New York Music Daily

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Tag: klezmer

Book of J Reinvent Classic Spiritual Sounds With a New Album and a July Barbes Residency

Book of J are Sway Machinery guitarist/bandleader Jeremiah Lockwood and singer Jewlia Eisenberg of Charming Hostess. Each have brought an impassioned, vocally-driven approach to their own projects, equally informed by classic Jewish and African-American melodies and spiritual traditions. Together they reinvent those influences, from haunting, medieval Jewish piyutim love laments, to oldtime country blues and gospel. Their debut album is streaming at youtube. They have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes this July, a venue where the two have collaborated memorably in the past.

The new album opens with a steady version of the spiritual 12 Gates to the City, Eisenberg taking the lead, Lockwood’s harmonies shadowing her as he drives the song with his shivery acoustic slide blues work. Likewise, Lockwood’s nimbly tumbling phrases propel the gorgeous Agadelkha, Eisenberg’s raw vocals out front, up to an enigmatic chordal guitar solo. The verse sounds like an acoustic Balkan predecessor of the Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit: was Grace Slick into that stuff?

Lockwood switches to Telecaster for a boogie-flavored take of the country gospel tune Do Lord, Remember Me which they transform into an oldtime union anthem after a spiky Lockwood guitar solo. The duo exchange impassioned, conspiratorial vocals over Lockwood’s eerily tremoloing guitar in the Yiddish dirge Khavele; their hauntingly fluttering, sotto-voce, French/English take of Leonard Cohen’s The Partisan is much the same.

They go back to classic African-American gospel for Freedom Plow, adding unsettled indie rock chords underneath. Their call-and-response in the country blues-flavored Tell God is much more rustic. Then they do Sweet Inspiration as proto Ike & Tina Turner, with some sweet, Indian summer blues guitar riffage.

Eisenberg sings an unvarnished take of the lament Seven Sons Had Hannah over Lockwood’s spare, hypnotically Malian-influenced guitar. Tzir is the shortest, most whispery and most starkly gorgeous, bittersweet song on the album. The duo follow with Kum Mayn Kind, a distantly blues-inflected European lullaby

They do a final spiritual, My Sun Will Never Go Down as a turn-of-the-[past]-century Pete’s Candy Store number, with some starkly incisive picking from Lockwood, and close with a hushedly fervent, brooding interpretation of Fiery Love, an edgy Yiddish theme.

Lockwood always invites a whole slew of killer talent to his Barbes residencies; the July 14 edition with his sometime collaborator, Big Lazy noir guitar genius Steve Ulrich, should be particularly intense.

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An Early Morning Blaze From the Uncategorizably Brilliant Klazz-Ma-Tazz

Pianist Ben Rosenblum hit a sharks-teeth minor-key spiral, echoed with slithery precision by bandleader and violinist Ben Sutin. Meanwhile, bassist Mat Muntz dipped and swayed, a monster truck spring at peak tension crossing a ravine in some remote Chernobyl forest. Behind them, drummer Tim Rachbach worked tense variations on a clave groove as guitarist Rafael Rosa held back, deep in the shadows, saxophonist Elijah Shiffer waiting for his moment. That would come about fifteen minutes later. At this point, it was about quarter to noon on Sunday morning.

The album release show by Sutin’s phenomenal band Klazz-Ma-Tazz transcended a lot of things, including but not limited to genre specificity and time of day. While Sutin’s compositions and arrangements draw deeply from the vast well of classic Jewish folk music from east of the Danube, they’re hardly limited to that. What they play is jazz, but it’s also dance music. You could also call it film music, considering how deeply they can plunge into noir. But they didn’t stay there, or anywhere, for long.

Musicians tend not to be morning people. But watching this band blaze through two ferocious, sets made it more than worthwhile to sit there glassy-eyed after spending most of the previous evening at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Interestingly, Sutin launched his epic Letting Go suite, from the band’s new album Meshugenah, just two songs in. Its allusive, chromatically electriified rises and falls foreshadowed the feral but expertly orchestrated intensity they’d save for the second set, veering from panoramic desertscapes to hints of samba and some Cuban flair.

