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Tag: pablo aslan

Transcendence and Inner Torment in Lesley Karsten’s Astor Piazzolla Biodrama That’s Not Tango

Over the past couple of years, Lesley Karsten has staged her mesmerizing Astor Piazzolla biodrama That’s Not Tango in larger and larger halls around New York. The project’s sold-out Jazz at Lincoln Center debut Tuesday night came across as a big victory, no matter how turbulently or quixotically she portrayed the life of the godfather of nuevo tango.

Early on we learn how his manager felt about him: “Onstage, he was a god. Offstage, he was a sonofabitch.” That quote is emblematic. Karsten sees the iconic composer and bandoneonist as a guy with a chip on his shoulder that he can’t – or won’t – get rid of, a defiant paradigm-shifter utterly consumed by dedication to his art at the expense of pretty much everything else.

She’s gone on record as surmising that he would have appproved of his role being played by a woman, and while we’ll never know the answer, it’s plausible, especially considering the quality of the musicianship behind her.

Karsten introduces him speaking posthumously – and in what could be a considerable stroke of irony, rather reflectively – from some sort of limbo. What’s he doing there? Setting the record straight, he wants us to know. The extraordinary group Karsten has assembled for this project – Brandt Fredriksen on piano, Nick Danielson on violin, Pablo Aslan on bass and the guy who may be this era’s greatest bandoneon player, JP Jofre – leap and swing and bluster through a mix of Piazzolla hits and a handful of more obscure numbers in between Karsten’s narration.

What might be most impressive about Karsten’s depiction of Piazzolla is how closely she focuses on the music. Piazzolla the character offers no shortage of drama as he rises from crippled toddler to smalltime thug, reluctantly taking up the bandoneon just to please his dad, then having a eureka moment when he hears his Hungarian neighbor playing Bach on the piano. The young Piazzolla’s dad – a hard man, and apparently a harder man to please – nonetheless was quick to act on his son’s passion. Karsten – whose background is documentary filmmaking – does not affect an accent, or a man’s voice. This tough-talking, foul-mouthed, often caustically cynical protagonist comes across as plenty macho regardless.

The band burn through the music with reckless abandon matched by expertise, no doubt due to the fact that both Jofre and Aslan are first-rate nuevo tango composers themselves. Fredriksen’s dynamism, from muted snippets of Bach, to an absolutely chilling, emotionally depleted, mostly-solo take of Soledad, to the leaps and bounds of Michaelangelo 70, ranges from flash to poignancy. Danielson, whose spare, suspenseful solo kicks off the night’s opening number, Lo Que Vendra, also gets plenty of time in the spotlight. At the end of the show, Karsten introduced Jofre as “Astor Piazzolla,” his whirlwind cadenzas and rich color palette giving voice to every shade the little bandoneon can conjure.

The noirish pulse and chromatics Piazzolla loved so much underscore just how deeply the klezmer music he heard as a kid, growing up next to a synagogue on the Lower East Side, affected him. Karsten also takes care to quote him on Bach, Cab Calloway, Ellington and especially Bartok. At the other end of the telescope, he’s even more quotable when it comes to much of tango – including a cruelly spot-on account of the kind of dancers who can be found at a milonga. There are also personal vignettes, ranging from Piazzolla’s estrangement from his children to his regrettable if tense relationship with the Videla dictatorship during the Dirty War of the 1970s.

One of the most telling moments in the show is an absolutely heartwrenching, revelatory tour through the backstory of Adios Nonino, Piazzolla’s requiem for his father and ironically one of the most traditional pieces in the Piazzolla repertoire. He’d been between sets at a gig in the Caribbean when he got the news; afterward, he went back on and played the second show of the night. Unable to communicate his grief with his family, he locked himself in his room with his bandoneon and wrote what he considered to be his greatest piece. The rest of the material on the bill focuses on Piazzolla’s most lavish ambitions, from the coy baroque allusions of Fuga y Misterio to the gritty intricacies of Tres Minutos Con la Realidad. What Ellington did with the blues, Piazzolla did with tango: this show will inspire anyone who loves his music as well as the many, many influences that went into it.

Violinist Meg Okura Brings Her Kaleidoscopic Melodic Sorcery to Jazz at Lincoln Center

Anne Drummond’s flute wafts over Brian Marsella’s uneasily rippling, neoromantic piano as the opening title track on violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble’s new album, Ima Ima gets underway. Then the piano gives way to Riza Printup’s spare harp melody before the rest of the orchestra waltz in elegantly. That kind of fearless eclecticism, love of unorthodox instrumentation and laserlike sense of catchy melodies have defined Okura’s work for over a decade. The new record is streaming at Bandcamp. She and the group are playing the album release show at Dizzy’s Club tomorrow night, August 20, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is steep, $35, but this is an amazing record with a brilliant band.

