New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: ljova

Yelena Grinberg Rescues Rare Classical Treasures from Obscurity

For the last six years, pianist Yelena Grinberg‘s salon has become an Upper Westside institution. The lost treasures of the classical world couldn’t wish for a more enthusiastic, insightful advocate. The energy she put into finding them, and then bringing them back to life is astonishing. For context, she mixes in some of the more popular chamber works that you might see at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, although, realistically, all of this repertoire deserves such a wide audience. Grinberg is a generous hostess and fascinating to talk to. So many professional musicians are blase about their work. Grinberg is 180 degrees the opposite, a tirelessly passionate historian and interpreter of forgotten gems..

At Salon number 186 last weekend, Grinberg’s focus was on works for piano, flute and viola. She explained that she’d found exactly one, from an unexpected source: Tatiana Nikolayeva, best known as a virtuoso concert pianist and major interpreter of Shostakovich. Alongside that one, Grinberg added a piano/flute/viola arrangement of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp. There was also music for flute and piano, and flute and viola, delivered in high resolution. In addition to an extensive concert program, Grinberg gave the audience a detaiiled rundown of each work: she’s as entertaining a tour guide as the tour itself.

The musicianship was topnotch. Flutist Jessica Taskov played meticulously, from ripe, full-toned lows to sturdy swaths of sound and bright, sharply executed accents. This concert was also a rare opportunity to see the great violist Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin playing other peoples’ music: he’s been one of New York’s leading composer-performers for over a decade.

The highlight of the program was the Weinerg piece, opening with troubled, slowly unfolding exchanges between flute and viola over an ominous implied pedalpoint. Grinberg’s spiky accents and occasional glissandos energized the desolate call-and-response, up to what came across as a twisted parody of a klezmer dance. Clearly, the horrors the composer had survived, first from the Nazis, and then the Soviets, still lingered when he wrote it in 1979. Having witnessed the Philharmonic playing Corigliano’s terrifying Symphony No. 1 the previous night, this carried even more of a wallop.

Nikolayeva’s eight-part suite turned out to be as delightful a mix of flavors as a composer can possibly pack into about twenty minutes: baroque dances, a puckishly precise scherzo, moody contemplation from flute and viola, allusions to a Balkan bagpipe tune, a slow, starry waltz and finally a clever, Spanish-tinged variation that brought the music full circle. Was this a New York premiere? Or even a North American one?

Likewise, Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style for Violin and Piano (flute playing the violin part) explored familiar tropes from the baroque and onward: a lilting Sicilienne, a strutting ballet and n unexpectedly serioso duet with more than a hint of Mozart. The fugue was where Grinberg’s passion for Bach made itself the clearest, with perfect articulation on the keys that managed at the same time not to be fussy.

Grinberg characterized Alexander Zhurbin‘s piano and viola arrangement of the Waltz from his opera Doctor Zhivago, as “buoyant and passionate,” and she nailed its dynamic neoromanticisms in tandem with the younger Zhurbin (Ljova is Alexander’s son). The two closed with Anton Rubenstein’s Viola Sonata in F Minor, which as Ljova explained, is full of “macho energy.” The violist went deep into the composer’s rich low-register sonics, contrasting with the deviously sotto-voce harmonics of the third movement. And the piece is just as much of a concerto for piano, but Grinberg dug in for its cruelly challenging, stabbing, Schumann-style chordal runs.

The next salon is sold out; after that, Grinberg is offering a fantastic program on June 19 at 7 and the June 23 at 5 PM, with Rachmaninoff’s shattering Trio Elegiaque, along with the famous Arensky piano trio plus lesser known works by Tschaikovsky and Myaskovsky. The salon webpage accepts reservations; you can email the impresario for additional information. If you’re coming from outside the neighborhood, it’s about two minutes from the 96th St. stop on the 1/2/3 – exit at the front of the train.

Two Sides of Evocative, Brilliant Violist and Composer Ljova

Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin is one of the world’s most dynamic, versatile violists. As you would expect from someone who’s as busy as a bandleader as he is a sideman, he wears many, many hats: film composer, lead player in a Russian Romany party band, arranger to the stars of indie classical and the Middle East…and loopmusic artist. Ljova’s next New York show is a great chance to see him at full power with Romashka, the wild Romany-flavored band who are playing a killer twinbill with western swing stars Brain Cloud at 8 PM on March 23 at Flushing Town Hall. Cover is $16, $10 for seniors, and kids 19 and under with school ID get in free.

