New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: marc cary

Sameer Gupta Keeps Taking Indian Music to New Places

Sameer Gupta is one of the prime movers of New York’s most innovative Indian music reinventors, the Brooklyn Raga Massive (whose female contingent, the Women’s Raga Massive, have their amazing Out of the Woods Festival starting next week). Gupta is typical of the members of the collective in that his musical background encompasses both Indian music and other styles. He’s jazz pianist Marc Cary’s main man behind the drumkit, but he’s also a composer, bandleader and tabla player. He’s doing double duty this Saturday night, March 9 at 7:30 PM at the Chhandayan Center For Indian Music, 4 W 43rd Street #618, first in a trio set with sarangi player Rohan Misra and then with sitarist Rishab Sharma. Cover is $20.

Gupta’s latest album A Circle Has No Beginning is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s one of the most intricately trippy, dreamlike releases of the last several months, validating the argument that great drummers have the deepest address books because everybody wants to play with them. In this case, that means Cary plus Raga Massive peeps.

The opening track, Little Wheel Spin and Spin comes across as a swirling, psychedelic Indian update on bluesy, oldtime Appalachian music. Jaunty, acerbic violin from Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu soar along with Jay Gandhi’s bansuri flute over Cary’s bubbly Fender Rhodes piano, with an austere Marika Hughes cello solo in the middle.

With its tectonic sheets of violin plus ripples from Cary’s Rhodes and Brandee Younger’s harp, Taiwa alludes to the Doors, the Exorcist Theme and the Hollywood hills boudoir soul of Roy Ayers as much as any classic Indian carnatic theme. A bristling nocturne, Innocence in Harlem is an intoxicating blend of echoey Rhodes, stark violin and cello over matter-of-fact syncopation and a mutedly punchy Rashaan Carter bassline. Saxophonist Pawan Benjamin fuels a big crescendo amid the growing storm.

Come Take Everything opens in an echoey haze of atmospherics, then evokes the drama and majestry of classic Bollywood, then goes all dissociative and opaque before Gupta’s flurrying drums pull a series of fluttering voices back toward a punchy, syncopated center and finally a big cinematic coda. Two Faces of the Moon is much more easygoing, bansuri and violin intertwining elegantly, with some wry wah-wah in the background.

Tyagaraja Dreams in Brooklyn is as enveloping as it is insistent, a mix of leaping bansuri and string riffs over a straightforward pulse contrasting with busy bass. Likewise, With Blessings kicks off with a bass solo punching through the haze, then the bansuri and violin build a stark but anthemic interweave. A long, shivery solo from Gandhi introduces a little Jethro Tull into the mix; Gupta’s scampering drum solo enhances the playful vibe.

Crows at Sunset slowly coalesces out of a nebulous intro, then shifts between an uneasy string theme and kaleidoscopic atmosphere that eventually echoes a somber Coltrane classic: it’s rare that so many people can be soloing at the same time yet blend as well together as this crew does. Run for the Red Fort is the band at their most squirrelly and surreal; the album ends epically with almost twelve minutes worth of Prog-Raag Bhimpalasi. It’s here that the Raga Massive’s influence is strongest, from the flickering, droning but propulsive first part to the fluttering variations on the rather stern central riff, guest Neel Murgai’s sitar and Benjamin’s sax weaving amid the careening ambience.

Whether you call this Indian music, psychedelic rock, funk or jazz – and it’s all of those things – it’s absolutely unique and characteristic of the kind of alchemy that the Raga Massive can stir up.

The Best New York City Concerts of 2017

New York’s best concert of 2017 was Golden Fest, with two nights and about seventy brass and string bands from across the Balkans, the Middle East and the USA on several different stages. Year after year, this annual January extravaganza is unsurpassed in terms of both quality and quantity of talent. This blog managed to catch about fifteen of those acts over that marathon weekend, including but not limited to agelessly soulful Armenian reedman Souren Baronian, rapturous singer Eva Salina  and her whirlwind accordionist Peter Stan, haunting tar lute player Amir Vahab, the searing brass of Zlatne UsteNovi Maleshevski Zurli, Raya Brass Band and Cocek! Brass Band. Golden Fest 2018 is this coming January 12 and 13 at the magnificent Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

There were four other multiple-night events that deserve a special place on this list. In March, the first-ever collaboration between Lincoln Center and the annual Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco resulted in a trance-inducing series of concerts that began at the Upper West Side cultural mecca, moved to a cozy auditorium at the the New School for an approximation of a Moroccan lila healing ceremony and wound up at Pioneer Works in Red Hook for a collaboration with some New Jork jazz dudes including Marc Cary and Marcus Strickland. Three of the great sintir lute-playing maalems (masters) of mesmerizing gnawa music –Abdeslam AlikkaneHamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa – got to flex their chops.

