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A Long-Awaited, Darkly Brilliant Gem of a Debut Album From Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore

Over the past couple of years, trumpeter Ben HolmesNaked Lore trio became one of the most consistently edgy, entertaining bands in the Barbes scene. Considering how many dozens of other great artists rotate through Brooklyn’s best (and currently shuttered) music venue, that’s a major achievement.

But Holmes has been a mainstay, playing everything from klezmer to ska there since the zeros, and guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan have long resumes in jazz that slinks toward the Middle East. With this group, the goal is to reinvent old klezmer themes and introduce new ones. If you’re a fan of old Jewish folk tunes from across the diaspora, you’ll hear a lot of familiar minor-key riffs here, beamed down to a completely new planet. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open the album with a diptych, Invocation 1/Snake Money, an airy, spacious, allusively chromatic trumpet solo leading into a suspensefully pulsing, flamenco-tinged groove. From there Shepik’s fleet-fingered flurries and Shanahan’s snakecharmer beats underpin the bandleader’s lively, spacious, klezmer-infused phrasing. Ibrahim Maalouf’s most upbeat work comes to mind.

The second track is titled 543, a Smile, and Bullshit, reflecting Holmes wry stage presence as well as the whole group’s immersion in Balkan music. This one has a tricky groove that seems Macedonian, deliciously biting upper-register chords from Shepik, trumpet floating and trilling uneasily overhead..

Shepik plays clanging, overtone-laden Portuguese twelve-string guitar in the steady, jauntily strolling, tantalizingly gorgeous Swamplands Chusidl and sticks with it in the hypnotically circling Interlude on Avenue J, a throwback to the more postbop jazz-inflected style Holmes mined on his Balkan jazz record Gold Dust.

Another crystalline, unsettled trumpet taqsim, Invocation II leaps and bounds, introducing The Dust of Unremembering; Shepik runs a moody acoustic guitar loop as Shanahan fires off machinegunning riffs and Holmes hangs low and ominous, a stormcloud above all the scampering.

The Sunbeast Emerges, with its moody bolero tinges, is another killer track: it sounds like a Serbian take what could be a catchy, incisive Michael Winograd tune, no surprise considering how much time Holmes has spent in the clarinetist’s band. Shepik’s spiraling, spine-tingling solo is one of the album’s high points.

Two Oh No’s and an Oh! no No! is not a Yoko Ono paraphrase: it’s a dusky, Indian-flavored theme built around a Shepik chromatic loop, Holmes moodily choosing his spots over Shanahan’s clip-clop attack, the guitarist adding a wickedly Middle Eastern solo.

First We Were Sad, Then We Danced is a pretty self-explanatory hora, a high-voltage concert favorite: the trio add smoldering flamenco flavor and then an absolutely surreal new wave rock pulse. They wind up the album with the unselfconsciously poignant waltz All Together, a subtle mix of klezmer, pastoral American jazz and the Balkans.

All of these guys have done great work over the years but this is a high point for everybody in the band. No wonder they’ve stuck together so long. If it makes sense to put up a best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year – if New York still exists at the end of the year, if we all exist – this will be on it.

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hypnotic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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.

An Enticing Gutbucket Stand at the Stone and a Characteristically Edgy Album From Their Bandleader

Since the late 90s, Gutbucket have distinguished themselves as purveyors of moody, sardonic, cinematic instrumentals that combine jazz improvisation with noirish rock themes. You could call them a more jazz-inclined version of Barbez, and you wouldn’t be far off. If you miss the days when Tonic was still open and edgy sounds were an everyday thing on the Lower East Side, you’ll be psyched to know that Gutbucket are doing a stand at the Stone from Nov 18 through 23 with two sets nightly at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $10. As you would expect from pretty much everybody who plays there, the band are doing several interesting collaborations and are making a live album in the process. The most enticing set of all might be the early show on opening night when the music will have some added lushness via the strings of the Jack Quartet.

Frontman/guitarist Ty Citerman also has a wickedly fun, tuneful, genre-defying sort-of-solo Tzadik album, Bop Kabbalah, out with his Gutbucket bandmates Ken Thomson on bass clarinet, Adam D. Gold on drums plus Balkan trumpeter Ben Holmes. Although the themes draw on traditional Jewish music, jazz tropes and rock riffage take centerstage. The first track, The Cossack Who Smelt of Vodka (possible ommitted subtitle: what cossack doesn’t smell of vodka?) follows a tensely cinematic, noirish trajectory to a long outro where Citerman’s tensely insistent guitar pairs against Thomson’s calmness.