Ljova’s latest album, Solo Opus, is a somewhat calmer but no less colorful one-man string orchestra ep, streaming at Bandcamp. The first three numbers feature Ljova overdubbing and looping his six-string fadolin; the finale is the only viola track here. The album open with The Comet, a broodingly gorgeous, hypnotically epic tone poem written in the wake of the fateful 2016 Presidential election. It’s his Metamorphosen: with its disquieting layers of echo effects, it brings to mind his work with iconic Iranian composer and kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor. As sirening phrases encroach on the center, could this be a commentary on the perils of a political echo chamber?

Does Say It build from “a gorgeously bittersweet, Gershwinesque four-chord riff to a soaring, bittersweet anthem,” as this blog described it in concert in December? Again, Kalhor’s work is a point of reference, as is the gloomiest side of Russian folk music, particularly when Ljova works the low strings for cello-like tonalities. But there are echoes that could be Gershwin-inspired as the aching melody moves up the scale to a big climatic waltz.

Lamento Larry is a moody interweave of simple, anthemic phrases, rising from a Bach-like interweave of lows to anxious, higher atmospherics, then an echoey blend of the two. Ljova closes the album with the wryly dancing, distantly bluegrass-tinged, pizzicato Lullaby for JS, complete with muffled conversation and tv noise in the background.

Three Generations of a Russian Film Music Dynasty at Joe’s Pub

Sunday evening at Joe’s Pub, was pianist Alexander Zhurbin’s overture from the Russian musical Lips a pavane of lost souls, or a parody of a love song?

Both, actually. There are more optimal ways of recording a concert’s most memorable moments than scribbling in a darkened theatre and then trying to decipher those notes. And there was so much more, in almost two nonstop hours of music, than any hasty note-taking could cover. Shifting effortlessly through lush neoromantic themes, darkly gleaming art-song, bulgar punk and a few detours toward Brighton Beach piano-bar singalongs, Zhurbin and his singer wife Irena Ginzburg underscored their status as icons of Russian music over the past forty-plus years.

At this show, three generations of Zhurbins celebrated that legacy. Their son Ljova, the great violist, joined in on several numbers and contributed a couple of his own works. There was Garmoshka, a poignant, bittersweet theme whose title refers to a small Russian accordion. “Or anything you can squeeze – this song is almost about that,” he explained. The other was a stern, stripped-down take of By the Campfire, sung with bristling intensity by his wife, the riveting vocalist Inna Barmash. “The wisdom of our days teaches lies, deceit and hate,” she sang, in Russian, a perennially apt commentary from the 12th century Goliards which Ljova’s grandfather had translated.

The elder Zhubin has a vast body of work, both scoring and playing film and theatre music. Maybe because he’s been called on to write for so many different idioms, the songs and instrumentals on the bill evoked just about every emotion possible: depth and suspense and longing, but also sly wit and outright boisterous fun. Being set pieces, many of those numbers were tantalizingly brief. He built a swaying intensity using bell tones in a song from his 1975 rock opera Orpheus and Eurydice, the very first of its kind to somehow make it past the Soviet censors. Another theme, from the 1980 film Flying Hussars Squadron, had an even more ominously epic sweep. Often he’d begin a tune on a more lighthearted note before bringing in the clouds, as with many of the World War II-themed material from the popular Russian tv drama Moscow Saga.

Decked out as a punk cabaret star in a classy black top and leather pants, rocking a sharp blonde hairdo, Ginzburg channeled as just as broad a spectrum of feeling, unleashing her powerful yet often understated mezzo-soprano. The material ranged from the tender ballad Isn’t It Beautiful – a co-write with their husband – to more bittersweet, as in the Moscow Tram Song, dedicated to the popular Russian-Georgian poet and songwriter Bulat Okudzhava. After romping through a bouncy, theatrical medley of his songs, and then a similarly animated trio of tunes from Zhurbin’s 1987 musical Sunset, they closed with a reprise of their hit Life Is Like a Horse. At that point, everybody was onstage, the couple’s grandsons raising the vaudevillian factor a few notches at the end as the crowd clapped along.