The annual Drive East Festival at Dixon Place in August featured a similarly rapturous, weeklong series of Indian classical music and dance performances. Poignantly nuanced singer Indrani Khare and sitarist Kinnar Seen shared one of the midweek bills; theatrical Punjabi folk troupe Rajasthani Caravan headlined the Saturday night show. But the most amazing set of all might have been sarod virtuoso Aashish Khan, with his gracefully flickering, saturnine ragas.

The 2017 Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a weekly series spread out over more than a month in midsummer, featured mini-sets from scores of artists playing everything from klezmer to forro to swing jazz. Balkan and Middle Eastern music in separate corners of the park. Closing night began with some of the world’s greatest Middle Eastern musicians playing a riveting recreation of Ziad Rahbani’s iconic, bittersweet 1975 Bil Afrah suite.

And for the first time ever, this blog was present at every single night of an artist’s monthlong weekly residency at Barbes. Clarinet powerhouse and composer Michael Winograd picked April since there were five Saturdays in the month, where he was joined by a killer cast of musicians including rising star pianist Carmen Staaf for some small-group shows as well as a midmonth big band gig that was the best of them all. New klezmer sounds never sounded so edgy, so purist yet so fresh and wildly fun.

Otherwise, dig in for the longest year-end concert list this blog’s ever put together. It was impossible to whittle it down to any less than a grand total of fifty shows. The real estate speculator blitzkrieg keeps turning neighborhoods to rubble, yet people in this melting pot refuse to stop making great music. The rest of the year’s concerts are listed in chronological order since trying to rank them would be an exercise in futility.

If you don’t see your favorite band or your favorite show here – “What, no Dream Syndicate at Bowery Ballroom, are you guys nuts?” –  it’s a good bet that this blog wasn’t there. If you think this list is epic, just imagine the wishlist that went into it. But it’s one thing to plan on going out every night; it’s another thing to actually do it. Counting all the nights when it actually was possible to get out of the house or the office, there was more than enough good music to somewhat mitigate one of the worst years in memory for the world as a whole.

David Yengbarian, Borbely Mihaly Polygon and Meszecsinka at Drom, 1/5/17
The annual showcases put on by the APAP booking agents’ association can be an insanely good bargain. Cover was ten measly bucks for the dynamic Balkan accordionist, the noir cinematic trio of saxophonist Mihály Borbély, pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés, and the wild Hungarian trance-dance band.

LadamaAlash,Eva Salina and Peter Stan, Miramar and Innov Gnawa at Drom, 1/7/17
This APAP evening was even more insanely good – and this isn’t even the whole lineup! Pan-latin, mostly female dance band Ladama made a good opener for the energetically trancey Tuvan throat-singing trio, the stellar Balkan chanteuse and her accomplice on accordion, the hauntingly psychedelic Puerto Rican bolero revivalists and the only sintir lute-driven, mesmerizing traditional Moroccan trance-ritual band in this hemisphere. That group has good management: Innov Gnawa managed to get themselves on more than one bill on this page.

The Pre-War Ponies and Tipsy Oxcart at Barbes, 1/12/17
Singer/uke player Daria Grace’s swing band opened the evening on a lush, elegantly romantic note; the fiery Balkan band ended up charging into the audience as the show hit peak intensity.

Shilpa Ananth, Rini and Humeysha at Drom, 1/29/17
A diverse triplebill of Indian-influenced sounds, from psychedelic soul, to towering cinematic art-rock and spacerock.

Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif at Drom, 2/3/17
The legendary jamband leader’s microtonal guitar trio were as otherworldly as their albums – and funny too.

The Super Bolus at Footlight Bar, 2/5/17
With half the nation supposedly glued to a soporific pre-Super Bowl gabfest, a posse of A-list Brooklyn improvisers from the Gold Bolus  circle including but not limited to singers Anne Rhodes  and Anais Maviel, trumpeter Daniel Levine, saxophonists Angela Morris and Erin Rogers, vibraphonist Sam Sowyrda, bassist Lisa Dowling and oboeist Dave Kadden paired off for all kinds of strange and beguiling sounds. Kadden’s rampaging microtonal assault was the high point, in fact the most intense solo performance at any show on this list other than Amir ElSaffar’s Soho set in January.

The Musical Chairs String Quartet at the Staten Island Museum, 2/11/17
An unlikely spot to see a riveting performance of Shostakovich’s macabre, anti-fascist String Quartet No. 7 and two world premieres of fantastic quartets by Andrew Rosciszewski.

Laurie AndersonChristian McBride and Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall, 2/23/17
Avant garde violin icon joins forces with renowned jazz bassist and protean cello wizard for a night of sometimes lively, sometimes raptly sepulchral improvisation, with Anderson’s signature political relevance

Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, 3/2/17
She may be the foremost songwriter working right now, and treated an intimate crowd to a typically eclectic, intensely lyrical set of noir cabaret, Renaissance rock, latin-tinged parlor pop and pricelessly funny between-song banter.

Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal at the French Institute, 3/3/17
The Malian kora player and French cellist teamed up for a magical duo performance staged by the World Music Institute that blended phantasmic, cinematic themes, jaunty West African melodies and the baroque. More than one audience member was brought to tears.

Girls on Grass at Halyards, 3/23/17
Guitarist Barbara Endes’ psychedelic janglerock band sounded like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front – that good, that anthemic, that catchy.

Steve Ulrich and Mamie Minch, and Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation at Barbes, 3/25/17
Minch’s playful live movie score and Big Lazy mastermind Ulrich’s noir cinematics followed by the former Snow bandleader’s hilarious, brilliant English language parlor pop versions of Georges Brassens classics.

Changing Modes at Webster Hall, 3/26/17
The album release show by New York’s most smartly lyrical, unpredictable, keyboard-driven art-rock band was as protean and poignant as the record.

Miqayel Voskanyan at Drom, 4/5/17
Speaking of protean, the Armenian tar lute virtuoso and his quartet shifted between Near Eastern art-rock, folk-rock, Balkan turbo-folk and Romany dance music.

Meklit at Lincoln Center, 4/6/17
And while we’re still on the protean tip, how about the charismatic, fearlessly populist Ethio-jazz soulstress and her amazing band airing out new tunes from her kinetic, eclectic new album?

Easy Dreams and Karla Rose at 11th Street Bar, 4/11/17
Further proof that some of the best shows sometimes happen way under the radar. Rose, arguably the most captivating and versatile singer in all of New York and a haunting tunesmith as well, took a turn behind the drums in a mini-set by the uneasily jangly indie band, then picked up her guitar and haunted the crowd with her own brooding, film noir-influenced soul and psychedelic rock.

Gato Loco at Barbes, 4/20/17
This was more of a show for the drinkers than the stoners, a toweringly crescendoing mix of slinky noir instrumentals, psycho guitar-driven mambos and bouncy, carnivalesque themes.

Michael WinogradKill Henry Sugar and Las Rubias Del Norte at Barbes, 4/22/17
Goosebump-inducing klezmer clarinetist and his quartet, artfully lyrical, sardonic Americana rock duo and a farewell show (for now, at least) by keyboardist Alyssa Lamb and singer Emily Hurst’s hauntingly harmony-driven pan-American noir band.

Miklos Lukacs’ Cimbalom Unlimited at Drom, 5/22/17
Lukacs’ second appearance on this list was as a bandleader, playing fiery, relentlessly crescendoing themes, fingers flying across his magically rippling Hungarian dulcimer.

Rahim AlHaj at Lincoln Center, 5/25/17
The Iraqi oud virtuoso, joined by Iranian santoor player Sourena Sefati and Palestinian percussionist Issa Malluf, played the most haunting and understatedly relevant small-group New York show in a year when anti-Muslim bigotry reached a new low.

Sara SerpaSofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson in the West Village, 6/2/17
Three of the most distinctive, individualistic voices in all of music – the intense, noir-inspired Serpa, the irrepressibly fun Rei and the enigmatically lustrous Johnson – shared a characteristically eclectic bill of a-cappella songs and improvisations in a storefront church space. Unexpected venue, magical show.

Hearing Things at Barbes, 6/3/17
Brooklyn’s funnest band – JP Schlegelmilch on organ, Matt Bauder on sax and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – are a cross between the Doors, the Ventures and maybe WIBG. The result: a brand new style. Psychedelic surf noir jazz dance music!

The Barbes Benefit at Drom, 6/9/17
Brooklyn’s best venue was in trouble. Some of New York’s best bands joined forces for a wildly successful fundraiser to make sure it’s here for another five years. On the bill: thunderous Brazilian drum troupe Maracatu NY, noir icons the Jazz Passengers, Romany song maven Sanda Weigl, a subset of the haunting, soaring all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache; charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Afro-Colombian trance-dance choir Bulla en el Barrio , the similar but lower-register Innov Gnawa; one-off Balkan brass supergroup Fanfare Brooklyn – and Lynchian guitar-bass-drums trio Big Lazy .

Michael Winograd and Ben Holmes, Sean Cronin and Dolunay at Barbes, 6/10/17
The clarinetist and his trumpeter compadre opened an eclectic early-summer evening with a quartet show and lots of darkly chromatic new tunes, followed by the similarly eclectic guitarist and his purist band playing Hank Williams covers, and then riveting singer Jenny Luna’s haunting, oud-infused Turkish band

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Outdoors in the Financial District, 6/16/17
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer and his big band played a titanic set of Middle Eastern jazz from his latest album. His show at the Fridman Gallery in SoHo back in January, which he began with a distantly harrowing solo trumpet improvisation, was much more quietly transcendent.