Conversation with Ghosts works a catchy minor-key theme punctuated by droll leaps and bounds up to a long Holmes solo, then the band reprises it but much more loudly and darkly. Snout moves from squirrelly free jazz into a brief Romany dance, then the band refract it into its moody individual pieces, transforming what under other circumstances would be a party anthem into a fullscale dirge.

The Synagogue Detective bookends a tongue-in-cheek cartoon narrative with alternately biting and goodnaturedly prowling solos from Citerman, Holmes and Thomson. Likewise, they liven the skronky march After All That Has Happened with squalling Steven Bernstein-esque flourishes. In lieu of hip-hop flavor, Talmudic Breakbeat has an unexpected lushness, neatly intertwining voices, some drolly shuffling rudiments from Gold and the album’s most snarling guitar solo.

The album’s most deliciously epic track, Exchanging Pleasantries with a Wall moves up from echoey spaciousness, through a disorienting, funereal groove that brings to mind low-key Sonic Youth as much as it does Bernstein’s arrangements of old Hasidic nigunim. The closing cut puts a clenched-teeth, crescendoing noir dub spin on a broodingly austere old prayer chant. Now where can you hear this treat online? Um…try Citerman’s soundcloud page and youtube channel for starters; otherwise, the Stone is where it’s at, next week.

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.

An Overlooked Lorca-Inspired Art-Rock Treasure from Rima Fand

Much as this blog’s raison d’etre is to keep an eye on what’s happening now, the past is littered with unfairly overlooked albums. One recent one, from 2011, is Rima Fand’s Sol, Caracol (Spanish for “Sun, Snail”). It comprises many of the songs from her theatrical project Don Cristobal: Billy-Club Man, which sets Federico Garcia Lorca poetry to frequently haunting, flamenco-tinged original music. This is the closest thing to an original soundtrack recording that exists, part dark flamenco rock, part noir cabaret, part chamber pop. Besides playing violin, the Luminescent Orchestrii co-founder distinguishes herself on mandolin and keyboards as well, accompanied by an all-star cast from many styles of south-of-the-border and Balkan music.

Although Don Cristobal and his sidekick Rosita are a Spanish version of Punch and Judy, there’s very little here that’s vaudevillian, consistent with Garcia Lorca’s full-fledged rather than one-dimensionally farcical depiction of the characters. The opening track, Midnight Hours, sets a dramatic lead vocal by David Fand over a spiky blend of the bandleader’s mandolin with Avi Fox-Rosen and Chris Rael’s guitars, a soaring choir behind them. You might call this art-flamenco. Lucia Pulido sings the dynamically charged Replica, Rima Fand doubling on mandolin and accordion. Cicada, a shivery, hypnotically suspenseful string piece, blends her violin with those of Sarah Alden and Not Waving But Drowning’s Pinky Weitzman and Matt Moran‘s vibraphone.

Justine Williams
sings the creepy, marching Rosita’s Song. The choir returns for Don Woodsman-Heart, a moody flamenco vamp lit up by Quince Marcum‘s alto horn, morphing into a dreaming, longing waltz. Pulido takes over the mic again on the terse, minimalistic Confusion over My Brightest Diamond cellist Maria Jeffers‘ bassline. David Fand returns to imploring lead vocals on the insistent Abre Tu Balcon (Open Up Your Balcony – that’s Don Cristobal imploring Rosita to have a word with him). They follow that with a cartoonish miniature, Te Mate and then Hat-Ache, another flamenco-tinged, angst-fueled, love-stricken ballad.

The album’s centerpiece is the macabre, carnivalesque Billy-Club Ballet, the bandleader on piano with guitar and percussion, Fox-Rosen’s jagged electric incisions adding menace up to a twinkling piano interlude and then back down. They follow a brief mandolin waltz with La Monja Gitana (The Country Nun), rising from another austere 3/4 rhythm, with a rich, bittersweet vocal from Rima Fand.

Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker a.k.a. innovative Balkan/Appalachian duo AE sing the sweeping, tensely moonlit Lullaby for a Sleeping Mirror, building to a lush, anxious round. The album ends with the towering overture La Cogida y la Muerte, sung pensively in English and Spanish by Abigail Wright, the acidic close harmonies of the string section contrasting with Katie Down‘s anxiously dancing flute and the distantly circling trumpets of Ben Syversen, Sarah Ferholt, JR Hankins and Ben Holmes. Surreal, sad, eclectic and vivid, it more than does justice to Lorca’s equally surreal, sad, ironic poetry. The album comes with a useful lyric booklet including English translations.