New York Music Daily

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Tag: frank london

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.

Rare Canary Islands Sounds at Lincoln Center

This past evening at Lincoln Center was a rare opportunity to hear a band who for over thirty years have represented the Canary Islands. True to their name, Olga Cerpa y Mestisay really mix it up. Island nations tend to be especially cross-pollinated, with sounds from all over the place wafting in on the trade winds for a unique and often surreal blend of flavors.

That seems especially true for this band, who bookended their set not with a bolero, or a flamenco ballad – though hints of both styles figure prominently in their sound – but a vaudevillian swing theme spiced with carefree, dixieland-flavored clarinet. Frontwoman Cerpa went down for dramatic Piaf lows and soared toward plaintive Amalia Rodrigues peaks, yet she doesn’t sing either French chanson or Portuguese fado. Instead, her style is unique to her home turf off the coast of Africa.

Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who booked the group, reminded that this was also a rare opportunity to hear the full lineup from their popular Jallo album. These days, visa issues make bringing a group this size on the road more of an adventure than ever. Behind Cerpa, this configuration included two acoustic guitars, acoustic-electric bass and a two-man percussion section that would have fit in an Afro-Cuban context. In addition to the clarinetist – who doubled on soprano sax and flute – the lead instruments include mandola and the band’s not-so-secret weapon, 21-year-old Althay Páez, a virtuoso of the Canary Islands timple. It looks like a smaller cuatro (Paez has recorded with the Jimi Hendrix of that instrument, Jorge Glem) but sounds much bigger, with a ringing, resonantly jangly tone similar to a Portuguese guitar. Paez’s incisive spirals and clanging accents, especially in tandem with the mandola, gave the songs as much dramatic flair as wistful poignancy.

A seemingly unlikely similarity to several Spanish Caribbean styles became apparent early on, a striking reminder of how Afro-Cuban salsa first took root: not with blazing brass, but as a string band style with the charangas of the early 1900s. A couple of the night’s biggest ballads, with their suspenseful intros and big majestic choruses, came across as a more lilting counterpart to Mexican ranchera music. There were also a couple of bouncy 1-4-5 romps that evoked the son jarocho from further south. Meanwhile, Cerpa explored themes of lost love, abandonment and the lure of the sea, and sent more than one shout out to her home country. All this was a potent if unspoken reminder that great things happen when immigrants bring along cultures from all over the world and then create a new one of their own.

The atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd Street is the main spot at the performing arts mecca where music and cultures from around the world meet and mingle. The series of free 7:30 PM shows there usually take place on Thursdays, but with Thanksgiving getting in the way, the next one is next Monday, Nov 26 with powerful singer Carolina Oliveros’ wild tropical psychedelic band, Combo Chimbita. There will also be lots of outdoor shows around the Lincoln Square neighborhood, including iconic klezmer Frank London and his band at the triangle at 63rd where Broadway crosses Columbus, most likely a bit later.

A Rare Appearance by Wild Romany Party Band Romashka at This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

At the peak of their late zeros popularity, Romashka were rivalled only by Gogol Bordello and maybe Luminescent Orchestrii among New York Romany party bands. Frontwoman Inna Barmash, one of the world’s greatest klezmer singers, has a diamond-cutter clarity that’s almost scary. Her husband Ljova Zhurbin is one of this era’s most eclectic and brilliant violists. They don’t play live as much as they used to, but when they reconvene it’s like they never left off and the party starts all over again. They’re bringing their signature blend of slashing minor keys, acerbic chromatics and fiery Russian Romany dances to the latest installment of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival at Drom this Sept 20 at 8 PM; adv tix are $15. It’s going to be a little taste of Golden Fest a few months before the annual Balkan blowout takes place next January 12 and 13 in Brooklyn.

Unless they’ve been keeping their gigs a big secret, the most recent Romashka gig was at Golden Fest 2018, and it was killer. Fortuitously, their set was recorded and is available as a free download at the Free Music Archive. They kick it off with Hochu Lyubit, a scampering, pulsing dance, Jeff Perlman’s clarinet bubbling, Zhurbin weaving through one ominous chromatic after another, then giving way to guest trumpeter Frank London’s triumphant solo as guitarist Jai Vilnai skanks and jangles. With her intense, melismatic delivery, Barmash gives it an extra shot of dramatic angst at the end – it was her birthday, so she was especially amped.

From there the band take a detour into a couple of acerbic Romanian dance numbers. Veering in and out of the western scale, Rustemul sounds like the theme to a village that time really forgot, a rustically surreal, coyly bombastic theme pushed along by Ron Caswell’s tuba and Chris Stromquist’s drums. Tocul is a lot more lighthearted and lickety-split.

Ljova’s delicate incisions and London’s plaintive trumpet matched Barmash’s distant, nuanced poignancy throughout a muted Russian tango, Serdtse. Her insistent attack and ornamentation in Loli Phabay – “Red Apple,” a Russian Romany tune – is pretty wild, in contrast with Vilnai’s jaggedly precise, Middle Eastern tinged jangle and clang.

