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Monty Alexander Feels the Spirits at Trinity Church

Pianist Monty Alexander told the crowd at his show at Trinity Church today that “Last year I hit that golden number called 78.” He was referring, of course, to the 78 RPM record, the vehicle that spread the golden age of jazz around the world.

No one would have known his age if the man who has come to personify Jamaican jazz hadn’t mentioned it. In a dynamic, rising and falling hour and a half onstage with bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Jason Brown, he fired off crystalline cascades, vigorous rhythms and an reaffirmed his status as first-ballot, inimitably quotable hall-of-famer. “If I stop playing the piano, I confuse the spirit.”

One early highlight was an Ellington tune with a lyrical bowed Sellick solo, then a misterioso drum break which Alexander leapt out of to reassert the lively mood with his pointillistic ragtimey descents, The dubwise segue into Bob Marley’s Forever Loving Jah was the first of the reggae-jazz remakes that came to define Alexander’s career for awhile in the 90s and zeros. This one gave him a chance to hit harder on the low end. Brown’s shamanic rimshots and Sellick’s grit on the low end completed the picture.

Alexander follow a series of hymnal variations to a an immersive resonance, then worked his way up into No Woman No Cry. The ornate High Romantic eight-chord fakeout midway through this spare, unadorned reinvention was the high point of the show. A series of phantasmagorical flourishes were also hardly expected in the jump blues version of A Night in Tunisia that followed, as were were Brown’s flashy rudiments.

Moments of unease also persisted but then receded as Alexander built a spare swing on the next number, Renewal. He mentioned how the cultural diversity of his native country mirrors this one in Out of Many, One People, his insistent, optimistically climbing riffs reaching a light-fingered reggae groove

Hope, as Alexander and Brown saw it this time out, began with a regal drama and, then the pianist mined stern, ambered 19th century gospel phrasing. The trio followed with a spacious take of Besame Mucho, picked up with a swing, and then merged minor-key bite in the blues boogie Slappin’, which Alexander dedicated to the piano teacher he’d fled when she slapped his finger with a ruler.

The trio brought the ambience down with River, another Alexander original, rising from mystical glimmer to a lithely understated reggae groove driven by Sellick’s dancing arpeggios. They closed with what seemed to be a determined, percussive mashup of Ray Charles’ What I Say and When the Saints Go Marching In.

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Inspiration and Rapture From Harpist Edmar Castaneda in a Sonically Challenging Downtown Space

At his concert today at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown, harpist Edmar Castaneda told the small crowd huddled together in the wintry chill under the balcony organ that he was sick of playing “For computers.” The audience seconded that observation and roared their approval when he’d fire off sparkling cascades, playing brisk melody lines against supple basslines, bending the body of his instrument for a wah-wah effect, or slamming the strings at the end of a song like the inside of a piano to cap off a big coda. But lockdown-era cabin fever aside, at this show Castaneda felt the room’s nature reverb and focused more on rapture and resonance than the pyrotechnics he’s best known for.

His wife, singer Andrea Tierra, marveled at how the Financial District had revitalized itself in the years since she’d walked around the neighborhood during the somber, acrid aftermath of 9/11. “”We always have to fight…New York always has to keep coming back, I think this is a very important message in this part of the city,” she emphasized.

Airing out her understatedly powerful, expressive alto voice, she channeled a distant angst as her husband rose from a suspenseful pulsing, verdant intro to a slow, spiky, bolero-tinged ballad, possibly titled Me Voy Llorando. It was a prime example of the individualistic blend of latin jazz and nueva cancion he’s made a name for himself with – and has played with his wife, whom he instantly fell in love with at a jam session in Queens eighteen years ago.

Tierra introduced a more spare, dancing tune, Cancion Con Todos, as a message of unity for all the people of the Americas, giving voice to citizens struggling for peace, The group – which also included incisive soprano saxophonist Shlomi Cohen and a terse, purposeful drummer – took the song bouncing, doublespeed, with an insistent solo out.

