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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.

State-of-the-Art Balkan Brass Tunes and a Mehanata Show from Cocek Brass Band

Sam Dechenne plays trumpet in long-running second-wave roots reggae band John Brown’s Body. But like a lot of brass players, he’s fluent in many styles, and has a thing for Balkan music, a style he explores in first-class Boston Slavic party band Klezwoods. And that turned out to be his holy grail, no surprise considering that hearing Fanfare Ciocarlia for the first time as a middleschooler changed his life forever. He’s got a new project, Cocek Brass Band, with a blazing new album Here Comes Shlomo (a pun on Dechenne’s first name), and an album release show coming up on Oct 4 at around 9 at Mehanata. The album is streaming at the band’s music page; cover is $10 and worth it: they played a New York show this past summer at Shrine and ripped the roof off the place.

On one level, they come across as sort of a Boston counterpart to New York’s Raya Brass Band, with smart, out-of-the-box original songwriting and fearsome chops. But on album at least, Dechenne’s group focuses more on tunesmithing than volcanic jams: what soloing there is here, and there’s not a ton of it, is extremely focused and terse. The band also has a theme song, which they use to kick off the album , tuba player Jim Gray providing a rat-a-tat backdrop while the two trumpets and trombone slink their way from moody hints of reggae to rapidfire chromatics over drummer Grant Smith’s echoey tapan drumbeat.

The title track morphs back and forth between a droll disco beat and a more traditional, swaying rhythm; likewise, the band sandwiches a little New Orleans street music amidst the minor-key riffage. A slow, pensive number, Vagabond Dreamin’ balances the balmy and the bittersweet, Dechenne ornamenting his solo with spiraling Serbian phrasing. Clown Walk, a waltz, actually keeps a lid on most of the cartoonish stuff – unless you’re thinking Edward Gorey. Like most clowns, this guy seems to be a pretty disquieting guy.

Juggler’s Journey brings back a slinky, bracingly bubbly minor-key groove with subtle hints of flamenco and even hip-hop. Who Cares opens as a series of variations on a challenging, trickily rhythmic riff, then goes in a more lingering, low-key, Spanish-tinged direction before the band brings it to a boil again. The coyly titled Drone Song builds out of a suspenseful, cinematic intro to a slow waltz, animated phrasing from the trumpets rising over long sustained tones from the tuba or trombone.

Magic Man and His Magic Hat and His Magic Vest works colorful hooks over long, clip-clop vamps. Figs or Dates returns to a jaunty blend of Romany firepower and a goodnatured New Orleans strut, with a dynamic, intense, trilling Dechenne solo. The band hangs out in a major key all the way through the slow, steady A’bab Cada over the broken chords and dancing basslines emanating from Gray’s tuba. That’s right, a dancing tuba: this guy really makes the big thing sing. And then they pick up the pace at the end.

The epic Slow Jump, Fast Fall pretty much follows the tangent implied by the title: a trudge up the mountainside, a long scampering ride down the flume where Dechenne gets to air out his extended technique, and a droll return to the opening theme. The album winds up with There Goes Shlomo, a more straight-ahead variation on the title track, and then the album’s lone vocal number, Mountain Love Song. brightly cheery horns holding the center as the singer attempts to hit his notes. It’s a great album and a good indication of the blend of virtuosity and raw power that this crew brings to the stage.

Klezwoods Puts Out a Wild, Intense, Lush New Album

Klezwoods’ new album is a blast, plain and simple. If you like one haunting melody after another, this is for you. In the spirit of the dozens of gypsy and gypsy-punk bands that have sprung up in this century, Klezwoods are taking Jewish music in the same direction. What they do can be wild, but it’s also lush and often pensive – as the music of the gypsies often is. Their new album, The 30th Meridian – From Cairo to St. Petersburg With Love – is as informed as much by jazz as it is by any other style, including wildly successful diversions into Macedonian, Serbian, Egyptian, Greek and Jamaican music. The ten-piece band’s lineup is slightly expanded from last time around, with – are you ready for this – Joe Kessler on violin, Sam Dechenne (of John Brown’s Body) on trumpet, Jim Gray on tuba, Grant Smith on drums, Greg Loughman on bass, Michael McLaughlin (of Naftule’s Dream) on accordion, exotica and cimbalom jazz genius Brian O’Neill on percussion, Alec Spiegelman (of Miss Tess’ band the Bon Temps Parade) on clarinet and sax and Tev Stevig on electric guitar and oud, plus Becky Wexler on clarinet and vocals and Daniel Linden on trombone.

Wexler is training to be a cantor – and what a great destination for her. What a voice! Her wounded, unselfconsciously soulful alto and also her chillingly lyrical, crystalline clarinet grace a traditional song simply titled Shoes, which begins as a brooding, sad Russian waltz and quickly travels to the dramatic place where Bollywood meets the Jewish diaspora. The first track is characteristically catchy but edgy, balancing the tuba at the bottom,clarinet at the top, trilling uneasy trumpet playing call-and-response with the ensemble, Egyptian style over clip-clop percussion. After that, Dechenne’s Egypt Trip goes scurrying up to a Middle Eastern crescendo, his psychedelic trumpet (go figure, duh!) breaking it down before it comes back, stately and intense.

Kessler’s scurrying violin solo hands off to Spiegelman, who hands off to the rest of the band in turn on the wickedly fun Harmonika. Likewise, voices alternate throughout the band over O’Neill’s hard-hitting drums on the Balkan-flavored Hot Wheels. A Glass of Wine, a reggae arrangment of a traditional klezmer tune, features more rapidfire, intense clarinet.

Brass Belly, a tricky Serbian-tinged tune, layers cool clarinet over a flutter brass pulse and Stevig’s absolutely amazing electric oud before the violin takes it up with a spin. Play to Win, by Stevig, a wickedly catchy, unpredictably shapeshifting song features Stevig’s guitar doing all kinds of wild spiraling phrases. After the brisk, biting oompah clarinet tune Pick Up and Go, they follow with the album’s best song, Charambe, also by Stevig. A wicked blend of 60s style psychedelic rock and klezmer, it sounds like the Electric Prunes, Stevig bending his notes to their logical (or illogical) extremes.

What’s left here? A couple of rapidfire, jauntily defiant, accordion-fueled romps, one of them by Loughman; an absolutely joyous shout-out to Israeli music; and an unexpectedly quiet wee-hours scenario to close out the album. Who is the audience for this? Anyone who loves gypsy music, or Middle Eastern music, or the klezmer repertoire. It used to be that klezmer was a gateway drug to gypsy music, now it’s vice versa. Two diasporas, two styles worshipped by people whose ancestors frequently held this music in contempt. And one of the best albums of 2012. Klezwoods plays the cd release show at Spike Hill on a killer doublebill on Sept 8 at around 9, followed by excellent skaragga band Karikatura. Klezwoods are also at City Winery for the weekly klezmer brunch at around half past eleven the following morning, Sept 9 – yikes!