Zhurbin and Ginzburg don’t have anything upcoming scheduled at the moment, although lately Joe’s Pub has been their home base. Ljova’s next New York appearance is with Barmash in their wild Romany/klezmer/rock string band Romashka at Flushing Town Hall on March 23 at 8 PM on a twinbill with similarly energetic western swing band Brain Cloud; tix are $16.

A Richly Eclectic, Rapturous Program of Ljova Compositions for Strings at Lincoln Center

Since the early zeros, virtuoso violist Ljova a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin has built one of the most colorfully eclectic repertoires of any string player anywhere. Lush, enveloping film themes, tangos, wild Russian string band music, original arrangements of some of the ancient folk themes that Stravinsky drew on for the Rite of Spring, and hypnotic loopmusic are just the tip of the iceberg. Thursday night, Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh was clearly psyched to have him back after having booked his high-voltage, cinematic Kontraband a few years back. To her, Ljova is fam – and as he confided late in the show, he and his kids became big fans of the mostly-weekly free concerts here. This time out, joined by a brilliant and similarly diverse cast from the worlds of latin music, classical and the avant garde, he aired out some of the rarer material in his ever-increasingly vast songbook.

Using a loop pedal, he built the night’s opening piece, Say It from a gorgeously bittersweet, Gershwinesque four-chord riff to a soaring, bittersweet anthem: it was like watching a one-man string quartet, bolstered by the cello-like low end from his signature six-string fadolin. He’s come a long way since that cold night at Barbes a few years back where he broke out the pedal in concert for the very first time.

Another solo piece, Healing, was dedicated to his late friend, the great tango pianist Octavio Brunetti – whose final show, Zhurbin noted, was across the campus at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. With Zhurbin bowing on and off the low strings and inducing skittish high harmonics, its wounded austerity shifted in and out of focus, a subtle showcase for the violist’s vaunted technique.

“I’d like to start inviting people up here in batches,” Zhurbin grinned, as cellist Yves Dharamraj, violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Ariana Kim joined him for a series of ballet pieces. Asha, dedicated to legendary Indian playback singer Asha Bhosle, echoed one of the Bach cello suites. Melting River, the title track from his 2013 one-man band recording, seamlessly blended the High Romantic with Philip Glass-ine minimalism.

Zhurbin was in top form as cynical raconteur, explaining that when he was in music school, those who deviated from twelve-tone severity were dismissed as potential film composers. So he decided to try his hand at an ad jingle or two. Window Cleaner, which he and the group delivered live for only the second time ever, was the night’s most irresistibly amusing piece, shifting from brooding Russian Romanticism – dirty windows? – to a swinging romp through a shiny faux French musette.

Bassist Pedro Giraudo had joined the ensemble by the time they got to Mecklenburg, another ballet number, which was far more serious, considering it originated as an improvisation and attempt to get the kids running around the room at an upstate house concert to chill out. But by the end, it seems the kids had won, as the circling motives gave way to latin flair.

Violinist Melissa Tong and Curtis Stewart, violist Hannah Nicholas and cellist Joshua Roman took the stage with the rest of the ensemble for the final three numbers. The high point of the evening was The Comet, a swirling, turbulent, troubled piece written in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. Through its muted images of troops massing on the border to a volcano of leaping, jarring, searingly atonal riffs, it brought to mind the work of Kurdish composer and kamancheh mastermind Kayhan Kalhor, with whom Zhurbin has worked in the past. He’d premiered it as a loopmusic piece on that same that cold night at Barbes in 2016.

They closed with Holodomor, a wounded, elegaic narrative of the deadly displacement of Russian peasants under Stalin, and then a surrealistically bittersweet, punchy string band approximation of Balkan brass music dedicated to the late composer Harris Wulfson, an old Golden Fest pal, It’s hard to think of any other composer other than Ljova writing as fluently and playfully across so many styles.

This year’s mostly-weekly free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. winds up on Dec 20 at 7:30 PM with psychedelic tropicalia dancefloor personality Miss Yaya; get there early if you’re going.

A Lushly Kinetic Album and a Chelsea Show by Inventive String Quintet Sybarite5

String quintet Sybarite5’s imaginative instrumental reinventions of Radiohead songs earned them worldwide acclaim, but their Thom Yorke fixation is only part of the picture. On their latest album, Outliers – streaming at Bandcamp – they bring their signature lush, kinetic sound to a collection of relatively brief, energetically balletesque pieces by some of their favorite indie classical composers. The result is part contemporary dance soundtrack, part 21st century chamber music: the connecting thread is tunefulness. They’re bringing that blend to a show at the Cell Theatre on Dec 7 at 8 PM; cover is $27.

