New York Music Daily

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Tag: lev zhurbin

Looking Back at Some Wild String Madness at Barbes

Violist/composer Leanne Darling is the rare stellar classical musician who can school you with her improvisations. In the early part of this decade, she made a mark as part of the ambitious, dazzlingly eclectic Trio Tritticali. As she proved in that group, she’s as at home with latin and Middle Eastern music, string metal and funk as she is with the classics she was trained to play. She has a flair for quirky, sometimes hilarious arrangements of pop and rock hits. Much as she can be very entertaining, she can also be very poignant: it wouldn’t be overhype to put her on the same page with Jessica Pavone and Ljova Zhurbin.

The last time she was onstage and this blog was in the house, it was last year at Barbes and she was playing with wild chamber ensemble Tom Swafford’s String Power. And it was 4/20. But as much as there was a lot of improvisation going on, it wasn’t a 4/20 kind of show: everybody was pretty much on the same page. Considering how much time has passed since then, it’s hard to remember who was onstage other than the violinist/bandleader, Darling, and bassist Dan Loomis. Her old Trio Tritticali cello bandmate Loren Dempster, maybe? Patti Kilroy on violin, if memory serves right, with a handful of other string players? Regardless, the performance represented everybody well.

They opened with a striking, emphatically swaying baroque number – Pachelbel, maybe? – with a series of tightly wound solos and cadenzas from throughout the group. Swafford’s arrangement of the Velvets classic Venus in Furs was closer to Vivaldi than Lou Reed, full of neat counterpoint and polyrhythms that took on a menacing swirl as the individual group members diverged from the center, Swafford taking a shivery, slithery solo that would have made John Cale smile.

The first of Darling’s arrangements, Boogie Wonderland, was the funnest part of the evening. It’s surprising that only a few punk bands have covered it. Darling’s chart turned it into a constantly shifting exchange of voices. Later in the set she and the group had fun with another one of her charts, turning a schlocky dance-pop hit by Muse into something approaching Radiohead. And Bohemian Rhapsody was as over-the-top hilarious as it possibly could have been, as ridiculously fun as the Main Squeeze Orchesta’s accordion version. That kind of insanity aside, the high point of the evening was Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab Egyptian classic Azizah.

If memory serves right – a dubious proposition at this point – they might have done a Mingus tune, a twisted mashup of psychedelia and bluegrass, and something that sounded like My Brightest Diamond without lyrics but wasn’t. Much as this is Swafford’s project, Darling played an important part in it, and her own groups are just as much fun. If you’re wondering why this blog would wait this long to cover the show, it’s because Darling had a Williamsburg gig scheduled for this week that apparently got cancelled: watch this space for upcoming performances. 

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Cocooning on Multiple Levels

If there’s ever been a time for soothing, enveloping sounds in New York, this is it. Two shows this week gave audiences a good idea of what’s available in an month where pretty much everybody’s women friends are afraid of losing their reproductive rights, everybody’s Mexican friends are worried about being lynched, and everybody’s up in arms about where they’re going to live after 1/19/17.

Virtuoso violist Ljova explained that he was new to loopmusic, so he cautioned the crowd at Barbes Tuesday night that they should take what they hear with a grain of salt. Then he launched into a characteristically ambitious solo soundscape that echoed the rigor of his Moscow conservatory training, his wide-ranging eclecticism as one of this era’s great film composers, as well as the wry humor and irony that pervade his work across the board. His setup was pretty simple, mirroring the directness of his melodies: his signature, custom-made six-string “famiola” running through delay, loop and volume pedals. It was interesting to watch him think on his feet: when he hit on a riff he liked, he ran with it. There were also a few times when he’d hit on one he didn’t think worth keeping, scowled a little and then moved on.

