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Transcendence and Joy with Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes

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.

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Vigen Hovsepyan Reinvents Stark, Impactful, Frequently Haunting Armenian Themes

The little nation of Armenia seems to have more good musicians per capita than almost anywhere in the world. So it makes sense that one of the most intriguing albums to come over the transom here in the past year is singer/bandleader Vigen Hovsepyan’s Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music, streaming at Spotify. Hovsepyan plays guitar, duduk and percussion and sings in Armenian in a strong, expressive baritone, backed by bass, percussion, oud, cello, and traditional reeds including duduk and zurna. What differentiates this collection from more traditional versions of these tunes is the imaginative arrangements, with edgy, crescendoing solos from throughout the band.

Armenian music is notable for blending the enigmatic microtones of the Middle East within melodies in the western scale. Minor keys are prevalent, along with a lot of what’s essentially implied melody: these themes are simple, stark and striking. The album’s opening number, a dirge, features rising star duduk player Arsen Petrosyan along with intense, otherworldly vocal harmonies. Another Armenian reed star, zurna player Harutyun Chkolyan is featured on a more lively later track. 

The spare, stately, syncopatedly swaying Nare features understatedly incisive, spacious oud work from the great Ara Dinkjian, up to a surprise trick ending. Hoy Nar is a robust work song – a riverboat tune, maybe? – updated with echoes of 90s trip-hop and a long, bracing, uneasily trilling duduk solo.

Garegin Arakelyan’s austere bass riff mingles with Havard Enstad’s sparse piano in the ballad Es Gisher, building to aching close harmonies between strings and reeds. Hovsepyan’s voice rises to an angst-fueled peak over a menacing low string drone in Ani; then the strings build a storm on the horizon. The gracefully dancing, austere Tal Tala features breathtakingly spiraling tar lute from Miqayel Voskanyan against a brooding backdrop.

The moody ballad Gulo sways slowly over an elegant 6/8 guitar/bass groove over resonant, distantly troubled piano: it’s the most Lynchian track here. Drdo opens with a darkly pensive exchange between Hovsepyan’s emphatic vocals, cello, frame drum and duduk, slowly coalescing with an overcast grandeur. The Immigrant blends dancing, Balkan-tinged strings and echoey, Romany-inflected vocals, with a spaciously mournful duduk solo.

A tense low bass drone, a melancholy cello solo and Hovsepyan’s misterioso flamenco-tinged guitar fuel the slow, troubled, cinematic sweep of Lusnyak Gisher. Likewise, the closing cut, Sareri begins with cumulo-nimbus atmospherics and then settles into an elegaic sway. Considering the history of Armenia and how many cultural treasures were lost in the holocaust there a hundred years ago, and before, it’s no surprise how dark most of this music is. But you don’t need to speak Armenian to be drawn into this unsettling masterpiece.

Souren Baronian Brings His Agelessly Soulful Fun and Middle Eastern Jazz Gravitas Back to Barbes

Is Souren Baronian a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, there are guys younger and a lot less accomplished who’ve received that honor. No time like the present, people…while there still is such thing as the NEA.

Now in his eighties, the Armenian-American multi-reedman, percussionist and bandleader is absolutely undiminished as a soloist, one of the greatest pioneers and most soulful players in the history of jazz, let alone the Middle Eastern jazz  he’s made  a career in. He’s bringing the latest edition of his long-running Taksim ensemble to an intimate show at Barbes on August 10 at 10 PM; you should get there early.

A listen to Baronian’s 2002 album Ocean Algae – streaming at Spotify – offers a good idea of what he does in concert, and he still plays a lot of stuff from it live: it’s one of his best. Much as Baronian is known for unselfconscious depth and gravitas, he also has an often ridiculously surreal sense of humor, something that bubbles up when least expected. This album has three-quarters of Baronian’s original 1975 version of Taksim, including the rhythm section of bassist Steve Knight and drummer Mal Stein.

A funky clickety-clack groove underscores Out of Exasperation, which Baronian opens with a moody, spacious soprano sax solo before the oud and rhythm section kick in. The late, great Haig Magnoukian’s oud solo goes ratcheting over growly bass and drums while Baornian’s son Lee provides extra boom on the low end with his dumbek.

The seven-minute title track is a taste of the some of the liveliest stuff to come out of the ocean, the bandleader alternately jubilant and uneasy as the rhythms shift on a dime. Magnoukian switches out the slashing tremolo-picked clusters of the first song for rapidfire hammer-ons and a surgically slashing attack on the strings.

