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Tag: Ben Holmes trumpet

The Tarras Band Bring Their Haunting, Exhilarating, Historically Rich Music Back to Barbes

“Lemme tell ya about Naftule, he was the biggest drunk of all of them,” pianist Pete Sokolow told the crowd at his most recent Barbes show. He was referring to Naftule Brandwein. “He was a real wildman, sort of the Sidney Bechet of klezmer clarinet.”

Sokolow has plenty of stories like that, and he loves to share them. He’s the leader of the Tarras Band, the all-star ensemble who play the repertoire of his old bandmate, the brilliant clarinetist Dave Tarras, along with music associated with other cult heroes from the Jewish jazz demimonde of the 1950s and further back. Sokolow self-effacingly calls himself “Klezmer Fats,” not because he’s overweight, but because he bridges the gap between Fats Waller and centuries of dance music from throughout the Jewish diaspora. He and the band are back at Barbes tomorrow night, April 7 at 7 PM opening for Slavic Soul Party, who made a name for themselves bringing funk and hip-hop into Balkan brass music, but more recently have been reinventing the Duke Ellington catalog. The whole night is bound to be pretty amazing.

What’s hard to figure out is how the music the Tarras Band plays somehow hasn’t reached a broader audience. It’s deep, it’s otherworldly, it’s historically rich and it’s incredibly fun. At their show last month, Sokolow reaffirmed his reputation as a living archive of Jewish music history as he chatted up the crowd and sparred with his bandmates, verbally and musically. When Erik Satie was writing his Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies, was he stealing ancient Jewish themes….or was Sokolow subtly interpolating Satie into his mesmerizing cascades of eerie passing tones? Maybe both? It was hard to tell.

Notwistanding his reputation as a hardass, there are few musicians who are aware of Sokolow who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play with him. This show featured Michael Winograd on clarinet, who shares Tarras’ crystalline tone and silky legato: the way he plays, even at escape velocity, it’s a wave that just happens to move up and down in microseconds. Drummer Dave Licht was all about counterintuitive accents and wryly vaudeville-tinged fun, occasionally smacking an upside-down cymbal atop his kickdrum for good measure. Bassist Jim Guttman dug in deep and darkly and bowed most of his lines until the end, when the music hit a swing groove and stayed there. Trumpeter Ben Holmes harmonized intricately with Winograd when he wasn’t opening a song with a moody, hauntingly Middle Eastern-tinged improvisation.

Early in the set they did a World War I-era narrative about Jews fighting in the trenches, along with alternately sizzling and brooding originals by Winograd and Holmes. Sokolow illustrated the similarities between a Russian sher and a Virginia reel: the call-and-response and “reptile dance” at the end, where everybody forms a line. They delved into the bristling, edgy catalog of Sam Musiker, an early proponent of klezmer jazz who was way ahead of his time, dead at 48 in 1963 – the same year as Brandwein, Winograd grimly reminded. From there they romped through a tango and a medley from Tarras’ cult classic 1955 Tanz album, a commercial flop now considered a landmark of genre-smashing esoterica. And as much as what this band plays is very distinctly Jewish, with lots of chromatics and minor keys and humor and irony, it’s music that would resonate with anyone who likes Gogol Bordello, or any of the current crop of circus rock bands. Be the first in your tribe to get to Barbes and find this band playing your soul.

Wild, Diverse Global Energy Overflows at Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was an exhilarating if somewhat underappreciated mix of global sounds. Opening night of this year’s festival on the 20th of the month, a Pete Seeger tribute kicked off by none other than Judy Collins, was a mobscene rivaled here in recent years only by the overflow crowd at the 2010 staging of pianist Larry Harlow’s iconic salsa jazz suite, La Raza Latina.

A performance of some rather arch indie classical and contemporary ballet pieces this past Friday drew a smaller and less diverse crowd, but the diversity was back last night in epic force, at least musically speaking. Assembled by the prime movers of Globalfest, the evening had every bit of eclecticism and often delirious energy as their annual January Webster Hall celebration of mostly dance-oriented sounds from around the world, a spinoff of the APAP booking agents’ convention. Originating before the youtube era, the concert gives venue bookers and the public alike a chance to sample party music of pretty much every stripe throughout a series of what are essentially longform auditions. There’s literally something for everyone, as there was all over the Lincoln Center complex last night. Don’t like canned beats? Leave the underground parking garage (where the promoters had cleverly stashed that stuff away) and go to the park out back for a funky Indian jamband, or to the plaza for some Mexican brass music.