Perlman fires off triumphant trills while Holmes smolders throughout the old Romany hit Shimdiggy. Barmash goes to redline right off the bat as the band launch into the edgy bounce of Zarnobila, taking a careening segue into a rapidfire take of Baro Faro to end their show with a blistering stampede out.

Although Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall wasn’t designed for electric bands, the sound quality is surprisingly clear and balanced. Get this set before it disappears (that happens sometimes at the Free Music Archive) – it’s one of this city’s great esoteric bands at the peak of their powers.

Powerful Singers and an Iconic Band Celebrate Global Yiddish Music in Central Park

What’s the likelihood of seeing the Klezmatics not only slink, and barrel, and slowly sway through a gorgeous and often haunting blend of minor keys and punk-klezmer romps…but also  getting to see them back two of New York’s most powerful singers? It happened Wednesday night at Central Park Summerstage, where cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer got to take tantalizingly short turns on the mic in front of the band, along with other entertainment on a night celebrating Yiddish music from around the world.

There was a time when being a cantor was just as competitive as, say, African-American gospel music, or a jazz cutting contest. The cantor was the treasure of the temple, the guy you’d send on tour to represent you and thrill the people with his powerful pipes. That tradition has sadly fallen into disrepair in recent years, but it is alive and well on the Upper West Side, at the Jewish Center on 86th St. and also the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where Berson and Lemmer, respectively, hold court.

Berson has a vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through, with Little Jimmy Scott nuance but also Johnny Cash intensity, if you buy those references. He also turned out to be a fluent guitarist as well, adding poignant, purposeful jangle to one of the set’s early numbers. Lemmer’s baritone has a tinge of grit and a similarly steely resonance, opera without the buffo.

He immediately made an impact, sending a shout-out to the 99-percenters in the crowd (which seemed to be pretty much everybody) with a stern march through We’ve Got to Make a Living, an anthem for solidarity in hard times. Then he led the band through an increasingly dynamic, lickety-split, sardonically funny medley of drinking songs. “Drinking songs?” Lemmer deadpanned, “Jews don’t drink. We’re too busy suffering.”

But a little l’chaim never hurt anybody – they did that one, too toward the end of the evening. Berson opened his own set with an impassioned, broodingly rapturous, melismatic improvisation while the band built an ominous wash of sustain behind him. From there, he worked the corners for every bit of chromatic mystery in a mix of numbers that looked forward to messianic redemption and sought worldly solace, either through transcendence or libations.

The Klezmatics finally got a set of their own and reveled in it with the energy of a group, well, thirty years younger. The original rebels of the 80s klezmer revival, they celebrated all things treyf, sexually and foodwise and otherwise in the high-voltage, Romanian-tinged dance numbers, and kept an eye on history with the slower ones. There’s no small irony in that the high point of the evening might have been the slow, subdued dirge The Yoke, a Yiddish translation of a Catalan protest song from the 1960s.

Frontman Lorin Sklamberg played that one on piano rather than his usual accordion, like he did much of the rest of the material, and showed off similar chops: at one point, he hit an unexpectedly feral barrelhouse groove. Likewise, trumpeter Frank London spent much of the night behind an electric piano, constantly tweaking it to get the textures right when he wasn’t hitting ecstatic heights or firing off hundred-yard spirals on his horn. Bassist Paul Morrissett took a turn on tsimbl, the Ukrainian Jewish ancestor of the cimbalom, while violinist Deborah Strauss switched between icepick precision and stark, rustic, otherworldly sustain over Richie Barshay’s playful, jazz-inflected drums. When he wasn’t reaching the rafters on alto sax, Matt Darriau was adding ethereal flute textures or channeling grim Balkan tonalities on clarinet. 

As an encore, Daniel Kahn – star of the upcoming immigration-themed musical Amerike – came up to deliver a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen song whose expiration date passed a long time, joined by the rest of the night’s performers, among them tongue-in-cheek a-cappella unit the Maccabeats. But then everybody segued into a rapidfire dance number every bit as fun as Man in a Hat, the title track from the Klezmatics’ cult classic 1995 Jews with Horns album, a wry salute to their home turf: “I’m a man in a hat, a Manhattan man,” Sklamberg reaffirmed.

The next Central Park Summerstage event of note starts at 5 PM on June 24, a night of Portuguese music with newschool fado star Sofia Ribeiro and assaultive goth/Stooges punk duo Dead Combo with special guest guitarslinger Marc Ribot. Get there early if you’re going. 

The Klezmatics Build Their Legacy With Yet Another Explosive, Eclectic Album

This new record has a song about slavery. another about the joys of being out and gay in an oppressive society, one about the murder of an innocent immigrant, along with a pretty wild drinking song, a bunch of dance numbers and a handful of dirges. Pretty relevant stuff, right? Is this hip-hop? Blues? New wave? None of the above. It’s the new Klezmatics album, Apikorsom/Heretics, streaming at Spotify. And it’s one of the best releases of 2016.