Gooney Bird, a big concert favorite, could also be called It Ain’t Got a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Oud – after Baronian’s done choosing his spots, veering between the blues scale and Middle Eastern modes, Magnoukian takes the song closer to Turkey with his jaunty pastoral picking. The wry, surfy drum turnarounds are a favorite trope.

Toxic Tonic, an almost thirteen-minute epic, contains everything from echoes of medieval English folk, to jaunty Lebanese pastorale passages, surrealistically altered blues riffage on the oud, a psychedelic drum interlude that would have made the Grateful Dead jealous, along with all kinds of delicious microtonal sax flutters and dives. There’s also a subtle joke early on that will have you pulling on your earbuds.

Five For Chick – a Chick Corea homage, it would seem – is a lot jauntier, at least until the senior Baronian takes it further into the shadows, veering between modes as Magnoukian grounds it with his spiky, machinegunnig riffage. Then he takes a poignantly searching, rapidfire oud taksim into the aptly titled Conversation, the bandleader switching to kaval (wood flute), Magnoukian eventually edging everybody out.

Jubilee is the album’s catchiest and most upbeat track, a shuffling mashup of New Orleans second line and dusky levantine influences with a tastily bustling oud/percussion interlude. Baronian’s moody duduk (wooden oboe) improvisation leads into Desert Wind, another concert favorite with its catchy, circling clarinet riffs, subtle echo rhythms and one of his most poignant solos here.

11th Hour is a lot more carefree than its title implies, although Magnoukian brings in some unease, at least until a completely unexpected south-of-the-border detour. Jungle Jive is the most joyously warped number here, the band taking it methodically further east out of a dixieland-flavored jazz waltz. The band follows a similar tangent on the final cut, Time & Time Again. from Knight’s uneasily bending bass intro through Magnoukian’s tensely suspenseful solo to an intertwining oud/sax conversation. This album is as rich as it is long, and it’s very long. Onstage, Baronian hasn’t lost any stamina either.

Timeless Middle Eastern Jazz Icon Souren Baronian at the Top of His Game in Montreal

One of the most rapturously gorgeous, unselfconsciously soulful albums released over the past year is Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, by ageless multi-reed sage Souren Baronian’s Taksim. It’s a high-quality archival release that goes back a few years. Now in his eighties but absolutely undiminished  – his performance at Golden Fest this past winter was mind-blowing – he’s the reigning patriarch of Middle Eastern jazz. Here he plays soprano sax, clarinet, kaval flute and also percussion.

Baronian opens the set with a brooding but kinetic soprano sax melody, adds a few swirls as his son Lee Baronian’s dumbek flickers, then the late, great Haig Magnoukian’s oud goes sprinting over Paul Brown’s terse bass and Mal Stein’s similarly emphatic drums. The song is Gooney Bird – Baronian’s titles tend to be on the colorful side.

The bandleader’s rapidfire chromatic runs alternate with incisive blues riffage and flashes of bop as Magnoukian digs in with a bassline of his own; then the senior Baronian goes in a jauntier direction echoed by the band as the oud drives them to a lickety-split crescendo out.

These songs are long; there’s a lot going on here. The second track is Ocean Algae – look out, this stuff is ALIIIIVE, and possibly psychotropic! Strolling, then marching, then scampering, the sax’s airy precision sometimes brings to mind an Armenian Paul Desmond until Baronian brings his achingly intense microtones into the picture as Magnoukian and the rhythm section scramble for shore.

Magnoukian opens the next number, Floating Goat, with a solo taksim, switching out the fast and furious tremolo-picking for an expansive, spacious but no less edgy attack. Then the band launches into a phantasmagorical, Monkish strut until Baronian’s sax pulls them into slightly sunnier, more straightforward territtory over a pouncing 7/8 groove. Magnoukian’s spiky, pointillistic waves fuel an upward drive until the drums and percussion provide a hilariously rude interruption.

Baronian’s pensive clarinet gives a moody, subtle latin tinge to the slinky, midtempo Rayhana, a feast of low-midrange melismatics. His poignant, windswept solo is arguably the album’s high point, echoed with similar expansiveness and gravitas by Magnoukian.