The album opens with the catchy, punchily circling Getting Home (I must be…), by Jessica Meyer, the violins of Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney bustling tightly alongside Angela Pickett’s viola, Laura Metcalf’s cello and Louis Levitt’s bass.

Yann’s Flight, by Shawn Conley vividly echoes Philip Glass’ work for string quartet, right down to the dancing pizzicato from the bass and the cello’s stern counterpoint. As the group build the piece, hints of an Irish reel contrast with stillness, then more triumphantly rhythmic images of flight.

Eric Byers’ Pop Rocks is a playful, coyly bouncing staccato web of cell-like, Glassine phrasing. Dan Visconti’s triptych Hitchhiker’s Tales begins with the alternating slow swoops and momentary flickers of Black Bend, slowly morphing into a majestic blues with some snazzy, slithery, shivery work from the violins. The considerably shorter Dixie Twang gives the group a launching pad for icepick pizzicato phrasing, followed by another miniature, Pedal to the Metal, where they scamper together to the finish line.

They dig into the punchy, polyrhythmic scattato of Revolve, by Andy Akiho, with considerable relish; Levitt’s understated, modal bassline anchors the lithe theme, the violins eventually rising to a whirlwind of blues riffage. Mohammed Fairouz’s Muqqadamah, which follows, is the most pensive, airy, baroque-flavored track here.

The rest of the album is inspired by dance styles from around the world and across the centuries. The band expand deviously from a stark, wickedly catchy 19th century minor-key blues theme in Kenji Bunch’s Allemande pour Tout le Monde. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Kompa for Toussaint also builds out of a minor-key oldtime blues riff to some neat, microtonal hints of a famous Nordic theme, then an enigmatic mist. Sarabande, another Byers piece, slowly emerges from and then returns to a wistful spaciousness.

The album’s most shapeshiftingly catchy track, Michi Wiancko’s Blue Bourée blends blues, the baroque and a little funk. The final number is Gi-gue-ly, by cinematic violist/composer Ljova, a delicious, Balkan-inflected, trickily syncopated tune that grows to pulsing misterioso groove. It’s a party in a box, probably the last thing a lot of people would expect from a contemporary classical string ensemble.

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. 

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.

Sometimes You Can’t Catch a Break, Sometimes You Can

The man in the long black coat stood alone, or so he thought, over the kitchen table, chomping on a plate of spicy Russian beet salad. He took a pull from a plastic cup of beaujolais nouveau. This year’s wasn’t anything special, nothing like the 2003, for that matter not even up to the level of 2008, at least this particular bottle. But enough of it still did the trick, just as it did in better years. In the living room, a pretty young mother played a Bach cello sonata, calmly and comfortably, to the small crowd of guests who remained at that late hour: her parents, a yoga girl and her dreadlocked white boyfriend, a petite, bookish brunette from Park Slope and her intense-faced, solidly built, bearded companion.

In the kitchen, the man in the long black coat turned around to see the woman’s reedy, bespectacled ten-year-old son staring at him. “Come here, there’s something I want to show you,” the boy urged him, the hint of a smile at the corners of his thin lips. He was small for his age, especially in profile against the fat, freckled, autistic girl who lingered in the doorway behind him.

The man in the long black coat took another pull from the cup and followed the children into an adjacent bedroom. Paint chips fell from the far wall, behind a leather reclining chair, a dartboard overhead. “Sit down,” encouraged the boy. “Everybody I do this to likes it.’

The man in the long black coat sat down slowly and leaned back. His head was driven further into the headrest when struck from behind, in the center of his forehead, with a sharp object. The man in the long black coat gasped and was just starting to pull himself out of the chair when struck a second time. This time the boy drew blood: for someone his size, he was strong, and on a mission to inflict pain. In the corner, the autistic girl began howling with laughter. The man in the long black coat pulled himself to his feet, but not in time to avoid being hit again, a glancing blow to the side of the head. That, too, drew blood.