Castaneda played solo on Hecho (“Acts,” a Biblical reference), bringing the atmosphere up from guarded hope to starrier, more rhythmic terrain and a graceful, reflective ending. From there, he brought the rhythm section back to close the set with a wildly flurrying, merengue-flavored tune, Fresh Water, bristling with modal intensity over staggered, strutting syncopation.

A Colorful, Frequently Rapturous Brooklyn Celebration of Yuko Fujiyama’s Music

Last night at Roulette an innovative, inspired cast of Japanese and Americana musicians played a fascinating salute to Yuko Fujiyama, concluding a two-night stand in celebration of the composer and pianist’s individualistic work. The dynamic shifts from animated, incisive, typically somewhat minimalist melodies, to hushed rapture and occasional controlled pandemonium, mirrored a distinctly Japanese sensibility more than the tonalities did.

Solo behind the drumkit, Tetsu Nagasawa opened the evening with an elegant hailstorm on the cymbals. Slowly moving to a coyly noirish rattle, he reached toward gale force, lashing the shoreline before descending to a muted rain on the roof that eventually drifted away. Following a steady, rather hypnotic upward trajectory, he then brought the ambience down to a hushed, shamanic ambience spiced with majestic cymbal washes.

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier then joined him, adding a few judicious plucks over a distant rustle before introducing a staggered, minimalist pedalpoint. Eerie clusters alternated with simple, emphatic rhythmic gestures. Nagasawa signaled a detour into a flickering jungle; a good cop/bad cop high-lo dynamic ensued over a circular rumble. Courvoisier pounced and threw elbows, then she coalesced into a climb that mirrored the opening drum solo as it decayed to silence.

After the intermission, a cross-pollinated ensemble of Do Yeon Kim on gayageum (the magical, warptoned Korean zither), Satoshi Takeishi on drums, Ned Rothenberg on reeds and Shoko Nagai on piano took over with an improvisation that began with a little furtive prowling around and grew more agitated, Kim’s circling riffs leading the way up to an insistent, pansori-like vocal attack.

A bit of a blizzard gave way to rapturous deep-space washes fueled by Rothenberg’s desolate clarinet, Nagai adding icily spacious glimmer. Gently skipping piano anchored crystalline clarinet curlicues, Rothenberg and Nagai converging in dark circles as the other two musicians looked on but eventually edged their way in. Trails of sparks flickered off; Nagai, who’d moved to a small synth, hit a backwards loop pedal; the spaceship reappeared and everyone got in but chaos ensued anyway.

Rothenberg’s eventual decision to pick up his shakuhachi brought a return to woodsy mysticism, from which Nagai, back on piano, led the ensemble on a long scramble. A cantering forward drive and an unexpected turn into neoromantic rivulets grew grittier as Nagai brought the music to a forceful coda.

For the night’s concluding number, Fujiyama took over on piano, bolstered by additional flute and trumpet, with Nagai moving to accordion. Yuma Uesaka conducted. A brief, lustrous introduction set up Fujiyama’s judicious, otherworldly, Messiaenic ripples: mournful late 50s Miles Davis came to mind.

Pensive trumpet amid gingerly romping piano and an uneasy haze were followed by Kim’s graceful bends. which introduced an interlude that quickly grew squirrelly and eventually frantic.

Rothenberg’s emergence as voice of reason was temporary. Uesaka stopped the works, then restarted them as more of a proper upward vector, with flutters from the flutes and two drummers. The allusive charge down to a final drift through the clouds made a fittingly magical conclusion.

The next concert at Roulette is November 27 at 8 PM with John Zorn’s New Masada Quintet; you can get in for $35 in advance.

A Welcome Return For Pianist Max Lifchitz’s Latin-Tinged Chamber Music Series

Monday night at the National Opera Center, pianist Max Lifchitz admitted that he was “a little scared” by the prospect of plunging back into live performance after being sidelined by plandemic restrictions for the past two years. It was a triumphant return to his niche, the terrain where the Second Viennese School meets south-of-the-border sounds. Until the 2020 lockdown, Lifchitz and his various North/South orchestral configurations had been a familiar presence in concert spaces around New York and beyond.

