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Tag: balkan music

The Tiptons Sax Quartet Release the Funnest Jazz Album of the Year So Far

Since the zeros, the Tiptons Saxophone Quartet have been making some of the most lusciously irreverent music in jazz. Their deviously entertaining latest album Wabi Sabi is streaming at Bandcamp. Joined by their longtime drummer and ringer dude Robert Kainar, the four reedwomen fire off one catchy, harmonically rich number after another, drawing on styles from Romany brass to soca to dixieland and many points in between. Their music is picturesque, upbeat and occasionally cartoonish. Everybody in the band writes, and sings – or at least vocalises. This is one of the funnest and funniest albums of the year.

The album’s opening track is December’s Dance, by baritone player Tina Richerson. It’s an acerbically pulsing blend of Ellingtonian lustre and dusky Ethiopian chromatics, Kainar pushing the song deeper toward funk as the solos around the horn peak out with a wild crescendo from alto player Amy Denio.

Similarly, Denio’s El Gran Orinador is a Balkan/latin brass band mashup with a dixieland-like horn intertwine, Richerson playing the tuba bassline on her baritone. Tenor player Jessica Lurie’s friendly ghost of a solo as Kainar squirrels around is one of the album’s high points. The title track, by tenor player Sue Orfield balances lushly triumphant harmonies with a spare, camelwalking Afrobeat groove and a soaring, carefree vocalese solo.

A Sparkley Con, by Lurie has a lithely undulating New Orleans second-line rhythm, Richerson again playing the tuba role beneath the cheer overhead before cutting loose with a tersely bluesy solo. Root Dance, a second Denio tune has Serbian flair in the horns’ biting chromatics, dramatic vocalese and tricky rhythm: the precision of Orfield and Lurie’s tenors fluttering like a trumpet section is breathtaking.

Kainar’s keening cymbal harmonics gently launch a spacey intro to Torquing of the Spheres, an especially resonant Lurie composition, goes slinking along in 10/8, the composer taking a tersely spiraling solo on soprano. The band head to Trinidad, with some New Orleans mixed into Richerson’s lively but enveloping Jouissance.

Memory Bait, by Orfield is part punchy go-go tune, part action movie theme and a launching pad for some of the album’s most ambitiously adrenalizing solos. Denio’s final composition here is Moadl Joadl, a Balkan tune with a broodingly atmospheric intro that lightens when the dancing rhythm comes in.

Lurie manages to build the album’s lushest brass band evocation in 3x Heather’s 17, maintaining the tricky Balkan rhythm around a wryly suspenseful drum break. The album winds up with Orfield’s Working Song, shifting from a rather somber oldtime gospel theme to echoes of a 19th century field holler mashed up with Afrobeat and reggae, This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Fun fact: the band take their name from Billy Tipton, a well-known saxophonist and bandleader who was born biologically female but managed to live and perform as a man for decades, at a time when it was almost as daunting to be a woman in jazz as it was to dress as a member of the opposite sex. How far we’ve come – one hopes, anyway.

Matt Darriau Brings One of His Edgy, Slinky Projects to a Bed-Stuy Gig

One New York artist who was ubiquitous before the lockdown, and whose presence was conspicuously absent during the last fifteen months, is eclectically edgy multi-reedman Matt Darriau. The longtime Klezmatics clarinetist did some outdoor gigs earlier this year; he’s back to the indoor circuit this July 19 at 9 PM at Bar Lunatico, where he’s leading his Yo Lateef project with Santiago Liebson on piano, Peck Almond on trumpet, Arthur Kell on bass and Steve Johns on drums, While the band was conceived to reinvent the work of distinctive jazz bassist Yusef Lateef, lately the group more closely resemble Darriau’s sometimes slashingly Balkan-tinged Paradox Trio.

There’s some pretty lo-fi audio of their most recent Brooklyn gig up at youtube (you’ll have to fast-forward through about the first ten minutes of the band bullshitting before it’s showtime). At this gig, Liebson’s piano got switched out for Max Kutner’s guitar, his unsettled chromatics echoing Brad Shepik’s work in the Paradox Trio. You can watch the group having fun with long, slinky, brooding quasi-boleros, a circling, soukous-tinged flute tune and a triptych where Darriau finally gets to cut loose, switching between Bulgarian gaida bagpipe, tenor sax and clarinet.