Shiffer’s moment was a coda. Before then, he and Sutin had built a briefly heated conversation, but even that didn’t hint at what the saxophonist had up his sleeve. Working his baritione to what seemed the top of his register, he dropped it and reached for his alto. The choreography wasn’t perfect, but the effect was irresistibly fun as he went for the jugular…then put it down, picked up the bari again and took that big horn to heights nobody expected, or probably imagined were possible. Sure, it was a show-off move: to see somebody actually pull it off at such an early hour was really something else.

Sutin told the crowd that Sunrise, Sunset was one of his alltime favorite songs, then reinvented it as lush, plaintive, latin-tinged syncopated swing, a Lynch film set somewhere in the Negev. His version of In Odessa pounced and charged, possibly mirroring Putin-era terrorism there, Rosenblum’s bittersweet accordion holding its own against the stampede.

The second set showcased the band’s sense of humor as well as how feral they can get. Muntz’s quasi-Balkan dance Cyberbalkanization had a relentless, tongue-in-cheek faux EDM whoomp-whoomp beat, Sutin and Shiffer trading terse, acidic phrases overhead. From there they ranged from brooding and mournful to cumulo-nimbus ominousness in their version of Tumbalalaika, segueing into a majestically careening, turbocharged take of the classic Misirlou – but without much in the way of surf.

They saved the guest rapper and singers for the end. Sheyn Vi Di Levone is best known as a schmaltzy ballad, but singer Astrid Kuljanic worked its coy internal rhymes for all it was worth, the band making perfectly decent, uneasy midtempo swing out of it. Then guest Zhenya Lopatnik opened their version of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön with a suspenseful, moody rubato vocal solo before the band swung it, hard. Thank You, from the band’s sizzlingly good debut album, was one of the closing numbers, awash in slashing modal riffs and shifting meters. That the band managed to play one of the best shows of 2018 so far, so early in the day, speaks for itself. Sutin’s next gig is a low-key trio show tomorrow, April 11 at 7 PM at Sidewalk. 

The Irrepressibly Fun Klazz-Ma-Tazz Radically Reinvent Classic Yiddish Vaudeville Themes

Klazz-Ma-Tazz’s lusciously Lynchian 2016 album Tangibility was one of the half-dozen best releases of the year. Violinist Ben Sutin’s group bring fearless jazz adventurousness to an individualistic, darkly electric sound that draws equally on classic klezmer, Balkan and Middle Eastern sounds. Interestingly, their forthcoming album Meshugenah – streaming at Bandcamp  – is mostly reinventions of iconic Yiddish vaudeville tunes. Sutin’s objective here is to do with that repertoire what Charlie Parker and John Coltrane did with Broadway songs, in other words, establish a new Great American Songbook for future generations of jazz players. To say that the new record is as astonishingly original and irresistibly fun as the last one isn’t an overstatement. They’re playing the klezmer brunch at around 11 AM this Sunday, April 8 at City Winery; cover is $10, kids under 12 get in free and there’s no minimum. You better believe that this blog will be in the house.

Ben Rosenblum’s dark washes of accordion underscore Alec Goldfarb’s flickering guitar as the enigmatically tropical take of Alexander Olshantesky’s Mein Shtetele Belz gets underway; violin and guitar solos keeps the edgy bounce going, the latter edging toward Django Reinhardt territory. Elijah Shiffer’s clarinet veers from a party in the Pale to dixieland and then back. A Hawk and a Hacksaw and 3 Leg Torso come to mind.

Sutin’s arrangement of Svalava Kozatshok has a suspenseful trip-hop pulse anchored by Shifffer’s baritone sax, up to a shreddy fireball solo from Goldfarb; Sutin adds devious hints of bluegrass, then the band make Hava Nagila metal out of it. Are we having fun yet?

Drummer Tim Rachbach kicks into thumping techno mode in Cyberbalkanization, a suspensefully pulsing Turkish-flavored metal tune by bassist Mat Muntz, bristling with high-voltage tradeoffs and intertwining solos. They take it out with Beninghove’s Hangmen-style metal and then a psychedelic accordion outro

Sutin’s remake of the traditional tune Tumbalalaika has a desolate, glimmering poignancy, Rosenblum’s starry piano against Goldfarb’s languid Romany-tinged phrases, Sutin takes the energy up between a forlornly dancing Muntz solo and Rosenblum’s graceful, elegaic conclusion.