The lush cinematics of that first number wind up with a shift in tempo, a wistful Sam Newsome soprano sax solo and a big crescendo based on those distantly ominous opening ripples. The epic, practically eleven-minute A Summer in Jerusalem slowly coalesces with suspenseful textures from top to bottom, the high strings of the harp down to Sam Sadigursky’s bass clarinet, surrounded by ghostly flickers. As the piece gets going, it turns into a mighty, shapeshifting Middle Eastern soul tune, more or less. Marsella’s Rhodes piano bubbles enigmatically behind Tom Harrell’s stately Andalucian trumpet and Okura working every texture and microtone you could get out of a violin. Blithe ba-ba vocalese and spiky guitar against Okura’s calm, a gentle harp/trumpet duet and then a big magnificent coda fueled by the bass clarinet offer contrasting vignettes of a time that obviously left a big mark on the bandleader.

Ebullient, bluesy muted trumpet, violin and bass clarinet spice A Night Insomnia, a steady Hollywood hills boudoir funk number that finally picks up steam with a juicy chromatic riff at the end. Birth of Shakyamuni (a.k.a. Buddha) opens with a balletesque, Tschaikovskian flair, then shifts to a Rachmaninovian bolero that brightens and flies down to Bahia on the wings of the guitar and flute. Then Okura shifts gears with an achingly beautiful opening-credits theme of sorts – would it be overkill to add Rimsky-Korsakov to this litany of Russians?

The steady, majestic, velvety Blues in Jade is all about suspense, peppered by judicious violin and vocalese cadenzas, enigmatic microtones floating from individual voices as Pablo Aslan’s bass and Jared Schonig’s drums maintain a tight, muted syncopation. Marsella’s chromatically allusive piano solo leads to a mighty crescendo that falls away when least expected.

Black Rain – a shattered 3/11 reflection from this Tokyo-born composer, maybe? – opens with Okura’s stark erhu soio, then rises with a bittersweet sweep to a more optimistic Marsella piano solo before Okura pulls the music back the shadows, ending with an almost frantically angst-fueled erhu theme.

The album’s concluding number is Tomiya, a wildly surreal mashup of Russian romanticism, vintage swing, Japanese folk themes and samba. This isn’t just one of the best jazz albums of the year – it’s one of the best albums of any kind of music released this year. Who do we have to thank for starting the meme that resulted in so many women of Japanese heritage creating such a vast body of amazing, outside-the-box big band jazz like this? Satoko Fujii, maybe?

The Glass House Ensemble and Muzsikas Play One of the Most Haunting, Exhilarating Shows of the Year

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.

A Sizzling Hungarian and Balkan Twinbill Coming Up on the 17th

In a city where you can see incredible music pretty much any night if you want, for nothing more than a few bucks in the tip bucket, how do you justify dropping $36 on a ticket? With this video. If the haunting, bracing minor keys and chromatics of Balkan and Eastern European music, or just plain raw adrenaline are your thing, you’ll have a hard time resisting the amazing doublebill coming up on June 17 at 8 PM at the Skirball Auditorium at NYU at the top of LaGuardia Place with fiery Hungarian band Muzsikás and awesomely shapeshifting Hungarian/American ensemble the Glass House Orchestra.

The latter group have an interesting backstory: led by iconic trumpeter Frank London – an original Klezmatic – they came together to play a blend of indigenous and Jewish tunes as well as their own material. Although London is his usual intense, resonant, frequently wild self in this project, their not-so-secret weapon is cimbalom player Miklós Lukács (fast forward to 57:50 for his most spectacular solo of the night). And there’s no other band on the planet who sound anything like them. This blog raved about their show last year at Drom, but the video – a complete concert recording from the Budapest Music Center this past January – is even more intense. It’s worth releasing as a live album. What jumps out at you right off the bat is how amazing a jamband these guys and women are. In over seventy minutes onstage, they barely break a sweat, even while they romp through innumerable dynamic shifts and sizzling solos.

Sometimes the band will build a slow, suspenseful intro; other times they leap into a song with a flurry of violins or horns. Béla Ágoston is a one-man reed section on a whole slew of instruments, most notably the bagpipes. London trades riffage with just about everybody in the band, and Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries comes up to guest on one long, phantasmagorically epic number. Violinists Jake Shulman-Ment and Edina Szirtes Mókus – who also provides spellbinding, otherworldly vocals – team up for shivery staccato crescendos, soaring upward flights and mysterious ambience. Bassist Pablo Aslan anchors the music with a dancing pulse as drummer Yoni Halevy drives the juggernaut with a carnivalesque, sometimes vaudevillian flair. And guitarist Aram Bajakian wails and slashes, threatening to fall off his chair as he blasts his way through searing volleys of tremolo-picking and downtown jazz skronk, or adds mysterioso glimmer with his Lynchian jangle, particularly in what could be the night’s best number, a creepy bolero. But there’s way more than just this here…and it’s the best possible advertising the show on the 17th could have. Props to the Balassi Institute/Hungarian Cultural Center for putting the bill together.