Switching from clarinet to kaval, Baronian and Magnoukian take 8th Sky further south toward Egyptian snakecharming terrain as the rhythm section percolates, peaking out with a fervent Rahsaan Roland Kirk-ish solo. The album winds up with the bustlingly chromatic Time and Time Again, Magnoukian’s bristling solo handing off to Baronian’s sax, which dips and dances to a joyous conclusion. Is Souren Baronian a NEA Jazz Master yet? If not, we should start a petition – while the NEA still exists.

If you’re looking for the album online, good luck – however, it is available at s shows, and when he’s not on the road, Baronian typically makes Barbes his home base. And there’s a more recent, similarly magical Manhattan show from last year up at youtube as well.

Dynamic, Exhilarating, Haunting New Armenian Sounds from Miqayel Voskanyan

Last night Drom was packed with a chatty, boisterous crowd who’d come to party and take in a surrealistic, often haunting, absolutely uncategorizable show by Yerevan-based tar lute player Miqayel Voskanyan and his band. Unlike your typical Iranian tar player, Voskanyan holds his high on his chest, like a giant ear of corn that he’s about to take a big bite out of. While there were a few crescendos during his roughly hourlong set that were packed with high-voltage flurries of tremolo-picking, Voskanyan plays with a great sense of touch and subtlety. He saved his wildest chord-chopping for when he really needed it, and even then, he didn’t give the impression that he was working that hard (beyond frequent trips to the side of the stage to guzzle water, anyway). Otherwise, his attack on the strings was nuanced, and judicious, with a masterful use of space. Guys who can play as fast as he does can’t usually chill with an equal degree of mystery.

Behind him, the trio of Arman Peshtmaljian on a Nord Stage 2 keyboard, Gurgen Ghazaryan on bass and Movses Ghazaryan on drums shifted between rhythms and idioms with a similar, understated dexterity. There were interludes that drew on Near Eastern art-rock, and folk-rock, along with frequent allusions to current-day Balkan turbo-folk and Romany dance music. And there were some moments, usually when Voskanyan left a verse or two to the band, that veered closer to jazz territory. Yet this isn’t a rock band, and it’s definitely not a folk band, even though they amped up a couple of singalong numbers with the crowd at the end.

Armenia is small, about the same size as Jamaica. Like reggae, Armenian music has a vast, global influence: Voskanyan’s compositions reflect that scope. He and the band opened with a pretty straight-up American funk tune, except that it sounded as if it was being played on a banjo. Then Voskanyan went up the fretboard, where the microtones of the Armenian scale creep in, and the effect was as magical as it was strange and unexpected. There were many, many moments like that throughout the rest of the the evening.

From there he sang vocalese over an uneasy, slow rainy-day theme that drew more heavily on chromatics and microtones. To western ears, his most riveting number was a slow, utterly inconsolable film noir-style chromatic instrumental that could have been a Steve Ulrich composition. Voskanyan’s songs without words are very evocative: a fireside tableau was more bittersweet than you might expect. The biggest hit with the crowd was a TGIF-themed epic that shifted from a brisk, flurrying 12/8 rhythm through all sorts of changes, a long keyboard break  – the only place where Voskanyan really lost the crowd – and then he brought them back in a split second with an enigmatic hailstorm of a tar solo. At the end of the set, he brought up accordionist Sevana Tchakerian, who alternated between terse washes of sound and a rhythmic pulse, and also provided spellbinding, acerbic vocals that were a perfect counterpart to Voskanyan’s confident baritone.

Voskanyan and band are currently on US tour, sponsored by AGBU-YPNC. The next stop is tomorrow night, April 7 at 9 PM at St. John Armenian Church, 275 Olympia Way in San Francisco; cover is $30/$20 stud. Drom, the East Village’s mecca for sounds from every part of the globe, has their usual slate of eclectic acts coming up. There’s a metal show tonight; Greek songwriter Kostis Maraveyas plays with his darkly bouncy rembetiko and latin-flavored band tomorrow night, April 7 at half past eleven for $20. 

Hauntingly Stark Armenian Sounds from Arsen Petrosyan

One of the most hauntingly beautiful albums of recent months is Arsen Petrosyan‘s Charentsavan: Music for Armenian Duduk, streaming at Storyamp. For those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern music, the duduk is the world’s smallest low-register instrument, smaller even than the bass ukulele made famous by the Handsome Family‘s Rennie Sparks. With its ancient, otherworldly, resonantly woody tone, the duduk has been a staple of Armenian music for thousands of years. Over the past several decades, it’s also insinuated itself into the arsenal of many reed players around the world: Matt Darriau, for one, played it on a few numbers at his most recent couple of Barbes shows.