The Klezmatics are the Clash of klezmer. Back in the 80s, the Clash were the one punk band that pretty much everybody knew and loved, and the Klezmatics were their Jewish folk-punk counterparts – although their musicianship was always a cut above even the most talented punk rock band. There have been plenty of other innovators in traditional Jewish music from around the world, but most  – Dave Tarras, Manny Blanc and Prince Nazaroff, noteworthy among them – edged toward jazz. The Klezmatics, on the other hand, brought the transgressive energy of punk to a vast legacy of global Jewish sounds, and vice versa. The new album only further cements their reputation as innovators and instigators, a band whose influence long ago reached far beyond the klezmer demimonde. It’s safe to say that without the Klezmatics, there probably would be no Gogol Bordello and probably no World Inferno either.

The album opens on a trad note with Lisa Gutkin’s instrumental Der Geler Fink, her rapidfire violin against a suspensefully vamping pulse, then trumpeter Frank London and frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg lead the band off on a scampering tangent. London flips the script and clarinetist Matt Darriau follows suit, wary and soulful, before the band brings the lightning back.

Zol Shoy Komen di Guele is a swaying, elegant take on a midtempo oompah groove, a song of redemption and salvation. The band moves to elegantly waltzing, brooding Ladino territory with the bitterly metaphorical Der Yokh (The Yoke) originally recorded by Lluis Llach in 1968: “Although it’s rotten and rusty, it grips us like pliers,” Sklamberg intones in the original Catalan.

The traditional Party in Odessa follows a bounce that’s just short of frantic: It’s a funny song, a peasant gone wild in the big city: “The guy with no suspenders is the one who loses his pants,” more or less. The band ramps it up doublespeed at the end.

Dark Is the Night, a new original with music by London features stark violin against mournful washes of accordion punctuated by spare cimbalom. If John Lennon had grown up in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, he might have written something like this.The title track is another London original; Sklamberg delivering a homoerotic Yiddish lyric over a happy bouncing melody that’s part early Beatles, part joyous shtetl stomp, taking an abrupt, welcome detour into a minor-key romp livened by the trumpeter’s terse, muted attack. Darriau’s Three-Ring Sirba is next, a bittersweet waltz fueled by the composer’s enigmatically sailing clarinet.

The bolero-tinged Vi Lang, London’s adaptation of David Edelstadt’s poem Vakht Oyf! sets Sklamberg’s understatedly imploring vocals against an elegantly slinky backdrop lowlit by funereal organ and latin-flavored horns, up to an uneasily shadowy, psychedelic outro underpinned by London’s insistent piano and Richie Barshay’s tumbling drums. Likewise, Sklamberg’s arrangement of Chava Alberstein’s Ver Firt Di Ale Shifn? (Who Guides the Ships?) has a moody late Beatlesque resonance and a boomy Barshay bolero beat. Then the band picks it up with the lickety-split Shushan Purim, contemplating the hangover of all hangovers. In case you’re wondering how to say “blotto” in Yiddish, the word is “farshnoshket.”

Green Violin, a London instrumental, has a dramatic ba-BUMP bounce and delicious Middle Eastern chromatics. Der Mames Spigl (Mama’s Mirror), a minimalist dirge by Gutkin with lyrics by Masha Shtuker-Paiuk, grimly contemplates the ravages of age. Even grimmer is the swaying, ominously Turkish-flavored murder ballad Tayer Yankele (Poor Yankele), Paul Morrisett’s guitar steady as the whole band builds a haunted call-and-response. It’s the album’s most epic and arguably best number.

The band handles the traditional, chromatically fueled dance Shtetl MO with a bouncy restraint that explodes on the chorus and then builds to a lickety-split romp as the horns blaze. The album winds up with Mazltov, a tender folk-rock waltz. Over the decades, the Klezmatics have put out some great albums and this one is probably in the top three along with their 2011 Live at the Town Hall album and their iconic 1997 collection, Possessed. The band are currently on US tour; their next show is at the Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St. in Berkeley, CA on Dec 21 at 8 PM. Advance tix are $28.

Wild, Crazy, Deep Danceable Sounds at Last Night’s Borscht Ball in Bushwick

The dancing crowd at last night’s second annual Borscht Ball at Paperbox in Bushwick got to watch singer Svetlana Shmulyian – who has a gig with her bittersweetly torchy, cosmopolitan swing jazz band the Delancey Five coming up at Lucille’s on June 24 at 8 – sing coyly quirky old Soviet pop songs from the 60s in her native tongue, with a knowing happy-hour gleam in her eye.

They got to hear klezmer firebrand Daniel Kahn – who’s got a gig tonight at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 – unveil an obscure old Russian tune he’d never played before, which he’d just translated on the way down from Utica with fellow singer Psoy Korolenko. The gist of it was, “If the devil won’t take me, how about your bed.” Kahn had matched his English rhyme scheme to the original, quite a feat.

They got to pogo and linedance and twirl around the room as the Klezmatics aired out a fiery, characteristically ambitious series of new songs from their long-awaited forthcoming album. They got to see a parade of some of the world’s most sought-after talent in Jewish roots music – irrepressible Litvakus clarinetist/singer Dmitri Zisl Slepvovitch and charismatic Golem bandleader Annette Ezekiel Kogan among them – beat a path on and off the stage as the music shifted from defiantly joyous, to wounded angst, to full-throttle klezmer punk.