Rose Thomas Bannister and Goddess at Corkscrew Wines, 6/21/17
A witchy, psychedelic twinbill in a comfortable Fort Greene back courtyard with the lyrically ferocious, Shakespeare-influenced chanteuse and the theatrical psych-folk band. Backed by lead guitar monster Bob Bannister, she was also awfully good there a couple of months later on a doublebill with oldtime Americana singer Stephanie Jenkins.

Lara St. John at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, 6/27/17
In front of an impressively game pickup group, the violin virtuoso treated the crowd to a kinetic Jessie Montgomery piece, a lyrical take of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and a harrowing world premiere by Matthew Hindson, Maralinga, a narrative of terror in the wake of a 1950s Australian nuclear disaster. After that, Stravinsky was anticlimactic.

Orkesta Mendoza and Lila Downs at Prospect Park Bandshell, 6/29/17
The slinky psychedelic cumbia and noir mambo band set the stage for an epic set of classic mariachi and fearlessly political ballads by the iconic Mexican-American singer and her titanic band, joined on several numbers by Mariachi Flor de Toloache. The afterparty down the hill at Barbes, with wild Veracruz-style folk-punks Radio Jarocho, was pretty intense too.

The Mary​ ​Halvorson Octet at the Village Vanguard, 7/18/17
The world’s best jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot and her lush, enveloping ensemble – featuring brilliant pedal steel player Susan Alcorn – aired out a lot of dynamic, uneasy new material.

Rev. Billy & the Church of  Stop Shopping Choir and Sexmob at Prospect Park Bandshell, 7/27/17
A brand-new set of original apocalyptic, anti-fascist and anti-racist original gospel tunes by the firebrand activist and his gargantuan choir, followed by the cinematic jazz quartet playing a darkly undulating, colorful live score to the 1920s Italian silent film Maciste All’Infierno.

The Trio Joubran at the Lincoln Center Festival, 7/29/17
The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers charmed and haunted the crowd with a dynamic tribute to their late collaborator, iconic poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/4/17
Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s cinematic noir trio made it onto the bill on more than one of the year’s best concerts, but their best single show – this blog was in the house at many of them – might have been this wildly jam-oriented night, two creepy sets at the band’s Park Slope home base. How did it feel afterward? “Free,” grinned drummer Yuval Lion.

Kill Henry Sugar and Anbessa Orchestra at Barbes, 8/11/17
Guitarist Erik Della Penna and drummer Dean Sharenow’s Americana lit-rock band have a ton of new material up their sleeves, and aired it out here before the wild Israeli Ethiopian dance band took the intensity to redline with a ferocious, psychedelic couple of sets.

Castle Black at the Well, 8/25/17
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s power trio have grown from a haphazardly promising band into a dark, fearsome monster: not even the sonic interference from the adjacent labyrinth of rehearsal rooms could silence this beast.

Melissa & the Mannequins at LIC Bar, 9/3/17
Put up a good youtube video and the crowd will come. With their killer chops and songs, New York’s best new band switched from jangly new wave to psychedelic soul and tantalizing hints of noir.

Bobtown at the Brooklyn Americana Festival, 9/23/17
Plaintive Anglo-American folk maven Jan Bell books this annual event: it would have been a lot of fun to have been able to catch more of it. With their gleaming four-part harmonies and songs about ghosts and other dead people, New York’s finest folk noir band were at the top of their game.

Greek Judas and the NY Fowl Harmonic at Hank’s, 9/28/17
Volcanic twin-guitar heavy metal versions of Greek songs from the 1920s and 30s about smoking hash, smuggling drugs and outrunning the cops, followed by Gato Loco bass sax monster Stefan Zeniuk’s carnivalesque punk-mambo group.

Seungmin Cha and Ned Rothenberg in Tribeca, 10/1/17
A riveting, intense, enveloping electroacoustic jazz loft set by the paradigm-shifting avant garde Korean daegeum flute player with the downtown multi-reed virtuoso.

The 24-Hour Raga-Thon at the Rubin Museum of Art, 10/22/17
This blog was only around for the wee-hours part that started about three in the morning: prime time for haunting, rarely heard morning ragas reinvented by an adventurous cast of Indian musicians including but not limited to saxophonist Aakash Mittal, guitarist Rez Abbasi, sarodist Camila Celin , trumpeter Aaron Shragge, bansuri flutist Eric Fraser and santoor sorceress Deepal Chodhari. 

Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized Playing Twin Peaks at Barbes, 10/29/17
Brooklyn’s best and most individualistic jazz guitarist led his fearlessly adventurous group through some careening and some absolutely chilling versions of iconic David Lynch tv and film scores.

Edna Vazquez at Lincoln Center, 11/2/17
You could call this charismatic guitarist/singer’s music “noiriachi” – haunting, kinetic, fearlessly relevant dark mariachi rock.