He’s gotten plenty of press here over the years, most recently with the Klezmatics, backing cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer at Central Park Summerstage in 2017. The time before that was for a Brooklyn Raga Massive event the previous November, where he spiraled and wafted through a series of Indian carnatic themes with oudist Brandon Terzic.

There was also a December, 2015 Brooklyn small-club gig with a serpentine, Middle Eastern-flavored group he called Du’ud since they had two oud players (Terzic and Brian Prunka). Yet some of the shows Darriau played before then, and didn’t get any press for here, were just as darkly sublime.

There was his Who Is Manny Blanc project, who play the sometimes eerily surfy, sometimes crazily cartoonish music of Manny Blanc, whose 1961 album Jewish Jazz is impossible to find and iconic among diehard crate-diggers. There were also a couple of more Balkan-flavored gigs with his Gaida Electrique band, where he focuses more on the chromatically slashing bagpipe tunes. That takes us all the way back to 2015. All this is to say that if you haven’t been watching the guy ripping it up onstage since then, there’s no time like the present,

You could also call this a long-overdue mea culpa for not having covered all those shows, That’s what happens sometimes when you go out intending to focus on the music, run into friends at the bar, and it’s all over. What a beautiful thing it is that here in New York, after sixteen months of hell and deprivation, we finally have that choice again. Let’s never lose it.

A Look Back at an Imaginatively Crafted Balkan Folk Album

Balkan singer Eugenia Georgieva’s album Po Drum Mome (A Girl on the Road) – streaming at Spotify – came out in the spring of 2018. It’s an original, captivating, cross-pollinated take on ancient folk tunes from Bulgaria and the Black Sea. The arrangements are elegant, yet not sterile.

Georgieva is the kind of international artist you would have expected to see at Golden Fest. She never made it to New York’s annual Balkan music extravaganza, but if all goes well we will get a Golden Fest 2022.

She sings the first song, Gyul Devoyche (A Girl Like a Rose) very tenderly over a spring-loaded backdrop of bandura, guitar, gadulka fiddle and a lushly flurrying, Egyptian-tinged string section.

The second track, Deno, Sreburno Vreteno (Silver Spindle) is a lilting waltz with dancing, chirping bagpipes over elegant guitar chords and simple bass. The album’s title track is a classic Bulgarian theme with bracing close harmonies, those signature whoops, and tightly clustering strings, bagpipe and bandura.

Then she completely slows things down with the hazily melancholy Podzim Sum, Male, Legnala, which could be a pastoral British rock ballad with Balkan instrumentation: in the song, a dying mother regrets leaving her children behind. Brayne Le Ivane (Hey, Brother Ivan) has a delicate lilt fueled by bagpipes and gadulka, and a rousing chorale at the end. The gist of the song is that a hardworking wife beats a beautiful one. 

Georgieva kicks off Sama Li Si Den Zhunala with imploring melismas over deliciously shivery gadulka, the group building suspense before they leap into this popular, acerbically catchy minor-key linedance tune. Likewise, Zmey Lyubi Moma (Dragon in Love), a beloved staple of the Bulgarian folk repertoire, gets reinvented with lots of spacious, improvisational interludes and suspense along with the expected quavery microtones and tricky rhythms.

Buenek (translated on the album as Lazar at the Gates) has a bouncy Greek feel. Georgieva returns to the Bulgarian canon for the thorny rhythms and minor keys of Ivan Bulya Si Dumashe.

She delivers Trugnala Rada (Rada and the Night) –  a tale of resistance against the tyranny of the Ottoman empire – mostly a-cappella with a wary, melismatic intensity, exchanging occasional riffs with the chirps of the kaval flute. She closes the record with the rather stark, delicately pulsing Oy, Toyne, Toyne, a road song. On one hand, this album doesn’t have the unhinged wildness of a lot of music from this part of the world; on the other, the arrangements are fresh and as unpredictable as the music itself even if they are somewhat more polished.

The Eva Quartet Take Ancient, Otherworldly Bulgarian Choral Music to New Places

Bulgarian choral quartet the Eva Quartet’s new album Minka – streaming at Spotify – is a lot more eclectic than most collections of centuries-old, otherworldly music from the Balkans. In the same vein as the original popularizers of the tradition, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – with whom all four members of the quartet have sung – they take their otherworldly close harmonies, surreal whoops and shivery ornamentation to more recent places.