Petrosyan’s album is spare and relentlessly intense, played in minor keys, typically with very sparse percussion, lute or drone accompaniment. The instrumentals mix originals with ancient themes, many of them rescued from dusty archives where the music had been hidden away under Soviet occupation. On the opening track, Eshkhemet, he establishes a meticulously ornamented, woundedly expressive approach, in this case subtly embellishing a minimalist minor-key melody played over a single-note drone. The second track, Hazar Ernek follows the slow, funereally swaying pulse of a dombek goblet drun. On Naz Par, Petrosyan sails up into the instrument’s clarinet-like upper range, this time employing both percussion and what sounds like a harmonium lingering in the background.

In an imaginative piece of orchestration, Tapna Kervan Prtav sets Petrosyan’s imploring upper-register melody over tersely pulsing concert harp. He plays over a stately lute-and-guitar arrangement on Lullaby for the Sun, by contemporary oud mastermind Ara Dinkjian, finally rising out of an opaque, jazz-tinged pulse with an almost horror-stricken intensity. Javakhki Shoror opens with simple, doubletracked duduk, warily flurrying melismatics over a steady high drone until the drums and a full string orchesra kick in and then all of a sudden it’s an uneasy dance.

The gentle, lush, catchy pastorale Kessabi Oror features flurrying tar lutes: it’s the most distinctly modern piece here, contarsting with the 1100-year-old folk tune Havik, an austere, desolate tableau. The final cut, Hairenik is a plaintively airy, medieval-sounding ballad for duduk and harp.

The press material for the album compares Petrosyan to the instrument’s most prominent 20th century virtuoso, Jivan Gasparyan, whose transcendent and reputedly final New York concert this blog was privileged to cover in 2014. Those are titanic shoes to fill, but Petrosyan is clearly up to the challenge. Fans of Armenian, Middle Eastern and Balkan music shouldn’t pass up the chance to give this a spin, and anyone inclined to low-key, melancholy sounds should do so as well. The album is available in the US from Pomegranate Music.

A Rare, Haunting Recording of Armenian Music Gets a Manhattan Launch

Musicologist and drummer Jason Hamacher (late of squalling Washington, DC experimental indie rock trio Decahedron) made his initial trip to Aleppo, Syria eight years ago, which jumpstarted his recently launched Lost Origin Sound Series. Last year’s initial release comprised a series of recordings of thousand-year-old Sufi chants by Syrian choir Nawa. The second release in the series, Forty Martyrs: Armenian Chants from Aleppo, features 2006 and 2010 recordings by Armenian priest Yeznig Zegchanian, made in the historic, centuries-old house of worship where he was head cleric until war broke out. The result is as haunting as it is historic. To mark the hundredth anniversary of the genocide in Armenia, there’s an interesting album release event happening this Friday, September 18 at 7 PM at the Kavookjian Auditorium of the Armenian Diocese in New York, 630 2nd Ave.(34th/35th Sts), where Hamacher will discuss the album’s backstory and related historical events. The evening will be moderated by NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas; admission is free and open to the public.

The album itself was recorded on the fly, a selection of common liturgical pieces. Zegchanian sings at a steady clip in his endangered West Armenian dialect, his soulful, expressive baritone projecting with an effortless strength reinforced by just a touch of the 1496 edifice’s magical natural reverb. To call these impassioned solo performances inspired is an understatement: Zegchanian may have realized that he had a rare moment to immortalize this material, and seized it. The performance is fresh and off the cuff as you might expect, and the levels of volume and reverb vary from track to track, as would be expected with a field recording. As with secular Armenian music, the tonalities are closer to the even intervals of the west than the microtone of the east. The album – which is happily also available on vinyl – hasn’t hit Spotify or the other usual streaming spots yet, but there’s an intriguing selection of tracks from Hamacher’s archive up at Soundcloud.

While one might not expect to be able to hear Armenian Christian music in a predominantly Muslim city, Aleppo has historically been a major cosmopolitan center, often serving as a sanctuary for minorities from across the Middle East. As of today, most of the grounds at Forty Martyrs Church remain intact, although its outbuildings have been damaged by artillery fire. And Hamacher has not been able to track down Zegchanian. How cruelly ironic that the horrors of 1915 would mirror the tragic events in Syria a hundred years later: it is approximated that half of Aleppo’s Armenian population have become refugees in the past two years.