Astrid Kuljanic sings the first of two Joseph Rumshinsky numbers, Sheyn Vi Di Levone, a sardonic noir Vegas tango of sorts: her jazz kazoo solo has to be heard to be believed. Then they make Balkan metal out of Im Odessa – but with Rosenblum’s accordion, Shiffer’s airy alto sax and Sutin’s wild spirals interspersed up to a punchline that’s too good to spoil.

Sunrise, Sunset gets reinvented as a slinky, distantly lurid Twin Peaks Red Room theme, lit up with Rosenblum’s cascades, Shiffer’s summery alto trading off with Sutin’s knifes-edge violin before things get really crazy,

Pretty much every klezmer band does Rumshinsky’s Builgar; Klazz-Ma-Tazz’s epic version blends Hendrix, hints of an Appalachian dance and Balkan metal into a colorful salute to the song’s theatrical origins. And the take of Bei Mir Bist Du Schon is surreal to the extreme, balmy Rachelle Garniez-esque balladry bookending hard swing with Sutin at the center; Zhenya Lopatnik sings

Sutin’s only original here, the diptych Letting Go, is the album’s most cinematic track. A lushly vamping, edgy Middle Eastern groove gives way to a rippling Rosenblum piano solo, then Sutin gives the music in a brighter, more latin pulse, Golfarb’s icepicking signaling a return to an insistent attack. This band has a huge ceiling: fans of jazz, metal, Jewish folk, David Lynch soundtracks and all other things noir will not be disappointed. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page if we make it that far.

A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Bring Their Dynamic Reinventions of Songs From Across the Jewish Diaspora Uptown Next Week

Violinist Lara St. John is the kind of musician whose presence alone will inspire her bandmates to take their game up a notch. Case in point: last summer in Central Park, where she played a picturesque, lyrical, alternately tender and soaring version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. And this wasn’t with the kind of big-name ensemble St. John is accustomed to playing with: it was a pickup group. St. John’s dynamic focus may well have jumpstarted the group’s harrowing interpretation of Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga suite, a narrative about a 1950s British nuclear experiment in Australia gone horribly wrong.

St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz revisit that intensity and relevance with their program this March 14 and 15 in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession at 550 W 155th St in Harlem. The show is sold out – in order to get tickets to this popular uptown attraction, you need to get on their mailing list, who get first dibs before the general public and will often gobble them up. This isn’t a cheap experience, but if you look at it as dinner and a concert, it’s a great date night (it’s big with young couples). There’s an amuse-bouche and wines paired with the program: supplies are generous, there’s always a vegetarian choice and the choices of vintage can be a real knockout. And the sonics in the intimate but high-ceilinged stone space are as magical as you would expect.

Next week’s program is drawn from St. John’s most recent album with Herskowitz, wryly titled Shiksa, streaming at Spotify. It’s a collection of imaginative and sometimes radical reinterpretations of haunting melodies from across the Jewish diaspora and Eastern Europe by a wide variety of composers, as well as by the musicians themselves.

Among the album’s fourteen tracks, the Hungarian folk tune Czardas is reinvented as a scampering mashup with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Variaiuni (Bar Fight) is an old Romanian cimbalom tune as St. John imagines someone careening through it in the Old West. St. John learned the lickety-split klezmer dance Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn from iconic violinist Alicia Svigals, while composer Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of the wildfire Romany dance Ca La Breaza is based on Toni Iardoche’s cimbalom version. And St. John picked up the elegant Romany jazz tune Kolo in a bar in Belgrade.

The most poignant track is the Armenian ballad Sari Siroun Yar, which gave solace to composer Serouj Kradjian and his family growing up in war-torn Lebanon. The most wryly clever one is Herskowitz’s jazz version of Hava Nagila, in 7/4 time. St. John also plays an expressive suite of solo ladino songs arranged by David Ludwig, along with material from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Hungary. It will be fascinating to witness how closely she replicates the material – or flips the script with it – at the show next week.

Brilliant Violinist Alicia Svigals and Pianist Uli Geissendoerfer Reinvent Haunting Songs Rescued From the Holocaust

Moshe Beregovski was sort of the Soviet Alan Lomax. But there were a couple of major differences in the careers of the 20th century’s two greatest musicologists. Lomax received deservedly worldwide acclaim for sleuthing out folk tunes across the country, and eventually around the globe. And some of the artists he discovered, like Muddy Waters, became stars.