Around the corner from the opera hall, Colombian-American psychedelic cumbia band M.A.K.U. Soundsystem stole the show, and the crowd from Red Baraat – who were half a block south, in Damrosch Park – with their slinky, moodily triumphant grooves, reaffirming their status as one of New York’s best bands. And they left no doubt that at this point, cumbia has superseded reggae as this era’s default global party music. What’s coolest about cumbia is that a lot of it is pretty creepy, a quality underscored by keyboardist Felipe Quiroz’s sepulchrally tremoloing organ. Bassist/frontman Juan Ospina played bitingly catchy, hypnotically bouncy riffs and sang in tandem with multi-percussionist Liliana Conde, alongside guitar, conga, drums and a punchy two-trombone horn section (joined at the end by an esteemed Colombian tenor saxophonist whose introduction got lost in a flurry of applause). The band’s lyrics, mostly in Spanish, celebrate diversity and global unity in a surprisingly poetic way, without being either trite or saccharine, over loping, undulating minor-key vamps punctuated by animated percussion breaks and menacingly swirly keyboard riffs. One of the casually defiant tracks from the band’s latest vinyl ep, Musica Nunca Muere (The Music Never Dies) pretty much said it all. If the IWW had embraced cumbia instead of marching band music, maybe the Wobblies really would have taken over the world.

The evening’s single best performance – and funniest moment onstage – might have been from New Orleans “Russian mafia band” Debauche. Toward the end of their bristling, boisterous, hourlong set, given the “ten more minutes” sign from the sound booth, they responded by speeding up until they were going doublespeed and then even faster. More bands should do that! Frontman/acoustic guitarist Yegor Romantsov evoked another charismatic Slavic rock bandleader, Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz, as he made his way through edgy minor-key Russian-language romps about duplicitous women, deals gone bad, a love song reinvented from a lesbian perspective, and a mashup of a Jewish wedding song and a happy-go-lucky Mexican folk tune. Their was a distinct klezmer influence in many of the songs, from a sarcastically swaying hi-de-ho anthem, to a series of bouncily brooding, clarinet-and-violin-fueled shuffles. An attempt to get the heavily Russian crowd to sing along on Bublichki, the opening track on the band’s album Cossacks on Prozac – which would be better titled Cossacks on Coke – met with mixed results. But there was a big crowd down front dancing. And somehow the bull fiddle survived being climbed on by both the the burly guy who was playing it, as well as the coyly energetic woman playing standup bass drum and tambourine.

Sandwiched in between the cumbia and the klezmer rock were an eight-piece edition of Brooklyn’s Banda de los Muertos, who do both original and traditional Sinaloa-style brass music with trombones, horns, trumpets, woodwinds and drums. Most of their set had a breezy, good-natured sway, through a mix of ranchera waltzes, a Los Tigres del Norte cover and Marty Robbins’ El Paso reinvented as a mariachi brass theme. Trumpets and trombones got most of the solos and made the most of them, Ben Holmes and Brian Drye getting the choicest parts. Mariachi Flor de Toloache frontwoman Mireya Ramos took the music in a strikingly intense, imploring direction with her powerful, angst-fueled, melismatic vocals on a bolero, Te Quiero Tanto, written by the band’s frontman/clarinetist’s aunt. And then Ramos led the group back onto more upbeat turf.

Opening the night in Damrosch Park, Moroccan/Israeli crooner Emil Zrihan delivered an often riveting, impassioned performance worthy of a headliner, backed by his regular accordionist and an inspired pickup band who played seamlessly despite having been assembled at the last minute (the rest of the singer’s band were back in Israel, having been unable to get visas). Zrihan blends sounds from a millenium worth of Andalucian music as well as Sephardic cantorial themes, with an occasional detour toward klezmer or rai. His smartly dynamic, nonchalantly crescendoing take of the classic protest song Ya Rayyeh was well-received by the small but electrified crowd gathered in the shade toward the front of the stage. Zrihan and the accordion slowly jammed their way into many of the numbers, climbing to melismatic peaks that sometimes took on operatic exuberance or angst against a tightly swaying, rhythmically tricky backdrop of acoustic guitar, violin and twin hand drums.

And it was too bad that there weren’t more people in the park to catch Brazilian dub band BaianaSystem. Although a lot of what they had was on tape (or in the mixing board, or coming from somebody’s phone), their slow, slinky pulse made for an aptly nocturnal sendoff to the few who remained, ending the night with fat, tersely emphatic bass, long, ominously chromatic solos from electric guitarra baiana player Robertinho Barreto and rapidfire, reggaeton-style Portuguese lyrics from frontman Russo Passapusso.

