play that game.  

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Gin & Juice
A deadpan, operatic orchestral cover of the Snoop Dogg driving-while-wasted classic. For real. They killed with this in Harlem back in March.

NehedarThe Grudge
Broodingly punchy 60s psych pop with coy 80s new wave tinges and a deliciously vengeful lyric. “Wanna step on me so you can rise to a better pedigree?…Put the claws back in your kitty paws.”

 Ani Cordero – Culebra
Growling surf bass contrasts with spare Spanish guitar and ominously reverberating electric riffage in this kinetic number from the fearless protest song specialist. From the album Querido Mundo.

Maximo ParkWork and Then Wait
A defiant 99-percenter singalong anthem, sort of a cross between mid-90s Blur and an artsy dance act like the Cat Empire. From the album Risk to Exist.

The PorchistasMr. Chump
Which raises a middle finger to the American Boris Yeltsin. This orange-wigged creep is a “draft-dodging scum” who “beats on little girls and cheats on Monopoly.” Then the girlie chorus chimes in: “Eats shit!” From the album Axis & Allies.

GalanosFeel Good
Echoey and surreal, this macabre, whispery, reverb-drenched noir theme slowly coalesces out of a Lynchian spoken word interlude laced with evil guitar flickers. From the album Deceiver Receiver.

The 50 Best Albums of 2017

Scroll down for links to stream each of the albums here…except for the very newest one, which happens to be #1.

The best and most relevant album of 2017 was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. This haunting, epic five-part suite is not a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011, but rather the Tokyo-born pianist/bandleader’s reflection on personal terror and horror in the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in world history.

Fujii’s stock in trade is not political music. Her vast catalog – over eighty albums as a leader or co-leader since the 90s – encompasses everything from epic improvisational soundscapes, to dark, acerbic piano compositions, rainy-day Japanese-flavored jazz-folk and collaborations with a global cast of artists. This may be her greatest achievement to date, as lush and sweeping as it is anthemically tuneful. And as a response to greed-fueled attempts to cover up the deadly environmental damage caused by the meltdowns, it’s as savage as Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies or Charles Mingus’ political broadsides.

It’s not streaming anywhere at present (end of December 2017), but it’s just out and available from Fujii’s Libra Records. Watch this space for a link! 

Vast research and triage went into the rest of this list. If you count multitasking as listening, an extremely ambitious listener can digest maybe three new albums a day. That’s about 1200 albums a year. An extremely ambitious music blogger can sample several thousand and then attempt to make sense of the very best. As in previous years, these albums are listed in rough chronological order considering when they were received here, rather than in any kind of hierarchical ranking. Which would be absurd, anyway – if an album’s one of the year’s fifty best, it’s got to be pretty damn good.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Ward White – As Consolation
The best rock record of 2017 is a surreal, twistedly psychedelic, ferociously literary masterpiece, from the guy who also put out the album ranked #1 here in 2013. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here
Iconic noir songwriter Steve Wynn regrouped his legendary, influential 80s band, who picked up like they never left off with a mix of psychedelia, dreampop and volcanic jams. Listen at youtube

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Son of Skooshny – Matchless Gifts
Wickedly lyrical songwriter Mark Breyer, longtime leader of powerpop cult favorites Skooshny, carries on with this richly jangly magnum opus, which collects his best songs of the last ten years or so. Listen at Bandcamp 

Phil Ochs  – Live in Montreal 10/22/66
What’s the iconic 1960s political firebrand doing on a list devoted to new music? This is new – a never-before-released set of many of his most shattering songs. It’s probably the definitive solo acoustic Ochs album. Listen at Spotify 

Charming Disaster – Cautionary Tales
The New York noir supergroup – led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – expand their palette from murder ballads to apocalyptic anthems, spy themes and a novelty song that had to be written. Listen at Bandcamp 

Alice Lee – The Wheel
The long-awaited new album by one of the most brilliantly lyrical, sardonically insightful, captivating soul singers and songwriters to emerge from this city in this century. Listen at Bandcamp 

Changing Modes – Goodbye Theodora
Postapocalyptic art-rock, noir surf and snarling dreampop are just the tip of the iceberg on the keyboard-driven, female-fronted cult favorite New York band’s seventh album. Listen at Spotify

The Mehmet Polat Trio – Ask Your Heart
Serpentine, uneasily picturesque, dynamic Middle Eastern, African and Balkan themes from the virtuoso oud player and his eclectic group. Listen at Spotify 

