Every year here, sometime in December, there’s a list of the best New York concerts from over the past twelve months. Obviously, it’s not definitive – nobody has the time, and no organization has the manpower to send somebody to every single worthwhile concert in this city and then sort them all out at the end of the year.
But it’s an awful lot of fun to put together. Legendary Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian has a way of showing up on that list just about every year, and he’ll be on the best shows of 2018 page here, too. This past evening at Barbes, he and his Taksim ensemble – Adam Good on oud, son Lee Baronian on percussion, Mal Stein on drums and Sprocket Royer on bass, tucked way back in the far corner – channeled every emotion a band could possibly express in a tantalizing fifty minutes or so onstage. Surprise was a big one. There were lots of laughs, in fact probably more than at any other of Baronian’s shows here over the past few years. There was also longing, and mourning, and suspense, and majesty and joy.
Baronian came out of Spanish Harlem in the late 40s, a contemporary of Charlie Parker. Considered one of the original pillars of Near Eastern jazz, as he calls it, Baronian immersed himself in both bebop and what was then a thriving Manhattan Armenian music demimonde. In the years since, he literally hasn’t lost a step. Much as he can still fly up and down the valves, and played vigorously on both soprano sax and clarinet, his performances are more about soul than speed and this was typical. Some of his rapidfire rivulets recalled Coltrane, or Bird, but in those artists’ most introspective and purposeful moments. And neither dove headfirst into the chromatics to the extent that Baronian does.
He opened with a long, incisively chromatic riff that was as catchy as it was serpentine – a typical Baronian trait. Good doubled the melody while Royer played terse low harmonies against it, the percussion section supplying a solid slink. Baronian’s command of Middle Eastern microtones is still both as subtle and bracing as it ever was as he ornamented the tunes with shivery unease as well as devious wit.
Throughout the show, he’d often play both soprano and clarinet in the same tune, then put down his horn and play riq – the rattling Middle Eastern tambourine – while other band members soloed. The night’s two funniest moments were where he led them on boisterous, vaudevillian percussion interludes with as many cartoonish “gotcha” moments as there was polyrhythmic virtuosity.
Where Baronian made it look easy, Good really dug in and turned a performance that, even for a guy who’s probably one of the top half-dozen oudists in New York, was spectacular. Brooding, ominously quiet phrasing quickly gave way to spiky, sizzling tremolo-picking, pointillistic volleys of sixteenth notes and a precise articulation that defied logic, considering how many notes he was playing. Getting the oud sufficiently up in the PA system helped immeasurably – oud dudes, take a look at this guy’s pedalboard, for the sake of clarity and a whole lot more.
The night’s best number also happened to be the quietest and possibly the most epic – considering how many segues there were, it sometimes became hard to tell where one tune ended and the other began. Baronian played this one on clarinet, looming in from the foghorn bottom of the instrument’s register and then rising with a misty, mournful majesty. As the song went on, it took on less of an elegaic quality and became more of a mystery score. Royer’s spare, resonant groove, Stein’s elegant rimshots, the younger Baronian’s otherworldly, muted boom and Good’s shadowy spirals completed this midnight blue nocturne.
They picked up the pace at the end of the show, taking it out with a triumphant flourish. On one hand, that Baronian chooses Barbes to play his infrequent New York gigs (he’s very popular in Europe) is a treat for the cognoscenti, especially considering how intimate Brooklyn’s best music venue is. But if there’s anybody who deserves a week at the Vanguard or Jazz at Lincoln Center, it’s this guy.
Watch this space for upcoming Baronian Barbes gigs. In the meantime, Good is playing one of his other many axes, guitar, with slashing, careening heavy psychedelic band Greek Judas – who electrify old hash-smuggling anthems from the 30s and 40s – tomorrow night, Sept 8 at Rubulad. It’s a lo-fi loft space situation with a Burning Man vibe – fire twirlers, space cake and absinthe could be in the picture. Cover is $10 if you show up before 9; email for the Bushwick address/info.