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No New Abnormal

Tag: Jake Shulman-Ment

Golden Fest: Best New York Concert of Whatever Year You Can Remember

It was early, a little before six, upstairs in the Rainbow Room Saturday night at the big finale to this year’s Golden Fest. A young mom with bangs in a simple black top and pants swung her daughter by the wrists. The two pretty much had the whole dance floor to themselves, and the little kid was relishing the attention. A friend of her mom’s joined them and took over the swinging.

Then the little girl decided she wanted to show off her dance moves – and schooled the two adults in how to get down to an edgy minor-key Balkan tune, in 7/4 time. Over the course of the next eight hours or so, she wouldn”t be the only preschooler who had those kind of moves down cold.

Many of those kids’ parents, or the kids themselves, are alumni of the annual Balkan Camp immortalized as the idyllic setting of Josephine Decker’s horror film Butter on the Latch. It seems like a great place to learn Romany dances or sharpen your chops on the accordion, or zurla, or gadulka. But not everyone who goes to Golden Fest every year goes to Balkan Camp, or has roots in the old country, or in Eastern European music. They just like minor keys, and chromatics, and what a lot of western musicans would call weird tempos (and eating and drinking too – there’s lots of both). Over the course of two nights every January, this is New York’s most entertaining music festival, year after year. At the risk of being ridiculously redundant, you’ll see this on the best concerts of 2020 page here at the end of the year.

The little girl, her mom and her friend were dancing to the sounds of Rodyna (which, appropriately, means “family”). That particular song had a rustic northern Greek or Macedonian sound to it, the women in the band singing stark and low, bouzouki player Joseph Castelli adding a bristling edge. A floor below, the Navatman Music Collective were joining voices in leaping, precise harmony throughout an ancient Indian carnatic melody.

Indian choral music at a Balkan music festival – with harmonies, no less? Sure. Over the years, Golden Fest has expanded beyond Serbian and Romany sounds to embrace music from all over: Egypt, Spain, and now, India. That’s where Romany music started, anyway. As the members of New York’s original Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste – who originated the festival, and were the centerpiece of the Friday night edition – view it, it’s all just good music.

To hell with the overcrowded, touristy Copacabana – this is the real Globalfest.

When careening Russian Romany dance band Romashka took the stage at about half past six, the big ballroom was pretty empty. As frontwoman Inna Barmash and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment took a couple of breathtaking cadenzas, was this going to be the year nobody came to Golden Fest?

Ha. About half an hour later, just in time for everybody to hear guitarist Jay Vilnai slink his way through an eerie, pointillistic solo, it was as if the floodgates broke and half of Brooklyn busted through the doors. In what seemed like less than five minutes, it was impossible to get through the expanding circles of line dancers. This party had a plan.

To the extent that you can bring a plan to it, anyway. Much as Golden Fest is one-stop shopping, a way to discover a couple dozen great new bands every year, there comes a point where Plan A and Plan B go out the window and you just have to go with the flow. In an age where social media is atomizing and distancing everyone from their friends, it’s hard to think of a more crazily entertaining way to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in months.

So this year’s agenda – to hang on the dance floor and catch as many of the headliners as possible, like a lot of people do – didn’t last long. Until the first distractions came into view, it was a lot of fun to discover Orchester Praževica, their surfy guitar and shapeshifting dance tunes from the southern side of the Danube. After them, it seemed that Slavic Soul Party spent as much time off the stage, in the middle of the floor surrounded by the circling hordes, as they did onstage. This time they didn’t do the Ellington, or much of the hip-hop stuff, as they’ve played in years past here; this was as close to traditional as this untraditional brass band gets.

While the Elem All-Stars were keeping the dancers going with their tight, purposeful Romany tunes, the first of the distractions led to some drinking – at Golden Fest, you really have to pace yourself – and a side trip to the atrium to see Wind of Anatolia playing their achingly gorgeous, lush mix of Turkish folk themes and cinematic originals.