NO ICE – Come On Feel the NO ICE
The Brooklyn What’s Jamie Frey continues as part of this careeningly diverse group, arguably the best band to come out of Brooklyn in the past five years. Fearless soul-rock, unhinged post new wave and loud, enigmatic anthems with a killer, spot-on sense of humor. Listen at Bandcamp

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
Morose, muted, characteristically slashing acoustic waltzes and orchestral pop from the perennially relevant psychopathologist. Listen at Spotify 

The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
Sardonic, bitingly insightful new wave for an age of greed and narcissism from this era’s preeminent powerpop supergroup. Listen at Spotify 

Orkesta Mendoza – ¡Vamos A Guarachar!
The world’s darkest and slinkiest southwestern gothic psychedelic cumbia noir mambo band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Los Wemblers – Ikaro Del Amor
That a four-song ep could make this list testifies to how genuinely incredible, and improbable it is. Legendary in their native Peru, where they started almost fifty years ago, this psychedelic cumbia family band jam as eerily and otherworldly as they did when they first emerged from the jungle. Listen at Spotify 

The Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation
Spanning from 1975 to 1984, this collection of kinetic Turkish psychedelic rock and funk seems even more current in this era of surreal cross-cultural mashups, comprising songs by artists including Erkin Koray, Asik Emrah, Ali Ayhan, Deniz Ustu Kopurur and others. Listen at Spotify 

The Sadies – Northern Passages
The moodily jangly Canadian gothic cult favorites’ hardest-rocking and most psychedelic album. Listen at Bandcamp 

Morricone Youth – Mad Max
The iconic New York noir cinephiles’ first release of the year – one of a planned fifty recordings of scores for films they’ve played live to over the years – is far darker and more southwestern gothic-oriented than the road warrior film’s plot. With a Karla Rose vocal cameo, too. Listen at Spotify 

James Williamson and Deniz Tek – Acoustic K.O.
Two iconic guitarists who largely defined the uncompromising Detroit proto-punk sound of the 1970s flip the script with an acoustic ep of lushly orchestrated Stooges classics. Listen at Spotify 

Andina: Huayno, Carnaval and Cumbia – The Sound of the Peruvian Andes 1968-1978
Seventeen trebly, reverby, even rarer tracks than the psychedelic cumbia unearthed by Barbes Records on the iconic Roots of Chicha compilations. Los Walker’s are the best-known group here; Los Compadres del Ande, Los Jelwees and Huiro y su Conjunto, among others, are also included. This isn’t just chicha, either: there are horn bands and cha-cha groups here too. Listen at Bandcamp

Melange – Viento Bravo
The Spanish Nektar jangle and swirl and spiral through one brooding, psychedelic art-rock mini-epic after another. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Legendary Shack Shakers – After You’ve Gone
Unstoppable after twenty years on the road, the iconic ghoulabilly/noir Americana band dive deeper into their twisted, swampy roots. Guitarist Rod Hamdallah makes a furiously triumphant return. Listen at Spotify 

Mames Babegenush – Mames Babegenush With Strings
Dynamic, lush, soaring, swooping brass-and-reed-fueled original klezmer dance numbers and anthems from this powerhouse Copenhagen unit. Listen at Spotify

Briga – Femme
The Montreal-based violinist’s eclectic, incisive mix of Romany, Balkan and klezmer sounds, with a little psychedelic and hip-hop flavor. Listen at Bandcamp

Saffron – Will You
Magical singer Katayoun Goudarzi and sitarist Shujaat Khan team up with Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries, pianist Kevin Hays and others for this hypnotic, otherworldly reinvention of centuries-old Indian carnatic themes. Listen at Rockpaperscissors 

Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa
Newly digitized, rare, otherworldly 1970s and 80s Somali psychedelic rock, funk and Afrobeat from cassettes and master tapes buried to hide them from bombing raids. Amazing stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Arthur Lee & Love – Coming Through to You: The Live Recordings 1970-2004
Four sprawling discs comprising most of this psychedelic rock legend’s best songs, which he rocks the hell out of in concert. Most of this stuff is previously unreleased, and further proof that Lee’s career was far from over by the time he was done with Forever Changes. Listen at Spotify 

Steelism – Ism
Friends of Dean Martinez meets Morricone Youth in this surreal, catchy mix of keening steel guitar-driven instrumentals. Powerhouse soulstress Ruby Amanfu guests on a track. Listen at Spotify 

Neotolia – Neotolian Song
Pianist Utar Artun’s acerbic, moodily cinematic, sometimes jazz-inspired Turkish ensemble with the great Jussi Reijonen on guitar and oud. Listen at Soundcloud 