Picking up where he’d been rudely interrupted, he opened with Robert Fleisher’s 6 Little Piano Pieces, a brief Schoenberg-inspired partita: jazz-inflected modalities within a minimalist stroll with little flourishes that leapt to the surface. Robert Martin’s 2 Ancient Pieces, emphatic student works from a half-century ago, were as effective a segue as a reflection of that era’s 12-tone obsessions (with a few winks to sweeten them).

Lifchtitz romped through Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 2 Piano Pieces in Mixed Accents, a final pair of miniatures built around minimalist, cascading eighth-note phrases. With as much power on her low end as the curlicues at the top, soprano Maria Brea took centerstage for an expresssive interpretation of Osvaldo Golijov‘s Lua Descolorida (“Colorless Moon”), a steady, almost marching nocturne with more than a a hint of a ranchera ballad.

Next, mezzo-soprano Melisa Bonetti took over for Jimmy Kachulis’ Healing Waters of the Amazon. From the opening mantra, “Come on and heal me,” over Lifchitz’s brightly methodical, increasingly bracing chromatic drive, she made it an aptly bittersweet invocation against what the world has had to battle since March of 2020.

Brea returned to sing Odaline de la Martinez’s 4 Afro-Cuban Poems, including a bouncy one about a Cuban guy in love with an American woman whose language he can’t speak, and a shout-out to a girl who does all the hard work around the house. Lifchitz’s own Me Acero y Me Retiro (“I Approach and I Withdraw”) featured both singers in an expansive, dynamically shifting, distantly imploring dialogue and then a harmonically bristling duet after a spaciously climbing, enigmatic piano intro. Lifchitz mirrored that with an arresting, syncopated solo fugue for a coda. It was the highlight of the night.

He closed the program with a trio of brief piano pieces. Venezuelan composer Francisco Zapata-Bello‘s leaping Scherzo Latino perfectly capsulized Lifchitz’s primary focus over the years. William Ortiz‘s Max en Soho Jamming con the Orishas was another of the concert’s high points, a mashup of ragtime and chromatic Scarlatti with a danse macabre at the center. Lifchitz went back to energetic twelve-tone territory for the final piece on the bill, Aurelio de la Vega’s Hamenagem.

The New York Composers Circle Keep the Creative Torch Burning Through Troubled Times

Last night at the cozy little Church of the Transfiguration on East 29th Street, the New York Composers Circle staged an intriguing performance of five world premieres and a New York premiere that featured a persistent unease as well as moments of puckish humor and considerable outside-the-box imagination.

Pianist Craig Ketter opened the concert with Hubert Howe‘s Moments of Uncertainty, which followed a staggered, increasingly spacious, warily Messiaenic call-and-response through a series of subtle dynamic shifts, some of them increasingly stark and minimalist. In less prosaic terms, a cautious stroll through a briar patch: daunting, but doable with care, as Ketter made sure.

He followed with four preludes and fugues from the second collection that Dary John Mizelle had written to keep himself entertained during the lockdown. Stern blues and oldtime gospel riffs in oddly strolling tempos would disintegrate into atonal ambiguity or push up against a steady, grimly looped walking bassline. A tongue-in-cheek sensibility sometimes percolated to the surface amid the thorns, especially in the baroque gestures of the fugues.

Bill Zito played Richard Brooks‘ Sonata for Guitar, a harmonically biting pavane descending to lithe fingerpicking and back as the first movement warmed with some Elizabethan tinges. The remainder of the work was an acerbic blend of baroque stairstepping with wry jazz phrasing, hints of flamenco and some welcome, recurringly humorous bits.

After the intermission, Ketter returned to the piano for Roger Blanc‘s Fantasy Variations, which the composer described as an attempt to get “maximum bang for buck” out of a seven-note scale. Uneasy close harmonies persisted in the opening stroll, which became more of a hauntingly hypnotic, rising and falling march. Ketter reveled casually in the fanged chromaties of the warily swinging fugue that followed. Blanc invested his buck well here.

