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Brooklyn Rider Pair First-Class 21st Century Works with an Iconic String Quartet

Brooklyn Rider are the rare string quartet who seem to have as much fun with the classical canon as they do with the new composers they champion. To violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas, it’s all just good music. Their latest, lavish double-disc set, Healing Modes – streaming at Bandcamp – interpolates some fascinating new compositions among succesive movements of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, a mainstay of their performances (before the lockdown, at least). The new repertoire here challenges the group’s extended technique arguably more than any other recording they’ve done, but they rise to its demands. As usual, among the new works, there are connecting threads, notably a constant tension between atmospherics and bustle. And the Beethoven bristles with surprises and erudition, even if you’ve heard it a million times.

The opening piece, Matana Roberts‘ Borderland is a contrast in ghostly and poltergeist sonics. Microtonal haze gives way to insistent, rhythmic phrases, hectic pizzicato, coy glissandos, and then back. There’s also a loaded, allusive spoken word element that packs a wallop at a time when our constitutional rights have been stolen from us by the lockdowners.

Reena Ismail‘s Zeher (Poison) has a similar resonant/rhythmic dichotomy spiced with doublestops and quavery, Indian-influenced ornamentation, shifting to an unexpectedly anthemic conclusion that brings to mind the quartet’s recordings of Philip Glass.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s Kanto Kechua #2 has acerbically harmonized, tightly leaping phrases, a round of biting chromatics at the center. The quartet revel in these flurries, which obliquely echo Bernard Herrmann film scores, Peruvian folk music and also the Beethoven here.

The second disc begins with Du Yun‘s I Am My Own Achilles Heel, its shivers, squeals, approximations of arioso vocalese and sharply strutting figures receding down to sepulchral ambience and back again. There may be an improvisational element at work here: beyond an animated, allusively Appalachian circle dance at around the halfway mark or so, and pastoral Asian tinges later, it’s hard to tell.

The take of Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma seems even more amiably plucky and subtly anthemic than the version they played as a New York premiere on the Upper West Side in the spring of 2019.

There seems to be new gravitas but also new vigor in the first movement of the Beethoven, compared to the group’s previous interpretations, although their stunningly legato approach throughout hasn’t wavered over the years. It’s less a nocturne than an anthem. There’s lilting grace and delicacy in unexpected moments of movement two, but with plenty of muscle.

The devious Bach quotes amid the hymnal lustre of the third movement are right up front, and irresistible, as is the lushness of its conclusion. The ensemble play up the drollery in the fleeting bit of a fourth movement as much as the bittersweet, Vivaldiesque grace of the final one. These guys know better than most anyone else that this particular quartet is more symphonic than it is chamber music, a celebration of being snatched from the jaws of death. What does it sound like mixed up amid the new compositions? Full disclosure: this blog tweaked the tracklist to play it contiguously. It’s that addictive.

Brooklyn Rider and Kinan Azmeh Play a Transcendent Coda to a Popular Upper West Side Concert Series

Over the last few years, the mostly-monthly Music Mondays concert series has become an Upper West Side institution. The level of classical talent they’ve been able to lure up to the corner of 93rd and Broadway rivals the programming at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. The final night of this season on May 6, with paradigm-shifting string quartet Brooklyn Rider and haunting clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, was as transcendent as any in recent memory here. And that includes two separate, equally shattering occasions where the East Coast Chamber Orchestra played their towering arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing anti-fascist masterpiece, the String Quartet No. 8.

As they’re likely to do , Brooklyn Rider opened the night with a New York premiere, in this case Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma. With equal parts meticulousness and unbridled joy, the quartet – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas – stood in a semicircle as they played. Maybe that configuration gave them a jolt of extra energy as they parsed the composer’s development of a series of cell-like phrases, spiced with fleetingly jaunty cadenzas and passages with an unselfconscious, neoromantic attractiveness.

The world premiere of Jacobsen’s Starlighter, bolstered by Azmeh’s emphatic drive, was even more fun. The violinist explained to the sold-out crowd that it’s about photosynthesis, which came across as a genuinely miraculous, verdantly triumphant phenomenon. Its deft metamorphosis of riffs within a very traditional sonata architecture made a good pairing with Shaw’s work.

That the concert’s high point was not its centerpiece, a stunningly seamless perrformance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 speaks to the power of the entire program. Brooklyn Rider’s recorded version has a legato and a stamina that’s remarkable even in the rarified world of those who can play it on that level. But seeing it live drove home just how much of a thrill, and a challenge, it is to play. The contrasts between all the interchanging leaps and bounds and the rapt atmospherics of the adagio third movement, became all the more dramatic.

