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Tag: Petros Klampanis

Pianist Carolina Calvache Takes Her Lyrical, Individualistic Style to New Depths

It’s always validating to see an artist follow his or her muse and take their art to the next level. Pianist Carolina Calvache‘s 2014 debut album Sotareño was an ambitious mix of classically-inspired lyricism, postbop jazz and rhythms from her native Colombia. But Calvache is also a songwriter. On her new album Vida Profunda – streaming at Bandcamp -, she backs a murderer’s row of vocal talent in a collection of originals plus new settings of poems from across the ages. Calvache’s style is distinctly her own: 19th century art-song, classical music, jazz and diverse sounds from south of the border all figure in. Most of the lyrics on the album are in Spanish.

Marta Gomez sings the album’s title track, an anthemic neoromantic art-song awash in lush strings, with an understated intensity. Based on a poem by Porfirio Barba Jacob, it’s an uneasy coming to terms with extremes, emotional or otherwise. As Calvache sees it, an unfelt life is not worth living.

Sofia Ribeiro takes over the mic for El Pájaro Yo (The Bird Is Me), a darkly lilting setting of the famous Pablo Neruda poem. Hadar Noiberg’s flute soaring as fearlessly as the lyric. Ruben Blades delivers Te Conocí de Nuevo (I Met You Again), a reunited-for-good ballad, with hope and tenderness over Calvache’s bright, emphatic melody.

Claudia Acuña gives an aching, imploring angst to Sin un Despido (unpoetic translation: We Never Got to Say Goodbye), a glistening, symphonic requiem for the 2015 LaMia Flight 2933 crash whose victims included the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoens. Sara Serpa provides her signature, crystalline vocalese gravitas to Hope, a optimistically clustering number propelled by Jonathan Blake’s drums, Samuel Torres’ djembe and Peter Slavov’s bass, Calvache introducing it with a reference to Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Aubrey Johnson brings a bracing, unsettled energy to Childhood Retreat, a poignant setting of a Robert Duncan poem capped off by Michael Rodriguez’s soaring trumpet. Haydee Milanes offers warm and reflection in the Horace Silver-inspired Stella, a tribute to Calvache’s mom, with the composer on twinkling Rhodes and then incisive acoustic piano as harmonica player Gregoire Maret spirals overhead.

Serpa takes over on vocals again for the album’s most stunning song, The Trail, based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow. Calvache ripples and cascades over sweeping string orchestration: at a time when the lockdowners are insisting on increasingly sinister levels of surveillance, this song couldn’t be more timely.

Lara Bello lends a warmly reflective tone to No Te Vi Crecer (I Didn’t See You Grow Up) over Calvache’s glistening lines: as lullabies go, this is a particularly enegetic one. The album’s only dud is a pop song that smacks of label mismanagement and doesn’t take advantage of Calvache’s many talents. This is a quiet triumph of outside-the-box playing from a rotating cast that also includes drummer Keita Ogawa; bassists Petros Klampanis and Ricky Rodriguez; violinists Tomoko Omura, Leonor Falcon, Ben Russell, Annaliesa Place and Adda Kridler; violists Allysin Clare and Jocelin Pan; cellists Brian Sanders and Diego Garcia; oboist Katie Scheele; trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulous and bass clarinetist Paul Won Jin Cho.

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

Middle Eastern-Tinged Jazz Intensity and an Upper West Side Album Release Show From Brilliant Bassist Petros Klampanis

Petros Klampanis is a highly sought after bassist in the New York jazz, Middle Eastern and Greek music scenes. He’s also a fantastic composer, combining elements of all those styles and more. His darkly intense latest album Irrationalities, a trio recording with pianist Kristjan Randalu and drummer Bodek Janke, is streaming at Spotify. He’s playing the release show on Oct 9 at 8:30 PM at Symphony Space; advance tix are $27.

The opening track, Easy Come Easy Go, has a sprightly, shuffling groove, Randalu’s glittering lines over fluttery percussion that subtly shifts toward clave as the piano grows more wary and modal: this mix of moody Middle Eastern and salsa-jazz is more than a little bittersweet. Klampanis’ use of eerie close harmonies and allusively levantine melody throughout the record raises the intensity several notches.

