New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Dmitri Slepovitch

Hauntingly Triumphant Klezmer and Classical Sounds Fill Central Park

This past evening Central Park was ablaze with music that stretched back as far as several thousand years, if you believe the liturgy. Either way, the best of those ancient Jewish cantorial melodies were as catchy and anthemic as they were darkly rustic, which is the point. The choir isn’t likely to get up to full steam if the tunes aren’t there.

Most of those tunes were sung by the New York Cantors, the trio of  Azi SchwartzYanky Lemmer and Netanel Hershtik flanked by a robust crew of backup singers. This time, rather than inciting a friendly cantorial smackdown like they did two years ago, very memorably, their Central Park Summerstage performance was all about harmony and tradeoffs. At their best, they were spectacular. Hershtik’s operatic baritone soared and implored, echoed by Schwartz from time to time as hometown hero Lemmer gave each a wide berth and stayed subtle and low-key for the most part.

In its heyday, cantorial music was as competitive and thrilling a sport as African-American gospel. This show was more socialist than pugilist, enhanced by the lush, velvety backdrop of a chamber orchestra including but not limited to Michael Winograd and Dmitri Slepovitch on reeds and Ljova Zhurbin on viola.

But as impassioned as the cantors were, the highlight of the night was trumpeter Frank London‘s brand-new suite Freylekhs – A Klezmer Fantasy for Orchestra and Trumpet. He gave it a gorgeous, Middle Eastern-tinged, modal solo intro, then the group entered with a supple pulse, then shifted from a stately minor key sway to a bit of a Klezmatics-style romp (London co-founded that legendary band) and an unexpectedly sweeping, majestic interlude with vivid echoes of Egyptian trailblazer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. They wound it up with an even punchier trumpet solo and a triumphant coda.

There was other music on the bill, but that didn’t measure up: centuries-old ngunim don’t translate easily to a cloying, cliched 80s-style power ballad format. And as if we haven’t already heard enough about the death of the corporate record industry, the night’s emcee announced that Universal Music’s big signing this year is…drumroll…Shulem, a twentysomething Israeli crooner whose seven-digit youtube pageviews may or may not be authentic. His voice is definitely the real deal: the guy can belt with anyone, and held the crowd’s attention with a lustrous contemporary classical ode to his home turf. But even a Yiddish second verse couldn’t redeem God Bless America from its association with Bush-era torture, murder and police state terror, both here and abroad.

Further to the north, it was redemptive to be able to catch the New York Philharmonic playing the final movements of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (which they’re reprising at 8 PM on Friday night in Prospect Park: you should go). Binoculars would have been a good idea: the Philharmonic in Central Park is probably the year’s biggest event there. With the array of speaker towers extending south of the stage, it was like watching Rachmaninoff at the Isle of Wight, loudly amplfified. But those of us in the back needed that sonic boost. And the music was everything it should be: delicate in the delicate parts, robust when needed, which was most of the time. The melancholy third movement seemed infused with some righteous anger; then again, that could have been the amplification. Maestro Jaap van Zweden brought his usual meticulousness to the music: he has transformed this orchestra like no other conductor in recent memory.

Litvakus Bring Their Rare, Deliriously Fun, Decades-Old Dance Tunes to the Upper West

On one hand, Litvakus’ latest album is kick-ass party music with lyrics – mostly in Yiddish – like “May you always have whiskey to fill your glasses.” On the other hand, it’s nothing short of amazing how frontman/clarinetist Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch’s band has rescued obscure songs hidden away, in some cases for more than a century, in dusty vaults that enterprising music students were very strongly discouraged from prowling around in. But Slepovitch doesn’t give up easily. Back in his native Belarus, his first band, Minsker Kapelye played their first-ever show across the street from KGB headquarters. And they got away with it. Litvakus’ new album Raysn may come across with a distinct, regional sound, but they have the fearless heart and soul of the Clash.

They’re playing Tuesday night, Feb 10 at 7:30 PM as part of one of New York’s most reliably exciting concert series in the basement of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 30 W 68th St (Broadway/Columbus) where drummer Aaron Alexander puts on more-or-less weekly shows featuring the creme de la creme of Jewish music from around the globe: in the klezmer world, a gig here means you’ve arrived. Concertgoers have more than one option: if you just want a quick shot of adrenaline before you head home, you can see the show for $15. For musicians, there’s a pre-concert music class at 5:30, followed by a long jam session afterward, and all of that’s $35. And maybe there’s a nosh, or a drink, who knows – it’s a lively, multi-generational, quintessentially New York scene.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its name from the old Yiddish term for what is now Belarus, for centuries a multicultural melting pot that resulted in some unique cross-pollination. Slepovitch has collected songs with both Jewish and Belorussian origins as well as a couple of boisterous originals, one of which he wrote in an inspired moment on the Q train.

The album opens with its most otherworldly track, a droning yet kinetic instrumental featuring Slepovitch on the svirel, the Belorussian counterpart to the English shawm. From there the group – Craig Judelman on violin, Taylor Bergren-Crisman on bass, Josh Camp on accordion and Sam Weisenberg on standup drum – weave their way into a swaying, minor-key, chromatically charged dance. The segue between the next two songs, Judelman handing off elegantly to Slepovitch, is so seamless that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins unless you listen closely. They keep the bouncing, bustling drive going with a fond look back at a little country town where people really like to party.