The highlight of the night was the world premiere of The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea, Azmeh’s duo piece for clarinet and cello. The composert told the crowd how he’d been inspired to write it from the rooftop of a Beirut building after fleeing his native Syria with his wife. It’s about memory, how it can fade and be reinvented, how tricky those reimagining can be – and how they haunt. Azmeh would look out over the ocean and convince himself that he could see his home turf in the far distance. As most exiles would, he clearly misses it terribly. The introduction had plaintively fluttering echoes of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time;. Later passages, for both the duo and each solo instrument, followed a plaintive trajectory that dipped with a murky, almost macabre cello interlude laced with sepulchral harmonics and ended as a poignant Arabic ballad.

All five musicians closed the show with a deliroius romp through Kayhan Kalhor‘s Ascending Bird. On album, with Kalhor playing kamancheh and joined by Brooklyn Rider, it’s a bittersweet, furiously kinetic escape anthem. Here, Azmeh taking Kahor’s place, it was more stark and resonant, even as the piece’s bounding echo effects and sudden, warily intense riffage coalesced.

Music Mondays’ fall season of free concerts typically begins in late September or early October; watch this space. Brooklyn Rider’s next concert is on May 31 at the Oranjewoud Festival in the Netherlands with legendary singer Anne Sofie von Otter. Azmeh’s next show is May 19 at 2 PM at First Presbyterian Church,,201 S  21st Street at Walnut St in Philadelphia with pianist Jean Schneider.

 

Globalfest 2019: Esoterica Rules, Again

Special thanks to Globalfest staffer Neha Gandhi, whose quick thinking, quiet diplomacy and efforts beyond the call of duty (and complicity in trying to create a teachable moment) made it possible for this review to appear

The premise of Globalfest in its early days was to connect talent buyers with booking agents representing acts from around the world. Youtube may have rendered that innovation obsolete, but every January, both crowds get together in New York to party on the company dime….and see some great music. The public comes out too. “I didn’t expect to see you here!” draws a response of “I didn’t expect to see you either!” Friends from the swing jazz or country blues scene discover a possibly secret, shared love for middle eastern music, and so forth. In 2019, more than ever, esoterica rules.

Sets are staggered in different areas of the venue throughout the night so that everybody can get a little taste of everything. As usual, last night’s show had more flavors than Dosa Hut (in case you haven’t already been seduced by the New York area’s most ambitious purveyors of sublimely delicious, crunchy Indian wraps, you are in for a treat).

Over the last couple of years, the artists on the bill have often represented a forceful backlash against anti-immigrant stridency, and last night was no exception. Both the whirlwind Palestinian rap-rock-reggae crew 47SOUL and magical Mexican chanteuse Magos Herrera – backed by string quartet Brooklyn Rider and drummer Mathias Kunzli – articulated fierce responses against wall-building.

But that issue was just a small part of each act’s many-faceted performance. 47SOUL spoke not only for the rights of Palestinians and Syrian refugees but for full-scale global unity against encroaching tyranny, through a blend of Arabic hip-hop, surreal dub reggae and keening, synthy habibi dancefloor pop. Likewise, Herrera drew on practically a century of pan-latin balladry, protest songs, classical and indie classical music, over a backdrop that was as propulsive as it was lustrous. It’s rare to see a string quartet play with as much sheer vigor as violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicholas.

It would have been fun to have been able to catch more of the spectacularly dynamic Debashish Bhattacharya, who alternated between rapidfire raga intensity on veena, and some unexpectedly balmy, twinkling slide guitar work in a Hawaiian slack-key interlude, joined by his similarly masterful daughter Anandi on vocals along with a first-rate tabla player.

Likewise, it was tantalizing to watch from behind the drums, relying on the monitor mix, throughout most of the night’s best-attended set, by theatrical Ukrainian band Dakh Daughters. The theatrical all-female group came across as a Slavic gothic mashup of the Dresden Dolls and Rasputina. In matching white facepaint and forest-spirit dresses, they paired ominous cellos against creepy piano chromatics and spritely flute over slow, ominous beats, switching off instruments frequently. As with so many artists whose cultures have been under attack, there’s no doubt plenty of grim subtext in their phantasmagorical narratives.

Since headliner the Mighty Sparrow had cancelled, the night’s largest ensemble were oldschool Cuban salsa band Orquesta Akokán, shifting through sparsely pummeling charanga-style passages, slinky mambos at various tempos, a lickety-split tonguetwister number and a machinegunning timbale solo that might have been the most adrenalizing moment of the entire night.

