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Ben Holmes Brings His Darkly Tuneful Naked Lore Project Back to Barbes

Trumpeter Ben Holmes has been a mainstay of the Barbes scene practically since the beginning. With roots in klezmer, Balkan music and postbop jazz, he will often shift between all three idioms in the course of a single song…or even a single solo. Blasting away with endless volleys of notes is not his thing: his full, resonant tone, which comes out especially when he’s on the flugelhorn, pervades his dark chromatics, moments of sardonic humor and unselfconsciously poignant lyricism. Over the years he’s played the Park Slope hotspot with all sorts of bands, from legendary pianist Pete Sokolow’s Tarras Band to the Yiddish Art Trio, and most recently, with Big Lazy.

That iconic noir trio have experimented with horns many times over the years, but Holmes is the one trumpeter who really gets their ilngering menace. He sat in with the band after a more distantly uneasy set with his Naked Lore trio at the end of August and held the crowd rapt with his spacious, enigmatic lines and occasional stalker-from-the-shadows burst. Big Lazy guitarist/frontman Steve Ulrich likes to employ horns to max out the suspense in his crime jazz themes, and Holmes picked up on that in an instant. He also added spicy hints of Ethiopian style to a couple of more recent, rather epic Big Lazy numbers which look back to the group’s days of deep, dark dub exploration in the early zeros. Big Lazy’s next gig is at 8:30 PM this Dec 6 at Bar Lunatico.

Holmes’ set with Naked Lore to open that August Barbes gig was a chance to see how tightly the trio have refined their sound over the past several months. Guitarist Brad Shepik had cut the fret finger on his left hand – and was playing acoustic. Was he going to be able to pull this off? Hell yeah – even when that meant running tricky, syncopated cyclical phrases over and over, as he did on one recent number, or chopping his way through fluttery tremolo-picked passages. Was there any blood? Not sure – Shepik played the set seated next to drummer Shane Shanahan, and the venue was crowded, so it was sometimes hard to see the stage.

What’s become obvious lately is how prolific Holmes has been, and how vast his catalog of unrecorded material is. The best song of the set was a diptich of sorts that he’d begun as an attempt to write a pastoral jazz tune, but then he “Lapsed into freygish mode,” as he put it, drifting into biting Middle Eastern microtones as the melody grew more overcast. Naked Lore are back at Barbes on Dec 8 at 8 PM on a typically excellent if bizarre Saturday night bill. Trombonist Ron Hay’s fascinating Erik Satie Quartet – who reinvent works by Satie and other early 20th century composers as pieces for brass and winds – open the evening at 4 PM; bizarro, unpredictable psychedelic salsa revivalist Zemog El Gallo Bueno plays afterward at 10.

And catching the debut of Holmes’ brand-new trio earlier this month, again at Barbes, was a revelation. The not-so-secret weapon in this band is pianist Carmen Staaf. Among the sort-of-new, “rising star” generation of New York pianists, only Arco Sandoval can match her in terms of consistent edge, imagination and tunefulness. In fact, the best song of the night, built around a clenched-teeth, circling minor-key riff, might have been hers. Holmes’ own picturesque, pensive tunes gave her a springboard for plenty more of that. While Shanahan’s playing with Holmes is spacious, terse and part of a close interweave, this group’s drummer, Jeff Davis romped and thumped behind the kit, raising the energy at the show several notches. They closed with a funky, catchy number of his. Where Naked Lore is all about close attunement and interplay, this group is just the opposite: three very different personalities in contrast. Let’s hope this trio stay together and reach the depths that Naked Lore have been able to sink their chops into.

Trumpeter Ben Holmes Brings His Lyrical Brilliance and Distant Unease to Barbes This Weekend

According to Kate Attardo – the brilliant photographer who ran the music room at Barbes in recent years – trumpeter Ben Holmes and accordionist Patrick Farrell staged their ominous, cinematic Conqueror Worm Suite there three times. This blog was in the house for two of those rapturously haunting shows (here’s what it sounded like there back in September of 2016). Fortuitously, the suite is also available on album, and streaming at youtube complete with Natalie Sousa’s original concert visuals. Over the duo’s shapeshifting, often wildly eclectic backdrop, Holmes narrates Edgar Allen Poe’s grand guignol poem about a killer worm to rival all others.