Bergren-Crisman bows his bass furiously as the next medley, a couple of pulsing traditional Belorussian dances, gets underway and then subtly segues into the Middle Eastern-tinged freygish scale, equivalent to the Arabic hijaz mode. Then Slepovitch brings it down with an ancient, plaintive, lovelorn waltz, his clarinet stark against the dark washes of bass and accordion and Judelman’s poignant doublestops. From there the band picks it up again, Slepovitch’s clarinet bobbing and weaving with an unselfconscious joy through an original that fits perfectly with the traditional romp – based on a rare 1934 Soviet recording – that follows. The clarinetist dryly describes the slow, gorgeous original waltz after that as being in the tradition of music designed for listening at weddings…or on the subway.

There’s also a wry, hair-raising tale employing lyrics from a 1922 epic poem by Moyshe Kulbak, reinvented as a lively reel; a trio of circle dances rescued from the archives; a rivetingly Middle Eastern flavored mini-suite; a rare Belorussian version of an ancient Hasidic a-cappella nigun; a dirge, a drinking song and a rousing. surrealistic tribute to a pretty Jewish girl who also happens to be the best-loved bartender in town. The more things change, right? If you like minor keys, infectious dance grooves and eerie passing tones, you’ll love this album. The cd also comes with extensive liner notes which provide all kinds of interesting historical background, very useful for western listeners and music bloggers too!

Litvakus Rescue Some of the Funnest Songs Ever Written

Onstage at the Center for Jewish Culture last week, Litvakus came across as a sort of acoustic Gogol Bordello, playing an exhilarating and frequently haunting mix of feral dances and haunting dirges. Frontman Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch bobbed and weaved and bounced as he played, firing off frenetic volleys or mournfully sustained notes on a series of clarinets, svirel – the Belorussian equivalent of a shawm – and dudka. As ambassador for the lost Jewish sounds of his native Belarus and also Polesia – the mysterious, rustic area bordering Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and what is now Lithuania – he held the crowd rapt. His mission to rescue decades-old and sometimes centuries-old songs led him to buck the authorities as he earned his doctorate in musicology in his hometown of Minsk, where he founded the city’s first klezmer revival band, Minsker Kapelye. With a gleam in his eye, he related that the band’s first gig, at a street fair, had been across the street from the local KGB headquarters. That group managed to get through the set without being hassled: New York is not the only city where that’s likely to happen to musicians on the street.

Sam Weisenberg played marching-band style, his bass drum strapped around his shoulders, a cymbal on top. Bassist Taylor Bergren-Crisman bowed his lines much of the time, adding a dark undercurrent to the lushness of much of the music in tandem with violinist Craig Judelman and once-and-future Chicha Libre accordiionist Josh Camp. The songs bristled with stark minor keys, eerie chromatics and the occasional odd meters (5/4 seemed to be a favorite of this band). They opened with a bracing reel with a Celtic tinge to it and closed on an unexpectedly pensive note. A handful of the songs in their roughly hourlong set juxtaposed brightly dancing verses with more moody, intense choruses. Slepovitch sang a couple of numbers drawing on the lyrics of celebrated Belorussian poet Hersh Reles. There were plenty of solos from everybody, including a handful of slowly unwinding improvisations to begin a small handful of songs and plenty of clapalongs from the audience, a mix of emigres and an energized younger crowd.

And much as the songs had a distinctly Jewish character, Slepovitch was quick to acknowledge how much cross-pollination there’s been over the decades in ethnic music from his part of the world – and how Jews were so often the catalyst. And he introduced a little controversy via a jaunty, pulsing Belorussian folk song, Khayka-Zhydouka, whose title translates in Russian as a slur against Jewish women. In an interesting Q&A after the show with the CTMD‘s Pete Rushefsky, Slepovitch revealed that in Belorussian, the word simply means “Jewish girl,” (or in the context of the song, “hot Jewish girl”). And he reminded that throughout the Soviet Union, Belorussian was repressed just as cruelly as Yiddish and other ethnic languages. People were literally killed for speaking them. No wonder so many of the evening’s songs were left on wax cylinders in archives, waiting for guys like Slepovitch to discover them. Litvakus are at Barbes tomorrow night, Nov 4 at around 7 if you’d like to hear the acoustic Gogol Bordello in a small club; the larger, horn-driven but similarly fun Slavic Soul Party play afterward at 9.

Litvakus Turns a Sedate Museum Space Into a Party

Litvakus plays deliriously fun minor-key party music. To cultures east of the Danube, minor keys don’t necessarily imply sadness: instead, they’re just as likely to equate to excitement (which, admitttedly, could cut either way: Look out, Moishe, cossacks coming over the bridge!). Did the rain and the gloom keep the five-piece band’s fans away from their Friday evening concert at the American Folk Art Museum? Nope. The place was packed, and the crowd clapped and sang along. With clarinet, violin, accordion, bass and standup drum, the group romped and ripped through a spine-tingling mix of old Jewish folk songs from Belarus and the Ukraine as well as a bunch of edgy originals in the same vein. Frontman/clarinetist Dmitri Slepovitch explained that he’d written the night’s first song, a swirling, rapidfire waltz, on the Q train.  He reached for an explanation and couldn’t find one: “That’s what musicians do,” he grinned, sheepish but succinct.