Playing solo a floor above, guitarist/banjo player Amythyst Kiah held the crowd rapt with her powerful, looming contralto vocals, her tersely slashing chops on both instruments and unselfconsciously deep insights into the melting pot of Appalachian folk music. Blending brooding, judiciously fingerpicked originals with a similarly moody choice of covers, she went as far back as 18th century Scotland – via 19th century African America – and as far forward as Dolly Parton, with equally intense results.

The evening ended with an apt choice of headliner, Combo Chimbita, who kept the remaining crowd of dancers on their feet throughout a swirling tornado of psychedelic, dub-inspired tropicalia, merengue and cumbia. Frontwoman Carolina Oliveros, a force of nature with her shamanic, hurricane-force roar and wail, circled the stage as if in a trance. Behind her, guitarist Niño Lento, bassist/keyboardist Prince of Queens and drummer Dilemastronauta built smoky ambience that rose to frenetic electric torrents and then subsided, a mighty series of waves to ride out into an increasingly chilly night.

Johnny Gandelsman’s Album of Solo Bach Works for Violin: A Revelatory Magnum Opus

Johnny Gandelsman is the first violinist of one of the world’s most consistently interesting string quartets, Brooklyn Rider, advocates for some of this era’s most individualistic composers. As buyers of classical albums are probably aware, Gandelsman’s epic solo recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas – streaming at Bandcamp  topped the classical charts earlier this year, a more substantial feat than most people might realize. While the vinyl renaissance keeps gaining traction, it’s impossible to know just how many units are being moved since artists don’t typically report them. And keep in mind that the bestselling album of two years ago among all styles of music was a Mozart box set.  

For those who haven’t heard Gandelsman’s magnum opus, it’s everything anybody could want from a number one record. It’s arguably the most cantabile performance of these pieces ever recorded. Gandelsman approaches the material as a singer would, not only segment by segment – which run the length of the emotional spectrum – but seemingly line by line.

The secret to his technique is his legato. You can hear it in his work with Brookyn Rider, most strikingly in the group’s hauntingly lustrous take of Beethoven’s iconic String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131, from their 2012 Seven Steps album.

Most musicians who play Bach tend to drift toward a mechanical rhythm. Then there’s a small contingent who decide that Bach’s steady note values don’t count for anything, and play rubato, with predictably befuddling results. Gandelsman doesn’t do either. Much of Bach has an inner swing – often, a shuffle rhythm – and he finds that wherever it exists. Other times, he lets the ornamentation serve as contrast to rhythmic steadfastness. And when he digs in with a razor’s edge staccato, as in the biting, leaping seventh movement of the Partita No. 1, the contrast is breathtaking.

This isn’t an album you can hear once and completely grasp. The more you hear it, the more of an ode to joy it turns out to be – but if the best you can do is play this in the background during dinner, you’re missing the point. What Gandelsman is going for here, beyond technical dazzle, is close emotional attunement. Bach loved stories, and secret codes – this is as close to a skeleton key as exists for this often wildly dynamic music.

It would be overkill to dissect each suite segment by segment. But there are innumerable interludes to get lost in (and if there’s any composer you can get completely lost in, it’s Bach). The way Gandelsman weaves through the ornamentation to introduce the opening adagio of the very first Sonata is as playful as it is stately – “charmingly antique” might explain how someone else would do it.

There are some dances here, but they don’t necessarily leap and bound. More likely than not, they flow gracefully, whether with the muted bittersweetness of the second movement of the first Partita, or the almost conspiratorial pulse of its presto finale. And even in the quasi-Vivaldi of the fourth movement, Gandelsman wrings as much sheer sound out of those volleys of eighth notes as any human not armed with an organ could possibly obtain.

Gandelsman parses the Sonata No. 1 from forlorn, to brooding, then determined and finally slithery – what a transformation! The build-down from suspense to partial resolution in Sonata No. 3 is also revelatory. The storm that rips at the chaconne that closes Partita No. 2 might be the both the album’s most technically challenging and adrenalizing moment.

Gandelsman doesn’t have any solo shows coming up, but popular young-ish orchestra the Knights, who often share band members with Brooklyn Rider, are playing the Naumburg Bandshell on July 17 at 7:30 PM with a program of works by Anna Clyne, Brahms and Armenian icon Komitas Vardapet. Get there early if you want a seat.

A Rare Treat from the Harlem Quartet at Lincoln Center

Ironically, the Harlem Quartet haven’t played New York much lately. That’s because they have a ongoing London residency when they’re not on international tour. Last night at Lincoln Center, the ensemble – violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador and cellist Felix Umansky – reaffirmed how much Manhattan’s loss is the rest of the world’s gain.

“I don’t want you to run away!” Gavilan grinned. He was referring to Walter Piston’s String Quartet No, 3, which as he explained has “A bit of a mathematical approach.” Much as the piece is a study in the counterpoint the composer was famous for, the quartet found a surprising amount of lyricism lurking within, particularly throughout the “grey and rainy” second movement, as Gavilan put it.