Guitarist Oren Fader played Igor Vorobyov’s 2019 piece Elegy in the Old Style, a New York premiere springboarded by the Composers Circle’s ongoing cultural exchange with some of their Moscow colleagues. A call-and-response between spiky harmonics and spare, broodingly resonant chords harked back to Scriabin, an unexpected influence for guitar music. As Fader alternated between steady cascades and a brooding, spacious minimalism, it became a pensive ballad, interrupted.

The final piece on the bill was Consolations, a solo piano partita by Dana Dimitri Richardson. Ketter methodically parsed an increasingly agitated, chromatically-charged ballad for angst and rippling poignancy, then found a missing link between Rachmaninoff and Mompou. The progression from chiming, insistent belltones to High Romantic echoes amid a clenched-teeth, syncopatedly punching drive was the high point of the night.

The third part came across as a somber mid 20th century homage to the Chopin E minor prelude, the fourth a ringing, resounding mashup of a Balkan funeral ballad, Russian romanticism and late-period Ligeti, maybe. It made for a darkly glittering driving coda.

The New York Composers Circle’s next concert is Nov 20 at 2 PM with a program of works-in-progress TBA at the National Opera Center’s 7th floor studio at 333 7th Ave. in midtown. Space is limited and a rsvp is a good idea

Theo Walentiny Takes the Crowd on a Magical Mystery Tour of a Historic Downtown Space

Houses of worship tend to be less than optimal for music that’s fast or percussive. Earlier today, pianist Theo Walentiny and his trio sized up the natural reverb of the late 18th century architecture of St. Paul’s Chapel downtown and turned it into a fourth bandmate in a resonant, immersive performance that was often nothing short of eerie.

Throughout their hour onstage, Walentiny chose his spots for occasional rivulets, cascades or variations on circular clusters over a stygian, resonant lefthand. Until the final number, moments where he picked up the volume were few, and packed a punch when they occurred. Drummer Connor Parks rarely rose above a cymballine mist until the second half of the show while bassist Tyrone Allen matched Walentiny’s moody modalities, sometimes shadowing the piano, sometimes essentially taking over from the drums during the show’s most briskly swinging moments.

They reinvented Billy Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge as a murky kaleidoscope punctuated by a stern, loopy march motif and rainy-day upper register that Walentiny took into icily starry Messiaenic territory. The original after that pulsed with a muted suspense over a racewalking shuffle groove, Walentiny building tension with subtle variations on insistent, judiciously spaced clusters, loosening every so slightly into a more casual if wary stroll with a chilly reflecting-pool piano solo at the center.

From there Walentiny built the next number up from more of those circling clusters (that appears to have really become a thing in jazz conservatories these days), gingerly moving outward from a center to distant echoes of regally pugilistic McCoy Tyner and a quasi Giant Steps interlude with stabbing close harmonies. Parks in particular was masterful on this one, building a tabla-like atmosphere that lingered and left the crowd speechless for several seconds at the end.

From there the group parsed a forlorn, Birmingham-era Coltrane style tone poem of sorts: Walentiny hinted that he might go in a more lively direction but opted against it as Allen’s minute microtones edged upward. They closed with another original, Splattered Current, Parks finally cutting loose with his toms to underpin Walentiny’s stern pedalpoint in contrast to bright but meticulously space righthand accents and a few sizzling flurries. Either way, it was a magical tug-of-war with the sonics bounding and booming off the walls.

The final jazz concert at St. Paul’s Chapel this month is at 1 PM on Nov 22 with harpist Edmar Castaneda and his trio. Admission is free; be aware that you will be asked to empty your pockets as if you were at the airport if you want to get in. So far they don’t make you take your shoes off.

A Dynamic, Rewarding Choral Concert at Trinity Church

Two and a half years ago, it was uncertain if choral music in New York that wasn’t clandestine would ever exist again. So it was rewarding to walk into Trinity Church yesterday to see the Downtown Voices and the Novus NY string quartet gathered together onstage, and to see hardly a single surgical mask amid an impressively sizeable crowd who’d assembled in the pews.