Then the great Syrian-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh joined the festivities. While his music can be kinetic – he leads a fantastic jazz group, his City Band – it more frequently tends to be on the serious side, often extremely poignant. The early part of the duo’s calm, methodically shifting improvisation echoed the eerie washes of Azmeh’s upcoming album with the similarly brilliant Turkish guitarist and soundscaper Erdem Helvacioglu. But Ljova was in a restless mood, and began to pull away, and Azmeh stayed in sync with some judiciously spaced, bubbly phrases in contrast to his more usual brooding resonance. At the end of the set, the two joined in an enigmatically lilting, minor-key waltz by the violist. The two have played together many times, although this was their first joint improvisation. Azmeh plays his song cycle Songs for Days to Come, featuring the work of Syrian poets in exile, tomorrow night, Nov 19 at 8 PM at Symphony Space with pianist Lenore Smith, soprano Dima Orsho and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach. $25 tix are still available as of today. Ljova stays busy on the road: his next gig as a bandleader is with his vibrantly cinematic Kontraband string ensemble on Dec 3 at 7:30 PM PM at the San Fernando Cathedral, 115 W Main Plaza in San Antonio, TX, reservations to (210) 464-1534 are required.

The soundscapes played last night at Spectrum by guitarist Martin Bisi, multi-instrumentalist Thursday Fernworthy and ambient music artist Robert Pepper were more  lushly enveloping, a dense, misty, slowly swirling vortex. Seated within an audience with closed eyes and slowly bobbing heads, just about everybody reclined in a comfy armchair, it felt weird to rise up and actually watch the musicians at work rather than  drifting off in a surrealistic tequila buzz. Although the overall sound was contiguous, a single river fed by a kaleidoscope of streams, there was a lot of interplay and camaraderie among the three. There were distinct segments where each musician essentially got to lead the trio, whether that meant Pepper intoning into what looked like a mini-digeridoo, or Fernworthy sending keening violin overtones spiraling through her mixers, or Bisi doing the same with an emphatically minimalist riff or gentle chordal wash. Meanwhile, trippy projections played on a screen behind them, the best being a slow walk into the woods, Blair Witch style. Likewise, about two-thirds of the way through their roughly forty-minute improvisation, the three laced their ultraviolet backdrop with bracing close harmonies, jarring rhythmic hits and lower, more distinctly ominous drones.

Pepper books and plays the regular Ambient Chaos series at Spectrum, typically on the third Thursday of the month starting at around 9 in the welcoming, comfortable second-floor Ludlow Street space. Bisi and Fernworthy – someone whom Facebook does not believe is an actual person, notwithstanding the evidence of her performance here – have been known to do live atmospherics at Bisi’s legendary Gowanus digs, BC Studios on Sunday evenings. It’s not a public venue per se, but if you know them or care to keep in touch, you may be able to get an invite.

Dynamic Singer Lara Traum’s Debut Album Channels the Deep Jewish Influence in Decades of Russian Music

Too many artists conflate their own experiences with those of others, or their generation, or their fellow citizens. Singer Lara Traum, on the other hand, sees herself as one of many – and she’s right. Although vocally speaking, it wouln’t be an overstatement to call her one in a million. To get a sense of that, dial up her youtube channel and listen to her debut album Crypto Jewish Melodies: Semitic Sounds of Russian Extraction, one of the most beguiling and relevant releases of 2015.

Ir’s a concept album. As a second-generation Russian Jewish New Yorker, Traum noticed that Jewish expats from the former Soviet Union found themselves between two worlds: a Russian-speaking milieu where anti-Semitism was prevalent, and a Jewish world that, at best, was a demimonde there and, at times, just as or even more insular here. Let’s not forget that there was also a Holocaust under the Soviets.  Jews would seder away from the window so as not to incite nosy neighbors: “If you see something, say something” goes back a long, long way back before Dick Cheney. Traum’s album collects songs that illustrate that unease, yet also brings to light the deep Jewish influence in Russian music across the decades. It’s a celebration of a vast transcontinental legacy.