Brooding, Darkly Fascinating Balkan-Inspired Sounds from Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell

Ben Holmes has a distinctive, soulfully purposeful voice on the trumpet. He plays with Ty Citerman’s Bop Kabbalah, Russian Romany party band Romashka and the funky Brooklyn Qawwali Party, among others, and on the jazz side with his quartet featuring trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, bassist Matt Pavolka and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. Holmes also has a pensive, often haunting new duo album, Gold Dust, with brilliant accordionist Patrick Farrell. The two are playing the release show on June 7 at 8 PM at Barbes.

Much as Farrell has supersonic speed and is one of New York’s great musical wits, and Holmes tends to play tersely, with plenty of gravitas, the album doesn’t have the kind of dichotomy you might expect. Most if not all of the music here is on the somber side, and the duo lock into that mood. They open the album with a purposefully stripped-down, lithely dancing arrangement of a stately Shostakovich piece. From there they take their time building the catchy, klezmer-tinged Black Handkerchief Dance from a dirge, Farrell using every inch of register at his disposal, from keening highs to murky lows, up to a more triumphantly bouncy pulse.

The next number is a suite. Holmes and Farrell exchange warily spiraling leads and contrapuntal riffs as it opens, then Farrell anchors a grey-sky theme with an airily otherworldly, Messiaen-esque ambience, then the duo pick up the pace and make a rustically off-center Balkan dance out of it. The Shostakovich tune that follows it is all about distantly ominous foreshadowing punctuated by uneasy cadenzas.

Zhok, a brooding Balkan waltz, makes the most of a stripped-down arrangement, first with the instruments trading off and then intertwining up to a big crescendo. A New Mammon is similarly moody, a grey-sky Balkan pastorale, something akin to the Claudia Quintet without the drums taking a stab at Eastern European folk. From there they pick up the pace with a jaunty Erik Satie ragtime waltz and then go back into pensively subdued territory with Peace, whose calm ambience can’t hide a lingering unease, building suspensefully from spacious solos from both instruments to a rather guarded optimism.

From there they pick up the pace again with Honga, its tricky, Macedonian-flavored shuffle beat, animated tradeoffs between instruments and intricately ornamented trumpet leads. The final track, Romance, blends oldschool jazz balladry with a more modernist feel, Farrell leading the way. A lot of people are going to like this album, fans of jazz and classical as well as Balkan and Middle Eastern music.

Avi Fox-Rosen’s Album-a-Month Steak Isn’t Dead

Since this past January, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Avi Fox-Rosen has been releasing a new album (or at least an ep, to be precise) every month at his Bandcamp page as a name-your-price download. Has there ever been another rock artist who’s done that? He’s got two more months to go to bring the yearlong marathon full circle. Plenty of other artists, especially in the jazz and classical worlds, have pulled off similar feats – another multi-instrumentalist, Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal comes to mind. Then there’s John Zorn, who’s probably written or improvised at least one piece of music for every day he’s been alive.

Sheer volume aside, what makes Fox-Rosen’s stunt worth following – which this blog has done since day one – is that the music has been so consistently excellent. Of the ten albums Fox-Rosen has put out this year, only one of them is a dud, and that one is all cover songs. Whether this whole undertaking is just Fox-Rosen emptying a very deep songbook he’s been building for years, or coming up with new stuff month by month, isn’t clear, but it’s an impressive feat any way you look at it.

Having reviewed the initial release back in January, a mighty handful from February through June and then July and August together, it’s time to take a look at September and October’s releases. September‘s theme (each one of these explores a specific concept) finds Fox-Rosen confronting his Seventh Day Adventist roots (you didn’t think he was Jewish, did you? ha ha, jk…). One important thing to know about Fox-Rosen is his music has a dark, ironic (some might say Jewish) sense of humor. He is unsurpassed as a parodist…and the first song on this album sounds suspiciously like a spoof of indie whiteboy blues. The longer it goes on, the more he slurs his words. “I’ve lied, overcharging my credit card til the day I die,” he drawls. The second song, This Year, takes the dirty blues vibe in a White Light/White Heat direction – it reminds of Sway Machinery before that band discovered Malian music. Alone sets a gloomy existential lyric to pensive folk-rock, followed by the album’s real zinger, The God Who Lives in Your Head, where Fox-Rosen gets to do a pretty amusing one-man Oasis approximation. This particular deity is a real, um, meshugganeh: he’s a “meticulous accountant” who keeps a shit list, who watches you like a hawk, who “has a famously inflammable tongue – he gets dissed anytime anybody smiles, anytime anybody looks his damn way.” And he might resemble you more than you want to admit.  At the end of the album, Fox-Rosen finally lets down his guard with the broodingly catchy, nonchalantly haunting acoustic anthem Days Become Weeks Become Years. On this album, aside from a single percussion track from the ubiquitous Rich Stein, Fox-Rosen plays all the instruments.