A Shattering Roulette Performance of Mary Kouyoumdjian Works Commemorating the Genocide in Armenia

Last night’s concert at Roulette included what were arguably the most harrowing moments onstage at any New York performance since Sung Jin Hong premiered his rumbling, macabre real-time depiction of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing at a Chelsea show with the One World Symphony a couple of years ago. This one commemorated the centenary of an even more lethal series of events, the holocaust in Armenia, via four works by the riveting, individualistic composer Mary Kouyoumdjian.

For those with gaps in their history, no nation in the past hundred fifty years was depopulated by mass murder to the extent that Armenia was, dating from the 1890s through the Ottomans’ mass extermination campaign of 1915-22 .The exact death toll is not known: if the pogroms of 1894-96 and subsequent mass killings are included, the number is upwards of two milllion men, women and children murdered, confirmed by the fact that barely fifteen percent of the pre-genocide population remained afterward. And if genocide wasn’t bad enough, who then formally annexed Armenia? The Soviet Union.

Kouyoumdjian’s music is rich with history, notably The Bombs of Beirut, her first Kronos Quartet commission, an examination of the effects of the civil war in Lebanon in the early 80s. That ensemble premiered an even more intense new string quartet, while adventurous chamber ensemble Hotel Elefant performed an equally gripping trio of works. The music was propulsively and often insistently rhythmic, and texturally rich, with some group members doubling on multiple instruments including accordion, vibraphone and electric piano. Kouyoumdjian worked the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from murky lows to whispery highs, often balancing them for a dramatic, cinematic effect.

A quintet including pianist David Friend, flutist Domenica Fossati, violinist Andie Springer, clarinetist Isabel Kim and cellist Rose Bellini played Dzov Erky Koonyov (Sea of Two Colors), a homage to legendary singer/composer/musicologist Komitas, who was sort of the Alan Lomax of early 20th century Armenia. An acidic, biting diptych blending elements of spectral, microtonal and circular indie classical idioms, it challenged Friend with its long series of pointillistic anvil motives, which he finally and remarkably gracefully handed off to Springer as the rest of the group provided a lush but stark interweave. Komitas spent the last two decades of his life institutionalized, broken by the horrific torture he’d suffered, referenced by Koyoumdjian’s endlessly cycling, aching phrases and distant Middle Eastern allusions.

Baritone Jeffrey Gavett gave an understatedly poignant tone to Royce Vavrek’s lyrics throughout Everlastingness, a trio piece, over the brooding backdrop of Friend’s piano and Gillian Gallagher’s viola. This was a portrait of doomed surrealist artist Arshile Gorky, who survived the holocaust and escaped to America after losing his mother to starvation. The first half of the concert peaked with a full thirteen-piece ensemble, heavy on percussion, playing the eleven-part suite This Should Feel Like Home. Inspired by the composer’s first trip to the land of her ancestors a couple of years ago, it referenced the seizure of national landmarks, forced displacement, longing for home and savagery that rose to a long, horrified, searing crescendo that left Josh Perry’s huge bass drum to roar and resonate and finally fade down. While the previous piece on the bill offered elegant variations on an austere, chromatically-charged piano melody, this was replete with vividly Middle Eastern riffs and cadenzas against constantly shifting atmospherics: as an evocation of mass agony, it was almost unendurable.

The Kronos Quartet were given a more plaintive work, Silent Cranes, sort of a synthesis of the meticulous insistence of the first part of the program and the raw angst that followed. To make things more complicated, they were challenged to keep time with with a similarly vivid series of projections of often grisly archival images as well as snippets of haunting old recordings, including one of Komitas himself and testimony from survivors. It’s a severely beautiful, dynamically vibrant if unceasingly pained and mournful portait of an injustice that’s far too often overlooked, and ended on an almost mystical note to accompany historian/investigative journalist David Barsamian’s recorded commentary which essentially echoed that if we forget events like these, those things might well happen to us.

On one hand, what Kouyoumdjian has done with this is important historical work, and puts the music in an appropriatingly horrifying context – which the stunned audience eventually rewarded with a standing ovation. On the other hand, it would be also be rewarding to hear that string quartet by itself: it’s certainly strong enough to stand on its own. The best concert of 2015 so far? By far, the most intense.