Seeing You Behind My Eyes follows the rises and falls between a similarly brooding tone poem and lithely dancing, judiciously spacious variations that finally peak out with Randalu’s spiraling, tumbling solo before coming full circle. The album’s title track makes gritttily majestic jazz out of a tricky Indian carnatic vocal theme, artfully melding uneasy chromatics with warmer hints of trad balladry and a masterfully intertwining piano solo. The false ending is a cool trick as well.

LIkewise, the polyrhythms between bass and piano as Thalassia Platia gets underway: what seems to be a wistful waltz turns out to be far more conflicted, with its aching lushness and a biting, upper-register bass solo. No Becomes Yes goes in the opposite direction, a rather stern, sometimes eerie melody expanding as the group let some sun burst through the clouds, although that’s not as simple as that might seem. Lots of persuasion going on here, apparently.

Klampanis winds up the album with its most epic number, the Nat Cole ballad Blame It On My Youth, cleverly triangulating the rhythm and adding a delicious surprise at the end. There are also a couple of coy miniatures, Temporary Secrets 2 and 3, blending urban found sounds with glockenspiel and a catchy bass riff. Purposeful, relentlessly tuneful and distinctively original, this is a stealth contender for one of the best jazz albums of the year

An Enigmatically Dancing Album and a Chelsea Show by Individualistic Vibraphonist Yuhan Su

Vibraphonist Yuhan Su plays with a terse, riff-driven sensibility, a persistent restlessness and a frequently wry sense of humor. Her latest album, City Animals – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is a study in contrasts: urban vs. rural, action vs. stillness, agitation vs. contentment. Su has done a lot of work with dance companies in recent years, so it’s no surprise that there’s an especially lithe quality to a lot of the tunes here. Unlike a lot of vibraphonists, she likes to hang out in the midrange rather than working a bell-like attack way up the scale. She’s playing the Cell Theatre on Jan 19 at 8 PM with her quintet; cover is $15.

The album’s first track, El Coche Se Murio, was inspired by an untimely breakdown on a Spanish highway, four hours from a gig. There’s a coy solo vibraphone intro where the vehicle loses it, an insistent I-can’t-believe-this-happened passage, bustling Alex LoRe alto sax against balmy Matt Holman trumpet, a scampering Su solo and then what seems to be disaster averted.

Sax and trumpet flutter uneasily against each other in Viaje, as Su leads the rhythm section – bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell – with a lingering unease as the segments coalesce in turn, yet never fully resolve. Immigration and similar big journeys are like that.

The surreallistically titled Feet Dance has a steady, almost stalking pulse underpinning bright unison playing and sax-trumpet harmonies. As is frequently the case in Su’s music, those harmonies remain a tantalizing hair away from any kind of traditional chromatic scale, raising the unease factor.

Poncho Song, a jazz waltz, is similar but more wistful, with an expansively stairstepping vibraphone solo at the center and a tasty, nebulous outro that’s over too soon. The album’s title track contrasts fluttery urban bustle with lustrous, lingering phrases, Holman and LoRe bobbing and weaving.

Kuafu, the album’s centerpiece, is a triptych inspired by a Chinese myth about a titan of sorts hell-bent on running down and catching the sun. The first section has Su’s restless resonance paired against LoRe’s animated sax, the rhythm section entering with the hint of a second-line shuffle. Then it’s Su’s turn to go in a carefree direction as the horns converge.

The second part, Starry, Starry Night is the high point of the record, and also its most vividly melodic moment, a bittersweet anthem that diverges to a starry/dancing vibes-sax dichotomy and then a moody rondo. The metrically tricky coda has some irresistibly funny, over-the-top moments from Ellman-Bell and jaunty Indian allusions from LoRe.

The languid ballad Tutu & D – inspired by The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu – has cleverly spacious counterpoint between all the instruments and an expansive, lyrical Holman solo. The album’s final number, Party 2AM is more genteel and conversational than the title would imply. Refreshingly distinctive, purposeful stuff from someone who’s really found a sound of her own. 

Haunting Lebanese Pianist Tarek Yamani Revisits a Classic New York Concert at Lincoln Center This Friday Night

Suppose you could see the guy who played this blog’s pick for best concert of 2014 – for free. Would you go? You have that option when Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani plays this Friday, March 23 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just south of 63rd St.

Yamani opened a marathon evening of music from across the Middle East at Alwan for the Arts in January of 2014, officially called Maqamfest, known informally as the Alwan-a-thon. Here’s the report originally published here the following day.