The theme of October’s album is Scary. Here Fox-Rosen has a full band including Dave Melton on keys, Rima Fand on violin and Yoni Halevy and Chris Berry sharing the drum chair. The first track, Everybody Dies is basically Misirlou with lyrics and some snarling klezmer trumpet from Ben Holmes. Characteristically, Fox-Rosen’s black humor has a message:

Little boy, your german shepherd’s gonna die
The goldfish you won at the carnival’s definitely gonna die
Your teddy bear’s not gonna die
But the kids who sewed him at the factory are gonna die

Apocalypse Party is Fox-Rosen doing yet another one of his spot-on 80s imitations, in this case an irresistibly funny Prince parody. “This shit ain’t global warming, this heat’s not from the south,” he wants all the peeps banging in the VIP section to know. Terrified is a very different, and more subtle parody, a self-obsessed singer-songwriter contemplating the unthinkable fate of fading into obscurity – or simply into the background. When I’m Dead seems to be a spoof of hi-de-ho noir swing – and it would be a great song with or without the snidely macabre lyrics. October’s installment ends with I’ll Be Leaving, which is sort of a musical version of the movie Ghost…or something like that. It leaves the listener guessing to what degree it’s supposed to be funny or serious, one of Fox-Rosen’s signature traits and reason to look forward to what he’s got in store for November. He’s also got a couple of shows coming up, at 9 PM on Oct 10 at Pete’s and then at around 9 again on Oct 27 at Freddy’s.

Avi Fox-Rosen Keeps His Album-a-Month Streak Alive

Avi Fox-Rosen‘s marathon attempt to put out a new album every month isn’t just a stunt: it’s actually produced some of the year’s best music. And it’s been hard to keep up with him. Blink, and he’s got another one up at his Bandcamp page, where they’re all available as name-your-price downloads. Fox-Rosen’s signature traits are humor and good guitar, and often the point where those two intersect: he is unsurpassed as a musical satirist, sort of a ballsier, Brooklyn counterpart to Weird Al Yankovic. Throughout the series, Fox-Rosen plays most of the stringed instruments, with a rotating cast of drummers, keyboardists, occasional strings, horns and harmony singers. As a rule, these songs are catchy, they’ve got intricate, elegant arrangements and sound like real records, not haphazard takes recorded on somebody’s phone. Each album in the series has a theme – in chronological order: getting older, love, money, stupidity (April’s album, the best of the bunch so far), fairy tales and teen angst. Fittingly, July’s theme was nationalism: its title is Amurka.

The opening track, Proud to Be American is bombastic post-Chuck Berry bar band rock set to drummer Chis Berry’s scurrying new wave beat. “Every playground needs a bully, say, why not you and me?” Fox-Rosen inquires. Open Letter to Thomas Jefferson has a snarkily laid-back dixieland brass section of Ben Holmes on trumpet, Ric Becker on trombone and Matt Darriau on reeds. It’s hilarious both as a spoof of the new crop of oldtimey swing bands, and as a swipe upside the head of American exceptionalists who won’t cop to the Founding Fathers’ blind spots.

Movin’ to the Country has more brass and a laid-back 70s hippie-rock Rhodes piano groove – and a caustic lyric that ponders “how will we stay alive surrounded by the rotting remains of what we thought would last” when the best we can do is head for the hills and bury our heads in the sand. The most caustic and darkly funny track here is Doctor: over gentle, pretty folk-rock spiced with Darriau’s calm bass clarinet and Holmes’ bright trumpet, Fox-Rosen coldly sums up the failures of the medical-industrial complex. It’s one of the two or three best songs of this whole series. As is the last track, President Sly (it’s a pun – say it fast). Faux southern rock gives way to a catchy electric piano ballad that sneakily goes into lite FM territory as Fox-Rosen gets the politicians in his crosshairs:

Left, right
Theatrically staged fights
Diversions from the real task of the day
Jobs, wars, education’s closing doors
The corporate masters make the puppets sway
It’s a performance, just some entertainment
To keep us on our knees
It seems to be working, there’ll be no revolution…

If you think that Fox-Rosen might want a break at this point, you’re right. The August installment suggests comic relief in the form of sex songs. This is his only covers album so far and unfortunately it doesn’t live up to the rest of the pack. Sex joints can be funny and even more fun to spoof, but once you’ve heard Biggie Smalls do Fucking You Tonight, nothing else really compares. This one opens with a Spike Jones-inspired version of the old swing tune Let’s Misbehave and then stalls: you keep waiting for the jokes, but there aren’t any. And if you’ve followed the series, the fact that Fox-Rosen is just as adept at period-perfect early 80s disco as he is at early 60s doo-wop pop is old news. Bookmark his Bandcamp page and check back next month to see what else he has up his sleeve.