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No New Abnormal

Tag: balkan jazz

Vividly Nuanced Rainy-Day Balkan Songs From Amira Medunjanin

Amira Medunjanin is a very subtle singer. The Bosnian chanteuse doesn’t overdo it: she draws you into her poignant Balkan songs. Her darkly thoughtful, jazz-tinged 2015 album Damar is streaming at Spotify.

The album’s first track, Pjevat Cemo Sta Nam Srce Zna (We’ll Sing What the Heart Knows) is a calmly syncopated, elegant blend of pensive minor-key Mitteleuropean folk and jazz. Likewise, Tvojte Oci Leno Mori is a spare, hushed, balletesque take on what could be a boisterous fiddle-driven Balkan dance.

Medunjanin’s quiet, loomingly plaintive vocals over moody cello and guitar as the rubato ballad Vjetar Nuzu Poloikuje gets underway transcends any linguistic limitation; then Bojan Zulfikarpašić’s slightly out-of-tune piano adds Chopinesque ripples to the mix

Delicate echo phrases from the acoustic guitars – Boško Jović and Ante Gelo -introduce the trickily rhythmic Romany song More Izgrejala Sjajna Mesecina (rough translation: Moonlight on the Ocean), livened by rippling piano over the nimble rhythm section (bassist Zvonimir Šestak and Zulfikarpašić doing double duty on percussion).

With its spare, fingerpicked guitar-and-vocal intro and a ringing Portuguese guitar solo midway through, Kad Ja Podoh Na Bentbasu has echoes of fado music. Medunjanin’s tenderly ornamented vocals mingle with spare, spacious, echoing piano in Moj Golube, Moj Golube (My Love, My Love).

Passion simmers but never quite spills over the edge of the pot in Moj Dilbere, a pulsingly suspenseful, chromatically charged Romany love song: Jenny Luna’s work with magical Turkish band Dolunay comes to mind. The album’s hypnotic, almost conspiratorial title cut has bolero, blues and surreal doubletracked piano and organ cached within its minimalist jazz pulse. Medunjanin saves her most impassioned, imploring vocal for the album’s final cut, Aj Sto Cemo Ljubav Kriti, over a pensive expanse of low-key flamenco-esque guitar.

The Ava Trio Jam Out Slinky, Gorgeously Overcast Middle Eastern-Tinged Themes

Baritone sax, bass and drums – just the idea of two low-register instruments with a beat is enticingly mysterious. That was Moisturizer’s lineup, Morphine’s too. The Ava Trio – baritone saxophonist Giuseppe Doronzo, bassist Esat Ekincioglu and percussionist Pino Basile – extrapolate dusky, often haunting Middle Eastern-tinged themes with them. Some of their album Digging the Sand– streaming at Bandcamp – reminds of Matt Darriau’s Paradox Trio, elsewhere the extraordinary Brooklyn maqam jazz group Ensemble Fanaa

The album’s opening number, Cala Dei Turchi, brings to mind Morphine in a particularly brooding moment, although Doronzo’s tone is more balmy than Scott Colley’s smoky, often jabbing attack. Basile gives it a slow, sober sway with spare, hypnotic accnts on his bedir frame drum while sax and bass hint at and finally go deep into a haunting Turkish-flavored theme with a surprise ending.

How hopeful is Espero? The group kick it off with a punchy, syncopated, Romany-flavored tune, diverge and then return with more of a clenched-teeth, uneasily circling focus. Rising from airy washes to a warmly exploratory solo sax interlude, the trio shift back and forth between a bubbly, loopy groove and more unsettled terrain in the epic Fadiouth.

The album’s title track begins with a couple of explosions and drony, scrapy bass, Basile’s cupaphon friction drum enhancing the stygian ambience, Doronzo choosing his spots for moody, distantly Ethiopian-tinged melody. Ekincioglu opens Tosun Kacti with a low, warpy solo before the band leap into a cheery Balkan circle dance of sorts bookending variations on a mournful, marching interlude.

Doronzo’s masterful midrange melismas take centerstage in the increasingly intense, bouncy Balkan-flavored Ayi Havasi. They stay in the same vein with a terse plaintiveness throughout the slightly more subdued Anamoni and close the record with the lively, dynamically shifting, deliciously catchy Distanze, Doronzo switching between sax and keening, bagpipe-like mizmār oboe for the jajouka-influenced bridge. Whether you call this jazz, Balkan or Middle Eastern music – it’s really all of the above – it’s one of the most delightful albums of recent months.

A Chance to Discover Some Rare Jazz Seldom Heard on This Continent

Even in this youtube-enabled era where a kid from Reykjavik or Rhode Island can develop jazz chops to rival anyone from Harlem, it takes a special kind of passion to play music that’s not native to your home turf. That’s why so many of the European jazz acts with the ambition to cross the pond can be fantastically good. And while most American fans probably don’t think of Poland as a jazz hotspot, this upcoming week’s annual Jazztopad Festival has a lineup that could open a lot of eyes and ears.

The good news is that the dreaded f-word (fusion, for folks who might have forgotten) isn’t part of the deal. There are lots of flavors. Some of the bands on the five-night bill draw on ancient, rustic Polish folk themes, others move in more of a improvisational direction. The first two nights, June 21 and 22 are at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where darkly enigmatic improvisers Stryjo and the similar Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet play at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. The Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet make another appearance on June 24 at 8 PM with eclectically brilliant cellist Erik Friedlander at the Jazz Gallery. Strings work especially well with this kind of music.