Soul battled with math through a Russian-tinged chase scene, austerely acidic washes grounded by viola and cello and a lively steady/dancing dichotomy to close: twelve-tone harmonies, lively classical gestures.

That the Debussy string quartet wasn’t the highlight of the concert attests to the strength of the rest of the program. This was a robust version, awash in wistful French proto-ragtime allusions: another great New York quartet, Brooklyn Rider, recorded a very similar take a few years back. Umansky reminded the crowd how much Debussy wanted to break free of the heavy German influence in the repertoire, so there was a sense of triumph – if often a bittersweet one – throughout the spirited flutters of the opening movement, the spiky pizzicato of the second and then finally a foreshadowed Twin Peaks theme at the end.

Gavilan’s dad, Guido Lopez Gavilan, was represented on the bill by his Quarteto en Guaguanco, which came across like Piazzolla with especially clever, shifting contrapuntal voicings. The group dug in hard, Umansky plucking out nimble basslines up to an interlude where everybody tapped out an altered salsa beat on their instruments.

The best number of the night was the encore, Take the A Train. Hearing a great string section play the blues is always a treat, this one elevated to even greater heights on the wings of the group’s dramatic flourishes and sparkles as they swung it – and maybe even improvised a little – Umansky again playing the role of bassist.

Much as the programming at Lincoln Center’s atrium space has a global scope, there’s an ongoing series of string quartet shows reflecting the organization’s original agenda. And all of these shows are free! The next one is with the brilliant Heath Quartet – whose latest album is an epic recording of the Bartok cycle – on March 22 at 7:30 PM, playing works by Haydn and Tschaikovsky. Get there early if you want a seat.

A Pensive, Quietly Dynamic, Relevant Album of Japanese-Tinged Themes from Kojiro Umezaki

Kojiro Umezaki‘s axe is the shakuhachi, the rustic Japanese wood flute, an instantly recognizable instrument that can deliver both ghostly overtones and moody, misty high midrange sonics. Umezaki’s background spans the world of folk music and indie classical – he’s a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble -and is a frequent collaborator with groundbreaking string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Umezaki also has an album, Cycles, out from that group’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s maverick label In a Circle Records and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of originals along with reinvented themes from folk and classical music. As you might imagine, most of it is  quiet, thoughtful and often otherworldly, a good rainy-day listen.

The opening track, (Cycles) America reimagines a theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as a solo percussion piece for Joseph Gramley, who opens it on drums with hints of majestic grandeur, then provides loopily resonant vibraphone. The album’s thoughtfully spacious second track, 108 is where Umezaki makes his entrance, joined after a terse, slowly crescendoing intro by Dong-Wan Kim on janggo drum and Faraz Minooei on santoor. It builds to a swaying and then rather jauntily dancing groove with hints of South Indian classical music as Umezaki chooses his spots.

The traditional Japanese lullaby that follows is as gentle – and ghostly – as you might expect from a melody that could be a thousand years old, a graceful solo performance. Umezaki then delivers a circular, uneasily looping piece modeled after a famous 1923 post-earthquake work by Japanese composer Nakao Tozan, bringing it into the present day as a tense, distantly angst-ridden contemplation of a post-3/11 world.

On For Zero, Gramley plays lingering vibraphone  interspersed with the occasional emphatic cymbal crash or fuzzy wash of low-register synth. The album’s final track is a new version of a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider that originally appeared on the quartet’s 2010 album Dominant Curve, alternating between raptly inmersive atmospherics and edgy interplay between the quartet and the wood flute, a shakuhachi concerto of sorts.

Brooklyn Rider’s Latest Album Capsulizes Their Paradigm-Shifting Sound

For the past few years, Brooklyn Rider have pushed the envelope pretty much as far as a string quartet can go, and in the process have raised the bar for other groups: they transcend any preconception about what serious composed music is all about. Their latest album, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac – streaming at Spotify – is their most ambitious effort yet, and may well be the one that most accurately captures what the group is all about. They draw on a wide composer base, including their own members, an A-list of mostly New York-based players and writers across the musical spectrum, from indie classical to Americana to rock and now even jazz.

It’s also a dance album in many respects – pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s similarly eclectic Dances of the World Chamber Orchestra also comes to mind. Beyond the rhythms – everything from funky grooves to waltzes and struts and the hint of a reel or a stately English dance – dynamics are everything here. The pieces rise and fall and shift shape, often with a cinematic arc. The first track is Rubin Kodheli‘s Necessary Henry!, the group – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – establishing an ominous/dancing dichotomy out of a stormy intro. It may have originally been written for Kodheli’s snarlingly majestic cello metal band Blues in Space.