On this album, that means hints of Indian rhythms and melody, plus more modern songs by Stefan Dragostinov, Ivan Spassov and Dimitar Hristov, leader of the Bulgarian National Radio Folk Orchestra. As you would expect, most of the numbers here are on the short side, under three minutes, sometimes much less, occasionally bolstered by percussion or gadulka. This recording is often balanced by the high harmonies in one channel, the lower ones in the other, which actually works against the tension created by the harmonic adjacencies and microtones common to Bulgarian music. On the other hand, if you’re looking to isolate your own harmony when singing this, it makes your job a lot easier.

Sometimes the innovations – doot-doot rhythms in the fourth track, for example – add a humorous touch. Elsewhere, the four women – Gergana Dimitrova, Sofia Kovacheva, Evelina Christova and Daniela Stoichkova – ]energetically walk the maze of tricky rhythms, melismas and the occasional thicket of tonguetwisting syllables. By contrast, slow overlays of melody shift through the sonic picture in Spassov’s austere Balno Li Ti E Sinjo Ljo….only to give way to rapidfire operatics.

The aching, muted lustre of Razvivay, Dobro Povivay (Let’s Go, Get Your Clothes On) contrasts with the vocal acrobatics of the miniature after that, as well as Hristov’s Leme Dreme, with its playful tug-of-war between gadulka and vocals. And the drones of the album’s final cut are stunningly unwavering. Folk music never stands still: it’s always evolving, and this album is a good idea of where one of the world’s edgiest, most popular flavors is going.

Hard-Rocking Balkan Brass, Romany and Indian-Flavored Sounds From Black Masala

Black Masala‘s 2016 album I Love You Madly made the best albums of the year list here; at the time, this blog equated them to a Washington, DC counterpart to Slavic Soul Party. The Washington DC group’s most recent album, Trains and Moonlight Destinies – streaming at Bandcamp – rocks harder, with more of a roaring punk edge, through a typically diverse mix of Balkan, Indian and hard funk themes.

The album’s title track is closer to Gogol Bordello than the Slavic Soul guys, layers of guitars beneath the blazing brass of trumpeter Steven C and trombonist Kirsten Warfield, pushed along by Monty Montgomery’s oompahing Balkan ska sousaphone. The band’s axeman Duff Davis contributes a slashing doubletracked guitar solo.

Percussionist Kristen Long takes over the mic, adding a sultry edge to the dramatically pouncing Midnight Bhangra. Again, there’s as much guitar roar as biting brass here, like Red Baraat at their most rock-oriented. Above the Clouds could be a majestic early 70s Earth Wind & Fire hit…with a sousaphone.

Drummer Mike Ounallah hits a strutting minor-key Balkan reggae groove with Tell Me Again, Davis slashing through the mix when he isn’t doing droll chicken-scratch accents. The party anthem Empty Bottles shifts between brassy rocksteady and ska; then the band mash up New Orleans with Bo Diddley in Whatcha Gonna Do,

The kiss-off anthem Big Man is a mix of Balkan brass, hip-hop and punk rock, trumpet and trombone duking it out from opposite channels. The band wind up the album with the deliriously blasting Romany dancefloor stomp Chaje Shukarije.

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.

Carola Ortiz’s Picturesque, Edgy New Album Celebrates Vivid New Catalan Poetry

Catalan singer and clarinetist Carola Ortiz‘s new album Pecata Beata – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous, defiantly feminist collection that sets poems by Catalan women authors to an electrifying blend of Mediterranean balladry, Romany and flamenco music, and fado, with classical gravitas and the occasional jazz flourish. It’s her first album where she sings all the compositions in Catalan, her first language. Not only is the music here colorful, and often haunting, but the lyrics are fantastic, even from the limited perspective of an English-speaking linguistic tourist.

From the hair-raising werewolf intro of Corro per la Nit to its leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls, it’s a wild opener, propelled by guitarist Bartolomeo Barenghi, bassist Pau Lligadas and percussionist Aleix Tobias. Ortiz’s dramatic intensity, bringing Anna Gual’s harrowing chase scene to life, contrasts with her spare, jaggedly incisive clarinet.