A Rare Brooklyn Show by Middle Eastern Jazz Legend Souren Baronian

What’s the likelihood of a legend like Souren Baronian bringing his long-running Middle Eastern jazz ensemble Taksim to a small bar in Park Slope? Thursday night at Barbes, the back room was packed for a transcendent, hypnotically groove-driven set by the multi-reedman’s paradim-shifting quintet. Baronian is 84,  looks and sounds at least a quarter century younger. He bantered self-effacingly with the crowd: “We play music from the Middle East, and anything else we can steal.” But when he picked up his reed, or the riq he tapped out beats on when someone else was soloing, he was all business.

Although born here, Baronian personifies everything that’s good about Middle Eastern reed players, delivering his genre-defying material with a directness and clarity that was nothing short of scary. So many jazz players squeal and squawk; Baronian goes straight for the tune. His embellishments tend to be more Middle Eastern and microtonal than they are blue notes in the conventional jazz sense. Bassist Sprocket Royer played slinky, undulating microtonal vamps that mingled with the mesmerizing clip-clop of the percussionist – on a couple of darboukas – in tandem with the drums. Oud player Adam Good gets a ton of gigs because he has such a distinctive, individual style, and he managed to sneak plenty of unexpected chords and raga riffage into his bracing, serpentine lines, often doubling the melody in tandem with Baronian.

Baronian opened on soprano sax and then played clarinet for most of the show save for a couple of especially haunting, low-key numbers where he switched to the small, moody, low-midrange duduk. One of the set’s early numbers worked a Macedonian-style trope, happy-go-lucky verse into bitingly apprehensive chorus. Another featured wry variations on a couple of familiar Charlie Parker themes – and then went doublespeed. Desert Wind, a diptych of sorts, began with a brooding duduk improvisation and hit a peak with a matter-of-factly intense oud solo. When the waitress signaled that it was time to wrap up the set, Baronian laughed and told her that most of his songs were about 25 minutes long – and then picked up his sax and led the band through a scampering number that went on for about half that. What a treat to see such an ageless, soulful master of so many styles, still at the top of his game,  in such an intimate space.

Tigran Hamasyan’s Shadow Theater: Brooding, Armenian-Tinged Art-Rock

Keyboardist Tigran Hamasyan began his career as a teenage piano prodigy. But rock seems to be more his thing. His latest album Shadow Theater – streaming at Spotify – blends brooding Armenian art-rock with jazz and occasional funk tinges. Some of the songs sound like Radiohead taking a departure into Middle Eastern or central Asian sounds; other times, Hamasyan brings no mind a less jazz-inclined Michel Reis or Romain Collin. His band here draws from across the musical spectrum: drummer Nate Wood and saxophonist Ben Wendel from newschool jazz band Kneebody, Sam Miniae and Chris Tordini alternating in the bass chair, with Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabedian on violin and Xavier Phillips on cello, plus Armenian chanteuse Areni Agbabian supplying uneasily atmospheric, wordless vocals on several tracks.

The Poet kicks off the album, a toy piano intro building to what’s essentially artsy arena rock done with keys instead of guitars. Erishta, a similarly gloomy, anthemic theme rises to a dancing interlude, then slows down as the strings bring the clouds in. Likewise, the aptly titled Lament comes together slowly, Agbabian’s lush vocalese over a mist of strings and Hamasyan’s steady, marching piano.

Drip is a traditional Armenian melody done as woozily psychedelic trip-hop, followed by the Radiohead-influenced The Year Is Gone. Seafarer, a slow, spacious, vividly cinematic postrock theme could be These New Puritans with more ornate orchestration. The album’s weakest track is The Court Jester, which has the most stereotypical, mechanical Euro-prog feel of anything here.

Pagan Lullaby has another offcenter, music box-like intro and builds from there to a deep-space ambience that turns darker by degrees. Hamasyan follows that with a diptych: The Collapse, which is Radiohead with an Armenian accent, and then Alternative Universe, a shapeshifting piece blending elements of Armenian folk, mathrock and art-rock, working its way up to a long, hypnotically vamping peak.

Hamasyan reinvents Holy, by late 19th century Armenian composer Makar Yekmalian as something of a sentimental pop ballad without words. The album ends with Road Song, a lively mini-epic with a dark undercurrent, rising and falling with anxious strings, starlit piano, a tensely resonant cello solo and then a trippy, twinkly synth outro. Who is the audience for this? Anyone who’s into the heavier side of current art-rock and postrock, from Radiohead to Mogwai.