Drummer Sam Weisenberg kept a muted thud that was perfect for the room underneath bassist Taylor Bergren-Crisman’s catchy, melodic, rock-flavored lines, which he played with a bow for extra resonance. Slepovitch’s slow, panoramic clarinet solo made an elegant handoff to Craig Judelman’s violin over accordionist Josh Camp’s rich chordal washes on the second song  of the night; it was cool to see him playing a real accordion after having seen him countless times with an electrified one in Chicha Libre. Slepovitch was a ball of energy, bouncing and swaying and inspiring spontaneous clapalongs with his slashing, pointillistic, melismatic runs. And without using a mic, he sang several numbers in a strong baritone that resonated throughout the boomy space: a bittersweet Yiddish theatre tune from the late 30s looking back on the author’s Belarus hometown;  a rousing violin-driven anthem; a jaunty, accordion-fueled dance whose gist was “party at the rabbi’s place,” and a bleakly amusing one about a girl coming up with one excuse after another for why she won’t go out with a guy.

A couple of instrumentals were horas: slow, dirgey intros followed by explosive dances, dynamics rising and falling as the band sped up and then backed off, only to pick up the pace again and rip through the final choruses. A couple of others had a more Bulgarian feel, galloping through simple, hypnotic, bucolic barn-dance vamps. But as much as the songs had a centuries-old feel, they also had jazzy interplay and a sense of surprise, with trick endings, suspenseful interludes and abrupt changes that deviated from the standard verse/chorus format. Although the crowd responded boisterously, it was weird to see people sitting still and watching them, rather than dancing (although the kids were). Litvakus are at the Jalopy on Dec 18 at 10:30 as part of Feral Foster’s Roots & Ruckus night.

Haunting, Eclectic Jewish Songs from Romashka’s Inna Barmash

Inna Barmash is the intense, inscrutably charismatic frontwoman of fiery Russian Romany string band Romashka. She’s got one of those rare voices that comes along maybe once a generation: a bell-like, bolt-cutter soprano that’s so clear it’ll give you chills. In a city stocked to the brim with great vocalists, Barmash is one of New York’s most rivetling. Hailing originally from Vilnius, Lithuania, she cut her teeth singing music that these days falls under the broad rubric of klezmer. Her debut solo album, Yiddish Lullabies & Love Songs, is a powerful and haunting return to those roots. The whole thing is streaming at her Bandcamp page; she and her band – including her husband, viola powerhouse and composer Ljova Zhurbin, along with along with Shoko Nagai on piano and accordion, Dmitri Slepovitch on clarinet and bass clarinet and Dmitry Ishenko on bass  – are playing the album release show on Nov 27 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. $20 advance tickets are still available as of today but it’s likely that this show will sell out.

The songs here, spanning several centuries and drawing from across the Jewish diaspora, are short and to the point. Likewise, the band keep their solos short and sweet as well. The acerbic minor keys and haunting chromatics typical of Jewish music echo thoughout the album, although there are lighthearted moments as well. Barmash sings in character – she can sweep your off your feet one moment and then rip your face off the next. She further distinguishes herself with strikingly crisp if seemingly nonchalant diction, an enormous help for listeners trying to remember or come to grips with the language. This blog being in English, the titles used here are the English versions provided on the album.

Wake Up Dear Daughter, the opening track, is a potent example of Barmash at the top of her plaintive power, a brittle vibrato trailing off at the end of her phrases to enhance the song’s sense of longing and unease. She does that even more affectingly on the album’s longest song, Ever Since I Remember, lit up with glimmering solos from piano, viola and then clarinet as it reaches its moodiest peak. She pulls back a little, adding a sense of resignation, on the pensive waltz  If I Had Wings.

Don’t You Dare Go Out with Other Girls, with its menacingly shivery clarinet solo, has a tongue-in-cheek bounce, but Barmash leaves no doubt that she means business. She contrasts that with the sweetly hypnotic lullaby Sleep My Child and its gorgeous viola/piano harmonies.

Afn Boydem (Over the Attic) is a duet that takes on a droll, dancing quality as it moves along and then goes straight into vaudeville.  Barmash brings back the nocturnal mood with Sleep, Sleep, Sleep and Nagai’s surrealistic piano, equal parts Satie and blues. Oy Abram is a showstopper both for Barmash and the band, rapidfire counterpoint from the clarinet and viola leading to a rich interweave of instruments – to the uninitiated, it’s the most recognizably “klezmer” song here. The rest of the album includes By the Road Stands a Tree, a wistful, skeletal waltz; Reyzele, which sounds like it could either be a tale of seduction or seduction gone wrong; and the triumphantly soaring Play Me a Song in Yiddish.