Dalava – The Book of Transfigurations
Slashingly eclectic ex-Lou Reed guitarist Aram Bajakian and his singer wife Julia Ulehla join forces and reinvent haunting, often harrowing Moravian folk songs with a psychedelic edge.Listen at Bandcamp 

Vigen Hovsepyan – Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music
The evocative singer/guitarist’s brooding, eclectic ballads and anthems from decades past, featuring the great oudist Ara Dinkjian. Listen at Spotify 

Money Chicha – Echo in Mexico
This is psychedelic south-of-the-border funk band Grupo Fantasma proving how deeply they can go into heavy psychedelic cumbias. Listen at Soundcloud

Castle Black – Trapped Under All You Know
Layers of reverb guitars flickering and roaring through the shadows, Leigh Celent’s power trio put out the best short rock album of 2017. Listen at youtube 

The Sweetback Sisters – King of Killing Time
Hard country, early 50s style from the eclectic, purist, badass duo of Emily Miller and Zara Bode with a great band behind them. Listen at Bandcamp 

Clint Mansell – Loving Vincent soundtrack
A classic 21st century horror film score. It’s not a horror film per se, but you can see the madness coming a mile away. Listen at Spotify 

Ella Atlas – The Road to Now
Enigmatic, allusively torchy singer Tarrah Maria’s band put out one of the most Lynchian releases of the year, joining forces with Lost Patrol guitar mastermind Stephen Masucci. Listen at Bandcamp 

Kelly Moran – Bloodroot
Enigmatically glistening, baroque-tinged multi-keyboard instrumentals inspired by many species of woodland greenery. Listen at Bandcamp 

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana
On which the well-loved Aussie psychedelic band took their initial leap into eerie, Middle Eastern-tinged microtonal music. Listen at Bandcamp 

Nina Diaz  – The Beat Is Dead
The Girl in a Coma bandleader gets ornate and cinematic with this dark, 80s new wave-style collection. Listen at Spotify 

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
High-voltage, rat-a-tat original Balkan brass anthems from this huge Brooklyn ensemble fronted by Charming Disaster’s Ellia Bisker. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Warlocks – Songs from the Pale Eclipse
Jangly, punchy, catchy 60s Laurel Canyon-style psychedelic rock – in lieu of a new album by the Allah-Las, this one will do fine. Listen at Bandcamp 

Galanos – Deceiver Receiver
With a gutter blues influence, some Thee Oh Sees dark garage-psych and some Black Angels ambience, this group are sort of the X of creepy 21st century rock. Listen at Bandcamp

Chicano Batman – Freedom Is Free
Organist Bardo Martinez and his shapeshifting band swing kaleidoscopically between latin soul, Zombies-style psych-pop, hard funk and Isaac Hayes-style epics. Listen at Bandcamp

Bridget Kearney  Won’t Let You Down
One of the year’s catchiest albums features Lake Street Dive’s killer bassist playing most of the instruments, through a mix of powerpop and new wave-flavored sounds. Listen at Bandcamp  

Algiers – The Underside of Power
Politically-fueled punk soul meets postrock meets postapocalyptic film score in gritty singer Franklin James Fisher’s ominously smoky narratives. Listen at Spotify 

Eric Ambel – Roscoe Live Vol. 1
One of the most distinctively brilliant, entertaining rock guitarists of the last couple of decades at the top of his game at an upstate outdoor festival with a killer band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Red Baraat – Bhangra Pirates
Wave after wave of undulating, crescendoing, cinematic, insanely danceable original brass-fueled live bhangra jams. Listen at Spotify 

Olcay Bayir – Neva/Harmony
Quietly intense new versions of ancient Turkish ballads and Balkan songs from the nuanced Turkish singer’s debut album. Listen at Spotify 

Gogol Bordello – Seekers & Finders
Amazing how fresh and energetic the original Eastern Bloc punks sound after all these years. Tight, catchy, never boring. Listen at Spotify

Ihtimanska – Yuz Yuze
A low-key but bouncy duo album of biting, minor-key Turkish and Bulgarian tunes from the duo of reedwoman Ariane Morin and accordionist Yoni Kaston. Listen at Bandcamp 

Daniel Ruiz – Purple Bird and Other Strange Songs
A haunting mix of of Doors and Nick Cave-influenced dark psychedelic rock and pop  from this Spanish songwriter. Listen at Bandcamp