Yet it was ironic to the extreme to view the blue-and-gold color scheme – ubiquitously associated with lockdown propaganda in Europe, less so here – projected behind the choir and ensemble, on a day when news of a cryptocurrency ponzi scheme laundering American taxpayer money through Ukraine to the Democratic Party was exploding around the world.

The music was a welcome diversion. Reduced to most basic and prosaic terms, the theme was minimalism in counterpoint. The effect was at times hypnotic, at times entrancing and frequently exhilarating. The highlight of the evening was Ola Gjeilo‘s partita Dark and Luminous Night. Once the quartet had introduced a fleetingly uneasy theme, the choir joined in a series of kinetic peaks and icy lulls, conductor Stephen Sands leading them from just short of a stampede to echoes of dark European folk and heroic Romanticism.

A more quietly captivating if equally dynamic piece was an arrangement of Jessie Montgomery‘s Source Code for choir and string quartet. An anxious chromatic violin theme and variations stood out over a quiet drone, quite a contrast with the orchestral version that A Far Cry played in Central Park last summer. Infused with bluesy cello glissandos over stark sustained chords, the two groups descended to a hazier, more wary ambience and eventual whispery rapture.

The singers and quartet nimbly negotiated the subtle but rhythmically tricky and demandingly spacious, characteristically cell-like development of the concert’s centerpiece, David Lang‘s National Anthems. A soprano soloist who resonated over the methodically staggered pulse of her choirmates added an air of poignancy. Lyrically, this seemed less a celebration of sovereignty than a distantly troubled and disjointed prayer for liberation, a profoundly relevant work for our time.

The concert’s most traditional and briefest moment was a calmly nocturnal Undine Smith Moore arrangement of the spiritual We Shall Walk Through the Valley.

The next concert at Trinity Church is December 4 at 3 PM with Jamaican jazz piano legend Monty Alexander and his trio. Admission is free; it couldn’t hurt to get there about ten minutes early if you want a good seat.

The Ragas Live Festival 2022, Part 2: Hits and Misses

This year’s return of the 24-hour-plus Ragas Live festival of Indian music and related sounds was so epic that it requires two parts to reasonably digest. The frequently rapturous first half was reviewed here yesterday. The second part was also often transcendent, with some issues.

Let’s tackle those and then get to the good stuff. You’re never going to see fusion jazz on this page: with rare exceptions, good jazz is basically acoustic music. So if you enjoyed the tropical midnight act and the interminable Moroccan fusion interlude yesterday afternoon, glad you had a good time.

It would have been fun to catch sitarist Abhik Mukherjee‘s set to begin the second half of the marathon. Who knew that a trip for coffee a little earlier in the morning would also have turned into a marathon, a much less enjoyable one.

Back at Pioneer Works, bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi took an absolutely harrowing detour, running variations on a haunting, wary chromatic theme with Ehren Hanson on tabla for what seemed the better part of an hour. Beyond Gandhi’s breathtakingly liquid, perfectly modulated sine-wave attack, the somber mood was impossible to turn away from. These are troubled times: nobody has channeled that with such subtle power in recent months as these two. Which made their clever and allusive permutations on a bouncy nursery-rhyme-like riff afterward such a stark contrast. And yet, the darkness lingered, if at a distance.

Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, whose most recent specialty has become oceanic Middle Eastern big band jazz, followed with about an hour of brooding electroacoustic sounds. Starting off on a labyrinthine rack of analog synthesizers, he rose from enveloping ambience to an achingly gorgeous, regal solo trumpet fanfare in a moody Iraqi maqam. Next, he looped an austere, baroquely churchy organ processional, then employed it as a backdrop for a constellation of santoor riffs which echoed Gandhi’s pervasive angst. He wound up the set on vocals with a similarly cautionary clarion call, more or less.

Another santoorist, Vinay Desai kept the angst at redline with a saturnine tribute to the late, great Shivkumar Sharma, who left us this past spring. We don’t know for certain if the lethal Covid injection took him out. With Vivek Pandya on tabla, the two musicians developed an absolutely gorgeous, elegaic, allusively chromatic theme and variations. Remaining mostly in the midrange, Desai rose for the great beyond with a somber glimmer before bringing it down to a dirge and the tabla entered. As the hour went on, Desai’s ripples off the walls of the space echoed into a galactic drift. Eventually, the duo took the theme skipping into the stars, a sober but energetic farewell to a pioneer.

