There’s something refreshingly new and exciting happening in what might seem to be an unexpected space on the Upper West Side. This past evening, Raya Brass Band sold out Symphony Space, delivering a wickedly tight set that was just feral enough to seem like the six-piece Brooklyn Balkan collective were about to leave the rails at any second. They didn’t really do that until the end of the show, when they left the stage and went down into the crowd of dancers gathered at the front of the stage.
That’s right – dancers packing the floor at Symphony Space.
How did this neighborhood institution, best known for its annual classical music marathons and the NPR shows that tape there, suddenly get so cool? They’ve got a new series they call Revelry, where if you’re thirty or under, you can get in for twenty bucks – ten dollars less than older folks have to pay. Meanwhile, the downstairs bar stays open throughout the show and afterward. But you can get a drink at any club in town. What’s most exciting about this series is that Symphony Space is bringing in fresh talent that’s probably never played the Upper West Side before. They’ve imported some of the roster of bands from Barbes – Brooklyn’s best venue – and from other scenes as well.
Raya Brass Band packed Barbes back in January, but they always do that. It was dowmright inspiring to see them do the same in upper Manhattan in a space four or five times as big. Although they varied their tempos from funky to lickety-split, and their meters from a straight-up 4/4 to who knows what – some of these Balkan beats are impossible to count unless you have to play them – the show was more like one long jam with a thousand dynamic variations. There were a couple of Macedonian-style vamps where the group would shift back and forth between major and minor…an endlessly delicious series of sharp-fanged chromatic riffs…a klezmer-inflected number late in the set…and a final slinky, darkly glistening river of Ethiopian jazz after over an hour onstage.
Co-founder Greg Squared played the whole show on alto sax this time out, making it look effortless as he flickered between microtones, occasionally playing through an octave pedal for a spacy, techy effect. Trumpeter Ben Syversen didn’t spar with him as much as simply trading off long, goosebump-inducing volleys of chromatics – although he did a little jousting with accordionist Max Fass. Who is the band’s true anchor, providing rich washes of sound that were serendipitously up in the mix (sometimes the accordion gets lost at a place like Barbes) .
Nezih Antakli provided the boom on a big standup tapan drum, while fellow percussionist Kolja Gjoni played a standup kit: nobody could have asked for more cowbell. Tuba player Steven Duffy brought both slithery vintage Bootsy Collins basslines as well as pinpoint-precise oompah, and finally the kind of funny WAH-wah solo that every tuba player ends up having to take at some point.
The big takeaway here; if you live on the Upper West or points further north, Revelry at Symphony Space is the place to be on Thursdays nights. The next show is Oct 18 at 7:30 PM with the charming, female-fronted Avalon Jazz Band playing cosmopolitan European swing. And if you’re up for a shlep to Barbes, Greg Squared is playing there every Sunday night in October at 7 PM with a rotating cast of New York Balkan and Middle Eastern talent. Psychedelic Romany jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel plays there afterward at about 9:30 with his band.