The festival’s raison d’etre is to provide a snapshot of the many different flavors of klezmer punk from around the world. If you think that’s a little esoteric, consider that there are hundreds of bands who would have fit this bill. If the Klezmatics weren’t the first, they opened the floodgates and have since inspired more than a generation of musicians. Playing their thirtieth anniversary show, they drew on sounds as disparate as Romanian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Catalan folk traditions while adding their signature firepower and jazz sophistication. Trumpeter Frank London played his usual, alternately crystalline and ferociously elephantine trumpet with his right hand while doing catchy arpeggios and comping chords on organ with his left. Matt Darriau ripped through careening postbop jazz on tenor sax and spun off spirals on clarinet over the stampeding, sometimes vaudevillian pulse of drummer Richie Barshay and bassist Paul Morrissett while frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg sang in Yiddish, Russian and English. At the end of their sizzling opening set, he told the crowd that they’d be back, and by the end they pretty much all were, joining the members of Opa in careening versions of well-loved classics like Limonchiki and Bei Mir Bist Du Shein.

Brooklyn supergroup Svetlana and the Eastern Blokhedz – Shmulyian backed by bandleader Wade Ripka on guitar, his Greek Judas bandmates Quince Marcum on horn and vocals and Nick Cudahy on bass, Isaak Mills on guitar, sax and glockenspiel, Choban Elektrik‘s Jordan Shapiro and Las Rubias Del Norte‘s Allyssa Lamb on keys, and Slavic Soul Party‘s Chris Stromquist on drums – kept the dancers on their feet, opening and eventually closing with psychedelic garage pop that sounded straight out of France, 1969. Who says the Russians ever outgrew their French fixation, anyway? From there Shmulyian led them nimbly and warmly through a Russian pop counterpart to Dancin’ in the Rain, to nostalgic salutes to motherhood and romance and eventually a Soviet equivalent of “Celebrate good times, c’mon!” True to form, their deadpan version of the Ventures’ Cold War instrumental classic Spudnik was irresistibly funny in context.

Making their U.S. debut, eclectic Russian band  Opa headlined and offered an unstoppably kinetic take on many of the directions klezmer continues to expand into. With tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass and drums going full force, they opened with a catchy old Russian riff that they built into straight-ahead oldschool disco. From there the band romped back and forth through time, vocally and instrumentally, flavored with acidic no wave guitar, Talking Heads funk and maybe a little Gang of Four. As the special guests made their way to the stage until there wasn’t much room left up there, the group took a detour into the tropics with some rocksteady, a couple of snaky klezmer cumbia mashups, a bit of Balkan reggae, hints of salsa and then a rousing return to the classics at the end of four nonstop hours of music. By then most of the oldsters – an impressive number, considering how deep in the ‘Shweck the venue is – had gone home, leaving the floor to the kids, many of them couples, who’d spent pretty much the entire time on their feet. By then it was as if the music itself had taken on a personality of its own, overjoyed to be brought back from death’s door in the nick of time.

Eva Salina Radically and Hauntingly Reinvents Balkan Icon Saban Bajramovic’s Cult Classics

Balkan singer Eva Salina‘s new album Lema Lema – streaming at Spotify – is a radical achievement. That it would take an American woman to bring the songs of Serbian Romany icon Šaban Bajramović to a global audience speaks volumes about how undeservedly obscure he is beyond the Romany diaspora…and also about Eva Salina’s revolutionary vision. CDBaby has both digital and physical copies.

There’s really nobody in western music quite like Bajramović – he’s sort of a Balkan counterpart to Hank Williams, but also Al Green and Bob Marley. Dating from the 1960s, his colorful songs spoke for generations of Romany people. who continue to experience disenfranchisement around the globe.

One of Eva Salina’s most ambitious moves here is not to make any grammatical adjustments for gender in Bajramović’s original Romanes-language lyrics (just as another elite singer, Mary Lee Kortes, did when she covered Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks). While the bristling minor keys, edgy chromatics and tricky meters of these songs may be exotic to most American audiences, the nuance and poignancy of Eva Salina’s richly emotive vocals transcends the limits of language: sometimes tender, sometimes coy, often harrowingly plaintive. Being versed in the language as well as the music, having immersed herself in both since childhood, no doubt helps immensely. She and her longtime accordionist Peter Stan have a couple of gigs coming up; March 3 at 8, they’re at Barbes, then the following evening they’re at the American Folk Art Museum at 5:30 PM.

The band on the album comprise the creme de la creme of New York-based Balkan talent. Along with the frontwoman and the accordionist, there’s trumpeter Frank London, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, multi-keyboardist Patrick Farrell, ubiquitous percussionist Deep Singh and tubaist Ron Caswell. There’s also a blazing brass section led by famed Serbian trumpeter Ekrem Mamutović.