She overdubs a small choir of voices on the tricky, syncopated introduction to the grim folk song El Testament d’Amèlia. From there she hits a more melancholy, melismatic delivery, much like a fadista, with poignant, resonant clarinet joined at the end by violinist Heloïse Lefebvre, violist John King and cellist Sandrine Robilliard. Ortiz’s concluding wail will give you goosebumps.

Sirena, with lyrics by Mercè Rodoreda, is a surreal, shapeshiftingly alluring mix of cabaret, along with what could be fado and a Mexican ranchera ballad. Ortiz channels hope against hope amid relentless angst in Monserrat Abello’s poem Visc Por No Morir – L’Exiliada, over a bittersweetly lilting, guitar-driven Belgian musette-style waltz.

A broodingly crecendoing setting of a Rosa Pou text, Ala, Bat! Yes, Adeu is a mashup of fado and bolero, Ortiz’s impassioned melismas channeling ache and despair. Carme Guasch’s clever wordplay in Amat I Amic gets the album’s most hypnotically circling melody, with elegantly rising and falling violin from Robilliard.

Avui les Fades i les Bruixes S’estimen, with a lyric by Maria Mercè Marçal, has a similarly circular, syncopated string quartet arrangement, Ortiz finally sailing up to the top of her vocal register. The playfully strutting Cant de Juliol, by Catarina Albert (pseudonymously, ,as Víctor Català) is the album’s most comedic, carnivalesque number.

Ortiz’s bass clarinet dips to gritty, noirish lows in Carmeta, an instrumental, shifting from a shamanic musette of sorts to a slinky, tricky Bakkan groove. She sticks with the big licorice for the album’s lush, tantalizingly brief love ballad La Rosa Als Llavis, with text by Joan Salvat Papasseit.

Wildly Diverse, Exhilarating Iranian and Balkan Sounds From Mamaki Khadem

Mamaki Khadem and her band play a frequently psychedelic-tinged take on most of what you can hear at Golden Fest, New York’s funnest annual concert weekend, a celebration of music from across Iran, the Balkans, Mediterranean and Middle East. What a blessing that Golden Fest 2020 took place before the lockdown! For those who missed it, Mamaki Khadem’s absolutely gorgeous, haunting 2016 album The Road is streaming at Spotify.

The first track, A Thousand Strings, is a well-known Bulgarian choral piece, with the usual otherworldly close harmonies from the women in the band, but also chilly synthesized orchestration…and sizzling flamenco guitars exchanging solos. The second cut, Romance, is completely different, a one-chord jam with warmer harmonies over a trip-hop groove, shards of overtones flying from bagpipes and violin.

Do, Don’t is a briskly strutting, slyly jubilant, chromatic Balkan brass number with a potently raw, melismatic lead vocal. Flaming Sun, a brooding soundscape, has imploring vocals. microtonal clarinet and spare bandura lute over a low, looming drone. The group segue into High Sea, a determined, bouncy, Turkish-tinged tune, its calm vocals contrasting with the edgy chromatics of the accordion, fiddle and setar lute.

One of the album’s most strangely psychedelic numbers Little Gem has gamelanesque chimes, tender vocals and a stark breakdown for the string section midway through. Stardust, the album’s most distinctly Middle Eastern flavored track, has spiky oud, echoey piano and viscerally imploring vocals over steady syncopation.

Navaii, a moody soundscape for vocals, bagpipe and synthy backdrop, segues into Pledge, a low-key one-chord jam which for one reason or another evokes ancient English folk music more than it does Iran or the Balkans.

The band elegantly assemble a ghostly choir, chimes, tremoloing lead vocals, flute and strings in Huntsman, an only slightly restrained, gorgeous Balkan anthem. They close the album with the fiery, trumpet-fueled, rat-a-tat brass tune Those Eyes. It’s hard to think of another band who’ve been able to negotiate so many incredibly diverse styles with as much expertise and unrestrained fun as this crew.

Energetic, Cinematic Grooves From the Reliably Uncategorizable Manteca

Manteca play a deliciously uncategorizable blend of cinematic instrumental jamband rock, with tinges of Balkan and Middle Eastern music. They’ve been around in one incarnation or another since the late 70s and are legends in their native Canada. Beyond a single clave soul song, there isn’t much of a latin influence on their latest album The Twelfth of Never, streaming at Spotify. It’s one of the most intriguingly unique records to come over the transom here in the last six months.