La Mar Enfortuna at the Jewish Museum, 11/9/17
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow’s lush, luscious twelve-string jangle and his bandmate, singer Jennifer Charles’ multilingual reinventions of ancient Ladino songs and themes from across the Sephardic diaspora ran the gamut from haunting to even more so.

The ClaudettesBrian Carpenter and the Confessions and Big Lazy at Drom, 11/10/17
The piano-driven Chicago group have reinvented themselves as a catchy blue-eyed soul band; Carpenter, a connoisseur of oldtimey swing jazz, mined a deep noir rock vein, capped off by NYC’s finest noir cinematic instrumentalists.

The Navatman Music Collective at Symphony Space, 11/19/17
This hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir sang and played a mammoth, shapeshifting set of reinvented classical themes from across the centuries.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra in the Lincoln Center complex, 12/2/17
A poignant, violin-fueled take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Michael Daugherty’s timpani concerto Raise the Roof set the stage for a withering performance of Shostakovich’s classic antifascist Symphony No. 10. Anybody who thinks classical music isn’t relevant wasn’t there.

The Todd Marcus Orchestra at Smalls, 12/3/17
The bass clarinetist/bandleader led his brilliant eight-piece group through his brand-new, catchy, picturesque Middle Eastern jazz suite.

Drummer-Chef Sunny Jain Brings Treats for the Ears and the Taste Buds to Lincoln Center

Last night Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh enthusiastically introduced Sunny Jain as “Our original – an artist who’s had a long history with Lincoln Center…the first artist to play the atrium.” The Red Baraat mastermind and dhol bass drum player is also an accomplished cook. His gameplan was to do a food-themed show, complete with samples of his own all-natural, sugar-free homemade pear chutney, introduced by his ExtravagaJAMza band with a strutting, New Orleans-infused take of a wry 50s-style lounge theme. And the chutney was tasty  – although he admitted it lacked the hot pepper burn of his first batch. Bring THAT stuff next time, dude!

Taking a relatively rare turn behind a full drum kit, Jain mixed up his band members. Flamboyant singer Jonathan Hoard fronted the unit that opened the show – with Marc Cary on electric piano, Gary Wang on bass, Delicate Steve on guitar, Lee Hogans on trumpet and Mike Bomwell on soprano sax – for a coy boudoir funk intro that morphed into a psych-funk vamp, the guitar suddenly switching from emphatic rainy-day chords to sunbaked blues. Red Baraat are no strangers to the jamband circuit; this band could sell a lot of tickets there too.

Jain explained that he’d written Mango Festival back in the early zeros after attending a real mango festival in New Delhi, India, watching his family flex their chops in a mango eating contest. As Wang held down a low drone, the intensity of singer Ganavya Doraiswamy’s wordless melismas rose, then Jain took over with a qawwali groove, sax and keys shifting the music from dusky Hindustani ambience to gritty Harlem summer psych-funk and back.

The lightheartedly energetic Jack & Jill, inspired by Jain’s three-year-old twins, opened with a Vikram Seth poem, followed by a dancing upper-register Cary solo and a dip to more stately, poignant vocalese from Doraiswamy that she again took into the stratosphere. Jain’s quintet got ambitious, jazzing up a Bollywood number, Bomwell switching back to baritone – it didn’t take long to get a clapalong with those who recognized it. But even a pulsing, insistent Ray Mason trombone solo and a slinkier one from Wang didn’t get the crowd dancing – maybe it was just too cold outside.

Jain cracked everybody up with his sardonic account of visiting Global Village in Dubai – that country’s equivalent of Disneyworld’s Epcot Center – to discover that the only country in the exhibit represented by a person rather than architecture was the United States. That individual was a cowboy. Jain couldn’t resist noticing that the Roy Moores of the world all seem to wear the same symbol of subjugation – a cowboy hat. And then the full band – which also included Alison Shearer on alto sax and John Altieri on sousaphone – followed with the colorful, cinematic Indian Cowgirl, mashing up Morricone with a Bollywood take on a western film theme. Shearer’s high-voltage solo was the high point.

Cary switched to drums and Jain strapped on his dhol, closing with the Red Baraat tune Shruggy Ji, which made an improbably successful connection between bhangra and the DC go-go music Cary grew up with, fueled by Hogans’ relentless, edgy trumpet. Who knew that Cary was such an accomplished guy behind the kit?

These Lincoln Center atrium shows at the Broadway space north of 62nd Street are an awful lot of fun. The next one is a Dominican dance party on Dec 21 at 7:30 with newschool merengue band Tipico Urbano. There’s no cover; get there early.