Akaja Rat sets the stage, a lithely dancing, sunny, glisteningly precise nmber spiced with rat-a-tat brass, wry synth texurres and a shuffling, straight-up dancefloor beat. Boza Limunada opens with a blaze of brass from London and fellow trumpeter John Carlson, an anthemic, bittersweet, pulsingly tricky launching pad for Eva Salina’s coolly enigmatic low register. The band reinvents Djelo Djelo as somber, accordion-fueled Abbey Road Beatles art-rock under Eva Salina’s uneasily soaring melismas

Her darkly torchy approach to the plushly propulsive, noirish Hovavni Romni is spine-tingling.Singh’s slow, misterioso groove, moody low brass, Farrell’s spiraling synth and Seabrook’s dramatic David Gilmour-esque accents provide a haunting backdrop for the frontwoman’s  similarly suspenseful vocals throughout Jek Jek Dešujek, part lullaby, part warning. By contrast, the album’s title track blends staccato Balkan dancefloor chromatics and trippily twinkling art-rock under a pillowy vocal.

Singh’s leapfrogging beats in tandem with the brass adds more than a hint of bhangra to Koj Si Gola Roma, which takes on more of a Balkan reggae feel as it bounces along. They do O Zvonija Marena as a stately, understated, mysterious tango for accordion and vocals. From there they pick up the pace with with the track that may be the most familiar to Balkan music fans, Pijanica: the subtle keyboard touches under the slowly building brass conflagration are as amusing as they are psychedelic.

The final cut is I Barval Pudela, recast as blazing Romany rock:. imagine an artsier Gogol Bordello with one of the world’s most spinetingling singers out front. Spin one of this decade’s most exhilarating albums and discover two Balkan icons, one from the past and the other who promises to be one in the future.

Sometimes You Can’t Catch a Break, Sometimes You Can

The man in the long black coat stood alone, or so he thought, over the kitchen table, chomping on a plate of spicy Russian beet salad. He took a pull from a plastic cup of beaujolais nouveau. This year’s wasn’t anything special, nothing like the 2003, for that matter not even up to the level of 2008, at least this particular bottle. But enough of it still did the trick, just as it did in better years. In the living room, a pretty young mother played a Bach cello sonata, calmly and comfortably, to the small crowd of guests who remained at that late hour: her parents, a yoga girl and her dreadlocked white boyfriend, a petite, bookish brunette from Park Slope and her intense-faced, solidly built, bearded companion.

In the kitchen, the man in the long black coat turned around to see the woman’s reedy, bespectacled ten-year-old son staring at him. “Come here, there’s something I want to show you,” the boy urged him, the hint of a smile at the corners of his thin lips. He was small for his age, especially in profile against the fat, freckled, autistic girl who lingered in the doorway behind him.

The man in the long black coat took another pull from the cup and followed the children into an adjacent bedroom. Paint chips fell from the far wall, behind a leather reclining chair, a dartboard overhead. “Sit down,” encouraged the boy. “Everybody I do this to likes it.’

The man in the long black coat sat down slowly and leaned back. His head was driven further into the headrest when struck from behind, in the center of his forehead, with a sharp object. The man in the long black coat gasped and was just starting to pull himself out of the chair when struck a second time. This time the boy drew blood: for someone his size, he was strong, and on a mission to inflict pain. In the corner, the autistic girl began howling with laughter. The man in the long black coat pulled himself to his feet, but not in time to avoid being hit again, a glancing blow to the side of the head. That, too, drew blood.

Jarred from a red wine haze, the man in the long black coat moved out of the bedroom quickly, not looking back. The girl in the corner was still laughing, and by now the boy was giggling as well. The man in the long black coat saw a bathroom to his right and closed the door behind him. Droplets of blood trickled down the worn but now adrenalized face in the mirror. He reached for a piece of toilet paper, then thought better of it and pulled a napkin from his coat pocket. Gingerly, he blotted at his wounds.

He walked out into the hallway. The mother’s parents were there, glanced up and said nothing. The mother, behind them, did the same. No reaction, no offer of a band-aid, peroxide, even a simple “Are you ok?”

The man in the long black coat walked past them, toward the door, then stepped out into the cold Brighton Beach air. It was best to be out of this house of no empathy. Was this a ritual from the old country? A game to initiate outsiders? What would happen if he returned? Would he be skewered, eaten with beets and horseradish? Questions best left unanswered. He looked up, blinking the blood from his eyes as a B train rumbled into the station overhead.

The following night, the man in the long black coat reached the exit at the top of the stairs to the IRT local train at Broadway and 66th, the affectingly bittersweet, minor-key strains of what could have been an old Ukrainian Jewish song but was probably an original drifting from a couple of blocks south. Carefully, he adjusted the old black Mets hat over the wounds under the bandage.

A crowd of Jews were gathered in front of a Christmas tree near the point of the park where Columbus and Broadway cross at 63rd. The band onstage in front of them was fantastic: Alicia Svigals out front on violin, Patrick Farrell on accordion, Aaron Alexander on drums. The man in the long black coat didn’t recognize the bass player. Was this a comfortably typical New York moment or a subtle bit of subversion? What does it say about how far we’ve come that such a sight could be subversive in a city that at least on the surface seems to embrace so many cultures?