Beregovski, whose research and sense of adventure were just as keen, paid with his life, and most of the folk musicians he recorded were murdered. They were killed in the Holocaust; Beregovski, his health shattered after a long, brutal prison term in the gulag, died broke and virtually unknown in 1961. His crime? Recording Jewish music. 

Since Beregovski’s archives in the Ukraine were rediscovered in the 1990s, musicians from around the world have plunged into a world that was for a long time thought to have been lost forever. Now, iconic klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals – a founding member of the Klezmatics – and perennially eclectic pianist Uli Geissendoerfer have teamed up for a brand-new album, The Beregovski Suite, a frequently radical reinvention of a total of seventeen rare songs from the archive. The result is a gorgeous, chillingly bittersweet triumph of daunting scholarship and lyrical musicianship – if you think Svigals was pretty sensational in the Klezmatics, wait til you hear her now. They’re playing the album release show tonight, Feb 4 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub; cover is $20. With songs like these, who needs the Super Bowl?

These melodies leap out at you. We’re used to hearing poorly digitized , probably fourth or fifth-generation copies of this stuff, which was recorded on the fly  to begin with. This album  has a breathtakingly immediate, pristine quality. Although there’s accordion here – Iliya Magalnik is featured on several tracks – the presence of the piano adds considerable majesty and unexpectedly syncretic accents from around the world to the material.

The album – which isn’t officially out yet and hasn’t hit the usual online spots – opens with Lightning, a brisk minor-key dance. Svigals’ sinewy, bounding lines and shivery melismas soar over the pulse of the accordion, the piano anchoring the music with a heavy-spring bounce. Svigals throws off sparks of microtones throughout Dawn, a neoromantic waltz, Geissendoerfer switching between piano and toy piano to ramp up the surrealism. The brooding Lament For a King makes a good segue, Geissendoerfer’s low-key chords behind Svigals’ meticulous yet ferally tremoloing ornamentation.

By contrast, Iliyad, another waltz, has a playful, almost devious strut which becoms more wistful when the accordion kicks in; then the piano leads the rest of the group in an unexpectedly Lynchian direction. It will give you goosebumps.

The bracing Fugue for B has a cleverly acerbic baroque arrangement, Svigals digging in with a practically crushing intensity on the final verse, up to a spine-tingling coda. She reins in her melismatics somewhat for the quieter but no less plaintive, somewhat prayerful take of The Plea.

The surrealism reaches even higher with the disjoined intro of First Night, its uneasy close harmonies smoothing out into a jaunty, celebratory dance. The revelry continues with Market Day, with Vanderlei Pereira on pandeiro, Geissendoerfer adding an unexpected ragtime interlude. Getting groceries has never been so much fun! His jazz voicings contrast with Svigals’ mesmerizing, edgy chromatics and microtones throughout The Lover’s Dance, a slow, moody hora intro of sorts.

Rumshinky’s Bulgar, by Joseph Rumshinsky, comes across as a mashup of the early 20th century Jewish vaudeville that he made his name in and the darker – dare one say more relevant? – sounds of the old country. The duo go deep into that milieu with the plaintive Winter Dance, its wintry pizzicato and eerie belltone piano.

The duo follow Patshtants, an insistent, pulsing miniature in the Middle Eastern freygish scale, with the lively peek-a-boo phrasing of Kinder in Shul – yeah, these kids are up to no good. Svigals takes a rare turn on vocalese in Conversation With the Rebbe, s shapeshifting, pensively dynamic  minor-key song.

A Hero’s Report has an aptly emphatic intensity; after that, the unexpected Celtic tinges of Big Bear come as quite a surprise. The album concludes with a brief reprise of the opening tune. On one hand, this is the kind of salute that Beregovski deserves. Without him, these frequently heartwrenching melodies would no longer exist. And of course, the elephant in the room is how many more songs like this would we be able to enjoy if the people who played them into Beregovski’s wax cylinder recorder hadn’t been murdered?

A Potentially Paradigm-Shifting Series of Women Performers at the New School

In conversation with the audience and performers at her potentially paradigm-shifting new series Women Between Arts at the New School yesterday, singer/actress/impresario Luisa Muhr contemplated the complexities of branding interdisciplinary works. How do you market something that resists easy categorization? Maybe by calling it what it is: outside the box. Considering the turnout, there definitely is an audience for what might be the only interdisciplinary series focusing on women performers whose work encompasses so many different idioms in New York right now.