From the opening track, an a-cappella version of the ancient nigun Av Harachamim,, it’s striking how much depth there is in Traum’s voice. It’s the sound of an old soul: knowing, bittersweet, wary yet ultimately optimistic. Traum’s background is in choral music, as both a conductor and soloist. Although she sings in character here and varies her delivery according to the demands of the lyric, there’s a consistent warmth, even a maternal quality to how she relates to a song and to an audience. That’s evident right off the bat, as she goes way up the scale on a lively take of Vasily Lebedev’s famous 1930s tango, Serdtse,. Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch shows off the same flair and incisive intensity on piano that he does on clarinet in his rambunctious klezmer party band Litvakus, film composer Ljova Zhurbin playijng stark viola against the terse bass of Jordan Morton.

Traum takes a turn into plaintive territory with the familiar klezmer hit Papirosen, Slepovitch firing off neoromantic glimmer underneath: back in those days, a hit of nicotine was sometimes the only pleasure you could look forward to. Likewise, an English-language take of Bei Bir Mist Du Schoen takes Molly Picon coyness back to its roots in late 1800s cosmopolitan parlor pop. Then Traum flips the script with a klezmer blues take of Ain’t Necessarily So, spiced with Alex Greenleaf’s rustic blues harmonica. Her take of the standard Blue Skies, counterintuively , looks forward jauntily to Jeff Lynne and ELO.

Traum sings the WWII era Soviet hit Dark Is the Night in Russian, as hybrid neoromantic swing: like so much of that era’s music, and before, it’s easy to hear a klezmer influence and vice versa. The patriiotic. i.e. anti-Nazi anthem Katyusha ventures even further toward proto art-rock territory, yet at heart, it’s shtetl soul music. By contrast, it’s harder to hear a distinctive Jewish flavor in Yan Frenkel’s 1968 Soviet art-pop hit Zhuravli (Cranes), a post-Hiroshima reflection on mortality, although Slepovitch and Traum team up with a quietly harrowing intensity. The same is true, on a more muted take of a vocal number based on a Tschaikovsky lullaby.

Perhaps the most telling number here is an elegant version of the theme to the Soviet cartoon Gena the Crocodile. Traum offers some dignity to the droll, accordion-wielding, rather stock character who plays klezmer music for the masses during an era when such a thing was not only samizdat but also possibly lethal for anyone who tried it. The album winds up with a lighthearted take of the klezmer standard A Glazele Yah and a bouncy dance that pairs Morton’s austere bowed bass against Slepovitch’s ebullient piano – the guy just cannot resist a glisando when he can squeeze one in. As insight into Jewish-Russian cross-pollination, this is an important musical document, yet ultimately it transcends that historical value: it packs an emotional wallop. Traum is currently in law school, so she’s busy; watch this space for upcoming gigs.

Terse, Tuneful Cinematics from Ljova & the Kontraband

Is there a more cinematic composer working today than Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin? It would seem not. Like all film composers, he’s called on to portray every emotion and every possible scenario within a very short time frame, which informs his writing beyond the world of film as well. His latest album, No Refund on Flowers, with his string ensemble the Kontraband is considerably more stripped-down and a lot closer to those shapeshifting cinematics than the group’s boisterous, lushly orchestrated, absolutely brilliant 2008 debut, Mnemosyne. Which is to say that its charms are somewhat more subtle. Its title is a wry reference to a sign in the window at Ljova’s corner deli, Sing & Sing Market at 96th and Columbus Ave. He distinguishes himself with a devious wit along with his nonchalantly sizzling chops on the viola and fadolin along with accordionist Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Vocals are  by Ljova’s wife, the crystalline, brilliant singer Inna Barmash. What’s most obvious from the first few bars of the dancing opening track, Sam I Am, is how much fun this band is having. Who would have expected the tangoesque (Ljova is a GREAT tango composer) interlude, or the Russian chromatics thrown in for good measure, or the way the band lets the suspense linger without any resolution?

The Blaine Game, a tightly wound, shapeshifting romp centered around a fluid accordion riff was written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop between jazz workshops, Kunzli’s rattle doing a fair impersonation of an espresso machine. Barmash – frontwoman of the deliriously fun Russian/Romany band Romashka – sings the John Jacob Niles version of Black Is the Colour, with a tender, crystalline resonance and some spine-tingling high notes, maxing out the torch factor over what’s essentially a tone poem until it goes all psychedelic and eerie. It has very little in common with the old English folk song.

