New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

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Which Way East at the New York Gypsy Festival

It’s likely that most of the people who wrote the songs that Which Way East played last night at Drom died young and forgotten, along with their contemporaries, the only people who might have been able to maintain some record of composer credits. Adding their own improvisational, sometimes jazzy, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged edge, the New York-based Balkan group did justice to the depth and power of those old songs, as part of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival. This particular version of the band featured Jesse Kotansky on violin, Adam Good (of the Berlin-based Ljuti Hora) on several stringed instruments, Uri Sharlin on accordion and Eva Salina Primack on vocals.

Primack’s initials pretty much explain her approach to music. There are other singers who can learn perfect enunciation in Romanes, Macedonian and Turkish, as she demonstrated during the show, but she doesn’t simply have the mechanics down cold: she inhabits the songs. Death and despair were not always front and center during the set – in fact, just the opposite – but they were always lurking around the corner, and Primack’s wary, nuanced modulations were a constant reminder. She may be best known for power and drive – it’s something of an athletic feat to be able to sing over the blasting brass of a band like Slavic Soul Party – but this show was not about pyrotechnics, it was about soul. That she didn’t upstage the other musicians testifies to the equally subtle power they brought to the music. Kotansky typically served as the lead player, building crescendos to the breaking point, sliding, swooping and diving, adding swirls of otherworldly microtones to bring a crescendo to critical mass. Good began on guitar, with an agile, precise gypsy jazz attack, then switched to the clanky yet hypnotic tambura and then oud, the instrument that gave him the opportunity to induce the most goosebumps with a couple of slowly swelling, brooding solos. Sharlin held the rhythm steady, sometimes with a blippy staccato, sometimes with raw sheets of sustain: it would have been fun to have seen him cut loose more than he did because like his bandmates, he typically goes for plaintiveness over flash.

Together they made their way, judiciously but not particularly cautiously, through a Turkish wedding song, a couple of acidically rustic Macedonian tunes and the gypsy anthem Song of the Romanes.They finally let the clouds lift with a cover of the iconic gypsy pop tune Marushka, Primack going down into her low register for a sardonic come-hither vibe. They ended the set with a completely unexpected cover of Jolene. You might think that a Dolly Parton hit would make a bizarre segue with gypsy music, but this band made it work (Primack’s AE duo project with another A-list singer, Aurelia Shrenker, explores the Appalachian-Balkan connection even more deeply). Primack teased the crowd, waiting until the third chorus until she finally went all the way up the scale for “Jo-LEE-ee-een,” unable to resist a grin as she brought the song back down. And she made it absolutely clear how sad a song it was. It’s not a happy karaoke singalong: it’s a plea to a hot mama who can get whatever she wants to refrain from breaking up someone else’s home (although there should be a sequel where the protagonist gets to kick Jolene’s ass, then her man’s ass, and then run off with Jolene’s husband for good measure. Maybe Primack can write that one someday).

Which Way East play Oct 13 at the Jalopy at 9 with Veveritse Brass Band.

Roger Davidson Brings the Party to Drom

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without at least one trip to the New York Gypsy Festival. In its seventh year now, it might be the consistently best music series in this city – especially since it isn’t just limited to gypsy music. This year’s has included Eastern European jazz, gypsy punk, Macedonian fusion and flamenco funk, to name a few styles. And it’s still going on: with five more concerts left, the organizers are selling the remaining festival passes for $25, which at $5 per show is a ridiculous bargain, considering that these include a triplebill with A Hawk & a Hacksaw, Dark Dark Dark and Pillars and Tongues on the 28th at the Bell House and the 29th at Drom.

Is it sacrilegious to say that klezmer is great drinking music? If so, too bad. That’s what composer/pianist Roger Davidson and his all-star band played at their Gypsy Festival appearance at Drom last night. If the room wasn’t sold out, it was close to capacity, the crowd growing as the night went on. Minor keys, or for that matter waltz time, have seldom been so much fun. Davidson’s latest album On the Road of Life is his first adventure in klezmer, and like his bandmates, he’s expanding the style to incorporate other equally ecstatic styles: Russian, Hungarian and other European sounds from further west. As he told the audience, he feels like he’s part of a bigger picture, a constantly evolving tradition that he’s just happy to be part of. His band was as bracing and intense as you would expect from a group with Frank London on trumpet, Matt Darriau on clarinet, Patrick Farrell on accordion and Pablo Aslan on bass plus mandolin, cimbalom and drums.

Davidson REALLY likes 3/4 time, and he redeemed it, over and over again, although frequently those songs would suddenly burst into flames and go doublespeed or four-on-the-floor. The first opened dark and stately, the accordion carrying it until London’s trumpet took over with a jaunty ragtime flair. Darriau got a solo spot thrown at him, completely unprepared – and it might have turned out to be his best one of the night. Likewise, Davidson picked this spot for his best one of the evening as well, nimble and ecstatic, firing off a couple of furious glissandos up and down the keys at the end, clarinet and trumpet joining in a dixieland raveup. That got the party started.

Aslan took a lickety-split, rumbling bass solo for a couple of bars on the scurrying romp that followed, London blazing a path through the darkness on the slow, austere number after that. The trumpeter had introduced Davidson to The Lonely Dancers, which might have been the most unselfconsciously gorgeous tune of the evening, a Russian melody that they built to a lush, brooding majesty and then took down to just Aslan against the accordion and terse piano (the whole band was seldom playing all at once, so when they hit a swell, the effect was intense). Davidson gave a catchy, tiptoeing tune a funky edge before they took it doublespeed with the horns whirling; a little later, they did a particularly mesmerizing version of his nocturne Night Journey, its atmospherics finally punctured by Darriau’s blazing crescendo. They closed with the rapt, suspenseful Equal in the Eyes of God, a tricky, Serbian-inflected dance, then another one of those brooding waltzes with balalaika-ish mandolin, and finally Harvest Dance, whose wicked riff lingered long after the show had ended.

And as it turned out there was another act: London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, who are as wild and intense as you would think and don’t really need any press since they’re legendary in klezmer and Balkan circles. And at that point, sadly, there were other places to go and things to do.