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Tag: eastern european music

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis, which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

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Dalava Hauntingly Reinvent Grim, Timelessly Relevant Slovak and Czech Folk Songs

Dalava reinvent dark, often grim, centuries-old Slovak and Czech folk tunes as intense, dynamically shifting psychedelic rock. Guitarist Aram Bajakian is arguably the greatest lead player ever to pass through Lou Reed’s band: only the late Robert Quine and Mick Ronson compare. Bajakian also plays with numerous other outfits including lavish Hungarian folk/art-rock band the Glass House Ensemble.

His wife, singer Julia Ulehla, is the scion of an important Moravian musicological legacy. Her great-grandfather Vladimir, a colleague of Leos Janacek, was a major player in that discipline and as she tells it, a pretty amazing guy. His exhaustive fieldwork and research would make a good movie all by themselves. You can read a lot more about that in the extensive liner notes to the latest album The Book of Transfigurations, streaming at Bandcamp.

Bajakian isn’t coming through town this month to play this amazing, haunting music, but he will be at the Stone on both August 19 and 20 at 8:30 PM with John Zorn’s quasi-horror-surf band, Abraxas; cover is $20.

Like the duo’s 2015 debut album, this latest one radically reimagines a series of picturesque tunes from the family collection.Its central theme is change: as Ulehla puts it, “Girl into speckled bird, girl into married woman, boy into soldier, girl into mother, mother into widow, boy into ghost, vibrantly strong soldier into wounded corpse, and man into murderer.”

The album is bookended by mid-century field recordings of her grandfather Jiri singing with spare cimbalom accompaniment by Antoš Frolka. The senior Ulehla’s voice is raw, strong and impassioned as he sings of departure and no return: a soldier off to war, possibly. The band – Bajakian on guitar, Peggy Lee on cello, Tyson Naylor on multi-keys, Colin Cowan on bass and Dylan van der Schyff on drums – then make relentlessly prowling Velvets rock out of it.

The album’s second song, Grass, offers delicate, airy contrast, a vignette that captures the literally crushing poverty faced by peasants across Europe for thousands of years. Bajakian plays jagged minor-key slashes over a careening, bolero-ish beat behind Ulehla’s accusatory wail in The Rocks Began to Crumble, a soldier sent off to war bitterly telling his true love that she might as well marry somebody else.

Lee’s cello builds distantly claustrophobic ambience in Iron Bars, Iron Lock, illustrating an age-old mother-daughter conflict: mom wants to keep her kid away from the guys. The Bloody Wall allusively recounts a murder victim haunting the scene of the crime over lushly crescendoing, anthemic art-rock. It’s one of the album’s most gorgeous melodies, the strings matching the intricate Czech ornamentation of Ulehla’s voice.

That narrative is echoed with a more spare, atmospherically crescendoing approach in You Used to Look Like a Lion, a gruesome lament for a dying soldier. Then the band laps into Red Violet, a stormy, syncopated 1-chord jam in 7/8 time. Bajakian and Ulehla slip back into the shadows for Souling, a love song set to an uneasy fingerpicked acoustic backdrop.

The album’s starkest, most riveting song is War, Ulehla’s wounded melismas soaring over Bajakian’s sparse, lingering minor-key broken chords and Lee’s washes of cello: it’s another vivid soldier-going-off-to-war scenario. Then Lee and Ulehla flicker through the anguished medieval magic realism of Mother Gave Away Her Daughter,

He’s Bringing Something For Me, a veiled account of love and abandonment, has an even more sepulchral atmosphere that winds out with an ominous rumble. The terse murder ballad Carnival is awash in creepy wind-chime ripples and Ulehla’s phantasmic vocals. The album’s closing cut, Sell Us Your Shirt mashes up the vocals of grandfather and granddaughter Ulehla over the cimbalom, a cruel encounter with thieves who’ll literally steal the shirt off an unlucky peasant’s back. How little things have changed over the centuries: this magical, mysterious, imagistic album will entrance anybody who likes dark, brooding music: you don’t have to speak Czech to appreciate it, although that helps.