The swaying nocturne Yossik’s Lullaby portrays one of Zhurbin’s sons as the more serious of the two; his brother Benjy gets a joyous bounce with operatic echoes and a big crescendo. Likewise, Mad Sketchbook, a NYC subway tableau, grows cleverly from a catchy circular theme to frenetic clusters and then back. The centerpiece of the album is By the Campfire, a sadly pulsing, chromatically-charged waltz, with a creepy, explosive, crashingly noisy interlude, Barmash sliding up and leading the band into a raging march. The lyrics – which Barmash translated from a 12th century German poem – echo a sadly universal theme: ‘Lies and spite rule the world, law is dead, truth is poisoned – the wisdom of our age teaches theft, deceit and hate. ” The album winds up with a pulsing waltz that builds on a riff from Mahler.

Haunting, Eclectic Jewish Songs from Romashka’s Inna Barmash

Inna Barmash is the intense, inscrutably charismatic frontwoman of fiery Russian Romany string band Romashka. She’s got one of those rare voices that comes along maybe once a generation: a bell-like, bolt-cutter soprano that’s so clear it’ll give you chills. In a city stocked to the brim with great vocalists, Barmash is one of New York’s most rivetling. Hailing originally from Vilnius, Lithuania, she cut her teeth singing music that these days falls under the broad rubric of klezmer. Her debut solo album, Yiddish Lullabies & Love Songs, is a powerful and haunting return to those roots. The whole thing is streaming at her Bandcamp page; she and her band – including her husband, viola powerhouse and composer Ljova Zhurbin, along with along with Shoko Nagai on piano and accordion, Dmitri Slepovitch on clarinet and bass clarinet and Dmitry Ishenko on bass  – are playing the album release show on Nov 27 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. $20 advance tickets are still available as of today but it’s likely that this show will sell out.

The songs here, spanning several centuries and drawing from across the Jewish diaspora, are short and to the point. Likewise, the band keep their solos short and sweet as well. The acerbic minor keys and haunting chromatics typical of Jewish music echo thoughout the album, although there are lighthearted moments as well. Barmash sings in character – she can sweep your off your feet one moment and then rip your face off the next. She further distinguishes herself with strikingly crisp if seemingly nonchalant diction, an enormous help for listeners trying to remember or come to grips with the language. This blog being in English, the titles used here are the English versions provided on the album.

Wake Up Dear Daughter, the opening track, is a potent example of Barmash at the top of her plaintive power, a brittle vibrato trailing off at the end of her phrases to enhance the song’s sense of longing and unease. She does that even more affectingly on the album’s longest song, Ever Since I Remember, lit up with glimmering solos from piano, viola and then clarinet as it reaches its moodiest peak. She pulls back a little, adding a sense of resignation, on the pensive waltz  If I Had Wings.

Don’t You Dare Go Out with Other Girls, with its menacingly shivery clarinet solo, has a tongue-in-cheek bounce, but Barmash leaves no doubt that she means business. She contrasts that with the sweetly hypnotic lullaby Sleep My Child and its gorgeous viola/piano harmonies.

Afn Boydem (Over the Attic) is a duet that takes on a droll, dancing quality as it moves along and then goes straight into vaudeville.  Barmash brings back the nocturnal mood with Sleep, Sleep, Sleep and Nagai’s surrealistic piano, equal parts Satie and blues. Oy Abram is a showstopper both for Barmash and the band, rapidfire counterpoint from the clarinet and viola leading to a rich interweave of instruments – to the uninitiated, it’s the most recognizably “klezmer” song here. The rest of the album includes By the Road Stands a Tree, a wistful, skeletal waltz; Reyzele, which sounds like it could either be a tale of seduction or seduction gone wrong; and the triumphantly soaring Play Me a Song in Yiddish.