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Tag: Kiya Tabassian

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian Play a Historic Concert at CUNY

About half an hour before their show last night, Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian were chilling in the shade of a scaffold just north of 34th Street. Nobody seemed to recognize them. They may not be household names in this city, but they are elesewhere – and they should be

Kalhor is best known as this era’s great virtuoso of the kamancheh, the Iranian stringed instrument (he plays a custom-made model with the range of both a violin and a cello, called the Shah Kaman). He’s also one of the foremost composers of the past couple of decades. Whiile he also plays the setar lute, he’s very rarely played it onstage until recently. In fact, until yesterday evening’s engagement at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, he’d never played a full concert on the instrument in New York. A sold-out crowd gave him and his protege Tabassian a standing ovation before the show began – they knew they’d be witness to history.

Rather than a duel, the two setarists’ ninety or so uninterrupted minutes onstage turned out to be a clinic in how to build something transcendent. Although the show didn’t come across as a conversation between teacher and student, Tabassian’s ideas, in general, were more directly poignant, while Kalhor took his time.

The musicians’ individual styles complemented each other. For most of the show, Tabassian stuck to stinging, often heartbreakingly beautiful riffs which contrasted with rain-washed, lingering chords and deftly interpolated countermelodies: he has an amazing sense of harmony.Yet when he finally cut loose, toward the end of the show, he displayed blazing speed to match that poignancy

Kalhor’s atttack on the strings is more feathery than incisive, but that’s probably a good thing, considering how fast his fingers were flurrying on the strings. Consider: if you tried tremolo-picking a guitar, fingerstyle as these two were doing, your fingers would be a bloody mess in seconds flat.

Throughout the show, the duo exchanged riffs, often echoing each other, other times developing subtle variations on a slowly shifting series of themes. Each player gave the other plenty of room to raise the electricity or shift into more shadowy emotional terrain. Taking a brooding, initial downward theme in an Iranian dastgah mode approximating the western minor scale, the two embellisehd it with a groove that grew to just short of a gallop. They then backed away and for a little while, midway through, they edged into a more resonantly chordal, sunnier tableau.

But that didn’t last, and Tabassian was the first to reintroduce a subtle variation on the plaintive initial theme. Kalhor took a turn on the mic, singing a practically imploring couple of verses in his resonant baritone, at one point putting down his setar and letting Tabassian play the changes. Finally, Kalhor let an enigmatic open chord linger, then looked at Tabassian, as if to say, ‘What if we’re both wrong?” They gently made their way out of that enigma and ended the show with an unexpectedly muted if angst-fueled minimalism.

The Elebash Hall concert series – programmed by Isabel Soffer of Live Sounds – is more or less monthly and features a lot of music like this that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else, watch this space.

A Riveting Performance by the Constantinople Ensemble at Lincoln Center

Thursday night at the Lincoln Center Atrium, Montreal group the Constantinople Ensemble played a riveting, stately, raptly intricate yet often lively and animated performance of largely forgotten 16th and 17th century repertoire from Iran and the surrounding area. As setar lute player/leader Kiya Tabassian reminded the crowd, the Safavid dynasty created a climate favorable to artists, drawing musicians, painters, calligraphers and others to what is now Iran and also to Turkey and Iraq. The oldest piece on the program, he explained, was only recently unearthed by the ensemble as part of a Lincoln Center commission: it had been necessary to re-transcribe it so that current-day musicians could figure out how to play it.

The group left plenty of room for sometimes pensive, sometimes jaunty introductory taqsims and solos from all the instruments, the setar as well as Pierre-Yves Martel’s viola da gamba, Didem Basar’s kanun, and the nimble oud of Kyriakos Kalaitzides (of early-Byzantine music quintet En Chordais). Drummer Zia Tabassian switched from a large, boomy goblet drum to an even larger, more muted frame drum as the music grew quieter and more suspenseful. Much as ancient Persian music relies on uneven intervals between pitches, it’s not as microtonally ornamented as Arabic music is and therefore closer to the familiar major and minor keys of the western scale. And to western ears, more anthemic – and also strikingly sophisticated despite its transparence and simplicity. There wasn’t a lot of intricate harmony in the themes the ensemble played, leaving a series of memorable, resonant, sometimes otherworldly melodies to linger as the kanun, or oud, or setar would carry a lead line of sorts and then elegantly hand off to another voice.

The group opened with an expansive take on a calmly swaying, bucolic ensemble theme that picked up with a lush propulsiveness as it went on. The second piece built from hints of hypnotic Indian melody, through an incisively rippling, thoughtful kanun taqsim to a somber majesty, both setarist and oudist singing in resonant baritones that matched the music’s understated grandeur. A long, dynamically rich dirge of sorts set to a rather martial rhythm was the most recognizably Middle Eastern of the works on the bill, with its biting chromatics. The concert ended on a high note with the darkest and most intense of the pieces, the band marching to a blustery, uneasy pulse on the chorus; afterward, Basar looked at Martel and grinned unselfconsciously, swept up in the beauty of what she’d just played. Times were hard in the Middle Ages, but this music undoubtedly made life easier: thankfully, we have the Constantinople Ensemble keeping this magical repertoire alive.

The programming at these 7:30 PM Atrium concerts is disarmingly eclectic and often great fun. A show  that promises to be completely different, in every possible way, is insurgent cabaret personality/bandleader Tammy Faye Starlite‘s reinvention of Marianne Faithfull’s 1979 cult favorite album Broken English, which she’ll play here in its entirety on March 13 with an all-star cast including guitarist Kevin Salem.