Nick Tateishi’s twangy guitar and Will Jarvis’ bass introduce an undulating peak-era Grateful Dead tune to kick off the album’s first track, Meanwhile Tomorrow. Multi-reedwoman Colleen Allen, trombonist Mark Ferguson and trumpeter Jason Logue sail in, Doug Wilde adding both spare piano and a Wurlitzer accordion patch. The three-man percussion section – co-founder Art Avalos, Charlie Cooley and Matt Zimbel – provide a cheerily hypnotic clip-clop groove. The Dead with horns, you say. Is that all there is to this?

Hardly. Tateishi’s noir reverberations kick off the darkly bluesy Illusionist over a cantering, boomy rhythm, the horns and keys joining the brooding atmosphere. Allen’s plaintive alto sax solo gives way to

Lowdown begins with a trickily pulsing Greek rhythm evocative of that famous Smiths hit, but with a Lynchian undercurrent. Logue’s rustic, muted trumpet contrasts with Ferguson’s smoky trombone, Tateishi peaking out with a long, flaring solo,

Ferguson switches to lingering vibraphone, paired with Allen’s uneasy alto flute over an altered qawwali rhythm for the similarly moody Smoke and Mirrors. There’s exploratory trombone against terse, resonant bass, then a return to a spare suspense theme.

Purple Theory comes across as a Greek-flavored midtempo Grateful Dead anthem, tightly circling horns behind an enigmatic guitar solo. Never Twelve, a lowrider latin soul tune, has balmy horns and spare, resonant guitar assembled around echoey Wurlitzer.

The band take a detour into syncopated funk with Five Alive and close the album with T’was Brillig, w which sounds like Jethro Tull taking a stab at an Acadian folk tune – que je puisse te porter des chansons du bois!

Sweeping, Majestic Bosnian Noir From Amira Medunjanin and Trondheim Solistene

One of the most gorgeously haunting albums to come over the transom here in the last couple of years is Bosnian chanteuse Amira Medunjanin’s 2018 symphonic record Ascending with Norwegian string orchestra Trondheim Solistene, streaming at Spotify. A lot of these songs are popular staples of the Balkan repertoire, but they’ve seldom had as much towering, angst-fueled grandeur as Medunjanin and the ensemble give them here.

The first track, Gde Si Duso Gde Si Rano (Where Are You, Love) begins with a well-known, haunting blues riff from the strings. Medunjanin has never sung better, utilizing a plaintive rubato as the orchestra hold a mutedly fluttering minor-key resonance behind her. What a way to start the record.

Sve Pticice Zapjevale (All the Birds Were Singing) is just as haunting, Medunjanin’s tender, almost whispery voice over pizzicato violins and a velvety lushness behind that. The orchestra and piano pick up the pace dramatically and then hit a suspenseful lull in Oj Meglica (The Mist), a pillowy, bouncy, cabaret-tinged ballad.

Snijeg Pade Na Behar Na Voce is a dynamic, imaginatively orchestrated Romany  winter dance…with prepared piano and orchestra, and an epic sweep, and an elegantly fanged piano solo that put the many other versions out there to shame. The angst-fueled ballad Si Zaljubiv Edno Momce has a spare, windswept, moodily expectant atmosphere, with eerily tinkling piano, spare guitar and distant airiness.

Medunjanin’s version of Moj Dilbere has a slinky, Egyptian-tinged chromatic sweep anchored by the low strings. She and the ensemble begin Ja Izlezi Gjurgjo (Get Out, Gjurgjo) with a gentle, drifting ambience and shift toward more emphatic, joyously dancing territory.

They keep the sweep going in Êto Te Nema (Since You’ve Gone), rising back and forth longingly out of a terse acoustic guitar melody. Hearing the ecstatic Romany brass tune Ajde Jano Kolo Da Igramo done with a genteel pulse, a piano and a string section is a trip, but it works.

The album’s shortest number is Tiho Noci Moje Zlato Spava, a pensive guitar-and-strings instrumental lullaby. They bring the album full circle with Nestaces Iz Mog Ivota (You’re Going to Leave Me), with a conspiratorial, wee-hours piano ambience. Nobody knows the poignancy of living in the shadows like the Eastern Europeans.

So where the hell was this blog when the album came out? Back in 2018, New York Music Daily’s focus was live music in New York. Waiting for the moment Medunjanin would come back to town at a price the general public could afford proved to be futile. But we still have this record.