A Blissful Weekend of Otherworldly, Cutting-Edge Moroccan Trance Music

Every year, at the end of June, the Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde – the world’s largest performance of North African music – takes place in the coastal city of Essaouira, Morocco. Literally millions of people gather to watch dozens of the world’s most exciting and innovative acts in Moroccan and Middle Eastern sounds, to discover new bands, to dance or to be whirled into a trance state. By all accounts, Essaouira is a safer city than New York. With the strong dollar, it hasn’t been this inexpensive for Americans to visit in a long time. If you can afford to, you should go – in this political climate, your chance might be now or never, at least for the next few years.

This past weekend, three concerts in New York and one in Washington, DC celebrated the first-ever collaboration between the festival and Lincoln Center. Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal and Samir LanGus, founder of the only American gnawa band, Innov Gnawa, came up with the idea while at the festival last summer, and the rest is history.  And historic as well: this series of shows marked the first time three of the great maalems (masters) of Moroccan gnawa music, Abdeslam Alikkane, Hamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa, have ever appeared on the same stage.

About the music: gnawa was brought to Morocco by black slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. Gnawa music originated in pre-Islamic society as a healing ritual, fueled by the well-known calming and curative powers of low-register sonics. It’s typically sung by a maalem who plays a sintir bass lute, accompanied by a call-and-response chorus who add an often mesmerizing series of polyrhythms with a rustle and whirl of cast-metal qraqab castanets. The music’s migration north brought the invocation of Islamic saints and liturgy into the fold along with the traditional ancestral and nature spirits. Like American hip-hop or blues, it was considered ghetto for years before becoming Morocco’s best-known global music export over the past decade or so.

Thursday night at Lincoln Center was the big debut event. It’s safe to say that space was as packed as it’s ever been, an ecstatic, multicultural crowd that drew heavily on the Moroccan expat community, one of the many immigrant cultures that New York’s cultural mecca has reached out to in the recent past.

Alikkane was the first to take the stage, backed by a seven-piece qraqab choir. Rustic, tersely catchy, purposefully propulsive midtempo phrases flowed from his sintir while individual chorus members would spin out into the crowd, further energizing the audience. Would this hypnotically traditional performance be his signature style throughout the US tour? That answer wouldn’t reveal itself until the second night’s concert at the New School.

The atmosphere was electric when Ben Jaafer took the stage. Word on the street is that while audiences in Morocco miss him, there were some musicians who breathed a sigh of relief. At the moment he left for New York, seventeen years ago, he’d become such a popular touring artist that his departure opened up numerous opportunities for his fellow gnawis: he’d left big shoes to fill. Although the three New York concerts didn’t turn out to be cutting contests, per se, each maalem seemed fixated on taking his performance to the next level, and in this case, Alikkane had given Ben Jaafer a launching pad for some of the festival’s most exhilarating bass-string firepower.

Frequently interspersing unexpected, booming chords into his sinewy, serpentine volleys of notes, his strings crackled with ancient, blues scale-based riffage ornamented with contrastingly subtle, microtonal shades. His rugged baritone took on a regal resonance: the most powerful spirits of the night were definitely being invoked.

In his North American debut, El Kasri had a hard act to follow but ended up earning his headliner status. His sintir is flashier and has a grittier, more cutting tone than his colleagues’ models, closer to the sound of an overdriven bass guitar at times. Vocally, he turned out to be every bit the rockstar that Ben Jaafer is. By now, the crowd was amped to the point where they were making requests. With a triumphant grin, El Kasri seemed glad to give his people what they wanted: a chance to see one of the Essaouira festival’s most intense performers conquer a new continent.

The Friday night show at the New School was closer to the atmosphere of a lila, the ritualistic all-night trance ceremony and communal feast. Incense was burned and a platter of delicious dates made its way around as the room grew to capacity. Alikkane led the ensemble this time, a mix of Moroccans and expats, airing out his vast repertoire as the rhythms shifted from punchy and bouncy to a mystically shuffling hailstorm of qraqabs. He sent numerous shouts out to past masters of gnawa, made ancestral homages and kept the waves of reverent Sufi call-and-response going for about an hour and a half. At the end of the show, the great gnawa funk pioneer Hassan Hakmoun stepped in as translator, impromptu emcee, and took a turn on the sintir as well.

That this tour was able to sell out the big Pioneer Arts Center in remote Red Hook, of all places, on the final night speaks to how devoted the gnawa subculture has become. This wasn’t just an audience of expats: there were as many curious American kids, and couples, as there were Moroccans in the house. Alikkane again got to open the show and quickly picked up the pace as he’d done at the New School. He and the chorus were joined eventually by a crew of American jazz players including drummer Will Calhoun, bassist Jamaldeen Tacuma, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and multi-keyboardist Marc Cary. Main themes aside, approximately eighty to ninety percent of gnawa is improvisational, key to its ongoing popularity with jazz musicians. To the credit of everybody onstage, there was cordial camaraderie rather than egocentricity, Alikkane setting up a friendly, low-key rhythmic framework that made room for Strickland and Cary to waft and weave their way through as Calhoun and Tacuma bolstered the simple, purposeful groove.