Maria Pomianowska Brings Moody Medieval Polish Themes and Instruments Into the 21st Century at Lincoln Center

Early in her set last night at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse, Maria Pomianowska held up her handmade fiddle, called a suka in her native Poland. “It doesn’t translate well,” she grinned. Since the 1990s, when she singlehandedly rescued this once-ubiquitous folk instrument from obscurity – basing her initial design on a rare depiction in an 18th century painting – it’s enjoyed a resurgence. Its rich, starkly resonant sound explains why.

Pomianowska took care to remind that her goal isn’t merely to lead a period-instrument ensemble playing ancient repertoire: she wants to take the instrument into the here and now. What stood out most in her quartet’s performance was how hard this band jams. That made sense in context: watching her stretch the limits of her alternately stately and joyous compositions, along with several medieval themes, evoked images of rolling hills, windswept fields and circles of line dancers being pushed further toward ecstasy.

Pomianowska played a five-string Biłgoraj suka – named for the city in northeastern Poland where it originated – for most of the show. With a body carved from a single block of wood, its range is similar to a viola, but with a low string that Pomianowska employed to anchor the melodies, or for a drone effect. That was bolstered on the low end by Iwona Rapacz, who switched between elegantly plucked basslines and austere washes on her four-string bass suka.

Playing the regular proto-violin suka, Aleksandra Kauf often doubled Pomianowska’s lines as well as her poignantly rustic, ambered high harmonies on the vocal numbers. Some of this was akin to Bulgarian folk music, but stripped to its brooding minor-key essentials. Percussionist Patrycja Napierała provided an often Middle Eastern-tinged groove on daf frame drum, at other times using her brushes on a similarly boomy hand drum for a spot-on impersonation of a tabla. That final ingredient proved to be one of the main keys to Pomianowska’s cross-cultural, cross-centuries style.

The group began austerely and carefully in the fourteenth century, moved forward more kinetically to the sixteenth and then took a leap into this one. While Pomianowska took the lead on the folk jams – a handful of dances and a hypnotic dirge – the rest of the band contributed subtly, and not so subtly when Kauf suddenly took one of the slower numbers warpspeed. Pomianowska’s own pieces were, predictably, the most cinematically shapeshifting, from a slowly mutating Nordic fjord tableau, to a couple of jauntily circling interludes with a Celtic-tinged flair, to a suspensefully crescendoing nocturne based on an Indian raga that proved to be the night’s most rapturous work. The group’s response to a rousing ovation was an encore that went straight to pastoral Chopin plaintiveness.

The most auspicious of all the upcoming Lincoln Center Festival shows is this Saturday night, July 29 at 8 at John Jay College’s Lynch Theatre, 524 W 59th St., where haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. $30 tix are still available.

A Chance to Discover Some Rare Jazz Seldom Heard on This Continent

Even in this youtube-enabled era where a kid from Reykjavik or Rhode Island can develop jazz chops to rival anyone from Harlem, it takes a special kind of passion to play music that’s not native to your home turf. That’s why so many of the European jazz acts with the ambition to cross the pond can be fantastically good. And while most American fans probably don’t think of Poland as a jazz hotspot, this upcoming week’s annual Jazztopad Festival has a lineup that could open a lot of eyes and ears.

The good news is that the dreaded f-word (fusion, for folks who might have forgotten) isn’t part of the deal. There are lots of flavors. Some of the bands on the five-night bill draw on ancient, rustic Polish folk themes, others move in more of a improvisational direction. The first two nights, June 21 and 22 are at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where darkly enigmatic improvisers Stryjo and the similar Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet play at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. The Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet make another appearance on June 24 at 8 PM with eclectically brilliant cellist Erik Friedlander at the Jazz Gallery. Strings work especially well with this kind of music.

