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.