El Kasri took centerstage for the second set of the night: several of the cognoscenti in the crowd, who’d been to all of the New York shows, agreed that this was the high point of the tour. It wasn’t long before he introduced a number with a long, ominous, enigmatic taqsim, moving beyond the traditional modes that had dominated the show so far, toward Middle Eastern microtones. He shifted back and forth between the two idioms from that point forward: when the jazzcats joined him later, it turned out to be fertile terrain. Tacuma embraced the uneasy, moody modes while Cary added mystital ambience via string synth and echoey electric piano, while Strickland contributed a broodingly gorgeous, slowly crescendoing solo, reminding of Kenny Garrett’s late 90s work. By the end of the show, both Alikkane and Ben Jaafer had picked up their qraqabs and joined the melee onstage, a welcome evocation of North African sun on an unseasonably grim New York evening.

For New Yorkers who might have missed these historic events, there’s are a couple of enticing gnawa events coming up soon. This Saturday night, March 25 at around 9, Innov Gnawa – the only gnawa group on this side of the Atlantic – are playing a benefit for at Littlefield. The rapturous guitar/piano duo of Rafiq Bhatia and Chris Pattishall open the night at 8; members of long-running second-wave Afrobeat faves Antibalas headline at around 10. Depending on what you’d like to contribute, you can get in for $12, or more if you choose. And on April 20 at 8 at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village, Innov Gnawa are playing an extremely rare set of Moroccan Jewish gnawa tunes.

Marc Cary Delivers Depth and Gravitas and Redemptive Fun at a Harlem Jazz Shrine

Pianist Marc Cary and his Focus Trio – Rashaan Carter on bass and Sameer Gupta on drums.- played their opening set at Minton’s uptown last night like a suite. It was as if they felt the cold and the snow flurries outside – not to mention the tension and grief this city’s endured in the last couple of weeks – and decided to welcome everyone and warm them up with a healthy dose of hot pepper. But they eschewed jalapeno jump for a lingering, resonant bhut jolokia burn. That Indian pepper reference is deliberate, and makes sense since Cary draws so deeply on Indian classical music, plunging in and savoring its otherworldly qualities to a greater degree than most western musicians.

Gupta’s relentless, restless energy, implied clave and wry repartee maintained a livewire energy as Cary mined the low registers for pitchblende atmosphere, with long, pedaled choral phrases, suspenseful modalities, minimalistic, rhythmic motives and the occasional droll phrase or two on an old analog synth perched above the piano keys. Although he got more animated and threw in rippling, bluesy riffage and runs toward the end of the set, most of it was lowlit, dark and mystical.

The rhythm section got to expand throughout a catchy number inspired by a transcontinental flight sitting next to Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal, who used his time on the plane to write a brand new tune. Betty’s Waltz, a stirring, bittersweetly assertive Betty Carter homage from Cary’s latest album Four Directions, became a platform for brooding, Satie-esque resonance. Cary hit a peak by reinventing his mentor Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away as a bitterly ambered mood piece – it was there that he chilled out on the synth, adding only some eerily echoey blues phrases that brought the song toward a corporate idiom, but in an out-of-focus and sardonic way. No doubt Lincoln would have loved that.

Meanwhile, it fell to Carter to hold the center as he added subtle colors when he wasn’t underpinning the songs with a muscularly slinky pulse to match Gupta’s clenched-teeth, tersely rapidfire volleys. Cary’s next NYC gig is at the Cell Theatre, 338 W 23rd St (8th & 9th Aves) on Jan 10.

A word about the vemue: Cary told the crowd that of all the false starts that various owners have taken in the Minton’s space over the past couple of decades, this version of the club is the best yet. He’s right. It’s a cross between the Vanguard and a swanky soul food emporium like Sylvia’s: plush ambience, inobtrusive but attentive service, expertly tricked-out sonics channeling the ghosts of history. Bebop was invented on this very same stage (or at least a significant piece of it) back in the late 30s, when the Ellington band held their famous cutting contests here. This incarnation of the club seems to draw a late crowd, and party people: it’s a Harlem jazz shrine that ought to be a must-see destination for anyone who cares about the music.

Arun Ramamurthy Radically Reinvents Ragas

Although violinist Arun Ramamurthy has extensive training in Indian carnatic music, he’s also a jazz guy. He’s got a lively, intriguing, cross-pollinating new album, Jazz Carnatica,streaming at Bandcamp. It’s an attempt to radically reinvent ragas with his trio, Perry Wortman on bass and Sameer Gupta – leader of Indian jazz band Namaskar, who reinvent old Bollywood themes – on drums. What does this music sound like? Because all but one of the tracks are based on classic ragas, it’s Indian classical music first and foremost. But the rhythms are lithe and dancing and full of pulsing energy, and far more terse than the frequently expansive, slowly unwinding themes of sitar music. If you’ve got friends who might confide something like, “Sure, I like Indian music ok, but it’s so meeeelllllllloooooowwwwww…” play this the next time you see them and they’ll have a change of heart. The trio are playing the album release show on Nov 1 at 8 PM at at Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. in the West Village; cover is $15.