The man in the long black coat paused. This music was beautiful, and soul-stirring, a moment of comfort and warmth on an early winter night. But that’s not what he was there for. Halfheartedly, he moved ahead, south and west. Inside the Lincoln Center atrium space, with its desk for cheap day-of-show tickets and sandwich stand emanating smells of burnt cheese and sandwich meat, Fela cover band Chop & Quench were amassed onstage, ready to launch into a slinking, galloping set of Nigerian stoner dance grooves from the 1970s. An altogether different vibe from what was being played outside, notwithstanding that Afrobeat and Ukrainian Jewish music share a defiance and resilience.

Chop & Quench were the pit band for the Broadway musical Fela, arguably the most relevant production to appear on the Great White Way. The man in the long black coat was aware of this, but this show was all about the music. He leaned against the atrium wall, watching frontman Sahr Ngaujah, who starred as the Nigerian agitator bandleader in the theatrical run, spun and pounced across the stage, a trio of brightly skirted women to his right undulating along with the grooves spinning from Tim Allen’s bass and Greg Gonzalez’s drums. Guitarists Ricardo Quinones and Bryan Vargas clinked and jangled and mingled, trumpeter Jeff Pierce and tenor saxophonist Morgan Price taking the occasional long crescendo upward with a rapidfire solo.

Although the long rectangular room was pretty full, there weren’t many people dancing. After awhile, it was as if the band was playing a single, long song. After about forty minutes, they finally hit a snarling minor-key riff and launched into Water No Get Enemy, an aptly relevant number for this era. That was enough for the man in the long black coat, who exited back onto Broadway. Were the Jewish bands still playing? Yes!

Onstage now were trumpeter Frank London, accordionist Lorin Sklamberg and pianist Uri Caine, two thirds of the original New York punk klezmer band, the Klezmatics. “We may be in Manhattan, but this show is all about Brooklyn,” London grinned, explaining how much of their repertoire they’d discovered hanging with a Hasidic crowd there. Together they followed the rises and falls of a set of dances, a stately, cantorially-flavored hymn for peace and finally a droll, jazzed-up version of the dreydl song – it was Hanukkah season, after all. Violist Ljova Zhurbin came up onstage and added an acerbic edge for a couple of numbers; London encouraged him to stay for more, but he obviously had other places to be.

The man in the long black coat spotted Zhurbin’s wife, the great Yiddish singer Inna Barmash, in the audience. She smiled and waved; the man in the long black coat waved back. He looked up at the big evergreen behind the stage, festooned with ornaments, then at the lights twinkling down the avenue. In the austere washes of the accordion, London’s balmy trumpet and Caine’s careful, focused, sometimes darkly bluesy phrases, it was easy to call this home, good to be alone in the crowd.

The Best New York Concerts of 2015

On one hand, pulling this page together is always a lot of fun – and there could be a late addition or two, since the year’s not over yet. Of all the year-end lists here, including the Best Songs of 2015 and Best Albums of 2015, this is the most individualistic – everybody’s got their own – and reflective of the various scenes in this blog’s endangered but still vital hometown.

On the other hand, whittling this page down to a manageable number always hurts a little. With apologies to everyone who didn’t make the cut, for reasons of space or otherwise – seriously, nobody’s got the time to sift through the hundred or so concerts that realistically deserve to be on this page – this list feels bare-bones, even with a grand total of 28 shows.

In terms of epic sweep, intensity and gravitas, the year’s best concert was by Iran’s Dastan Ensemble in September at Roulette. This performance marked the New York debut of intense young singer Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, who aired out her powerful voice in a series of original suites on themes of gender equality by members of the ensemble, along with some dusky, austere traditional songs.

Since trying to rank the rest of these shows would be impossible, they’re listed as they happened:

Karla Rose and Mark Sinnis & 825 at the Treehouse at 2A, 2/15/15
The frontwoman of noir rockers Karla Rose & the Thorns in a chillingly intimate duo performance with her Tickled Pinks bandmate Stephanie Layton, followed by the Nashville gothic crooner and his massive oldschool honkytonk band.

Molly Ruth and Lorraine Leckie at the Mercury, 3/12/15
A savage, careening set by the angst-fueled punk-blues siren and her new band, followed by the Canadian gothic songstress and her volcanic group with newly elected Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Hugh Pool.

Lazy Lions and Regular Einstein at Rock Shop, 3/20/15
A feast of lyrical double entendres, edgy new wave and punk-inspired tunesmithing. Jim Allen’s band were playing their first gig since 2008 and picked up like they never stopped; Paula Carino’s recently resurrected original band from the 90s were just as unstoppable.

The Shootout Band and a nameless if good pickup band led by John Sharples at the Mercury, 3/22/15
Cover bands get very little space here for reasons that should be obvious, but the Shootout Band devote themselves to doing a scary-good replication of Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Erica Smith shattering in her role as Linda Thompson and Bubble’s Dave Foster doing a spot-on-Richard. Afterward, multi-instrumentalist John Sharples led a similarly talented bunch song by song through Graham Parker’s cult favorite Squeezing Out Sparks album

Ensemble Hilka, Black Sea Hotel and the Ukrainian Village Voices at the Ukrainian Museum, 4/25/15
In their first performance in over three years (see Lazy Lions above), the Ukrainian choral group ran through a rustic, otherworldly performance of ancient songs from the area around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. Innovative Bulgarian/Balkan trio Black Sea Hotel and then the esteemed East Village community singers were no less otherworldly.

Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell at Union Hall, 5/5/15
Resonator guitar badass and pan-Americana songstress Minch, and then Cantrell – the reigning queen of retro country sounds – each took their elegant rusticity to new places. Cantrell’s final stand of a monthlong residency here, a mighty electric show, was also awfully good.

Emel Mathlouthi and Niyaz at the World Financial Center, 5/8/15
Menacingly triumphant, politically-fueled Arabic art-rock from Mathlouthi and then mystically hypnotic, propulsive Iranian dancefloor grooves from Niyaz.

Rachelle Garniez and Carol Lipnik at Joe’s Pub, 5/14/15
Noir cabaret, stark Americana, soul/gospel and deviously funny between song repartee from multi-instrumentalist Garniez, followed by the magically surreal art-rock of Lipnik and her spine-tingling four-octave voice in a duo show with pianist Matt Kanelos.

Amy Rigby at Hifi Bar, 5/28/15
The final show of her monthlong residency was a trio set with her husband Wreckless Eric and bassist daughter Hazel, a richly lyrical, puristically tuneful, characteristically hilarious career retrospective

Erica Smith, Mary Spencer Knapp, Pete Cenedella, Monica Passin and the Tickled Pinks at the Treehouse at 2A, 5/31/15
Guitarist and purist tunesmith Passin, a.k.a L’il Mo, put this bill together as one of her frequent “Field of Stars” songwriters-in-the-round nights here. Smith was part of a lot of good shows this year because she’s so in demand; this was a rare chance to hear her dark Americana in a solo acoustic setting, joined by eclectic accordionist Knapp (of Toot Sweet), irrepressible American Ambulance frontman Cenedella, and a surprise appearance by coyly edgy swing harmony trio the Tickled Pinks (Karla Rose, Stephanie Layton and Kate Sland).

Jim Allen, Kendall Meade and Ward White at Hifi Bar, 6/15/15
Songsmith Allen doesn’t get around as much as a lot of the other acts here, but he really makes his gigs count: this was a glimpse of his aphoristic, lyrical Americana side. Meade, frontwoman of the late, great, catchy Mascott, held the crowd rapt with her voice and her hooks, then White went for deep literary menace with a little glamrock edge.

Glass House Ensemble and Muzsikas at NYU’s Skirball Center, 6/17/15
Trumpeter Frank London’s collaboration with an all-star Hungarian group, recreating rare pre-Holocaust Jewish sounds, followed by the more stripped-down, rustic but high-voltage Hungarian folk trio.

The Claudettes and Big Lazy at Barbes, 7/11/15
Fiery, sometimes hilariously theatrical barrelhouse piano soul followed by New York’s most menacing, state-of-the-art noir soundtrack band. Big Lazy have an ongoing monthly Barbes residency; their two sets this past May were particularly scary.

The Bright Smoke at the Mercury, 7/25/15
This was the show where intense frontwoman Mia Wilson’s blues-inspired psychedelic art-rock band made the quantum leap and earned comparisons to Joy Division.

Robin Aigner & Parlour Game at Barbes, 8/8/15
The torchy, wickedly lyrical oldtimey/Americana songstress at the top of her captivating game with a trio including poignant, powerful violinist/pianist Rima Fand.

Ember Schrag, Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores and Escape by Ostrich at Trans-Pecos, 8/23/15
The fearsomely talented Schrag did double duty at this show, first playing her own murderously lyrical, Shakespeare-influenced art-rock with her own band, then switching from guitar to organ in Redfearn’s equally murderous Balkan psychedelic group. Jangly no wave jamband Escape by Ostrich took the evening into the wee hours.

Sweet Soubrette and Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 9/2/15
This time it was menacing chanteuse Ellia Bisker who did double duty, first fronting her richly horn-driven noir soul band, then adding her voice to the noir latin art-rock of Kotorino.

The Shannon Baker/Erica Seguine Jazz Orchestra at Shrine, 9/7/15
Lots of good jazz shows this past year, none more unpredictably fascinating and lushly gorgeous than the epic performance by this unique, shapeshifting large ensemble uptown.

Kelley Swindall at LIC Bar, 9/16/15
The noir Americana songwriter and murder ballad purveyor usually leads a band; this solo gig was a rare chance to get up close and personal with her creepily philosophical southern gothic narratives

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 9/30/15
Speaking of twisted narratives, this multi-instrumentalist murder ballad/noir song project by Bisker and Morris (look up three notches) never sounded more menacing – and epically inspired – than they did here.

Jenifer Jackson at a house concert on the Upper West Side, 10/1/15
A long-awaited return home by the now Austin-based Americana/jazz/psychedelic songwriter, in a rare trio show with amazingly virtuosic multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fuchs and violinist Claudia Chopek

Liz Tormes and Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 10/23/15
A rare solo acoustic dark Americana twinbill by two of the most potently, poignantly lyrical songsmiths in that shadowy demimonde.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices and MacMcCarty & the Kidd Twist Band at Sidewalk, 11/6/15
Murphy has defined New York noir for a long time – and now he’s gone electric, with searing results. McCarty has more of a Celtic folk-rock edge and equally haunting, politically-fueled story-songs.