ElSaffar returned for a second turn on santoor, joining percussionist Zafer Tawil and violinist Sami Abu Shumays behind impassioned veteran Iraqi crooner Hamid Al Saadi. After the sober, stately initial march, the maqam singer would begin the rest of the set’s expansive numbers with darkly dynamic, rubato intros, one leading to a surprisingly subtle call-and-response with ElSaffar. A little later, the group made their way into a swaying, ebullient major-key tune with a starkly contrasting santoor-and- violin break. They closed with undulating, biting chromatic theme with even more lusciously intertwined santoor and violin and a machinegunning coda.

Violinist Arun Ramamurthy gets credit for the festival’s most pyrotechnic performance, a role he’s become accustomed to. This time out he had his Indian jazz trio with bassist Damon Banks and Sameer Gupta on drums. This was the symphonic Ramamurthy: in the boomy space, with the natural reverb bouncing off the walls, he was a violin army. Banks would typically shadow him, Gupta inventively doing a nimble churning groove with tabla voicings on his kit, as the bandleader made his way through a rising and falling epic in tribute to his ancestors, to moments of icy ambience as well as frequent excursions through the bluesy raga riffs that he likes to mine in this context. Nobody knows how to draw an audience in with foreshadowing and judiciously spectacular slides and stabs better than Ramamurthy.

After that it was dance time. All-female Moroccan trance-dance ensemble group Bnat el Houariyat, featuring New York’s Esraa Warda took over the stage and then stomped and twirled and spoke power to male hegemony.

In her New York debut, singer/dancer and mystic Parvathy Baul brought ancient archetypes to life in a fervent but utterly unselfconsciously spiritual set of Bengali ritual songs. Showing off a soulfully soaring, meticulously melismatic, carnatically-infused voice which took on a grittier edge as her set went on, she sang innumerable mythical metaphors and cheerily translated them for the English-only crowd. Moving from ecstasy to tenderness and then an acerbic insistence, she cut loose and reminded that crowd that the truth is like a lion. All you have to do is set it free. Or words to that effect. Let’s hope there’s a Ragas Live festival in 2023.

The Ragas Live Festival 2022, Part 1: The Magic Is Back

It was great to see the Ragas Live festival of diverse Indian and Indian-adjacent sounds return after a two-year absence. The Brooklyn massive at Pioneer Works last night wasn’t overwhelming, but by the time the concert was over this past evening, a raucous crowd had packed the house. That so many people would come out to the fringes of Red Hook on a raw, unwelcoming afternoon to see what by any standard would be considered niche speaks volumes about what audiences in this city have been missing since March of 2020. Whether that need will be filled in 2023 is a loaded question.

Since the all-night concert was such a feast, this first part concerns the past evening, with part two here. It’s been ten years since the all-night marathon first began in a radio station studio and quickly spread to a series of venues around town. Previous incarnations have been more jazz-oriented: this was a mix of frequently rapturous traditional sounds juxtaposed with more modern ones. Some of the segues were jarring, and the location was suboptimal: if you thought trying to score a cup of coffee at five in the morning in Manhattan was tough these days, try Red Hook, never mind Carroll Gardens. But the performances made the trip worthwhile.

Veena player Saraswathi Ranganathan, backed by Sriram Raman on mridangam and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla, was a fantastic choice of opener (she got a rave review here awhile back for her show at a venue which has since been weaponized in the ongoing mass murder campaign). She dedicated her bouncy, cheery first raga to the men in the house, alluding to how it’s time for the dudes to speak up, stand up and be counted. After the trio built to an immutable, imperturbable drive, there was a wry high/low exchange: the girls schooling the guys on what time it is, maybe?