The June 23 show is at Joe’s Pub at 7:30 PM, featuring pianist Marcin Masecki and rummer Jerzy Rogiewicz playing stride and ragtime classics. Then the festival winds up at National Sawdust on June 25 at 4 PM featuring mesmerizingly improvisational string ensemble the Lutosławski Quartet with violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. This blog was in the house for the quartet’s playfully fun show there last year with pianist Uri Caine, details here.

Another uncategorizably brilliant Polish band, the trio Lautari – who are not on this bill – wound up their US tour with an often riveting set last fall at Subrosa. While their current raison d’etre is to jam out rare, obscure and often otherworldly Polish folk themes, some of their their tropes are common in Polish jazz.

The big takeaway was how diverse Polish music has always been, and still remains. Several strikingly catchy, whirling dance numbers began with biting harmonies between Maciej Filipczuk’s violin and Michał Żak’s clarinet. Then Jacek Hałas’ piano would icepick and ripple, and sometimes he’d slow the tunes down and take them in a considerably more shadowy, Lynchian direction. Or they’d make a crazy quilt of counterpoint and then reconverge. Throughout their roughly ninety minutes onstage, there were recurrent echoes of Balkan music, including one particularly incisive dance number that drew a line south, straight to Macedonia.

The night’s most poignantly surreal moment was when they played a plaintive dirge to a backing track (on Filipczuk’s phone, actually) of an aging Holocaust survivor quaveringly humming an old folk tune. It was disquieting on more than one level to see the band playing along with that long-dead voice, but also redemptive to know that they’d literally resurrected the song.

As the show went on, phantasmagorical interludes reminiscent of Frank Carlberg’s Tivoli Trio were juxtaposed with bustling, Mingus-like passages and a slow, lingering piece midway through where a guest guitarist added brooding, Satie-esque accents. Halas opened the night’s most starkly riveting number solo on accordion, with a frantically trilling, Middle Eastern edge, then the band took it in a slinky direction that sounded like Dolunay on acid. There’s no guarantee that any of this will happen at this year’s festival, but you never know.

An Epic, Explosively Catchy Balkan Brass Album from What Cheer? Brigade

What Cheer? Brigade headlined this year’s Golden Festival, the nation’s top gathering of Balkan bands. It was two in the morning in Brooklyn when they hit the stage, and by then, there were almost as many people playing as watching. Which meant more brass instruments and drums than could fit onstage, so what seemed like half the band were gathered around in front. It was an apt way to wind up what will probably prove to be the best party of the year.

Beyond the New York Philharmonic, there is no other band this size on the East Coast, and no brass band in the United States other than MarchFourth with as many members. Maybe that’s why they aren’t listed on the band’s webpage –  maybe there’s not enough bandwidth! Calling their sound titanic is beside the point.

Beyond sheer volume, what’s most impressive about their new album You Can’t See Inside of Me – streaming at Bandcamp – is how tight it is. Bands this size, let alone punk brass street bands like these people, tend to be unwieldy. Their Golden Fest set was pretty crazy, but it’s a good bet they’ll be extra tight since they just made the record – and maybe will be a little smaller in size too – when they play the album release show tonight, June 16 at around 10 at the new Littlefield at 635 Sackett St. in Gowanus, just around the corner from the old location. As a bonus, the similarly explosive if considerably more compact Raya Brass Band – arguably the best Balkan brass unit in the United States – open the night at 9. Cover is $10.

The album’s opening track, Iahabibi, is a Balkan cumbia. The way the lush wall of trumpets (and trubas, maybe) slithers and bends in unison to reach the highs on the chorus sounds effortless, but in reality it’s just the opposite. The chromatics and rat-a-tat attack get even more fearsome and catchy in the second track, Punk Gratitude, the band eventually dropping back to just the tubas and drums for a flamenco-edged trumpet solo and then an explosively flurrying drum break.