Karla Rose & the Thorns at the Mercury, 11/17/15
Enigmatic reverb guitar-fueled Twin Peaks torch songs, stampeding southwestern gothic bolero rock, ominously echoey psychedelia, venomous saloon blues and stiletto between-song repartee from another artist who made multiple appearances on this list because everybody wants her to sing with them.

The Sometime Boys at Freddy’s, 11/20/15
One of New York’s most individualistic, catchy, groove-driven bands ran through a sizzling set of haunting, gospel-inflected ballads, jaunty newgrass, acoustic funk and blue-flame guitar psychedelia

Amanda Thorpe, Mary Lee Kortes, Lianne Smith and Debby Schwartz at the Treehouse at 2A, 11/22/15
Impresario Tom Clark remarked that there might never have been so much talent onstage here as there was this particular evening, with noir Britfolk songwriter Thorpe, the soaring and savagely lyrical Kortes, the ever-darker and mesmerizing Smith and the powerful, dreampop/Americana-influenced Schwartz. For that matter, there have been few nights on any stage anywhere in this city with this much lyrical and vocal power, ever.

Like last year, the numbers here suggest many interesting things. Eighteen of these shows were in Manhattan, eight were in Brooklyn and two in Queens, which is open to multiple interpretations. More instructive is the fact that half of the twenty-eight were free shows where the audience passed around a tip bucket rather than paying a cover at the door. Most interestingly, women artists dominated this list, even more so than they did last year: an astonishing 39 of the 53 acts here were either women playing solo or fronting a group. That’s a trend. You’re going to see more of that here on the Best Albums of 2015 and Best Songs of 2015 pages at the end of this month.

Two Sides of Iconic Trumpeter Frank London, Live and on Record

It makes sense that Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars would headline the finale of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival, starting at 7:30 PM on October 4 at the Schimmel Center at Pace University on Spruce St. in the financial district. The iconic trumpeter had already established himself in Balkan music before co-founding the original New York klezmer punk band, the Klezmatics. Since then, London has lent his firepower, wit and erudition to innumerable projects. One of the most quietly impactful and historically rich ones is Italian-born singer Shulamit’s album For You the Sun Will Shine: Songs of Women in the Shoah, which came out late last year. It marks the first release of the work of four women songwriters who chronicled their harrowing experiences, imprisoned during the Holocaust. One survived, two others were murdered, and the fourth is assumed to have perished as well. As you would expect, this is one of the most surreal and chilling albums ever made.

London and pianist Shai Bachar co-produced the album – four of whose tracks are streaming at Shulamit’s music page – recasting these pieces as art-songs. Bachar brings both a neoromantic plaintiveness and also a sense of the macabre that he uses delicately to raise the surrealistic factor. Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion supplies spare, purposeful percussion on a handful of tracks. Shulamit sings in German and Czech with equal amounts expressivneess and restraint: the common link among these songs is a crushing hope against hope.

The songwriter whose work is featured most prominently here is Ilse Weber, a popular Czech broadcaster and children’s author murdered alongside one of her sons in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944..What’s most striking, aside from the heartwrenching, plainspoken lyrical content, is how diverse her songwriting is. London’s bright, blue-sky lines and Bachar’s stately piano channel a distant parlor-pop charm that makes a crushing contrast with the songs’ theme; at times, the band will mirror the crushing sarcasm of her lyrics with a faux-celebratory, martial Teutonic beat. But the forced-march courage quickly gives way to a muted horror, through the twisted I Wander Through Thersienstadt, the Satie-esque lament And the Rain Keeps Falling and a couple of lullabies, one of them an attempt to marshal some calm amidst the horror, and one that doesn’t try to mute the reality of the circumstances under which it was written.

The Czech-born Ludmila Peskarova, who survived and lived to 97, is represented by two tracks. There’s a sad Christmas-day tableau from the Ravensbruck camp, and Moravia, Moravia, the most ghostly and otherworldly song here, evoking an ancient cantorial ambience.

The most savagely sarcastic, despairing number is The Auschwitz Song, attributed to one Camilla Mohaupt, whose fate is unclear. It’s a cover of a 1920 Dutch pop hit with new lyrics reflecting hopelessness and sheer horror amid the squalor. There’s also an ornately classically-tinged miniature with music by Polish composer Carlo Taube and lyrics by his wife Erika: “As long as you aren’t bound by the word ‘home,’ your heart will be free,” a mother explains to her child. These days, one can only wonder how many of the Syrian war refugees feel the same way.

London’s show on Sunday with his band and singer Eleanor Reissa wraps up a tremendous night of music that starts at 7:30 with the Underground Horns, who veer from the Balkans to the Mediterranean to New Orleans, then the similarly eclectic, Ellington and hip-hop-influenced Slavic Soul Party, then the punk-inspired Hungry March Band, the only group on this bill so far to play Madison Square Garden. Considering what you get, cover is a reasonable $20.