“…Yamani kicked off the night with a richly eclectic mix of brooding Middle Eastern themes and blues-infused bop. While he didn’t deliberately seem to be working any kind of overtone series with the piano – it can be done, especially if you ride the pedal – he proved to be a magician with his chromatics and disquieting passing tones. Bassist Petros Klampanis supplied an elegant, terse, slowly strolling low end while drummer Colin Stranahan nimbly negotiated Yamani’s sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring rhythmic shifts. The trio wove a tapestry of gorgeous chromatic glimmer through a couple of romping postbop numbers to a haunting, starkly direct piano arrangement of a theme by Said Darwish, considered to be the father of modern Middle Eastern classical music. The trickiest number in their set was the title track to Yamani’s album Ashur (the Assyrian god of death). Stranahan got the dubious assignment of carrying its cruelly challenging, almost peevish syncopation, but he ran with it and nailed it.”

Yamani has done a lot since then, notably his 2017 Peninsular album, whose influences span from Cuba to Oman.  You can bet this blog will be in the house for the Friday, show which could rank among 2018’s best as well. And it’s free – you just have to get there a little early to get a seat.

Maqamfest 2014: Maybe This Year’s Best NYC Concert…Again

The theme for this year’s Maqamfest Friday night at the Financial District music mecca Alwan for the Arts was the influence of Arabic music beyond the Fertile Crescent. This year, festival creator, Alwan music impresario and trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar teamed up with the Center for Traditional Dance and Music to book an exhilarating evening that underscored the dynamic connection between music from the Middle East and eastern Europe.

As the night began, it was almost comical to see how the oldsters took over the venue’s lower-level auditorium while the all kids went two flights up to catch rubabist Quraishi’s hypnotically pointillistic Afghan folk and fusion-tinged originals. Downstairs, Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani kicked off the night with a richly eclectic mix of brooding Middle Eastern themes and blues-infused bop. While Yamani didn’t deliberately seem to be working any kind of overtone series with the piano – it can be done, especially if you ride the pedal – he proved to be a magician with his chromatics and disquieting passing tones. Bassist Petros Klampanis supplied an elegant, terse, slowly strolling low end while drummer Colin Stranahan nimbly negotiated Yamani’s sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring rhythmic shifts. The trio wove a tapestry of gorgeous chromatic glimmer through a couple of romping postbop numbers to a haunting, starkly direct piano arrangement of a theme by Said Darwish, considered to be the father of modern Middle Eastern classical music. The trickiest number in their set was the title track to Yamani’s album Ashur (the Assyrian god of death). Stranahan got the dubious assignment of carrying its cruelly challenging, almost peevish syncopation, but he ran with it and nailed it.

Next on the bill downstairs was luminous Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina, with her austere, meticulously nuanced, often heartwrenching original arrangements of Balkan and Romany folk songs and hits from the 60s. Upstairs, the kids were treated to a slinky, irresistibly fun set by Mitra Sumara, who played lush and frequently slashing Iranian pop and disco hits by Googoosh, Laila Farouhar and others, mostly from the early to mid 70s. Frontwoman Yvette Perez sang with a clear, resonant, sometimes seductive, sometimes angst-ridden tone: as she put it, all these songs were about impossible love. Keyboardist Jim Duffy fueled the most intense number of the set with his funereal organ lines, turning it into an undulating Persian take on Procol Harum. Bassist Sam Kulik held down a fat, often hypnotically minimalist low-end pulse beneath Bill Ruyle’s ringing, otherworldly santoor lines and guitarist Julian Maile’s insistent riffage, propelled by a swaying twin-percussion dancefloor groove. They ended the set with a biting, funky Zia Atabi number from southern Iran. At this point, the sounds of the band had filtered down to the lower level and much of the older crowd had filtered up to see what they were missing.

Sazet Band followed in the upstairs space. The Bronx-based crew are a huge attraction in the expat Romany community and took the energy a notch  higher. As their set began, with the band’s alto sax/clarinet frontline firing off machinegun riffage over an explosive twin-drum dance beat and a keyboardist playing generic fusion reharmonizations of Balkan chords through a cheesy synthesizer patch, was this going to turn out to be Macedonian Van Halen? As it turned out, no. Alto saxophonist Romeo Kurtali is a protege of Bulgarian legend Yuri Yunakov, and played with a similarly fluid, maybe even more breathtakingly fast attack than his mentor while clarinetist Sal Mamudoski made an even more aggressive foil with his raw, aching, fire-and-brimstone crescendos. Meanwhile, a technical malfunction had taken the synth completely out of the mix: it wasn’t missed. This reduced the band to just the horns and the drums, taking the sound back in time thirty years or more as they raced through whirlwinds of chromatically bristling doublestops, trills and microtones. Then they brought up a couple of guys to sing. By now, dancelines had formed along the side and in the back, and those who weren’t on their feet were bopping in their seats.