Ekremov Čoček has towering, expansive minor-key harmonies to match a big Renaissance choir. The song struts more than it careens, no small achievement. Then again, nothing about this band is small. Hora Din Petrosnitza is a mghty, bubbling punk klezmer number, like the Klezmatics turned up to eleven, with another big drum break. The epic, cinematic, funkified You Don’t Want to Go to War is packed with call-and-response and echo phrases; deep inside, it’s a soul song.

The diptych Ba Tu/Perin Čoček opens as a slow, gorgeously stormy anthem fueled by low brass chords and then picks up with an intensity that’s just short of frantic. Likewise, the breathtaking fanfare that kicks off the title track, a heavyweight, catchy Andalucian-flavored blast of brass with a tantalizingly brief, simmeringly chromatic trombone solo.. Reka Želja reaches for even greater heights, balancing flamenco fire with wry 80s new wave pop allusions and an artfully circling exchange of individual voices.

Black Cannon is sort of a swaying Balkan Hawaii 5-0; the stampeding doublespeed bridge and the breathless charge on the way out are the high points of the album. NBD is a brassy spoof of a popular early zeros rock hit, while the epically puffing, closing cover of Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, complete with choir, is even more surreal.

The album also includes nine remixes: while it’s good to hear the songs, at least parts of them, a second time, around that’s hardly necessary considering how meticulously recorded the originals are. Big up to the folks at Pawtucker, Rhode Island’s Machines with Magnets studios for not simply lining these guys up inside McCoy Stadium and recording the album right there on the ballfield. Although it might have been just as difficult to fit everybody into the ballpark too. Count this among the top ten releases of 2017 so far.

Funkrust Brass Band Release Their Mighty Debut Album on the Year’s Best Triplebill in Brooklyn

Funkrust Brass Band are one of the relatively newer bands in New York’s surprisingly vital Balkan music demimonde. Venues keep closing and working class people keep getting priced out of town, but it seems that at least half of the good horn players who are still here are in this band. They’re definitely the largest one of the bunch, sort of a Brooklyn counterpart to MarchFourth.

Ellia Bisker, who leads the lyrically excellent soul/chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette and is also half of menacing murder ballad duo Charming Disaster – who also have an excellent new album out – fronts this mighty crew. Their debut album Dark City – streaming at Bandcamp – is a party in a box, and a good approximation of the band’s explosive live show. For a release party, they’re headlining at around 10 PM on what might be the best triplebill of the year. It starts at 8 PM on May 19 at Matchless with guitar band Greek Judas – who make careening heavy psychedelia out of crime rhymes and hash-smoking anthems from the Greek resistance underworld of the 1920s and 30s – followed by the similarly explosive Raya Brass Band, who would probably be the best band in town most anywhere between the Danube and the Black Sea. Cover is $10.

Funkrust Brass Band waste no time opening the album with their signature song, Funkrust. Catchy tuba bassline underpinning its rat-a-tat trombones, cinematically rising trumpets and undulating groove, this mashup of Balkan brass and American funk sounds like an even more epic version of iconic Brooklyn band Slavic Soul Party.

Elevator begins as a vintage soul strut with an enigmatically bubbling trombone section; then Bisker gets on her bullhorn and all of a sudden it’s a hip-hop brass number that brings to mind the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Zoology opens with a little latin percussion, a catchy tuba-funk bassline and some high-voltage call-and-response from high and low brass; then Bisker gets on the bullhorn again to encourage everybody to find their inner animal.

The title track, with its uneasy chromatics and tightly crescendoing swells, is the album’s most cinematic and distinctively Balkan number. Swamp Samba is the most original of the tunes here, an unexpected mashup of Balkan brass and Brazilian frevo. As with many of the cuts, Bisker has a good time poking fun at obsessions with technology.

The album’s most incongruously successful mashup is Catch Yr Death, which blends Balkan and Motown dance sounds: “They say it’s not gonna kill you, but they don’t feel like you do,” Bisker wails through a wall of trebly distortion. They wind up the album on a high note with Riptide, a blazing, ominously cinematic Hawaii 5-0 style theme with global warming allusions.