The decision to give Danish klezmer band Mames Babagenush the main stage paid off mightily. They’d just played a bunch of relatively intimate Manhattan club dates the past weekend, so this was their chance to use the big PA and really rock the house, and their energy was through the roof, particularly frontman/clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt. Upstairs, legendary Armenian-American multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his band weren’t as loud but were just as mesmerizing, the bandleader’s burbling, microtonal sax and duduk matched by oudist Adam Good and bassist Michael Brown’s slinky riffage.

Gauging the most opportune moment to join the food line (Golden Fest has a buffet starting at around 10) was more of a challenge this year – but so what, that only opened up the door for more music. The first-floor Chopin Room is where most of the wildest bands on the bill play, whether onstage or, like more and more of them seem to do, under the big chandelier. Representing Brooklyn for the umpteenth year in a row, Raya Brass Band scorched and blasted through one pulsing, minor-key original after another. Greek Judas‘ set of searing heavy metal versions of classic Greek rembetiko gangster anthems from the 20s through the 50s had some people scratching their heads at first, but by the time they hit their second song, the room was packed once again. One of the security guys couldn’t resist giving the group the devils-horns salute and joined the dancers on the edge. Frontman Quince Marcum has never sung with more Athenian fury than he did at this show; Good, meanwhile, had put on a mask, put down his oud and strapped on a Strat.

By the time midnight struck, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers” – were keeping the dancers twirling in the ballroom, the food was down to babagenoush, pitas and an irresistible but short-lived spread of ajjar (a sort of Turkish red pepper hummous). In the top-floor room, Zisl Slepovitch (hotshot clarinetist the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof) and his similarly sizzling klezmer band Litvakus were leaping to the top of their respective registers for a lickety-split, nonstop series of what could have been traditional Ukrainian tunes but were probably originals.

By one in the morning, if you’ve done things right, this is where the booze finally starts to kick in and the dilemma of where to go really hits home. The allstar Amerike Klezmer Brass in the ballroom, Klezmatics reedman Matt Darriau‘s five-piece Paradox Trio downstairs, or singer Jenny Luna’s haunting Turkish ensemble Dolunay? If you last any longer, you might discover that the calm, thoughtful-looking individual seated next to you during one of the early sets is actually a member of What Cheer? Brigade, the feral, gargantuan street band who took over both the stage and the dance floor to close the night. Meanwhile, there was a much quieter Turkish quintet still going strong on the topmost floor. You want to dance? Great. You want to chill? Golden Fest has you covered. Looking forward to 2021.

The Glass House Ensemble and Muzsikas Play One of the Most Haunting, Exhilarating Shows of the Year

For one reason or another, this has been an amazing year for doublebills. Arguably the best one so far was last night at NYU, where the trans-continental Glass House Ensemble teamed up with iconic Hungarian Jewish string band Muzsikas for a sizzling show that offered both homage and reinvention to themes that, without some heavy lifting on the archival side, would have disappeared forever.

The Glass House Ensemble, led by soulful polymath trumpeter Frank London and his Hungarian multi-instrumentalist pal Béla Ágoston, opened. This blog was there when the Hungarian-American collaboration made their sensational debut performance at Drom last year – without having rehearsed together! London always manages to have his fingers in a whole bunch of good projects simultaneously. Lately he can be found on chanteuse Shulamit‘s poignant, historically rich Women in the Shoah album, as well on the reputedly amazing forthcoming album by Romany song reinventor and singer Eva Salina and her band.

The Glass House Ensemble – named after a legendary Hungarian safe house for Jews in World War II – opened with the same wild suite they played in Budapest this past winter.  Miklós Lukács’ machinegun cimbalom riffage led the pack through lushly dynamic rises and falls, Agoston’s soprano sax trading riffage with London, violinist Edina Szirtes Mókus’ powerful alto voice building to a rapidfire crescendo in a rampaging, eerily chromatic call-and-response with the rest of the band. That was just the first number.

