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No New Abnormal

Tag: Amir ElSaffar

A Strange, Disquieting Album For Disquieting Times

Pianist Cory Smythe has carved out an individualistic place between the worlds of indie classical, jazz improvisation and the avant garde. The strange and often disquieting sonics of his new album Accelerate Every Voice – streaming at Bandcamp – are created by a sampler which plays quartertones triggered by his phrases on the piano keys, a creepy bell-like device that brings to mind Vijay Iyer‘s collaborations with Hafez Modirzadeh as well as Aruan Ortiz‘s work with Amir ElSaffar.

The opening track, Northern Cities Vowel Shift sets the stage, the pianist joined by a vocal quintet interweaving leaps and bounds amid the uneasy chimes. Smythe explains that the unorthodox lineup of singers he asssembled – Kyoko Kitamura, Michael Mayo, Raquel Acevedo Klein and a vocal rhythm section of Steven Hrycalak on “vocal bass” and Kari Francis on “vocal percussion” – are often meant to evoke the kind of blithe optimism a collegiate choir: “Maybe a complicated kind of optimism, a poisoned-by-whiteness American kind of optimism.”

The Andrew Hill and James Weldon Johnson inspirations for the blippy, distantly hip-hop tinged title track don’t really come through, although Smythe’s lithe ripples and runs make a sharp contrast with the vocalists’ poltergeist flickers.

Track three, Marl Every Voice rises and falls with a distant, chilly menace and an occasional hint of gospel. There are two Kinetic Whirlwind Sculptures here, the first keening and oscillating with washes from inside the piano and what sounds like electronically enabled throat-singing. The second is much simpler and loopier; it sounds like a bunch of monks lowered a carillon to the bottom of a well.

Vehemently has a jaunty, bouncy lattice of vocals and spare piano accents, but also a persistent, unsettled ambience. The miniature Knot Every Voice comes across as a cuisinarted vocal warmup exercise. There’s a more devious, Meredith Monk-like comedic sensibility to Weatherproof Song (a snide reference to the famous Yale ditty, with its pompous lyrics by the king of jungle imperialism, Rudyard Kipling)

The album winds up with the epic Piano and Ocean Waves for Deep Relaxation, written as a follow-up to Annea Lockwood’s global warming-era parable Southern Exposure, where a piano goes out with the rising tide. It works equally well as subtle spoof of new age nature soundscapes, Satoko Fujii-esque extended-technique tone poem and ghostly Brian Eno-style tableau.

Beyond that cocoon of a conclusion, this isn’t easy listening; then again, these aren’t exactly easy times. Fans of intrepid avant garde singers like Ted Hearne and Sofia Rei will love this record.

Canland: A Goldmine of Rare, Legendary New York Performances

What better time than now to launch an archive of irreplaceable live recordings from the past thirty-three years? Canland just went live a couple of days ago with several days worth of footage of concert performances by iconic figures as well as fringe players from across the worlds of the avant garde, jazz and new classical music since 1987.

On May 10 of that year, a trio of rising star composers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang – staged the first annual Bang on a Can Marathon of new music in a stuffy Soho loft. Over the next three decades, the mostly-annual event would take over larger and larger venues and become a New York institution.

If you ever went to one of the marathons, it was obvious that everything was being painstakingly recorded. Relatively little has made it to youtube, one of the reasons why Canland is such a goldmine. The other is that it’s still a work in progress: what’s up now is merely a greatest-hits version, along with some obscure treasures from the marathon’s early years, plus some footage from various shows by the house art-rock band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

In keeping with the organization’s goal of breaking down boundaries between musical genres, the diversity of the music is astonishing. Need something soothing and soul-nourishing? Innov Gnawa‘s fifteen minutes of ancient Moroccan trance-dance grooves will do the trick (for the record, this blog wasn’t there when the band played it at the 2017 marathon at the Brooklyn Museum).

If you can handle something harrowing, click on Ensemble Signal’s meticulously grim 2011 version of Wolfe’s Cruel Sister, at the World Financial Center atrium. This blog didn’t exist until a couple of months later, but that piece ended up topping the list of that year’s best songs. One of many other fascinating Wolfe works here is her microtonal, drifiting, echoey Williamsburg Bridge, from the inaugural 1987 marathon.