Like many of the Brooklyn Balkan contingent, Funkrust Brass Band has a revolving cast of characters. Co-leader and composer Phil Andrews plays trumpet along with Eva Arce, Andrew Schwartz and John Waters. Their all-female sax section comprises Cassandra Burrows, Anya Combs, Perrine Iannacchione, Danielle Kolker and Melissa Williams. Trombonists include Elizabeth Arce, Sherri Cohen, Phillip Mayer and Cecil Scheib. Matthew Cain and John Lynd play tuba; the percussion section includes Allison Heim, Francesca Hoffman, Monica Hunken, Alex Jung, Seth White and Josh Bisker.

Celebrating the World’s Most Famous Suicide Song

What’s more appropriate for Halloween than the world’s most famous suicide song? The truth about Gloomy Sunday is a lot less lurid than the legend. The song’s composer, Rezso Seress, actually did commit suicide more than three decades after he wrote it in the early 1930s. It’s a sad tune, although the same could be said about thousands of other melodies from across the centuries, none of whose writers ended up killing themselves. Nor did Laszlo Javor, author of the lyrics to the first recorded version, by Pal Kalmor, in 1935. That reality didn’t stop the BBC and other radio networks from succumbing to an urban myth and banning the song until just a few years ago.

You can hear Kalmor’s wonderful dead-calm performance – complete with funeral bells and heart-wrenching strings –  on the new compilation album Hungarian Noir, streaming at Spotify. The playlist also includes the more famous and considerably subtler 1941 recording by Billie Holiday with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra along with recordings from the past few years, some of which are more Halloweenish than others.

A handful are ludicrous to the point of being funny. A breezy African pop version? How about a Brazilian rap version? There’s also a talented Cuban chanteuse whose phonetic command of English falls short of what a singer needs in order to channel much of any emotion, happy or sad, in addition to an instrumental arrangement by Cuban salsa orchestra Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco, whose icy precision speaks to the group’s professionalism more than their commitment to encouraging mass suicide.

But some of the new reinterpretations of the song are very creative. Matuto contribute a moodily psychedelic, cumbia-tinged version, guitarist Clay Ross’ Lynchian, chromatic reverb guitar mingling with Rob Curto’s accordion. Accordionist Chango Spasiuk approaches the song as a vividly spare, Romany jazz-tinged instrumental. Polish art-rock songbird Kayah’s spacious trip-hop take looks back to the original with stark vocals over lushly crescendoing orchestration. And unsurprisingly, the best of the reinventions here is by Cimbalomduo, a collaboration between two of the world’s most exhilarating virtuosos of the Hungarian zither: Kálmán Balogh and Miklós Lukács. Obviously, their take isn’t about pyrotechnics but slow, brooding ripples and lingering despair.

The best new version of the song didn’t make the cut – or the album’s compilers didn’t have it on their radar. Nashville gothic songwriter Mark Sinnis recorded it on his 2010 album The Night’s Last Tomorrow, and gave New York audiences plenty of chills with it before he headed for the hills and, ultimately, to North Carolina. Speaking of which, Sinnis returns to New York State for a cd release show for his latest album, One Red Rose Among the Dying Leaves on October 30 at 6 PM at Sue’s Sunset House,  137 N Water St in Peekskill. There’s no cover; the baritone crooner and his band will be playing two long sets. The venue is just steps from the Peekskill Metro-North station, and trains will be running for a couple of hours after festivities end at 11 PM.

Shelley Thomas Channels an Entire Bulgarian Vocal Choir on Her Stunning New Solo Album

Shelley Thomas‘ debut solo album, Joy – streaming at her music page– is as exhilarating to listen to as it is a towering display of vocal prowess. Thomas is not only one of New York’s great voices; she’s one of the world’s most highly sought-after interpreters of Middle Eastern and Balkan music. What’s most impressive about this album is how she multitracks her voice, essentially becoming a one-woman Bulgarian vocal choir, a self-contained Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares or Black Sea Hotel (of which she is a member). As she explains in the album’s liner notes, Bulgarian music is “a vast and exciting repertoire of wildly diverse regional styles, dialects and ornaments, rich in history, storytelling and feeling.” That’s an understatement. Thomas has such vast range, formidable technique and minutely nuanced command of microtones that she can do it all. The result is rapture that sometimes borders on terror. Olivier Messiaen understood that; so does Thomas.