Maintenance Music, by Dana Lyn shifts from a lustrous fog with distant echoes of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here to a slow waltz and then a chase scene – it’s the most cinematic piece here. Simpson’s Gap, by Clogs‘ Padma Newsome makes a good segue, an Appalachian ballad given bulk and heft with fluttering echoes, as if bouncing off the mountain walls and down into the valley below.

The Haring Escape, by saxophonist Daniel Cords veers from swaying, echoing funk, to slowly shifting resonance, to an aggressive march. Aoife O’Donovan’s Show Me is akin to something Dvorak would have pieced together out of a gentle Hudson Valley dance. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer‘s Dig the Say gives the quartet a  theme and variations to work, a study in counterrythms, funky vamps bookending a resonantly atmospheric interlude.

There are two pieces by indie rock drummers here. Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier – most recently witnessed  trying his best to demolish the house kit at Glasslands a couple of weeks ago – contributes the most minimalist piece here, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s Ping Poing Fumble Thaw being more pointillistic. The album continues on a kinetic path from here until the very end, through Ethan Iverson‘s Morris Dance – which blends contrastingly furtive and calm themes – then Colin Jacobsen’s Exit, with Shara Worden on vocals, a triumphantly balletesque, swirling, rather Reichian piece. The most rhythmically emphatic number here is by Gonazlo Grau, leader of explosive psychedelic salsa band La Clave Secreta. After Christina Courtin’s raptly atmospheric Tralala, the quartet ends with a warmly measured, aptly pastoral take of John Steinbeck, by Bill Frisell.

Another Gorgeous, Lushly Orchestrated, Psychedelic Album from My Education

NYMD’s sister blog Lucid Culture called four-guitar Austin postrock instrumentalists My Education “The Dirty Three meets Friends of Dean Martinez meets Brooklyn Rider meets My Bloody Valentine,” which makes sense. Their music takes you away to a different and much better universe, where angst is confronted and then transcended, where pain rises and is then swept away on the wings of what sounds like a million guitars. Lush, ornate, hypnotic and psychedelic to the extreme, their new album A Drink for All My Friends blends Dirty Three pensiveness and FODM desert ambience with elegantly austere touches of Brooklyn Rider strings, then stirs it ferociously with a MBV dreampop swirl.

This album opens on an unexpectedly quiet note, guest Sarah Norris’ vibraphone mingling with James Alexandre’s viola for a hypnotic circularity that brings to mind Missy Mazzoli’s chamber rock band Victoire. Then the guitars enter one by one on the second track, For All My Friends, an army of roaring riffage that finally rises to a titanic wall of frantic tremolo-picking, reaching a Pink Floyd majesty as the bass bubbles over the top of the sonic cauldron and ends unexpectedly raw and jaggedly: what a ride this is!

The practically ten-minute, cinematic Mr. 1986 builds out of a pretty, acoustic chamber-pop theme into an elegaic anthem, both nebulous and forcefully direct, Henna Chou’s terse piano finally taking centertstage and then quickly receding against the guitar orchestra. Built around a distantly menacing, echoey heart monitor motif, Black Box richly blends twinkly Rhodes piano with all the guitars into a slow, crepuscular freeway theme speckled with weird samples of television or radio dialogue,

Robot-Hohlenbewoner rides a funky, more animated motorik groove: if U2 wrote good songs, they would sound like this. The ten-minute Happy Village takes its time to eventually clarify that this particular village isn’t so happy at all: it’s the Velvets as John Cale might have dreamed of orchestrating them circa 1967, plus mid-70s Floyd angst, hynotic Black Angels murk and an unexpected nod to new wave on the way out. The album ends with the arena-rock spoof Homunculus, like Big Lazy’s Starchild but more amusingly crass. My Education are huge in Europe, which is where they are right now, on tour: a band this good deserves just as avid a following on their own side of the pond. Count this among the most lushly enjoyable albums of the year in any style of music.

Globalfest 2012 – In Case You Haven’t Heard Already

If you were out seeing concerts this past weekend in the West Village, you probably noticed an older hippie/academic crowd in full effect: that’s because this time of year in New York is when the annual booking agents’ convention, a.k.a. APAP takes place. Most of the shows associated with the convention are open to the public, and because the performers are essentially auditioning, the performances can be genuinely transcendent. Last weekend certainly was, from the amazing first annual Maqamfest at Alwan for the Arts on Friday night, through the end of the two-day Winter Jazzfest on Saturday and then the grand finale, Globalfest at Webster Hall on Sunday night. Give NPR credit for recording the entirety of Globalfest and making much of that available online. NPR’s coverage of rock music may be a joke, but they really have their finger on the pulse of a whole lot of other genres, including many styles from around the world. This year’s Globalfest theme, or maybe its ongoing theme, was phat beatzz – and until the actually very good Malian rap-rock group SMOD took the stage late in the evening, those phat beatzz were all organic, no canned rhythms to be found anywhere. And the younger portion of the crowd felt them: people came to dance.