The Best New York City Concerts of 2017

New York’s best concert of 2017 was Golden Fest, with two nights and about seventy brass and string bands from across the Balkans, the Middle East and the USA on several different stages. Year after year, this annual January extravaganza is unsurpassed in terms of both quality and quantity of talent. This blog managed to catch about fifteen of those acts over that marathon weekend, including but not limited to agelessly soulful Armenian reedman Souren Baronian, rapturous singer Eva Salina  and her whirlwind accordionist Peter Stan, haunting tar lute player Amir Vahab, the searing brass of Zlatne UsteNovi Maleshevski Zurli, Raya Brass Band and Cocek! Brass Band. Golden Fest 2018 is this coming January 12 and 13 at the magnificent Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

There were four other multiple-night events that deserve a special place on this list. In March, the first-ever collaboration between Lincoln Center and the annual Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco resulted in a trance-inducing series of concerts that began at the Upper West Side cultural mecca, moved to a cozy auditorium at the the New School for an approximation of a Moroccan lila healing ceremony and wound up at Pioneer Works in Red Hook for a collaboration with some New Jork jazz dudes including Marc Cary and Marcus Strickland. Three of the great sintir lute-playing maalems (masters) of mesmerizing gnawa music –Abdeslam AlikkaneHamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa – got to flex their chops.

The annual Drive East Festival at Dixon Place in August featured a similarly rapturous, weeklong series of Indian classical music and dance performances. Poignantly nuanced singer Indrani Khare and sitarist Kinnar Seen shared one of the midweek bills; theatrical Punjabi folk troupe Rajasthani Caravan headlined the Saturday night show. But the most amazing set of all might have been sarod virtuoso Aashish Khan, with his gracefully flickering, saturnine ragas.

The 2017 Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a weekly series spread out over more than a month in midsummer, featured mini-sets from scores of artists playing everything from klezmer to forro to swing jazz. Balkan and Middle Eastern music in separate corners of the park. Closing night began with some of the world’s greatest Middle Eastern musicians playing a riveting recreation of Ziad Rahbani’s iconic, bittersweet 1975 Bil Afrah suite.

And for the first time ever, this blog was present at every single night of an artist’s monthlong weekly residency at Barbes. Clarinet powerhouse and composer Michael Winograd picked April since there were five Saturdays in the month, where he was joined by a killer cast of musicians including rising star pianist Carmen Staaf for some small-group shows as well as a midmonth big band gig that was the best of them all. New klezmer sounds never sounded so edgy, so purist yet so fresh and wildly fun.

Otherwise, dig in for the longest year-end concert list this blog’s ever put together. It was impossible to whittle it down to any less than a grand total of fifty shows. The real estate speculator blitzkrieg keeps turning neighborhoods to rubble, yet people in this melting pot refuse to stop making great music. The rest of the year’s concerts are listed in chronological order since trying to rank them would be an exercise in futility.

If you don’t see your favorite band or your favorite show here – “What, no Dream Syndicate at Bowery Ballroom, are you guys nuts?” –  it’s a good bet that this blog wasn’t there. If you think this list is epic, just imagine the wishlist that went into it. But it’s one thing to plan on going out every night; it’s another thing to actually do it. Counting all the nights when it actually was possible to get out of the house or the office, there was more than enough good music to somewhat mitigate one of the worst years in memory for the world as a whole.

David Yengbarian, Borbely Mihaly Polygon and Meszecsinka at Drom, 1/5/17
The annual showcases put on by the APAP booking agents’ association can be an insanely good bargain. Cover was ten measly bucks for the dynamic Balkan accordionist, the noir cinematic trio of saxophonist Mihály Borbély, pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés, and the wild Hungarian trance-dance band.

LadamaAlash,Eva Salina and Peter Stan, Miramar and Innov Gnawa at Drom, 1/7/17
This APAP evening was even more insanely good – and this isn’t even the whole lineup! Pan-latin, mostly female dance band Ladama made a good opener for the energetically trancey Tuvan throat-singing trio, the stellar Balkan chanteuse and her accomplice on accordion, the hauntingly psychedelic Puerto Rican bolero revivalists and the only sintir lute-driven, mesmerizing traditional Moroccan trance-ritual band in this hemisphere. That group has good management: Innov Gnawa managed to get themselves on more than one bill on this page.

The Pre-War Ponies and Tipsy Oxcart at Barbes, 1/12/17
Singer/uke player Daria Grace’s swing band opened the evening on a lush, elegantly romantic note; the fiery Balkan band ended up charging into the audience as the show hit peak intensity.

Shilpa Ananth, Rini and Humeysha at Drom, 1/29/17
A diverse triplebill of Indian-influenced sounds, from psychedelic soul, to towering cinematic art-rock and spacerock.

Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif at Drom, 2/3/17
The legendary jamband leader’s microtonal guitar trio were as otherworldly as their albums – and funny too.