Beyond the otherworldly, microtonal beauty of the arrangements, sometimes what’s most striking about these seventeen songs is their surrealism. Other times it’s the subtext, as in the album’s distantly plaintive, solo vocal opening track, where a girl goes out into the woods, ostensibly to pick flowers. But what she’s really up to is searching for her missing brother, a freedom figther against the local tyrant, or Ottoman invaders.

Most of the other tracks are packed with the close harmonies typically associated with the Bulgarian vocal tradition. Thomas juxtaposes a hypnotically enveloping field holler of sorts with a bride-price diptych full of the echo effects typically associated with mountain music. She channels the wistfulness of a girl beseeching her mother not to marry her off before she’s been able to enjoy a bit more of her carefree childhood, and the bounciness of a tune that belies its macabre lyric about a construction worker who falls victim to a murderous prank. Thomas delivers the album’s celebratory title track as a brisk but stately pavane of sorts.

The rest of the album is just as colorful. Brides are sought after again and again; grooms are rejected (usually because they’re too impoverished) and accepted once in awhile. An abusive boyfriend runs up against karmic payback; another hothead meets his match with a girl who wants to tie him up, yikes! Thomas’ lush, hushed reinvention of Mesechinko Ljo is simply exquisite, one part Arvo Part, one part African-American gospel. The next-to-last track is even more epic. Many of the remaining songs are very short, clocking in at barely two minutes; in each case, the emotion in Thomas’ vocals, sometimes tender, sometimes wounded, often uneasy, transcends linguistic limitations. You don’t need to speak Bulgarian to be entranced by this music: it’s one of the half-dozen best albums of 2016. Thomas’ fascinating liner notes include both the original Bulgarian lyrics and English translations as well as historical and musicological background.

Greg Squared’s Circle Foreshadows a Killer Bed-Stuy Twinbill on the 15th with One of the Year’s Best Shows

One of this year’s best twinbills is happening at Friends & Lovers in Bed-Stuy on June 15 at 8 PM, with psychedelic Balkan organ band Choban Elektrik – sort of the Doors of the New York Balkan scene – and New York’s contender for best American Balkan horn group, Raya Brass Band.

In addition to that collective, their de facto bandleader, alto saxophonist/clarinetist Greg Squared has a couple of other projects. Sherita, fronted by brilliant violinist/mult-instrumentalist Rima Fand, plays edgy originals with sometimes dreamy, sometimes acerbic klezmer, Romany and flamenco influences. He also leads the wryly titled Greg Squared’s Circle, a vehicle for working up new material. They don’t play as often as Raya or Sherita but when they do it’s always a treat. Their gig at Barbes back in March – which might be their most recent live appearance – was one of the year’s most exhilarating shows.

Their bandleader is a pyrotechnic player – it would be a stretch to call him the American Ivo Papasov, since nobody has Papasov’s speed or precision, but he’s in the same league as, say, Ismail Lumanovski. He and the band opened with a bitingly catchy four-chord number in 7/8 time that Raya Brass Band sometimes plays. On sax, their frontman showed off his eclecticism, beginning with pillowy melismatics, taking his time building steam as the band finally sprinted to the finish line. Meanwhile, guitarist Adam Good took a sputtering, eventually lightning-fast solo, bringing the song to redline.

Their second number was a bouncy, comfortably vampy tune with lots of rapidfire eighth-note runs from sax and clarinet, then another jagged sharks-teeth solo from Good, ushering in the stormclouds. They segued out of that into a real epic, another Greg Squared original with long, simmering, eventually searing solos for bass, clarinet, and finally Good firing off one vicious hammer-on after another.