Downstairs, the evening wound up on a historically rich note with a set by the Alwan Ensemble, an all-star lineup of some of the foremost musicians in the New York Arabic diaspora. Their purpose – other than hanging out and drinking tea and other stuff, as ElSaffar grinningly alluded – is to trace the connections between classic Arabic sounds from Syria, Egypt and Iraq. ElSaffar began on santoor, later switched to trumpet and often played both in the same song, along with Zikrayat violinist Samy Abu Shumays, Zafer Tawil on qanun, Georges Ziadeh on oud and a couple of percussionists. Everybody got to to solo or start a number with an expansive, pensive taqsim, and everybody sang, including the audience. The group started matter-of-factly with a rustic Syrian pastorale, followed by a haunting, stately Iraqi suite of sorts told from the point of view of a guy whose girlfriend/dalliance leaves town with her caravan, the stricken narrator pondering whether or not to implore the leader to turn the entourage around and come back to town. Tawil sang a moody Zakariya Ahmad song originally done by legendary 1950s Egyptian chanteuse Laila Mourad; they closed with another Ahmad song from the catalog of Egyptian legend Um Kulthumm, a singalong in every sense of the word from the title to how the group and the crowd brought it to life, ending the show on a high note.

Maqamfest only comes around once a year, but the artists play around town frequently. The Alwan Ensemble make the venue their home base and have a long-awaited debut album due out later this spring; watch this space for news of an album release show.

Charming French Tropicalia from Banda Magda

Truth in advertising: the cd cover for Banda Magda’s new album Amour, T’es La? is pink and festooned with palm leaves and tropical fruit. Although what this group plays is not dark – it’s bouncy, upbeat, irrepressibly fun music – it is quintessentially New York and cosmopolitan to the extreme. Frontwoman/accordionist Magda Gianikou writes and sings in French, although her ancestry is Greek. Her core band includes vibraphonist Mika Mimura, guitarist Nacho Hernandez, bassist Petros Klampanis and percussionist Marcelo Woloski. The rest of the players on the album – among them drummer Jordan Perlson, cellist Jody Redhage and violist Ljova Zhurbin – represent this city’s A-list jazz and classical music scenes. Gianikou’s quirky, clever arrangements also include parts for brass, shamisen, hammered dulcimer and concert harp. It’s a party in a box.

The title track – meaning “You There, Love?”  – sets the tone, Gianikou’s chirpy vocals (and solidily good French accent) soaring over bouncy bossa pop. The second track, Asteroide is a sassy, tiptoeing swing tune, Gianikou cajoling a guy to come populate her empty planet. Caramel works a latin disco groove, but in an organic way with lush strings and breathy, come-hither vocals (and a chorus that at first listen sounds like “cassoulet”).

The band brings in echoey Rhodes piano with the lush strings on Ce Soir (Tonight), followed by the jaunty boudoir pop anthem Couches-Toi (Lie Down), building to an unexpectedly lavish waltz midway through. Juin (June) sets a slightly delirious, slightly Indian-tinged seaside resort tableau, while Fond de la Mer (Bottom of the Sea) evokes Jenifer Jackson at her balmiest and most psychedelic.

La Japonaise is an Asian-tinged, drolly festive tale about Mimura’s adventures playing a Montreal jazz bar, dodging seductive men and losing her mallets in the street. Mouche (The Fly) is funkier – she gets in your hair, she may end up in your drink and she wants your body. The catchiest song here is Oublies-La (Forget Her), with its barrage of la-la’s, salsa piano and soaring flute. The album winds up with the dreamy but bouncy Petite Maline (which translates roughly as Little Devil or Little Troublemaker), Gianikou insisting she’s not a bad girl even though she ripped a hole in the roof so she could look up into the sky and see all the bright colors. Gianikou plays the Lincoln Center plaza for free at 7 PM on July 26; later on that night on the stage out back in Damrosch Park, she’ll sing alongside headliners the Kronos Quartet. Banda Magda are at Prospect Park bandshell at 7:30 PM on August 3, opening for salsa jazz legend Eddie Palmieri.