She followed with raga Mohanam, which she described as an antidepressant: as she put it, releasing the gunk all the way up as the notes rise to the heart chakra. And her attempt at a singalong with the crowd actually worked! Parsing the theme from shivery, steady melismas to a fleeting, thorny complexity and a distant, starry sense of longing, the trio channeled a bustling, determined cheer into an equally imperturbable stroll: it was impossible not to get swept up in Ranganathan’s momentum. There was a wry sotto-voce duel with the mridangam; her interpolation of a call-and-response into the final charge out was masterfully subtle within the volleys of notes and bracing, hold-onto-your-seat ornamentation.

Kora player Kane Mathis and tabla player Roshni Samlal followed with an often celestial set. Samlal grew up in Queens listening to the Ragas Live broadcasts as a kid, and was psyched to be playing now as an adult (actually, she shows up pretty much every year). Mathis delivered feathery, harpsichord-ish waves with an effortless, weightless precision while Samlal drove the occasional unexpected crescendo up to the rafters.

A liltingly dreamy, syncopated number built around a circular kora riff featured the occasional striking polyrhythm by Samlal, who incorporates grooves from her Trinidadian heritage into the mix. Then they picked up the pace with the Mathis tune Rue du Jardin, set to a scampering. cumbia-esque beat.

A little after one in the morning, sarod player Manik Khan and tabla player Sudhakar Vaidyanathan played a tribute to the former’s father, the iconic Ali Akbar Khan to celebrate the centenary of his birth. Their first tune was a serioso evening raga which began with a searching alap built from the simplest ingredients. Khan dipped to a pensive interlude where he parsed the low strings, then subtly rose to an allusive stroll. This was raw magic.

From there he hung allusively as the pace picked up, landing on a chugging, moody theme. Hints of a heroic ballad punctuated by a few downward slashes and then a somber, low tremolo-picking interlude followed in turn He ended it it cold and sudden.

Next was Raga Kirwani, another evening piece, this one a theme imported from the south of the Hindustani subcontinent. Khan let this biting pavane of sorts resolve a lot more than the first number. Again, he hung in the lows for the most part, saving his upward stabs and a fleeting bluegrass flatpicking motif for dramatic effect. The two finally picked up – those slashes were real foreshadowing, but ultimately this was more about brooding intensity than pyrotechnics, even when Khan went pirouetting through an understatedly undulating groove. It made for a great segue.

Dawn of Midi’s Qasim Naqvi was up next with about an hour of Eno-esque electronic ambience. It didn’t have the slightest thing to do with Indian music, but it was pleasant and cocoony.

Sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan and tabla player Pranav Ghatraju went back to the fifteenth century for a couple of timeless pieces, the first beginning with an acerbically resonant, swoopingly ornamented alap. While it underscored the eternal appeal of the endlessly otherworldly microtones in Indian fretless string music, the set was also very riff-driven. The two made their way up to a rather stern, stark stroll, methodically building to a triumphant, heroic coda. They launched into a rather solemn processional with the second number, which they could have continued for twice as long, and nobody would have complained.

It was five in the morning when sax-and-synth loopmusic act Kroba built echoey, dystopically warbling soundscapes that went on for almost two hours. A little after expressive singer Samarth Nagarkar took the stage with Khan and tabla player Shank Lahiri, it became clear that despite the quality of his set, it would be impossible to get through the rest of the marathon without more coffee. More on that and the rest of the show in part two here.

A Triumphant Return For Gorgeous Accordion and Accordion-Adjacent Sounds at Bryant Park

Last night at Bryant Park marked the very welcome return of the annual accordion festival there. At its pre-2020 peak, the festival ran weekly over a month or more beginning in late summer. This year’s installment mirrored the wild eclecticism and thrills that organizer Ariana Hellerman programmed there until the fateful events of 2020.

“Ultimately this is about love,” she told the crowd before the show, acknowledging New York’s debt to the immigrant communities who share her appreciation for portable keyed reed instruments. She’d begun programming the festival ten years ago after returning from Colombia, where she’d fallen in love with vallenato. “I’d never seen the accordion as revered as it was in Colombia. People would play air accordion in the streets.”