The Super Bolus at Footlight Bar, 2/5/17
With half the nation supposedly glued to a soporific pre-Super Bowl gabfest, a posse of A-list Brooklyn improvisers from the Gold Bolus  circle including but not limited to singers Anne Rhodes  and Anais Maviel, trumpeter Daniel Levine, saxophonists Angela Morris and Erin Rogers, vibraphonist Sam Sowyrda, bassist Lisa Dowling and oboeist Dave Kadden paired off for all kinds of strange and beguiling sounds. Kadden’s rampaging microtonal assault was the high point, in fact the most intense solo performance at any show on this list other than Amir ElSaffar’s Soho set in January.

The Musical Chairs String Quartet at the Staten Island Museum, 2/11/17
An unlikely spot to see a riveting performance of Shostakovich’s macabre, anti-fascist String Quartet No. 7 and two world premieres of fantastic quartets by Andrew Rosciszewski.

Laurie AndersonChristian McBride and Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall, 2/23/17
Avant garde violin icon joins forces with renowned jazz bassist and protean cello wizard for a night of sometimes lively, sometimes raptly sepulchral improvisation, with Anderson’s signature political relevance

Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, 3/2/17
She may be the foremost songwriter working right now, and treated an intimate crowd to a typically eclectic, intensely lyrical set of noir cabaret, Renaissance rock, latin-tinged parlor pop and pricelessly funny between-song banter.

Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal at the French Institute, 3/3/17
The Malian kora player and French cellist teamed up for a magical duo performance staged by the World Music Institute that blended phantasmic, cinematic themes, jaunty West African melodies and the baroque. More than one audience member was brought to tears.

Girls on Grass at Halyards, 3/23/17
Guitarist Barbara Endes’ psychedelic janglerock band sounded like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front – that good, that anthemic, that catchy.

Steve Ulrich and Mamie Minch, and Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation at Barbes, 3/25/17
Minch’s playful live movie score and Big Lazy mastermind Ulrich’s noir cinematics followed by the former Snow bandleader’s hilarious, brilliant English language parlor pop versions of Georges Brassens classics.

Changing Modes at Webster Hall, 3/26/17
The album release show by New York’s most smartly lyrical, unpredictable, keyboard-driven art-rock band was as protean and poignant as the record.

Miqayel Voskanyan at Drom, 4/5/17
Speaking of protean, the Armenian tar lute virtuoso and his quartet shifted between Near Eastern art-rock, folk-rock, Balkan turbo-folk and Romany dance music.

Meklit at Lincoln Center, 4/6/17
And while we’re still on the protean tip, how about the charismatic, fearlessly populist Ethio-jazz soulstress and her amazing band airing out new tunes from her kinetic, eclectic new album?

Easy Dreams and Karla Rose at 11th Street Bar, 4/11/17
Further proof that some of the best shows sometimes happen way under the radar. Rose, arguably the most captivating and versatile singer in all of New York and a haunting tunesmith as well, took a turn behind the drums in a mini-set by the uneasily jangly indie band, then picked up her guitar and haunted the crowd with her own brooding, film noir-influenced soul and psychedelic rock.

Gato Loco at Barbes, 4/20/17
This was more of a show for the drinkers than the stoners, a toweringly crescendoing mix of slinky noir instrumentals, psycho guitar-driven mambos and bouncy, carnivalesque themes.

Michael WinogradKill Henry Sugar and Las Rubias Del Norte at Barbes, 4/22/17
Goosebump-inducing klezmer clarinetist and his quartet, artfully lyrical, sardonic Americana rock duo and a farewell show (for now, at least) by keyboardist Alyssa Lamb and singer Emily Hurst’s hauntingly harmony-driven pan-American noir band.

Miklos Lukacs’ Cimbalom Unlimited at Drom, 5/22/17
Lukacs’ second appearance on this list was as a bandleader, playing fiery, relentlessly crescendoing themes, fingers flying across his magically rippling Hungarian dulcimer.

Rahim AlHaj at Lincoln Center, 5/25/17
The Iraqi oud virtuoso, joined by Iranian santoor player Sourena Sefati and Palestinian percussionist Issa Malluf, played the most haunting and understatedly relevant small-group New York show in a year when anti-Muslim bigotry reached a new low.

Sara SerpaSofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson in the West Village, 6/2/17
Three of the most distinctive, individualistic voices in all of music – the intense, noir-inspired Serpa, the irrepressibly fun Rei and the enigmatically lustrous Johnson – shared a characteristically eclectic bill of a-cappella songs and improvisations in a storefront church space. Unexpected venue, magical show.