Because Globalfest is part of the convention, the performances are staggered throughout several stages – three this year – so that theoretically, a concertgoer (or booking agent wanting to check out prospective talent onstage) can catch twenty minutes’ worth of everyone on the bill. However, having seen what happened at the overbooked Winter Jazzfest Saturday night – at least two, maybe more of the clubs involved were sold out by ten PM and looked like they’d stay that way – it seemed to make more sense to try to cherrypick the performances here, and show up a little early if necessary so as not to get shut out of anything. As it turned out, that never seemed to happen (although the downstairs “Marlin Room” was a sweltering sardine can all night long).

The first notable act was Yemen Blues, who drew the biggest crowd of the evening, an enthusiastic posse of Sephardic kids who packed themselves in close to the stage and danced joyously to the group’s slinky funk rhythms. Yemen Blues are neither Yemeni nor are they a blues band: the nine-piece Israeli-American group is something akin to the missing link between Rachid Taha and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with occasional detours into the Middle East, or, on one song, into French Creole balladry. Over the hypnotic pulse of Omer Avital’s bass, the string section and horns fired off lively, amiable Moody Blues-style classical cadenzas while their frontman – a big hit with the ladies in the crowd, old and young – slunk and implored and very effectively got everyone to move their bodies. Avital is one this generation’s great jazzmen – although nobody seemed to recognize him. He’s been playing a lot of oud lately, and with that instrument added a dark, pensive thicket of moody textures to the band’s slower songs, including one particularly harrowing, introductory taqsim.

By the time they’d finished, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino had already begun their equally ecstatic set one floor below. Switching nimbly between instruments, the band romped through a tarantella dance, brass-fueled gypsy tunes, a hypnotic drum-and-harmonium trance piece and even a plaintive waltz sung by frontwoman Maria Mazzotta with a brittle, angst-fueled passion. With many acoustic instruments -bouzouki, fiddle and trumpet, to name a few – but an electric rhythm section, they add a rock explosiveness to a repertoire that seems to encompass every style that ever passed through Italy in the last three hundred years, emphasis on the beatzz – which were phat, and 100% organic.

After them, it was time to head upstairs for a brief detour into French territory with gypsy jazz chanteuse Zaz, who’d also brought out a sizeable crowd from her home turf (the French Music Office, who’ve been an important part of Globalfest since day one, get credit for her as well as many of the other standouts on the bill). Her playful, husky rasp goes straight back to Piaf; the spiky, slinky, twin guitar-fueled tunes, straight back to Django Reinhardt. Casually joking with the crowd and playing coyly seductive cocktail drum, she could be Norah Jones’ more animated Parisienne cousin. Were her beatzz phat? No. But her bassist was – his beatzz were, that is. Tilting his bull fiddle on its side, he was given a solo and wisely chose not to upstage his frontwoman. It would have been nice to have been able to catch more than a handful of her songs, but the idea of getting shut out of a performance by the Silk Road Ensemble just wasn’t happening.

And they were transcendent. While group founder Yo-Yo Ma may no longer play every one of their shows, they remain one of the most astonishingly eclectic and entertainingly virtuosic ensembles on the planet. While much of their recent commissioned work – they continue to dedicate themselves to premiering important pieces from a global list of young composers, not necessarily Asian ones – has been on the hypnotic, intensely quiet side, this time out they flat-out rocked. From the suspenseful, austerely microtonal, upward sweep of their opening piece, through a couple of dizzyingly polyrhythmic percussion interludes, to what seemed to be the club remix of the Kayhan Kalhor classic Ascending Bird, they were no less energetic than Yemen Blues had been. Was violinist Colin Jacobsen going to be able to keep up with the breakneck pace? Yes, he was. The moment when he handed off one particular flourish to his Brooklyn Rider string quartet bandmate, violinist Johnny Gandelsman, who flung it back with equal relish and precision, was the high point of the night.

At one point, their drummer got up, positioned himself in front of the mics, and fired off a solo by hammering on his chest and then working his way down to what seemed his ankles. That’s called “bodymusic” – and one hopes he saves it for the next special occasion, otherwise he’ll be black-and-blue after a week’s worth of shows. The group careened through a bracing tarantella-flavored mini-suite, and after an intense, aching Asian sheng-and-vocal piece, closed with a lush but ecstatic Ljova arrangement of a Taraf de Haidoucks gypsy dance, turning over the high point of the crescendo to the pipa player, who matter-of-factly nailed it in a frenzied flurry of tremolo-picking. Definitely not your parents’ chamber music.

