New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: mohammed abdel wahab

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

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. 

Transcendence, Thrills and Fun with Simon Shaheen and Rima Khcheich

Saturday night, Palestininan-born oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen played a rare duo performance with Lebanese chanteuse Rima Khcheich to a sold-out crowd at Roulette. It was the Middle Eastern equivalent of Richard Thompson backing Rosanne Cash, or Duke Ellingon doing a duo show with Ella Fitzgerald. In a survey of iconic Arabic songs dating as far back as possibly the 12th century and as recently as the 70s, the two delivered two sets that were as rivetingly intense as they were friendly and intimate – no surprise, considering that most of the songs were about unrequited love.

Through endless dynamic shifts led by both the singer and instrumentalist, there were many moments of clenched-teeth angst but also lots of deviously funny repartee, much of it wordless. Humor is big in the Shaheen family. It wasn’t long before Simon started relating some funny stories, including one about how he eventually succeeded in getting a Beirut opera house crowd to loosen up, while his brother Najib – also a distinguished oudist – bantered with him from the audience. “Should we take a break?” Simon grinningly inquired at the concert’s midway point, “Not for us – but for you!”

“No. Violin, thirty minutes!” Najib heckled back. And to satisfy his brother, as well as the others who’d requested some violin, Simon opened the second half with a measured, thoughtfully paced solo improvisation that rose from somber to bitingly animated and then savage, winding up with a series of whirlwind downward runs. Before the concert, he’d given a characteristically enlightening talk, self-deprecatingly relating that he thought that this show would be “Not challenging, but beautiful and fulfilling,” his oud serving simply to provide counterpoint and rhythmic drive for Khcheich’s vocals. But it was so much more than that. The two have done duo performances before, and their chemistry was electric, sometimes haunting but also high-spirited, especially when the other would take an extra verse or extra chorus or add extra melismatic tingle to a phrase. At one point, Shaheen opened a song with a bristling flurry of notes and Khcheich shook him off. For most musicians, that would be a faux pas to the extreme: you don’t shake off Simon Shaheen any more than you tell Chopin or B.B. King to start over again. But Khcheich wanted a slow backdrop and Shaheen gladly gave her one, a stately, swaying pulse that the singer slowly built to a mutedly majestic sense of longing.

Shaheen explained beforehand that Khcheich’s repertoire begins in pre-Renaissance Andalucia and stops in Lebanon in the 70s: “Now in the Middle East, if you listen to one song, you listen to thousands…a replica of the west,” he groused. But he’s largely right about that, and he pretty much nailed what Khcheich is about. In the same vein as the legendary Fairouz, she’s not a big belter, using her minutely nuanced alto to channel the subtlest emotional and dynamic shifts with a fine-tuned sense of irony and a surprising grit that she occasionally employs to ramp up the unease. Shaheen delivered his usual blend of profundity and thrills: much as his searing volleys of chromatics and wild if surgically precise tremolo-picking drew appreciative applause throughout the show, most of what he played was far slower and more contemplative – which made the fireworks all the more thrilling.

“The program wasn’t finalized, and it’s still not,” Shaheen joked as the two made their way raptly into an early Andalucian anthem awash in emotionally charged, wavering melismas, following with a number of songs by 20th century masters Said Darwish and Mohammed Abdel Wahab full of suspenseful push-pull, swells and ebbs and elegant tradeoffs between oud and voice. From there they parsed the Fairouz catalog for a handful of plaintive, rising and falling anthems by Felimone Wihbi and paradigm-shifting Lebanese art-rock/art-song composer duo the Rahbani Brothers. After a long, unexpectedly nebulous anthem to close the show, Khcheich encored with a bravely resolute a-cappella number. “You close your eyes, there’s something beyond the technicality, the knowledge: a spiritual experience, I would say,” Shaheen related before the concert, then made good on that promise.

Promoters Robert Browning Associates have more concerts that promise to be just as exciting coming up at Roulette. On April 26 at 8 PM Amir Nojan & the Nava Ensemble play haunting classical Persian music here, then on May 3 there’s a show with visionary Turkish composer/multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek with his percussionist son Murat.

Two Tracks You Might Like

Bobby Vacant & the Worn’s new video Nobody’s There is surprisingly upbeat, apprehensive and distantly creepy rock from the Swiss-based songwriter whose 2009 album Tear Back the Night with noted Chicago producer/multi-instrumentalist George Reisch was one of that year’s best. This rocks a lot harder yet more opaquely than this guy’s recent work (those reverb tank explosions kick ass…). And the video – old Midnight Cowboy-style neon-lit downtown Main Street footage from the 60s – is choice. From the forthcoming album Virginia Neon, due out on Swiss label Weak Records next month.

And speaking of relevant socially aware songwriters, Stephan Said has a completely kick-ass new site  with a global mix of related, politically-fueled artists, plus a new album, difrnt, and some killer tracks up at soundcloud including Aheb Aisht Al Huriyah (the classic 1920s Mohammed Abdel Wahab levantine anthem I Live the Life of Freedom), updated for the Traquair Square/Zucotti Park era with a gently swaying trip-hop/rock edge that gives way to a blistering psychedelic guitar solo at the end. The other tracks on the page, including the more hip-hop flavored Take a Stand give you a taste of how eclectic this guy is.