Hearing Things at Barbes, 6/3/17
Brooklyn’s funnest band – JP Schlegelmilch on organ, Matt Bauder on sax and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – are a cross between the Doors, the Ventures and maybe WIBG. The result: a brand new style. Psychedelic surf noir jazz dance music!

The Barbes Benefit at Drom, 6/9/17
Brooklyn’s best venue was in trouble. Some of New York’s best bands joined forces for a wildly successful fundraiser to make sure it’s here for another five years. On the bill: thunderous Brazilian drum troupe Maracatu NY, noir icons the Jazz Passengers, Romany song maven Sanda Weigl, a subset of the haunting, soaring all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache; charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Afro-Colombian trance-dance choir Bulla en el Barrio , the similar but lower-register Innov Gnawa; one-off Balkan brass supergroup Fanfare Brooklyn – and Lynchian guitar-bass-drums trio Big Lazy .

Michael Winograd and Ben Holmes, Sean Cronin and Dolunay at Barbes, 6/10/17
The clarinetist and his trumpeter compadre opened an eclectic early-summer evening with a quartet show and lots of darkly chromatic new tunes, followed by the similarly eclectic guitarist and his purist band playing Hank Williams covers, and then riveting singer Jenny Luna’s haunting, oud-infused Turkish band

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Outdoors in the Financial District, 6/16/17
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer and his big band played a titanic set of Middle Eastern jazz from his latest album. His show at the Fridman Gallery in SoHo back in January, which he began with a distantly harrowing solo trumpet improvisation, was much more quietly transcendent.

Rose Thomas Bannister and Goddess at Corkscrew Wines, 6/21/17
A witchy, psychedelic twinbill in a comfortable Fort Greene back courtyard with the lyrically ferocious, Shakespeare-influenced chanteuse and the theatrical psych-folk band. Backed by lead guitar monster Bob Bannister, she was also awfully good there a couple of months later on a doublebill with oldtime Americana singer Stephanie Jenkins.

Lara St. John at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, 6/27/17
In front of an impressively game pickup group, the violin virtuoso treated the crowd to a kinetic Jessie Montgomery piece, a lyrical take of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and a harrowing world premiere by Matthew Hindson, Maralinga, a narrative of terror in the wake of a 1950s Australian nuclear disaster. After that, Stravinsky was anticlimactic.

Orkesta Mendoza and Lila Downs at Prospect Park Bandshell, 6/29/17
The slinky psychedelic cumbia and noir mambo band set the stage for an epic set of classic mariachi and fearlessly political ballads by the iconic Mexican-American singer and her titanic band, joined on several numbers by Mariachi Flor de Toloache. The afterparty down the hill at Barbes, with wild Veracruz-style folk-punks Radio Jarocho, was pretty intense too.

The Mary​ ​Halvorson Octet at the Village Vanguard, 7/18/17
The world’s best jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot and her lush, enveloping ensemble – featuring brilliant pedal steel player Susan Alcorn – aired out a lot of dynamic, uneasy new material.

Rev. Billy & the Church of  Stop Shopping Choir and Sexmob at Prospect Park Bandshell, 7/27/17
A brand-new set of original apocalyptic, anti-fascist and anti-racist original gospel tunes by the firebrand activist and his gargantuan choir, followed by the cinematic jazz quartet playing a darkly undulating, colorful live score to the 1920s Italian silent film Maciste All’Infierno.

The Trio Joubran at the Lincoln Center Festival, 7/29/17
The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers charmed and haunted the crowd with a dynamic tribute to their late collaborator, iconic poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/4/17
Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s cinematic noir trio made it onto the bill on more than one of the year’s best concerts, but their best single show – this blog was in the house at many of them – might have been this wildly jam-oriented night, two creepy sets at the band’s Park Slope home base. How did it feel afterward? “Free,” grinned drummer Yuval Lion.

Kill Henry Sugar and Anbessa Orchestra at Barbes, 8/11/17
Guitarist Erik Della Penna and drummer Dean Sharenow’s Americana lit-rock band have a ton of new material up their sleeves, and aired it out here before the wild Israeli Ethiopian dance band took the intensity to redline with a ferocious, psychedelic couple of sets.

Castle Black at the Well, 8/25/17
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s power trio have grown from a haphazardly promising band into a dark, fearsome monster: not even the sonic interference from the adjacent labyrinth of rehearsal rooms could silence this beast.

Melissa & the Mannequins at LIC Bar, 9/3/17
Put up a good youtube video and the crowd will come. With their killer chops and songs, New York’s best new band switched from jangly new wave to psychedelic soul and tantalizing hints of noir.