“This is for the girl from Italy,” SMOD guitarist Sam told the crowd, referring to Mazzotta – like many of the musicians, he’d obviously been circulating before before taking the stage himself, and had obviously liked what he heard enough to dedicate a carefree, reggae-tinged ballad to her. The son of Amadou and Mariam, he and his group have an ongoing relationship with Manu Chao, who produced their latest album and has frequently toured with them. Layering catchy reggae-rock tunes with acoustic guitar and swooshy organ over a beatbox and the occasional pre-programmed loop, he and his two vocalists rapped in a mixture of his hometown Bamako dialect and in French as well. While the tunes may be smooth and upbeat, the band is mad as hell. With a message of solidarity for downtrodden populations around the world, they offered hope and redemption as well as revenge on the one-percenters who’re responsible for the mess: they’re completely in the moment and have a lot of catchy songs as well.

Was the club’s small downstairs studio space going to be sufficient for Boston-based Ethiopian funk orchestra Debo Band and all their fans? It’s not much bigger than the back room at Don Pedro’s in Bushwick. Then again, before they moved on to bigger stages, Debo Band played Don Pedro’s, more than once if memory serves right, so with the help of a frenetic crew of sound engineers, this was a triumphant return to their small-club roots. And the kids, knowing what was coming, packed it: if there were any oldsters left in the house by eleven, they probably didn’t stand a chance of getting in. The ten-piece band was the perfect choice of headliner on a night that had already been full of amazing moments, beginning with a sizzling opener, the haunting, chromatically-charged classic Musikawi Silt. Through one hypnotically bouncy vamp after another, with searing solos from wah-wah violin, crazed bebop tenor sax and psychedelic reverb-toned electric guitar, the grooves never stopped. As far as phat beatzz go, this band has both a bass and a sousaphone: it doesn’t get any phatter than that, and to the sound engineers’ infinite credit, they got what looked like a thicket of microphones to work pretty much trouble-free. With any concert this pricy (the Bowery Ballroom folks, who booked this, were selling advance tickets at the Mercury Lounge for $35), the question that arises is was it worth it? Without a doubt, yes.

The Best NYC Concerts of 2011

Of all the year-end lists here at New York Music Daily, this one is the most fun to put together since it’s the most unique. Everybody has a different one: this is an attempt to be REALLY different and stay as faraway as possible from duplicating the other blogs. That’s why Sharon Jones, or the Brooklyn What, or Gogol Bordello aren’t on this list. Everybody else went to those shows – and had a good time, and more power to you if you were one of those people.

Considering how many incredible live performers play around town, and pass through over the span of a year, choosing the year’s best New York concert is usually like shooting fish in a barrel. But in 2011, there was one show that stood out over all the others, and that was one by a familiar presence, someone who’s been a force in the downtown scene for a long time, who gets more and more vital as the years go by. Laurie Anderson’s concert at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on August 11 brought an air-conditioned highrise chill, a calmly matter-of-fact indictment of post-9/11 paranoia and gentrifier cluelessness, laced with deadpan wit and set to hypnotic, pensive, icily ambient atmospherics. Though much of the concert was a requiem for an edgy New York that’s been bulldozed out of existence, it offered some hope that new version can rise again from the ashes of the old one.

In any other year, Marc Ribot’s April 3 performance of classic noir film music along with his own equally dark matter at the New School would be a no-brainer for best concert of the year; the same could be said for Either/Orchestra’s November 9 marathon two and a half-hour concert there featuring bandleader Russ Gershon’s new suite of moody Ethopian jazz as well as new arrangements of rare Ethiopiques, never before performed outside Ethiopia and probably not since the 1960s.

As far as the rest of the year is concerned, that it was impossible to whittle this list down to any fewer than 26 shows speaks for itself:

Sanda Weigl, Razia and Very Be Careful at the 92YTribeca, January 8 – Shoko Nagai was the star of this one, playing creepy, surreal, crashingly and virtuosically intense piano and accordion in the gypsy singer’s band. The Malagasy chanteuse and LA cumbia party band who followed weren’t bad either.

The Dixie Bee-Liners at the Jalopy, February 13 – since relocating from New York to the hills of Virginia, Buddy Woodward and Brandi Hart’s cutting-edge bluegrass band have made a living on the road with their Bible Belt noir. Pretty impressive in these hard times.

Miramar at Barbes, March 5 – new and classic Puerto Rican boleros, haunting and psychedelic, fueled by Marlysse Simmons’ creepy funeral organ.