As much as Ramamurthy’s violin moves around, and it’s always in motion, even when he’s at his most energetic he doesn’t stray far from a central tone. That tension fuels a lot of understated mystery here. The opening track starts out surprisingly funky, with a catchy turnaround and a very cleverly implied two-chord (or two-mode, if you must) vamp. The elegant intro of the second number quickly gives way to a dancing but hypnotic theme, which the band vamps on – Wortman often doubles Ramamurthy’s lines, providing a staccato contrast to Ramamurthy’s lingering sustain.

Marc Cary – who also plays with Gupta in Namaskar – guests on the album’s three central tracks. The first also features another cross-pollinating violinist, Trina Basu – it’s the closest thing here to a psychedelically rustic, Ravi Shankar-style raga, but built around a riff that’s pure blues. The second has Cary adding a little calypso jazz flair and the most traditional jazz vernacular of the tracks here.

The next two tracks build out of moody atmospherics to more lively interplay. Likewise, the seventh track – the one Ramamurthy original, and the best of them all – expands outward from a broodingly chromatic tune to a bouncy bass solo. As the album goes along, Ramamurthy goes deeper into the microtones, his rather severe, intense tone contrasting with Wortman’s bubbly bass on the eight number here. The final one is the closest to the kind of modal jazz that Gupta plays in Namaskar, Ramamurthy choosing his spots. All of the tracks clock in at more than five minutes, sometimes considerably more. Onstage, they’ll probably take them out even further into more psychedelic territory. This is an album that will grab a lot of people: Indian music fans in search of a shot of adrenaline, and jazz fans who thrive on the space between the notes.

Original Funky Psychedelic Sounds from Jesse Fischer and Soul Cycle

Jesse Fischer and Soul Cycle have been one of Brooklyn’s best party bands for a long time. Their latest album Retro Future is aptly titled: they take a sound indelibly associated with the 70s – jazz-funk with electric keyboards and guitar – and update it for the present. But not in a cheesy way, with autotune and samples, or in a dorky way, with the studied awkwardness and ineptitude of indie rock. This time around, they bring echoes of Ethiopian and Balkan music along with more straight-up jazz than their previous albums.

The first thing you notice about Fischer is that he’s fast. Whether whirling through a Bernie Worrell-style portamento solo, hitting a crashing series of piano chords or rippling through the highs on Fender Rhodes, Marc Cary style, he has ferocious technique. But he doesn’t overdo it: those simply serve as high points in the lush, psychedelic, atmospheric arrangements, this time out alongside David Linaburg on guitar, Solomon Dorsey on bass, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s Gabriel Wallace on drums, Brian Hogans on alto sax, Jean Caze on trumpet, Corey King (of Esperanza Spalding’s band) on trombone and Shawn Banks on percussion.

The dancefloor thud that opens the album is a trick. Titled Tanqueray and Tonic, the citrusy ambience creates a party, and within a minute Wallace has a funky swing going, Fischer’s spinning synth solo echoed memorably by Hogans (whose razor-sharp, smart solos are the high point of this album). Moon Ship takes an easygoing mid-70s Crusaders groove and gives it a big cinematic arrangement with rippling trumpet and a pulsing, suspenseful interlude with the electric piano mingling hypnotically with the sax.

One of the best tracks here is Digital Savanna, which with its enveloping atmospherics and reverb-toned, glimmering upper-register Rhodes evokes a 70s Roy Ayers’ soundtrack piece. Then suddenly it goes doublespeed and segues into Cyberphunk, a trickily rhythmic number (these guys have no fear of “odd” tempos) that hits a high point with a biting, searingly crescendoing Hogans solo. Hogans also wails memorably against the late 70s Weather Report-style ambience of Gotham Underground and does that yet again on the album’s best song, Midnight Dancer, a brisk Ethiopian-flavored romp. The last of the originals is the incisively bouncy Keep the Faith: if you can’t smile at the sheer ridiculous fun of Fischer’s frenetically tone-bending synth solo, you have no soul.

There are three covers here. Age of Aquarius, with Rachel Eckroth taking a breezy, low-key turn on vocals, gets a stoner trip-hop arrangement. To the band’s credit, they don’t try to outdo Hendrix on a similarly low-key, more funky take of Electric Ladyland. The album ends with a mashup: just as you notice that, wow, they’ve just made Radiohead funky, that nauseating Fleetwood Mac song that every first-year guitar student knows enters the picture. Aside from that, it’s all good here. Oh yeah – everything here, you can dance to. There’s also all kinds of free goodies and live tracks up at their Bandcamp site.