When Muhr springboarded the project, she’d assumed that Women Between Arts would be one of at least five or six ongoing programs here. But this seems to be the only one at the moment – If there’s another, would they please identify themselves, because they could be doing very important work!

Dance on the same program as storytelling? Sure! Writer/choreographer Allison Easter wryly remarked that audiences at dance performances don’t mind being talked to. Her piece on the bill featured dancers Tiffany Ogburn and Paul Morland subtly and then explosively tracing Easter’s spoken-word narrative about a couple of American college girls intent on thwarting a would-be rapist on a train winding its way through the Alps.

Klezmatics violinist Lisa Gutkin proved to be the ideal headliner for a bill like this. Born and raised in a secular Jewish family in Sheepshead Bay, the songwriter/actress revealed an insatiably curious worldview that mirrored her sizzling musical chops, via excerpts from her one-woman show. Likewise, part of her eclectic background stems from the demands of being a highly sought-after sidewoman. Irish reels? OK. Tango? Si! Klezmer? No problem! She grew up with that culture, inspired by her immigrant grandmother, who would hitchhike upstate to her bungalow where she’d book artists like Pete Seeger to entertain her garment worker friends.

And Muhr illustrated her own, similarly eclectic background with wistful projections, a subtly humorous dance piece and poetry, following her own Greek immigrant great-grandmother’s journey as a refugee from Istanbul to Vienna. In pushing the boundaries of diverse idioms, a program like Muhr’s has the potential to spur the growth of new synapses for both audiences and performers.

The next Women Between Arts performance features songwriter Jean Rohe, choreographer Sasha Kleinplatz, brilliant carnatic violinist Trina Basu, singer/actress Priya Darshini and Brooklyn Raga Massive tabla player Roshni Samlal on January 7 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St.

The Nifty’s Make Exhilarating Surf Rock and More Out of Iconic Jewish Themes

It’s been more than half a century since the Ventures recorded the first klezmer surf rock hit: Hava Nagila. Wrapping up their first US tour with a deliriously fun show at the Austrian Cultural Center earlier this week, Vienna instrumentalists the Nifty’s took the idea of making electric rock out of Jewish folk and jazz themes to new levels of noir menace, surfy fun and punk rock intensity.

Their opening number, an original, sounded like Big Lazy with two guitars – that good. Lead guitarist Fabian Pollack played lingeringly Lynchian reverbtoned lines on his Fender Jazzmaster, mingling with the similarly reverberating, spacious clang and twang of Michael Bruckner, who played a mysterious hollowbody model. Bassist Dominik Grunbuhel strolled tersely behind them with a dry, crisp tone, but by the end of the show he was swooping and diving all over the place. At one point, he was playing furious tremolo chords with his knuckles while the guitarists did the same, but with their picks: it’s a miracle he didn’t leave the stage a bloody mess.

Like Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion, drummer Gottfried Schneurl loves counterintuitive accents, odd syncopation and uses every piece of his kit, but with more of a punk edge. At one point, he emerged from behind it to bang on hardware and mic stands and eventually the strings of the bass, an old Dick Dale trope that surf musicians have never been able to resist.

But the Nifty’s aren’t a straight-up surf band. Niffty was the nickname that Naftule Brandwein, who was sort of the Sidney Bechet of klezmer clarinet, gave himself. One of the great paradigm-shifters in the history of Jewish jazz, he would no doubt approve of where the Nifty’s take the tradition. That’s what Brandwein’s great-nephew, who was in the crowd, said after the show, and he ought to know.

The band opened with a couple of moodily surfed-up horas – two-part dance numbers that began slowly and uneasily and picked up steam in the second half – and closed with a reggae tune, encoring with a rapidfire bulgar from Odessa with a stunning cold ending. In between, they mixed up originals, new arrangements of brooding minor-key traditional melodies as well as reinvented versions of tunes from Brandwein’s catalog.

Drei, a serpentine Pollack original and the title track of the band’s latest album Nifty’s No. 3, was more of a diptych. Nifty’s Texas Massacre, from the band’s second album Takeshi Express, was a cinematic, punk-influenced four-part psychedelic punk mini-suite that set the stage for much of the rest of the night, as the band sped up again and again, past the point where the rhythm had come full circle. There was a persistent, slinky noir bolero quality to much of the rest of the material, reminding how much of a confluence of latin and Jewish music the noir esthetic is. Let’s hope these guys make it back here soon.