Lots of big names are represented: Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, Meredith Monk, the World Saxophone Quartet, Tania Leon, Phil Kline, Tan Dun, Keeril Makan and both guitarists in Sonic Youth. There are iconic pieces like Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together – which appears many times in several different arrangements. Terry Riley’s In C is also here, less frequently. There are pioneering works by Ives, Xenakis, Glass, Andriessen and Saariaho plus snippets of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports.

As the years go on, it’s obvious the Bang on a Can hydra are keeping their collective eyes on the ball, showcasing new music by younger artists including Bora Yoon, Gabriella Smith, Amir ElSaffar, Missy Mazzoli and the late Johann Johannsson. The roots of this music also get their due. The Cassatt String Quartet revel in the otherworldliness of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1931 quartet. International Contemporary Ensemble play Galina Ulstvolskaya’s strange, insistent (and very brief, barely twelve-minute-long) Symphony No. 5.

And the more off-the-wall material is just as entertaining. The Kazue Sawai Koto Ensemble play one of the very first compositions to feature bass koto (some of it sounds like a posse of possums under the lid of a concert grand piano). In 1989, a pickup group who call themselves the World Casio Quartet play no wave guitar legend David First’s looming, atmospheric Plate Mass; nineteen years later, the Bang on a Can All-Stars tackle a similar yet more somber and animated Erdem Helvacioglu piece. All this is just the of the iceberg. In the mood to go way, way down the rabbit hole? This is your chance.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcendent, Exhilarating, Haunting Iraqi Sounds at Roulette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Vicarious Western Appreciation of an Epic Iraqi Musical Tradition

Amir ElSaffar may be best known for his epically haunting, slowly crescendoing, highly improvisational big band music, but the roots of that paradigm-shifting sound can be found in his smaller group, Safaafir. The Chicago-born trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist went to Iraq to connect with his heritage, where he met singer Hamid Al-Saadi, who would mentor him in the centuries-old Iraqi maqam tradition. Last night at Lincoln Center, Safaafir backed Al-Saadi in a towering, majestic, sold-out performance whose unease and ecstasy transcended linguistic limitations.

“It wasn’t so quiet in the dressing room,” the bandleader joked as the group tuned up. “Thank you for being so respectful.” He began the show playing the rippling santoor, his sister Dena on viola, George Ziadeh on oud, Tim Moore on percussion and a trio of backup singers.

Throughout the night, the melodies fell somewhere in between the traditional western scale and the bracing microtones of Arabic music, sometimes evoking an eerie major-on-minor ambience. There’s also a frequent trancelike quality to this music, evident from the pensive, insistent, straightforward pulse of the night’s opening instrumental intro. Then they launched into a syncopated antiphon, Al-Saadi leading the band in a stark, dramatic call and response. Moments like this are all the more tantalizing when you don’t speak the language: what was it about this music that sent it underground during the Saddam Hussein regime?

Dena ElSaffar delivered jauntily dancing lines, goosebump-inducing microtonal trills and alternately spare and lush washes of sound in contrast with her brother’s slowly rising, rippling crescendos. Ziadeh’s solos and exchanges with the other musicians tended to be more brooding. Al-Saadi would add aching, tremoloing ornamentation, especially as the songs would slowly coalesce out of an improvisation. Often the songs would begin rather somberly and then lighten as the rhythm came in.

There also wasn’t any traditional western verse/chorus dichotomy, the group reliant on each others’ cues as well as Al-Saadi’s carefully modulated dynamic shifts. Sharp-fanged chromatics gave way to sunnier grooves as the songs went along: a drinking tune, an ode to a beautiful woman, Sufi devotional melodies and a song about two speculators bickering over who was to blame for their mutual losses. Plus ca change. It was also extraordinarily catchy: from Egypt to points further east, music that relies on melody rather than harmony tends to be that way.  The night’s most rapturously haunting, gorgeous number was a slowly swaying anthem in a mode close to the Arabic hijaz. The most easygoing were what could have been an acoustic version of an electronic habibi pop hit, and a triumphant anthem over a rat-a-tat groove on which Dena ElSaffar played jowza fiddle.