The June 23 show is at Joe’s Pub at 7:30 PM, featuring pianist Marcin Masecki and rummer Jerzy Rogiewicz playing stride and ragtime classics. Then the festival winds up at National Sawdust on June 25 at 4 PM featuring mesmerizingly improvisational string ensemble the Lutosławski Quartet with violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. This blog was in the house for the quartet’s playfully fun show there last year with pianist Uri Caine, details here.

Another uncategorizably brilliant Polish band, the trio Lautari – who are not on this bill – wound up their US tour with an often riveting set last fall at Subrosa. While their current raison d’etre is to jam out rare, obscure and often otherworldly Polish folk themes, some of their their tropes are common in Polish jazz.

The big takeaway was how diverse Polish music has always been, and still remains. Several strikingly catchy, whirling dance numbers began with biting harmonies between Maciej Filipczuk’s violin and Michał Żak’s clarinet. Then Jacek Hałas’ piano would icepick and ripple, and sometimes he’d slow the tunes down and take them in a considerably more shadowy, Lynchian direction. Or they’d make a crazy quilt of counterpoint and then reconverge. Throughout their roughly ninety minutes onstage, there were recurrent echoes of Balkan music, including one particularly incisive dance number that drew a line south, straight to Macedonia.

The night’s most poignantly surreal moment was when they played a plaintive dirge to a backing track (on Filipczuk’s phone, actually) of an aging Holocaust survivor quaveringly humming an old folk tune. It was disquieting on more than one level to see the band playing along with that long-dead voice, but also redemptive to know that they’d literally resurrected the song.

As the show went on, phantasmagorical interludes reminiscent of Frank Carlberg’s Tivoli Trio were juxtaposed with bustling, Mingus-like passages and a slow, lingering piece midway through where a guest guitarist added brooding, Satie-esque accents. Halas opened the night’s most starkly riveting number solo on accordion, with a frantically trilling, Middle Eastern edge, then the band took it in a slinky direction that sounded like Dolunay on acid. There’s no guarantee that any of this will happen at this year’s festival, but you never know.

Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri Bring Their Broodingly Modal Transylvanian Jazz to Barbes

Pianist Lucian Ban calls the music on his album Songs from Afar “Transylvanian jazz” since that’s where he’s from. Any connection to Bela Lugosi or Bram Stoker is strictly a fluke of geography. While Ban and Bill Frisell come from completely different places, they’re essentially doing the same thing, making jazz out of pastoral themes from their own respective folk heritages. That being said, Ban’s compositions are typically pensive and often pretty dark. He and his brilliantly distinctive violist collaborator Mat Maneri have been playing Barbes pretty much every month lately; their next duo show there is this Saturday, March 5 at 8 PM. As Kate, the personable and persuasive blonde who runs the music room there most nights will tell you, if you haven’t got ten bucks to throw in the tip bucket for the band, she’ll be happy to put it on a card.

Besides Ban and Maneri, the band on the album comprises Abraham Burton on tenor sax, John Hebert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, with Gavril Tarmure on vocals on three tracks. It opens with a brooding, understatedly poignant tableau, Transylvanian Sorrow Song. The gist of Tarmure’s plaintive baritone vocal is “Someday I’m going to sleep and never wake up,” Ban’s stately ripples underpinning Burton’s soulful resonance and McPherson’s judicious waves of cymbals.

Farewell begins on a similarly moody chamber-jazz note and warms as Burton’s carefully considered lines rise up to a dancing Hebert solo: it owes as much to Eastern European mnimalists like Georgy Kurtag as it does jazz. Travelin’ With Ra, a shout-out to Sun Ra, begins with shivery suspense coming in from every angle, then the band coalesces around a minimalist, enigmatically modal theme with an austere solo from Maneri and a more spacious one from Burton. It does justice to its inspiration’s vampy, saturnine explorations.

Solo For a Brother with Perfect Timing (For AI) is an Abdullah Ibraham homage, Ban shifting slowly out of neoromantic rainy-day mode toward a catchy, bluesy theme. There are two Transylvanian Wedding Songs here. The first comes together around a syncopated take on a bouncy, rustic folk theme and then send the band’s individual voices out along the perimeter again. The second is more wistfully pastoral.

Chakra, the Island hints at latin noir with an implied clave beat, then shifts to a twinkling nocturne spiced with Burton and Maneri’s souful harmonies. Spiritual (For HJ), dedicated to the late Charlie Haden moves out of a careful gospel-tinged intro to an allusively tantalizing Burton solo, McPherson coloring the music from a distance: throughout the album, drums provide far more texture than actual pulse. Then McPherson goes against the grain and slowly swing the similarly laid-back stroll Southern Dawn. The asutere final cut, Teaca, A Song From Afar brings the album full circle. It doesn’t have the crystalline tunesmithing of Ban’s understatedly brilliant 2013 release, Mystery, but it’s a good indication of the kind of surrealistic magic he and his quartet can pull out of thin air onstage. And it’s especially cool to hear Burton, an electrifying player, show off his lyrical side here. Now where can you hear this? There are a couple of tracks up at Sunnyside’s album page.