Bobtown at the Brooklyn Americana Festival, 9/23/17
Plaintive Anglo-American folk maven Jan Bell books this annual event: it would have been a lot of fun to have been able to catch more of it. With their gleaming four-part harmonies and songs about ghosts and other dead people, New York’s finest folk noir band were at the top of their game.

Greek Judas and the NY Fowl Harmonic at Hank’s, 9/28/17
Volcanic twin-guitar heavy metal versions of Greek songs from the 1920s and 30s about smoking hash, smuggling drugs and outrunning the cops, followed by Gato Loco bass sax monster Stefan Zeniuk’s carnivalesque punk-mambo group.

Seungmin Cha and Ned Rothenberg in Tribeca, 10/1/17
A riveting, intense, enveloping electroacoustic jazz loft set by the paradigm-shifting avant garde Korean daegeum flute player with the downtown multi-reed virtuoso.

The 24-Hour Raga-Thon at the Rubin Museum of Art, 10/22/17
This blog was only around for the wee-hours part that started about three in the morning: prime time for haunting, rarely heard morning ragas reinvented by an adventurous cast of Indian musicians including but not limited to saxophonist Aakash Mittal, guitarist Rez Abbasi, sarodist Camila Celin , trumpeter Aaron Shragge, bansuri flutist Eric Fraser and santoor sorceress Deepal Chodhari. 

Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized Playing Twin Peaks at Barbes, 10/29/17
Brooklyn’s best and most individualistic jazz guitarist led his fearlessly adventurous group through some careening and some absolutely chilling versions of iconic David Lynch tv and film scores.

Edna Vazquez at Lincoln Center, 11/2/17
You could call this charismatic guitarist/singer’s music “noiriachi” – haunting, kinetic, fearlessly relevant dark mariachi rock.

La Mar Enfortuna at the Jewish Museum, 11/9/17
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow’s lush, luscious twelve-string jangle and his bandmate, singer Jennifer Charles’ multilingual reinventions of ancient Ladino songs and themes from across the Sephardic diaspora ran the gamut from haunting to even more so.

The ClaudettesBrian Carpenter and the Confessions and Big Lazy at Drom, 11/10/17
The piano-driven Chicago group have reinvented themselves as a catchy blue-eyed soul band; Carpenter, a connoisseur of oldtimey swing jazz, mined a deep noir rock vein, capped off by NYC’s finest noir cinematic instrumentalists.

The Navatman Music Collective at Symphony Space, 11/19/17
This hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir sang and played a mammoth, shapeshifting set of reinvented classical themes from across the centuries.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra in the Lincoln Center complex, 12/2/17
A poignant, violin-fueled take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Michael Daugherty’s timpani concerto Raise the Roof set the stage for a withering performance of Shostakovich’s classic antifascist Symphony No. 10. Anybody who thinks classical music isn’t relevant wasn’t there.

The Todd Marcus Orchestra at Smalls, 12/3/17
The bass clarinetist/bandleader led his brilliant eight-piece group through his brand-new, catchy, picturesque Middle Eastern jazz suite.

The Todd Marcus Orchestra Play a Riveting, Epic Set at Smalls

Last night Smalls was packed for the New York debut of the Todd Marcus Orchestra’s new Middle Eastern jazz suite In the Valley. Much as the band onstage was cooking, these people had come to listen. Bass clarinetist and bandleader Marcus gets a mighty sound, bigger than you would expect from a nine-piece outfit. Part of that stems from Marcus’ use of the whole sonic spectrum, Gil Evans-style. The other is how much gravitas he builds in the lows, best exemplified by the punchy contrapuntal interweave during the first set’s towering final number, Horus, Marcus teaming up with trombonist Alan Ferber against the highs: Troy Roberts’ tenor sax, Brent Birckhead’s alto and Alex Norris’ trumpet, pianist Xavier Davis hitting the midrange hard.

Marcus’ compositions draw a pretty obvious comparison to Amir ElSaffar’s work. But Marcus relies more on chromatics than distinctly microtonal melodies, and typically employs the traditional jazz model featuring individual soloists instead of pairings of musicians or seesawing between contrasting frequencies. And as formidable as Marcus’ orchestra is, it’s smaller than ElSaffar’s current huge ensemble: if ElSaffar is the Red Sea, Marcus is the Nile.

Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, and the suite draws heavily on his recent travels there. The group opened with the towering, cinematically suspenseful, chromatically pulsing title track, inspired by the Valley of Kings, featuring long, methodically crescendoing solos from Norris and Roberts. The night’s most colorful number was Cairo Street Ride, a depiction of a crazy cab negotiating what Marcus called “controlled chaos.” Rising from a bustling thicket of voices, the music straightened out with a jaunty bounce and eventually an irresistibly funny interlude where the cab’s engine revs up, then the driver shifting through the gearbox. People still drive stickshift in Egypt!