The Glass House Project Reinvent Haunting, Exhilarating Jewish Themes

Friday night at Drom the Glass House Project played alternately sizzling and haunting new arrangements based more or less on old klezmer and Hungarian folk themes. The Hungarian-American collaboration take heir name from the best-known of the over seventy secret refuges for Jews that underground resistance hero Carl Lutz set up throughout Budapest during the Holocaust. Perhaps reflecting the triumph of that defiant achievement, the music was exhilarating, bristling with eerie chromatics and fiery solos from throughout the band. Trumpeter Frank London led the group through split-second shifts from suspensefully atmospheric, to frantic, to joyously triumphant. There was an uneasy, carnivalesque undercurrent to much of the music, as well as an explosive circus-rock drive peaked by wild crescendos from violinist Jake Shulman-Ment, guitarist Aram Bajakian, violinist/singer Szirtes Edina Mokus, multi-reedman Bela Agoston and cimbalom player Miklos Lukacs.

Drummer Richie Barshay supplied grooves ranging from mistily atmospheric, to slow and slinky, to crazed and vaudevillian while bassist Pablo Aslan anchored the songs with dark, fat, pulsing lines, often playing with a bow to max out the dark, sustained intensity. They played the show as a suite, more or less, launching into one theme after another: it was hard to tell just where one tune began and the other ended. Ethereal strings gave way to trumpet-fueled romps, Bajakian adding the occasional wryly skronky passage, eerily surfy solo or majestically spacious, bell-like accents on a twelve-string which still had a pricetag attached to the neck.

The high point of the early part of the show was a shapeshifting number that began with stop-and-start horn bursts, then a a misterioso noir theme with Bajakian’s guitar paired off against menacingly starlit cimbalom. Then it morphed into a march that Barshay took further outside, rhythmically, into a bit of a free jazz-inspired free-for-all and then back to the slinky menace – and then a lickety-split outro. The last song worked a similarly biting, chromatically-fueled theme over a beat that started out funky and then went into a madcap vaudevillian sprint. On one of the earlier tunes, Agoston played bagpipe, eventually holding a note for what seemed minutes as hs slowly squeezed all the air out of it. “Even some people in Hungary don’t know we have these,” said singer Kata Harsaczki, who contributed vocals on that song as well as on a rustic diptych that began slowly and then went lickety-split a little later. For anyone kicking themselves because they decided to not to brave the elements to see this show, the band will be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 36 Battery Place (north and west of Battery Park; Battery Place runs parallel to Broadway) tonight, May 27 at 7:15 PM; admission is free, but you need to rsvp here. They’ll also be at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC yomorrow night, May 28 at 6.

Fernando Otero’s New Album: Best of 2013?

Argentinian-born pianist/composer Fernando Otero won the Latin Grammy in the classical category in 2010 for his album Vital. That was a darkly beautiful record, but his new one, Romance, is even better. It’s a series of themes and variations in the style of a classical sonata, artfully split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, this is a harrowing ride that ends unresolved; however, if one plays the tracks in reverse order – or uses the austerely balletesque opening track as a conclusion – the grimness lifts considerably.

As he did with Vital, Otero works subtle mood shifts, but a haunted sensibility that’s often downright macabre lingers throughout the eleven tracks here. Otero plays with a murky elegance on all of them (in contrast to his often brutal attack on the keys, live in concert), yet the piano is not always the central instrument here. The ensemble behind him rises to the challenge of blending jazz-tinged neoromantic themes with new and classic tango within an overall ambience that defines the concept of noir. This is music raging, sometimes simmering, sometimes dancing, sometimes shivering against the dying of the light. This is a great album, a classic album, an achievement that ranks with the greatest work of Chopin, or Miles Davis, or Piazzolla, all of whom it resembles to some extent. It’s probably the best album of the year in any style of music. Otero reasserts himself as one of this era’s most important, compelling composers, and he covers a lot of ground. Otero and his ensemble are playing the cd release show tomorrow night, March 2 at the 92YTribeca at 9 PM. You have been warned.

A ghost-girl choir of Josefina Scaglione, Kristin Norderval and Dana Hanchard takes centerstage in the album’s most haunting moments. There’s a chilling, Satie-esque theme introduced by the piano that the strings pick up later on, and then the choir. Where will it end up? That’s the worrisome part. Otero works the entire spectrum of each instrument’s range, counterintuitively: the lows from Ljova Zhurbin’s viola, the highs from Adam Fisher’s cello, bassist Pablo Aslan switching in a split second from an elegant pulse to mournful bowed lines. Ivan Barenboim also switches between plaintive clarinet and brooding bass clarinet, running the gamut from jaunty optimism to sheer despair. Nicolas Danielson’s violin remains the one constant alongside the piano, a cynical dialectic of sorts.

Dreamy Tschaikovskian melodicism jostles against creepy, morose chromatics, agitated Mingus urban bustle, rapidfire two-handed Schumannesque stampedes with a surreal Twin Peaks glimmer and Shostakovian anguish. Stern classical scales quash any distant, tentative hope echoing from the choir; tiptoeing strings hand off to plaintive clarinet over resonant deadpool piano that rises only to an elegaic gleam. Again, you have been warned: watch for this on the best albums of 2013 page here at the end of the year, if we get that far.

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.