Heart of Afghanistan opened this year’s mainstage concert with a brooding anthem, frontman/harmonium player Ahmad Fanoos singing with a simmering intensity over his pianist son Elham Fanoos’ glittering, neoromantic cascades. It came across as part Bollywood, part Egyptian classical, mirroring the ensemble’s home country’s role as a focal point over centuries of cultural cross-pollination.

They followed with an elegantly syncopated, crescendoing take of a traditional Afghani New Years theme, Mehran Fanoos’ violin soaring distantly over Hamid Habibzada’s tablā. A dramatic, heroic minor-key theme fueled by lickety-split, meticulously ornamented piano and plaintively interwoven violin was next, the bandleader finally rising to an impassioned, melismatic peak.

The central Asian passion continued with an insistently syncopated, chromatically charged number, then the group resurrected the pre-Taliban Afghani national anthem as quasi art-rock with a shivery violin solo: it sure blows away the old drinking song that Francis Scott Key appropriated.

They took a detour into a jaunty ghazal, bouncing along with call-and-response and microtonal violin cadenzas, then a return to pouncing Middle Eastern-inflected modal fire, peaking out with an angst-fueled anthem. Music this gorgeous deserves to be vastly better known.

The Ukrainian Village Voices were next on the bill with an abbreviated set. From their home in the East Village, the rotating cast of this accordion-driven chorale have been New York’s nexus for traditional sounds from that imperiled part of the world.

The multi-generational, dual-gendered ensemble opened with a goofy, rousing, simple tune about harvesting buckwheat and making pancakes which the babushkas they’d met on their 2018 Ukrainian tour had asked them to sing over and over, as one of the group explained to the crowd.

A drinking song with the somber theme of “drink up because we may be gone tomorrow” was next – it came across as more of a work song. Make of that what you will.

They picked up the pace with a bristling, chromatic traditional warrior’s circle dance with violin from one of the chorus and closed with a pulsing party anthem sung from the point of view of a girl who doesn’t want to go home.

Balaklava Blues – a spinoff of fiery Canadian Balkan band the Lemon Bucket Orkestra – were up next. One of the trio’s two violinists – each of whom doubled on drums – built a long, suspenseful, shivery solo over an ominous low drone before accordionist Marichka Marczyk took to the mic with a plaintive, increasingly vocal, in Ukrainian. Her violinist husband Mark’s mask – mouth and nose open, most of the rest of his face obscured – spoke as much truth to power as any of the music on the bill.

Finally, at the end, Marichka switched to English: “Don’t tell me what to do” was the mantra. They followed by making glitchy trip-hop out of a rousing, defiantly stomping, whooping folk tune, like a slightly less thunderous Dakhabrakha. Marichka switched to piano and sang “Give me money or something” in a venomous turbo-folk-trip-hop anthem, with a searing violin solo from her husband.

As she told the crowd, the band’s raison d’etre is “To fight for freedom not only in Ukraine but for democracy all around the world.” Meanwhile, her brother is somewhere on the Ukrainian frontline, fighting off Russian retaliation to the NATO-provoked conflict. No wonder the piercing, angst-fueled art-rock lament that followed was about going home – and the prospect of never being able to. Remaining at the piano, Marichka continued with a slowly crescendoing, eerily chromatic tableau. They built a singalong with the crowd on a similarly macabre-tinged coda, the band’s second violinist echoing Marichka’s shivery, harrowing, imploring voice.

Since this happened to be Mexican independence day, a Selena cover band headlined. This pickup group of A-list New York musicians hail from the worlds of cumbia, Turkish music, klezmer and Americana, among other styles. Sure, it was a tr ip to see Michael Winograd – one of this era’s great klezmer clarinetists – step outside the box and take a turn on go-go sax. Unlike Selena, frontwoman Jenny Luna is a native Spanish speaker, and quickly revealed herself as an infinitely better and more seductive singer. The group were tighter than their debut before the lockdown at a crowded Brooklyn bar, but ultimately, the material wasn’t up to the level of the cast onstage. And that’s when it was time to call it a night.

The next concert at Bryant Park is tonight, Sept 17 at 7 PM with the the American Symphony Orchestra playing music by William Grant Still, Louise Talma and Mahler.