Throughout the rest of the set, drummer Yoni Halevy jumped at the opportunity to surprise the crowd with trick endings. Pablo Aslan, a major force in nuevo tango, provided a slinky, slithering low end when he wasn’t taking acrobatic leaps or providing stygian washes of sound with his bow. Guitarist Aram Bajakian channeled Jimi Hendrix on one intro, otherwise hanging back with a judiciously jangly approach that filled out the dips and swells beneath the lushness of the violins, Mokus in tandem or exchanging hooks with Jake Shulman-Ment. London imbued one lustrous, cinematic theme with a wrenching sense of longing, awash in plaintive harmonies, like an unanswered cantorial call. Later he led the band into a one of several fiery, bristling, minor-key romps where Lukacs took the wildest yet most meticulously intricate, rapidfire solo of the night. At the end of the concert, they joined forces with Muzsikas for a similarly jaunty yet bittersweet theme, a mighty dozen-piece ensemble intertwining with a triumphant expertise as the audience clapped and stomped along. Bands like this live for moments like this.

Where the Glass House Ensemble were an elegantly stampeding, slashingly artsy orchestra, Muzsikas’ set was feral and ferocious – but also brooding, wounded and often otherworldly. Charismatic violinist Laszlo Portleki explained in impressively good English that they’d often had to learn their repertoire of Jewish themes from Romany musicians, considering that the Hungarian Romany population hadn’t been quite as decimated by the Holocaust (maybe a hundred thousand Romany people, maybe half a million Jews – what’s that to Hitler?).

Singer Maria Petras matched Mokus’ role with her dramatic, often riveting delivery of several numbers, in a potent mezzo-soprano. Violinist Mihaly Sipos took many of the night’s most adrenalizing solos, when he wasn’t switching to gardon, the Transylvanian percussion instrument with a cello-like body that produces an ominous hum when you beat it with a stick (that’s how it’s supposed to be played).  They opened with a pulsing, almost frantic, rustic two-step dance, seemingly closer to southern Balkan music than Hungarian folk…but that’s why Jewish music is so rich, because it’s so syncretic.

In about an hour onstage, with insightful song introductions from Porteleki, Muzsikas gave the crowd a fascinating tour of prewar Hungarian Jewish music in all its deliriously fun, and ironic, haunting glory. One stark number drew on the gorgeous Middle Eastern freygish mode, but a rather sentimental number from close to the Austrian border bordered on German schmaltz. Like the opening band, Muzsikas worked the dynamics up and down, the tempos leaping to warp speed and then back, or dropping out completely for a mysterious, melismatic violin intro, a swoopily shapeshifting crescendo against a low drone, or a sad, steadily stomping march. Underscoring all these amazing songs was that if the group hadn’t searched for them high and low, among old musicians and archives, none of this music would exist anymore.

A Sizzling Hungarian and Balkan Twinbill Coming Up on the 17th

In a city where you can see incredible music pretty much any night if you want, for nothing more than a few bucks in the tip bucket, how do you justify dropping $36 on a ticket? With this video. If the haunting, bracing minor keys and chromatics of Balkan and Eastern European music, or just plain raw adrenaline are your thing, you’ll have a hard time resisting the amazing doublebill coming up on June 17 at 8 PM at the Skirball Auditorium at NYU at the top of LaGuardia Place with fiery Hungarian band Muzsikás and awesomely shapeshifting Hungarian/American ensemble the Glass House Orchestra.

The latter group have an interesting backstory: led by iconic trumpeter Frank London – an original Klezmatic – they came together to play a blend of indigenous and Jewish tunes as well as their own material. Although London is his usual intense, resonant, frequently wild self in this project, their not-so-secret weapon is cimbalom player Miklós Lukács (fast forward to 57:50 for his most spectacular solo of the night). And there’s no other band on the planet who sound anything like them. This blog raved about their show last year at Drom, but the video – a complete concert recording from the Budapest Music Center this past January – is even more intense. It’s worth releasing as a live album. What jumps out at you right off the bat is how amazing a jamband these guys and women are. In over seventy minutes onstage, they barely break a sweat, even while they romp through innumerable dynamic shifts and sizzling solos.