The next show at the Austrian Cultural Center is on Nov 7 at 7:30 PM with cellist Friedrich Kleinhapl and pianist Andreas Woyke playing Beethoven sonatas plus works by Schnittke, Friedrich Gulda and Shostakovich. Admission is free; there’s a reception to follow; a RSVP is required.

It’s a Great Summer for Middle Eastern Music in New York

While much of the New York City parks system is on the highway to privatized hell – both Central Park Summerstage and the Prospect Park Bandshell series are selling ticketed seats to free concerts now – we haven’t yet reached the point where free summer concerts here have been whitewashed and yuppified to the point of irrelevance. Meanwhile, serendipitously, there have been some new publicly accessible concert series popping up, keeping the hallowed tradition of free summer concerts here alive.

One public space that’s been flying more or less under the radar until recently is Bryant Park. It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the transcendent performance by slinky Middle Eastern ensemble the Bil Afrah Project, who opened the final night of this year’s Accordions Around the World festival there. Obviously, it would have been fun to stick around for the whole night, which ended with a wall-to-wall sea of revelers celebrating Colombian Independence Day.

The park’s overseers had the good sense to put the festival in the hands of tireless, intrepid impresario Ariana Hellerman (publisher of the irreplaceable Ariana’s List of free summer events). Over the course of the month, she drew from her roster of two hundred of New York’s finest accordionists (yes, there are that many) for a series of performances that reinforced the instrument’s portability across cultures, a powerful if compact vehicle for musical cross-pollination. 

In barely a half hour onstage, the Bil Afrah Project – who dedicate themselves to recreating Ziad Rahbani’s iconic 1975 Bil Afrah suite of reinvented Lebanese and Egyptian love and love-gone-wrong ballads- raised the bar for the rest of the evening dauntingly high. Rahbani has since gone on to be called the Lebanese Bob Dylan, although many others, none of whom sound anything like the American Nobel Laureate, have been given that label. Rahbani – son of famous chanteuse Fairouz and songwriter Assi Rahbani – was nineteen when he pulled a band together to record it. The suite doesn’t have much of the acerbically fearless political sensibility that characterizes his later work: its populist message is much subtler, grounded in its achingly wistful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes bucolic themes.

Group members, notably oudist Brian Prunka, accordionist Simon Moushabeck, ney flutist Bridget Robbins and violinist Sami Abu Shumays took turns playing plaintive taqsims as segues between songs. The most incisive, intense of these was from buzuq player Josh Farrar, who remained very prominent in the mix. John Murchison, a connoisseur of Middle Eastern bass, made his debut concert on kanun a memorable one as well. And riq tambourinist Michel Merhej Baklouk, who played on the original album, was present and added an almost defiantly crescendoing solo toward the end of the suite as the edgy chromatics, uneasy microtonal modes and graceful sweep of the music rose and fell over the pulse of Sprocket Royer’s bass and Jeremy Smith’s darbouka. Then emcee Rachelle Garniez took the stage and treated the crowd to some similarly incisive banter and her own noir-tinged material.

The performances on the festival’s next-to-last night fit in perfectly with its eclectic sensibility as well. Over the course of the early part of the evening, Erica Mancini played jaunty oldtimey swing, then made noir mambo out of the old standard St. Louis Blues. Shoko Nagai began with airy, austere Japanese folk themes and then went deep into the dark, kinetic chromatics of the klezmer music she loves so much.

Will Holshouser, best known for his exhilarating speed and high-voltage solos, flipped the script with his own thoughtful, methodically shifting originals, occasionally alluding to Indian modes: as a pioneer of the pastoral jazz revival, he deserves far more credit than he’s been given. And a beautiful blue-eyed blonde in the crowd called out Eduardo de Carvalho for the masculinity of his playing. That’s not to say that the other performances weren’t strong, but there was plenty of muscle in his confident, impassioned, unselfconsciously soulful, rustic runs through a mini-set of forro and tango.

Circling back to the Middle Eastern theme, there are a couple of upcoming shows that shouldn’t be missed. On July 29 at 8 at the Lynch Theatre at 524 W 59th St., haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran  perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 tix are still available. And on August 10 at 10 PM, legendary, ageless Armenian-American jazz reedman Souren Baronian leads his amazing band at Barbes.

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.