Ferber got to add some wry, Wycliffe-style humor of his own in the next tune, The Hive, the bandleader finally adding a rapidfire, spiraling solo of his own over the band’s lustre. The brooding ballad Final Days built artful variations on a somber stairstepping riff anchored by Jeff Reed’s bass. And the closing epic was a real showstopper. Drummer Eric Kennedy took a regally tumbling solo against Davis’ eerily circling piano loops as it gained momentum, Marcus launching into the most wildly gritty, intense solo of the night before the jousting at the end kicked in. Chamber Music America, who commissioned this piece, got plenty of bang for the buck. And that was just the first set.

You’ll see this on the best concerts of 2017 page here later this month.

Radical Cross-Pollination From Amir ElSaffar and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

The waves of melody slowly massing, leaping and often caressing the walls at Lincoln Center Friday night were less radical than they were a natural, spontaneous new invention. The premise: to mash up two often haunting, otherworldly traditions, Arabic maqam and Indian ragas, into a sometimes serene, sometimes turbulent, ultimately transcendent new element. Fresh off European tour, trumpeter/santoorist/singer Amir ElSaffar joined forces with violinist Arun Ramamurthy and another five of the world’s leading creative musicians in Indian classical music and beyond, for a dynamic, characteristically epic performance. As far as single-band concerts in New York in 2017 are concerned, this might have been the best of them all.

There’s far less of a stylistic gap between Arabic music and its counterparts from the Hindustani subcontinent than some might assume. Both traditions are highly improvisational and rely on overtones outside the western scale. Among many other things, this performance underscored how closely the most chromatic Indian modes resemble those of the Middle East, and how resonantly hypnotic Middle Eastern music can be.

“We’re going to experience Indian music in a radical new way!” grinned Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal.  Ramamurthy enthused about how this show was an attempt to connect the “parallel lives” and shifting modes of Middle Eastern maqam with the Indian tradition’s slow upward trajectories, along with a heavy dose of improvisation.

The five-part suite hit a counterintuitive peak during the night’s first really lighthearted moment, a lively raga-based number fueled by tabla player Shiva Ghoshal’s increasingly animated beats. But even that grew overcast and wary to match the nebulous, distantly ominous sensibility that had pervaded the evening up to that point. Then sitarist Abhik Mukherjee took a gracefully bounding solo that was just short of imploring – and then Ramamurthy jumped in. This was too good to not be a part of. Everybody wanted a piece of it.. Bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, cellist Naseem Alatrash and finally the bandleader himself followed, building a bracing, acerbic mist with his trumpet..

As a composer, ElSaffar’s genius is how translucent and irresistibly catchy his themes are: he is to this era what Miles Davis was to the late 50s. Likewise, Ramamurthy is taking carnatic  themes to places no one ever imagined – like this. From the allusively angst-fueled opening theme and variations that rose on an ashen tide of sound, to the concluding number – built around a familiar riff that the Grateful Dead famously appropriated – these elegant, often wounded melodies lingered long after the show. Yet ElSaffar’s most electrifying moments here were not on trumpet, but on vocals and then santoor, methodically and incisively rippling and pinging, once in exquisitely pointillistic tandem with kanun player Firas Zreik. Perhaps the most haunting, stunning solo of all was Alatrash’s somber, intense pavane right after the first movement finally coalesced. 

And the audience was treated to a fullscale spectacle that went beyond the music. Mukherjee opened the show with a brief creation-myth narration that set the stage for the night’s looming, enveloping introductory sonic cocoon. Meanwhile, intricate, tectonically shifting projections by Nitin Mukul played on the screen over the stage. Depending on the music, or the individual tableau – a mudpuddle, planes in the clouds, mandala-like images – he’d slowly pour water into each slide for a kaleidoscopically dissolving effect. And midway through the set, ElSaffar read a passage from Rumi about how after humans are long gone from this planet, invisible instruments will still be playing. For that we can only hope.

Much as it’s going to be hard to top this, that’s the game plan for Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation, which seeks to radicalize and transform the Indian classical tradition for all sorts of innovations. Future artists who will be joined by Massive members here include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Raga Massive return to their weekly 8:30 PM Wednesday residency this month at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St.  (at Washington Ave) in Ft. Greene. There’s a special guest every week, followed by a raga jam. Cover is $15; the closest train is the 2 to Bergen St.

Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.