Sometimes the band will build a slow, suspenseful intro; other times they leap into a song with a flurry of violins or horns. Béla Ágoston is a one-man reed section on a whole slew of instruments, most notably the bagpipes. London trades riffage with just about everybody in the band, and Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries comes up to guest on one long, phantasmagorically epic number. Violinists Jake Shulman-Ment and Edina Szirtes Mókus – who also provides spellbinding, otherworldly vocals – team up for shivery staccato crescendos, soaring upward flights and mysterious ambience. Bassist Pablo Aslan anchors the music with a dancing pulse as drummer Yoni Halevy drives the juggernaut with a carnivalesque, sometimes vaudevillian flair. And guitarist Aram Bajakian wails and slashes, threatening to fall off his chair as he blasts his way through searing volleys of tremolo-picking and downtown jazz skronk, or adds mysterioso glimmer with his Lynchian jangle, particularly in what could be the night’s best number, a creepy bolero. But there’s way more than just this here…and it’s the best possible advertising the show on the 17th could have. Props to the Balassi Institute/Hungarian Cultural Center for putting the bill together.

The Glass House Project Reinvent Haunting, Exhilarating Jewish Themes

Friday night at Drom the Glass House Project played alternately sizzling and haunting new arrangements based more or less on old klezmer and Hungarian folk themes. The Hungarian-American collaboration take heir name from the best-known of the over seventy secret refuges for Jews that underground resistance hero Carl Lutz set up throughout Budapest during the Holocaust. Perhaps reflecting the triumph of that defiant achievement, the music was exhilarating, bristling with eerie chromatics and fiery solos from throughout the band. Trumpeter Frank London led the group through split-second shifts from suspensefully atmospheric, to frantic, to joyously triumphant. There was an uneasy, carnivalesque undercurrent to much of the music, as well as an explosive circus-rock drive peaked by wild crescendos from violinist Jake Shulman-Ment, guitarist Aram Bajakian, violinist/singer Szirtes Edina Mokus, multi-reedman Bela Agoston and cimbalom player Miklos Lukacs.

Drummer Richie Barshay supplied grooves ranging from mistily atmospheric, to slow and slinky, to crazed and vaudevillian while bassist Pablo Aslan anchored the songs with dark, fat, pulsing lines, often playing with a bow to max out the dark, sustained intensity. They played the show as a suite, more or less, launching into one theme after another: it was hard to tell just where one tune began and the other ended. Ethereal strings gave way to trumpet-fueled romps, Bajakian adding the occasional wryly skronky passage, eerily surfy solo or majestically spacious, bell-like accents on a twelve-string which still had a pricetag attached to the neck.

The high point of the early part of the show was a shapeshifting number that began with stop-and-start horn bursts, then a a misterioso noir theme with Bajakian’s guitar paired off against menacingly starlit cimbalom. Then it morphed into a march that Barshay took further outside, rhythmically, into a bit of a free jazz-inspired free-for-all and then back to the slinky menace – and then a lickety-split outro. The last song worked a similarly biting, chromatically-fueled theme over a beat that started out funky and then went into a madcap vaudevillian sprint. On one of the earlier tunes, Agoston played bagpipe, eventually holding a note for what seemed minutes as hs slowly squeezed all the air out of it. “Even some people in Hungary don’t know we have these,” said singer Kata Harsaczki, who contributed vocals on that song as well as on a rustic diptych that began slowly and then went lickety-split a little later. For anyone kicking themselves because they decided to not to brave the elements to see this show, the band will be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 36 Battery Place (north and west of Battery Park; Battery Place runs parallel to Broadway) tonight, May 27 at 7:15 PM; admission is free, but you need to rsvp here. They’ll also be at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC yomorrow night, May 28 at 6.