For one reason or another, this has been an amazing year for doublebills. Arguably the best one so far was last night at NYU, where the trans-continental Glass House Ensemble teamed up with iconic Hungarian Jewish string band Muzsikas for a sizzling show that offered both homage and reinvention to themes that, without some heavy lifting on the archival side, would have disappeared forever.
The Glass House Ensemble, led by soulful polymath trumpeter Frank London and his Hungarian multi-instrumentalist pal Béla Ágoston, opened. This blog was there when the Hungarian-American collaboration made their sensational debut performance at Drom last year – without having rehearsed together! London always manages to have his fingers in a whole bunch of good projects simultaneously. Lately he can be found on chanteuse Shulamit‘s poignant, historically rich Women in the Shoah album, as well on the reputedly amazing forthcoming album by Romany song reinventor and singer Eva Salina and her band.
The Glass House Ensemble – named after a legendary Hungarian safe house for Jews in World War II – opened with the same wild suite they played in Budapest this past winter. Miklós Lukács’ machinegun cimbalom riffage led the pack through lushly dynamic rises and falls, Agoston’s soprano sax trading riffage with London, violinist Edina Szirtes Mókus’ powerful alto voice building to a rapidfire crescendo in a rampaging, eerily chromatic call-and-response with the rest of the band. That was just the first number.
Throughout the rest of the set, drummer Yoni Halevy jumped at the opportunity to surprise the crowd with trick endings. Pablo Aslan, a major force in nuevo tango, provided a slinky, slithering low end when he wasn’t taking acrobatic leaps or providing stygian washes of sound with his bow. Guitarist Aram Bajakian channeled Jimi Hendrix on one intro, otherwise hanging back with a judiciously jangly approach that filled out the dips and swells beneath the lushness of the violins, Mokus in tandem or exchanging hooks with Jake Shulman-Ment. London imbued one lustrous, cinematic theme with a wrenching sense of longing, awash in plaintive harmonies, like an unanswered cantorial call. Later he led the band into a one of several fiery, bristling, minor-key romps where Lukacs took the wildest yet most meticulously intricate, rapidfire solo of the night. At the end of the concert, they joined forces with Muzsikas for a similarly jaunty yet bittersweet theme, a mighty dozen-piece ensemble intertwining with a triumphant expertise as the audience clapped and stomped along. Bands like this live for moments like this.
Where the Glass House Ensemble were an elegantly stampeding, slashingly artsy orchestra, Muzsikas’ set was feral and ferocious – but also brooding, wounded and often otherworldly. Charismatic violinist Laszlo Portleki explained in impressively good English that they’d often had to learn their repertoire of Jewish themes from Romany musicians, considering that the Hungarian Romany population hadn’t been quite as decimated by the Holocaust (maybe a hundred thousand Romany people, maybe half a million Jews – what’s that to Hitler?).
Singer Maria Petras matched Mokus’ role with her dramatic, often riveting delivery of several numbers, in a potent mezzo-soprano. Violinist Mihaly Sipos took many of the night’s most adrenalizing solos, when he wasn’t switching to gardon, the Transylvanian percussion instrument with a cello-like body that produces an ominous hum when you beat it with a stick (that’s how it’s supposed to be played). They opened with a pulsing, almost frantic, rustic two-step dance, seemingly closer to southern Balkan music than Hungarian folk…but that’s why Jewish music is so rich, because it’s so syncretic.
In about an hour onstage, with insightful song introductions from Porteleki, Muzsikas gave the crowd a fascinating tour of prewar Hungarian Jewish music in all its deliriously fun, and ironic, haunting glory. One stark number drew on the gorgeous Middle Eastern freygish mode, but a rather sentimental number from close to the Austrian border bordered on German schmaltz. Like the opening band, Muzsikas worked the dynamics up and down, the tempos leaping to warp speed and then back, or dropping out completely for a mysterious, melismatic violin intro, a swoopily shapeshifting crescendo against a low drone, or a sad, steadily stomping march. Underscoring all these amazing songs was that if the group hadn’t searched for them high and low, among old musicians and archives, none of this music would exist anymore.