Svetlana Berezhnaya at St. Thomas Church (5th Ave.), March 27 – the Russian organist played her own even more macabre arrangement of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Caithlin De Marrais, the Oxygen Ponies and Randi Russo at the Mercury, April 17 – the former Rainer Maria chanteuse/bassist followed by two of New York’s darkest, most literate rock bands, those two groups both using two drummers.

Ward White at Bowery Electric, April 19 – the literate rock tunesmith was under the weather but still delivered a soaring, understatedly snarling cd release show for his latest one, Done with the Talking Cure , backed by keyboard maven Joe McGinty and a killer band.

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans tribute at the Jazz Standard, April 22 – the composer/arranger is a major Evans scholar, and assembled an A-list big band to recreate the legendary 1961 Out of the Cool album plus a couple of surprises.

Dark & Stormy at the Tank, April 28 – the duo of Adrian Morejon and Rebekah Heller played pretty much the entire known repertoire for two bassoons, as lively and entertaining as it was sonically luscious.

Barbez at the Austrian Cultural Center, May 12 – playing mostly material from their most recent album Force of Light, a Paul Celan homage, they mixed brooding, klezmer-fueled instrumentals with spoken-word passages featuring work by the late Holocaust poet.

The JD Allen Trio at le Poisson Rouge, May 18 – the tenor saxophonist and his longtime collaborators, bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, hit dark and forcefully again and again, airing out three-minute “jukebox jazz” songs from their darkly triumphant new album, VICTORY!

Those Darlins and Black Joe Lewis at Madison Square Park, June 12 – swirling jangly psychedelia with a little country from the 3/4 female rockers, followed by a marathon performance by the charismatic punk/funk guitarslinger and his purist, bluesy band.

Brooklyn Rider at Pace University, July 12 – a characteristically eclectic set by one of the world’s most adventurous string quartets, with works by Philip Glass and Kojiro Umezaki along with a bluegrass romp by Colin Jacobsen and several scorching gypsy tunes.

Pierre de Gaillande at Barbes, July 14 – the Snow’s frontman played a bunch of brand-new English translations of classic,smutty, wickedly literate Georges Brassens songs.

The Universal Thump at Barbes, July 16 – keyboardist Greta Gertler’s lush art-rock band brought along a string quartet for this exhilarating, majestic show featuring new songs from their brand-new First Spout album.

The New York Arabic Orchestra at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, August 5 – a rich mix of Egyptian and Lebanese classics as well as intriguing, cinematic works by bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba

Rachelle Garniez, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and Thomas Simon at Small Beast at the Delancey, August 15 – the weekly dark rock event, which has been running on fumes lately, had a rare good night since charismatic chanteuse Beren – who booked the bands this time around – brought along both the equally charismatic and even more inscrutable Garniez as well as swirling soundtrack crafter Simon.

The Chiara String Quartet at Trinity Church, September 8 – the ensemble revisited Robert Sirota’s anguished, chilling 9/11-themed Triptych where they’d premiered it less than a year later after the attacks. Seconds after they finished, sirens echoed outside just a couple of blocks away: eerie coincidence!

And the Wiremen and the Reid Paley Trio at Small Beast at the Delancey, September 19 – this time out Lynn Wright of southwestern gothic mavens And the Wiremen booked the night, bringing along charismatic retro rocker Paley, who was not amused by the chatty bar crowd and delivered what might have been the most deliciously assaultive show of the year

Chicha Libre at Barbes, October 3 – the surfy, psychedelic cumbia band plays pretty much every Monday here on their home turf – this time they went deep, deep into dub with a swirling, deliriously fun mix of classics and a lot of new original material.

Amour Obscur and Copal at R Bar, October 5 – blazing gypsy punk and noir cabaret, followed by gorgeously slinky violin-and-cello dance grooves from Hannah Thiem, Isabel Castellvi and their hypnotic rhythm section.

Drina Seay at Lakeside, October 7 – she came out of nowhere – a year ago she was singing backup vocals with a bunch of country bands – to lead one of New York’s most versatile, smartest Americana groups. Watching her soaring through a mix of torchy, intense ballads and more upbeat songs reminded a lot of seeing Neko Case right before she got popular.

The American Composers Orchestra at the World Financial Center, October 22 – closing night of this year’s SONIC Festival featured intense, majestic new works by Paul Yeon Lee, Ruby Fulton, Ryan Gallagher, Suzanne FarrinAndrew Norman, and an unexpectedly thoughtful, pensive one by the National’s Bryce Dessner.

Walter Ego at Otto’s, November 19 – switching from guitar to piano and back again, the literate rock tunesmith was at the top of his wryly amusing game.