The suite opens with Farrell’s moody, low solo accordion chords eventually joined by Holmes’ mournful theme; from there, the trumpeter picks up steam with lively flair, up to a sudden coda. Then the duo return with a variation that foreshadows the klezmer influence that grows more distinct as the suite goes on – which makes sense, considering that the two have shared membership in the Yiddish Art Trio.

“Mere puppets who go…who shift the scenery to and fro,” Holmes intones over Farrell’s creepy, carnivalesque oompah – did Poe have some foreknowledge of the plague of gentifiers who would imperil this city far more than any oversize, ravenous insect?

Whatever the case, the two build a march in the same vein as the first part of a hora, in this case hapless victims dreading their fate far more than any new bride required to dance and make nice with her mother-in-law. Then Poe’s “motley drama” in a “circle that ever returneth in” becomes “horror – the soul of the plot,” a brief moment of terror giving way to a strutting, catchy klezmer dance. Holmes’ melody bounces, blithe and surreal, over Farrell’s steady, rhythmic orchestration – as usual, he has a way of making the accordion sound like a whole reed section.

The oompahs grow more disquieting, as do the duo’s increasingly atonal harmonies, rising toward terror as the march continues toward an ineluctable conclusion.The ending is something of a surprise, yet a magnificent payoff in its own counterintuitive way. 

It was tempting to save this album in the stack waiting patiently for Halloween month this year – an annual tradition at this blog where there’s not only something new but also something macabre or monstrous every day. But that can wait – Holmes is playing this Saturday night, July 28 at 8 PM at Barbes, his usual haunt, with his latest trio project, Naked Lore which features Brad Shepik on guitar and Shane Shanahan on percussion along with frequent special guests. While their sound is completely different and a lot more improvisational than this masterpiece, there are plenty of moments of distant menace and frequent references to uneasy Middle Eastern and klezmer melodies. If you miss this weekend’s show, they’re back at Barbes again on Aug 24.

New York’s Best 2016 Halloween Concert? At Barbes Last Month

As far as New York concerts this year go, the most irresistibly yet understatedly macabre Halloween music played on any stage in this city was Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell‘s duo performance of their Conqueror Worm Suite at Barbes on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s lurid 1843 poem, it’s a disturbing, grimly picturesque, many-segmented work – just like Poe’s flesh-eating insect. For a tantalizing taste, some of the suite has made it to youtube, featuring the similarly uneasy, Gorey-esque projections of Natalie C. Sousa.

A catchy, low-key trumpet figure with allusions to oldtime African-American gospel matched by moody, suspenseful low-register accordion opened the suite before Holmes picked up the pace, pensively and optimstically. The trumpeter narrated the first verse as Farrell’s accordion shifted into a morosely staggered waltz rhythm, Holmes’ brooding lines overhead echoing the Balkan music he’s been immersed in over the years, especially at this venue.

The poem follows the same plotline as Poe’s better-known short story The Masque of the Red Death. a high-society party turned into a nightmare – in 2016 political terms, there might be some symbolism here. Holmes put his mute in for a plaintive, rustically bluesy minor-key theme as Farrell held down a brooding, resonant anchoring ambience. From there the duo shifted unexpectedly from a momentary interlude of sheer, rapt horror to a bouncy Balkan dance, the trumpet soaring over Farrell’s rat-a-tat pulse; then the two switched roles and intertwined like..well, a giant worm and its prey.

After a briefly scampering detour, Farrell took centerstage with his big, evil, Messiaeneaque chords as Holmes did a Frankenstein sway several octaves higher. Since we know how the poem ends, it’s probably fair to give away the ending: only here did Holmes let terror flutter through his valves. The duo wound it up with a morose march. According to esteemed photographer and Barbes music room honcho Kate Attardo, this was the second time the work had been performed in its entirety here. Attardo knows a thing or two about good Balkan and brass music, and strongly affirmed that as good as the debut was, this performance was even better. There’ll be a “best concerts of 2016” page here at the end of the year, and this one will be on it.

Holmes’ next gig is on Nov 5 at 10 at Barbes with mighty, exhilarating Sinaloa-style ranchera brass orchestra Banda De Los Muertos. Farrell’s next New York show is on Nov 28 at 6 PM with klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals‘ sizzling band outdoors at the triangle at 63rd St. and Broadway on the upper west side.