In an era where artists from predominantly Muslim countries are demonized, it’s encouraging to see the nation’s flagship cultural institution going against the grain. Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who emceed, spoke of how her organization is home to “Programming really designed to represent New York City, an international city of diversity and immigrants – we celebrate all of that on our stage.” Meera Dugal – during her Lincoln Center tenure – programmed the show in conjunction with the Artistic Freedom Initiative, who to date have provided free legal representation along with help with resettlement and work permits to over 200 international artists at risk.

The next free concert at Lincoln Center’s Broadway atrium space just north of 62nd St. is April 4 at 7:30 PM with popular, rustic Americana songwriter Leyla McCalla – who shifts between oldtimey string band music, blues and Haitian sounds. Early arrival is always a good idea here.

And Al-Saadi and Safaafir are at Pioneer Works on April 8 at 7 PM for $10 in advance.

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

Aruan Ortiz Brings His Lavish, Ambitious, Relevant New Material to the West Village

Pianist Aruan Ortiz gets plenty of props for his chops, but he deserves more appreciation for how eclectic he is. Like Vijay Iyer, he’s ambitious enough to play an entire set on microtonal piano (in Ortiz’s case, with Amir ElSaffar’s eerily majestic large ensemble). Like most of the current crop of expat Cuban pianists, the depth of his classical training informs his knack for a catchy tune, as well as his orchestral ambitions.

There will be a lot of those at his show Dec 6 at 7:30 PM at Greenwich House Music School. The first set features a duet with a unnamed special guest (wild guess: Paquito D’Rivera). The second features two new chamber-jazz pieces: Living in the Midst of a Twisted Globe, performed by violinist Mary Rowell, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and pianist Geoffrey Burleson; and Ogguere (When the Soul of the Earth Dances Around Spectral Motions), played by a brass quintet including Daniel Blankinship and Nate Wooley (trumpets), Ryan Keberle (trombone), Vince Chancey (French horn) and José Dávil (tuba). Cover is $25/$20 stud., which hints that the special guest might be really famous.

Ortiz’ album Orbiting, streaming at his music page, offers a good look at his diverse approach to composition as well as his formidable technique. The performances are expansive; everybody in the band gets plenty of opportunity to contribute, and the material doesn’t often fit any kind of easy A-B-C pattern or facsimile thereof.

The first number, Ginga Carioca begins with a brain-warping duel between Ortiz’s left and right hand, in completely different time signatures, finally coalescing as Rashaan Carter and Eric McPherson’s elegant bass and drums come in, guitarist David Gilmore taking centerstage with a low-key but punchy, tropically-inflected solo. Lingering piano belltones anchor a bubbly, bustling bass solo and then recede; finally a steady clave kicks in amid the rhythmic jousting.

The title track opens with a trickily syncopated, aptly circling theme, then edges toward a gritty waltz on the jagged wings of the guitar. From there, a brief Afro-Cuban interlude and then a darkly insistent coda complete the picture. From a catchy, rubato build through the opening riff and dancing solo bass, The Heir follows a long build to a wary, syncopated, distorted Gilmore solo, enigmatically spiraling chromatic piano and finally a towering McCoy Tyner-esque coda

Koko morphs from a squirrelly intro to a brisk swing shuffle with wry, jaunty conversation between Ortiz and Gilmore. Numbers, a tone poem of sorts, alternates between majesty and murky menace: it wouldn’t be out of place in the early Herbie Hancock catalog.

Held together with spacious, lingering block chords from Ortiz over a scrambling backdrop, Wru is a launching pad for a long Gilmore solo that finally cedes to the bandleader’s dark resonance and hypnotically clustering attack. After a long, majestic solo Ortiz intro, Green City shifts between clave gravitas, hard-hitting urban bustle and more darkly subdued territory,

The album concludes with the most funereal take of Alone Together you could imagine: flickering brushwork, mournful chords and surreal volume-knob guitar move slowly outward to bolero hints, a judicious, spare bass solo and takes your breath away when the band come full circle. This is very serious, tuneful stuff: give it a spin before the Greenwich House show if you’re going.

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.

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.