Jarred from a red wine haze, the man in the long black coat moved out of the bedroom quickly, not looking back. The girl in the corner was still laughing, and by now the boy was giggling as well. The man in the long black coat saw a bathroom to his right and closed the door behind him. Droplets of blood trickled down the worn but now adrenalized face in the mirror. He reached for a piece of toilet paper, then thought better of it and pulled a napkin from his coat pocket. Gingerly, he blotted at his wounds.

He walked out into the hallway. The mother’s parents were there, glanced up and said nothing. The mother, behind them, did the same. No reaction, no offer of a band-aid, peroxide, even a simple “Are you ok?”

The man in the long black coat walked past them, toward the door, then stepped out into the cold Brighton Beach air. It was best to be out of this house of no empathy. Was this a ritual from the old country? A game to initiate outsiders? What would happen if he returned? Would he be skewered, eaten with beets and horseradish? Questions best left unanswered. He looked up, blinking the blood from his eyes as a B train rumbled into the station overhead.

The following night, the man in the long black coat reached the exit at the top of the stairs to the IRT local train at Broadway and 66th, the affectingly bittersweet, minor-key strains of what could have been an old Ukrainian Jewish song but was probably an original drifting from a couple of blocks south. Carefully, he adjusted the old black Mets hat over the wounds under the bandage.

A crowd of Jews were gathered in front of a Christmas tree near the point of the park where Columbus and Broadway cross at 63rd. The band onstage in front of them was fantastic: Alicia Svigals out front on violin, Patrick Farrell on accordion, Aaron Alexander on drums. The man in the long black coat didn’t recognize the bass player. Was this a comfortably typical New York moment or a subtle bit of subversion? What does it say about how far we’ve come that such a sight could be subversive in a city that at least on the surface seems to embrace so many cultures?

The man in the long black coat paused. This music was beautiful, and soul-stirring, a moment of comfort and warmth on an early winter night. But that’s not what he was there for. Halfheartedly, he moved ahead, south and west. Inside the Lincoln Center atrium space, with its desk for cheap day-of-show tickets and sandwich stand emanating smells of burnt cheese and sandwich meat, Fela cover band Chop & Quench were amassed onstage, ready to launch into a slinking, galloping set of Nigerian stoner dance grooves from the 1970s. An altogether different vibe from what was being played outside, notwithstanding that Afrobeat and Ukrainian Jewish music share a defiance and resilience.

Chop & Quench were the pit band for the Broadway musical Fela, arguably the most relevant production to appear on the Great White Way. The man in the long black coat was aware of this, but this show was all about the music. He leaned against the atrium wall, watching frontman Sahr Ngaujah, who starred as the Nigerian agitator bandleader in the theatrical run, spun and pounced across the stage, a trio of brightly skirted women to his right undulating along with the grooves spinning from Tim Allen’s bass and Greg Gonzalez’s drums. Guitarists Ricardo Quinones and Bryan Vargas clinked and jangled and mingled, trumpeter Jeff Pierce and tenor saxophonist Morgan Price taking the occasional long crescendo upward with a rapidfire solo.

Although the long rectangular room was pretty full, there weren’t many people dancing. After awhile, it was as if the band was playing a single, long song. After about forty minutes, they finally hit a snarling minor-key riff and launched into Water No Get Enemy, an aptly relevant number for this era. That was enough for the man in the long black coat, who exited back onto Broadway. Were the Jewish bands still playing? Yes!

Onstage now were trumpeter Frank London, accordionist Lorin Sklamberg and pianist Uri Caine, two thirds of the original New York punk klezmer band, the Klezmatics. “We may be in Manhattan, but this show is all about Brooklyn,” London grinned, explaining how much of their repertoire they’d discovered hanging with a Hasidic crowd there. Together they followed the rises and falls of a set of dances, a stately, cantorially-flavored hymn for peace and finally a droll, jazzed-up version of the dreydl song – it was Hanukkah season, after all. Violist Ljova Zhurbin came up onstage and added an acerbic edge for a couple of numbers; London encouraged him to stay for more, but he obviously had other places to be.

The man in the long black coat spotted Zhurbin’s wife, the great Yiddish singer Inna Barmash, in the audience. She smiled and waved; the man in the long black coat waved back. He looked up at the big evergreen behind the stage, festooned with ornaments, then at the lights twinkling down the avenue. In the austere washes of the accordion, London’s balmy trumpet and Caine’s careful, focused, sometimes darkly bluesy phrases, it was easy to call this home, good to be alone in the crowd.

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.