They went back to the Raya catalog after that for a catchier, more terse Madeconian-flavored tune, alternating between major and minor keys: it was cool to hear it in a more expansive, slightly less explosive arrangement, guitar in place of accordion and rock drum kit in lieu of standup tapan bass drum. Good’s clenched-teeth raga-ish licks, Greg Squared’s steadily stampeding volleys – on sax and clarinet – and the fat groove of the rhythm section dominated the rest of the night’s first set. They got psychedelic and atmospheric toward the end.

The second set was even more epic, with a couple of majestically crescendoing new songs going on for around fifteen minutes apiece, awash in moody chromatics, pulsing along on tricky, shapeshiftingly undulating grooves. It’s likely that Raya Brass Band will air out at least a few of these in slightly different arrangements. If minor keys are your thing, you would be crazy to miss this show.

Wickedly Catchy, Edgy Balkan Tunes and an East Village Album Release Show by Cocek! Brass Band

Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band play original Balkan music with fresh, imaginative horn charts and tinges of reggae, rocksteady and dixieland. If New York’s Raya Brass Band are the Evil Empire, the class of the American league of Balkan bands, Cocek! Brass Band are the perennially dangerous Red Sox. Much as it’s a ballsy move for trumpeter/composer Sam Dechenne’s group to put that exclamation point in their name, they live up to it. They’ve got an intense, richly tuneful, intricately arranged new album, simply titled Round Two – streaming at Bandcamp – and a release show on April 14 at 11 PM at Drom. The lineup is one of the year’s best triplebills so far, starting at 10 with slinky, torchy, creepy female-fronted circus rock/noir cabaret band Egress with blazing No Small Money Brass Band sometime around midnight. Advance tix are $10.

Flutter, the opening track on the new Cocek album, also lives up to its name. It’s a funhouse mirror of brass, Dechenne echoed by flugelhornist Ezra Weller and trombonist Clayton DeWalt, tuba player Jim Gray anchoring the brightly biting harmonies over Grant Smith’s rat-a-tat tapan drum. The second cut, Found Water is a slowly swaying, darkly rustic number, sort of a mashup of bluesy oldtime gospel and Balkan funeral music – and then they hit a chorus with a chart straight out of vintage Jamaican rocksteady. No surprise, since Dechenne is also a member of long-running roots reggae band John Brown’s Body.

Speaking of which, the next track is Heads in the Cloud, a tasty, catchy Balkan reggae tune, right down to Gray’s catchy, purposeful bassline, the horns branching out and then reconfiguring on the chorus. Macedonian Wedding has tricky syncopation and an easygoing, upbeat vibe that darkens on the wings of an ominously chromatic DeWalt solo. Mr. Kapitan Tappan is a catchy shout-out to Smith’s prowess on the big standup drum, but it’s got bite, and it’s hardly a throwaway.

Rock Jumper is a showcase for the brass section’s subtlety and resonance as well as their pinpoint staccato attack. Springtime in Allston is state-of-the-art, a sizzling, rapidfire blaze of wickedly pulsing riffage. The Snake brings back a wry Balkan reggae feel tinged with hi-de-ho swing. Town Tax Man builds off a noir chromatic riff to an agitated three-horn round-robin, then back. Trek Through Town sounds like Dejan Petrovic‘s group covering the Skatalites, right up to a big, percussion-driven peak midway through. The album winds up with Up in Smoke, another showcase in edgy/resonant contrast, with a wry shout-out to a famous tv theme, The coolest thing about this album is that it doesn’t sound like a bunch of Americans taking a stab at Balkan music. They really have the fluttery doublestops, the odd (to us, anyway) meters and the edgy harmonies down cold. Count this as one of 2016’s best.

You might wonder why Cocek! Brass Band punctuate their name the way they do. Likely answer: a cocek is a popular Serbian dance. Try googling “cocek brass band.” You’ll probably get a bunch of links to sketchy Russian download sites.