New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: serdar ilhan

Revisiting a Legendary New York Band From the 90s at Drom’s Summer Jazz Festival

It’s Saturday night in the East Village. Drom isn’t packed wall to wall like it was Thursday night for the Mingus Big Band, but there’s a healthy crowd, and it’s growing. Co-owner Serdar Ilhan takes a moment to reflect underneath the gorgeous sepia profile of the Galata Tower in Istanbul just to the right of the stage that greets customers as they walk in.

It’s the most metaphorically loaded, timely visual in any New York club these days: a fifteenth-century edifice, with a synagogue, a mosque and a church visible faintly in the background. Next year, Drom will be celebrating fifteen years of more US debuts of artists and bands from around the world than any other New York club can boast over that time. When did the club open? April of 2007? “I can’t remember,” Ilhan laughs. Then he goes over to the stage and gooses the smoke machine.

That seems a play to signal the band that it’s showtime. On one hand, it’s weird to see Groove Collective onstage, and a room full of people sitting at tables. But this isn’t the Groove Collective that used to pack the Mercury Lounge back in the mid-90s. Frontman and irrepressible freestylist Gordon, a.k.a. Nappy G flew the coop long ago. Not all of the core of the original band remain, and they aren’t the ubiquitous presence they were on the New York club circuit twenty-five years ago. But they’re just as original, and uncategorizable, and over the years have grown closer to being a straight-up jazz band. Which makes sense, considering that this show is part of Drom’s ongoing summer jazz festival.

And it’s date night, and maybe 90s nostalgia night too. There are a group of dancers gathered by the bar as well. The band find new ways to make two-chord vamps interesting, usually involving rhythm. The turbulent river thrown off by a sometimes four-person percussion section: drummer Genji Siraisi, conguero Chris Ifatoye Theberge, multi-percussionist Nina Creese and guest Peter Apfelbaum – contrasts with the often hypnotic insistence from Marcio Garcia’s piano and organ, and the looming ambience of trombonist Josh Roseman and saxophonist Jay Rodriguez.

What becomes clearest is how much the latin influence has come to the forefront in the band’s music. The clave goes doublespeed or halfspeed, Creese often serving as mistress of suspense. Apfelbaum teases the audience with a keyboard solo, running through a bunch of electric piano and organ patches, then switches to melodica for a deep dub breakdown before the groove is relaunched.

Rodriguez shifts between alto, tenor and flute while Roseman serves as co-anchor along with a new bassist, who has the circling riffs in his fingers. Meanwhile, the beat morphs from salsa to funk to trip-hop, a current-day dancefloor thud, and then a shuffling oldschool disco beat at the end of the night. Rodriguez ends up opting to cut loose with his most interesting, energetic riffage of the night early; Roseman, and eventually Apfelbaum on his usual tenor sax, do the opposite.

The next concert in Drom’s ongoing summer jazz festival is August 19 at 7 PM with a killer twinbill of double-threat Camille Thurman – who’s equally dazzling on the mic and the tenor sax – with the Darrell Green Trio, and also trombonist Conrad Herwig with his Quintet. Cover is $30; there’s also an absurdly cheap five-day festival pass for $100 available.

Happy Tenth Birthday to Manhattan’s Best Music Venue

[adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming photo book celebrating the tenth anniversary of Manhattan’s edgiest music venue and romantic date spot, Drom]

Every great city is defined by its artistic spaces. Paris has the Louvre and the Bataclan, London has the Royal Albert Hall, New York has the Met and and Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theatre.

But every city also has a secret history. No real history of New York in the past decade would be complete without Drom, Manhattan’s global music mecca since 2007.

High on the back wall of the lowlit, old-world space, there’s an amber-toned painting of the Galata Tower, an iconic landmark on the western Istanbul skyline. In the shadow of the tower is a historic neighborhood which throughout the centuries has been home to churches, mosques and also a synagogue. That striking image mirrors the inclusive sensibility central to the philosophy at Drom, in a decade of booking artists from around the world, from every tradition from the West and beyond.

Among New York venues booking music and the arts from around the globe, Drom is the only one over the past half-century to succeed without corporate or public funding. In an era in Manhattan increasingly defined by rising rents and displacement of independent business, that achievement is all the more astonishing, testament to the tirelessness and depth of vision of founders Serdar Ilhan and Mehmet Dede, bolstered by their partner Ekmel Anda.

The two are a contrast in personalities: Ilhan, the aesthete, an accomplished visual artist with a focus and drive to create a milieu that best represents the vast range of artists who grace the stage there. Dede, the gregarious impresario, with a similarly vast address book and fearlessness to match the eclecticism of the acts he books. In a field that can be awfully shady, Ilhan and Dede aren’t afraid to be transparent with their terms. No wonder so many artists from around the world, and across New York’s five boroughs, have made their North American or New York debuts here.

The space itself is both indelibly urban and urbane. The wrought iron steps down to the brickwalled basement-level landing are gritty New York to the core. Inside the front doors, past the plush red velvet curtains, an oasis reveals itself.

Before it was Drom, the high-ceilinged, L-shaped space was a neighborhood dance club called Opaline. Ilhan completely gutted and redesigned it himself, directing renovations from up on a ladder. The contrast of elegant dark wood paneling and rustic brick under the low light of the chandeliers reflect a welcoming atmosphere. The same friendly faces work here, night after night – everybody seems comfortable here, a rarity at music venues and even more so in the service industry.

The only feature from the old space that Ilhan retained was the L-shape and the high ceiling, which enhances the sonics: Drom is a live room. No matter who’s onstage – a classical ensemble, a jazz group, a blazing Balkan brass band or hip-hop – the sound is reliably good. Depending on the music or the performance – Drom has also been home to the Fringe Festival and other theatrical performances over the years – there might be tables, or the entire floor might be opened up for concertgoers. The bar always fills up fast: the wine is good, the bartenders are friendly and it’s one of the few places in all of New York where you can find Yeni Raki, the delicious anise liqueur.

Ilhan got his start in show business in the theatre: his first booking at the Town Hall was a sellout. When Dede first began booking music at Drom, he was doing regular Balkan events at a gritty Alphabet City bar a few blocks further east. Since their first days producing the annual New York Gypsy Festival, this city’s most wide-ranging series of concerts featuring performers from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Balkans , the two have combined to offer more diverse programming than any other venue in all of New York, in the same vein as Barbes in Brooklyn.

Long before Obama hinted at normalizing relations with Cuba, Drom was booking Cuban artists. Since its inception, the venue has been the first stop in Manhattan for Russian bands. Before Snarky Puppy became the most happening thing in progressive jazz, they were playing here as well. Boban Markovic took the stage at Drom years before his Balkan wedding and funeral band began packing Lincoln Center. Iconic jazz drummer Chico Hamilton played his final show on that stage, while noted klezmer trumpeter Frank London’s Glass House Ensemble made their debut here, among countless other artists’ genre-defying projects, blending Eastern European, Mediterranean and jazz sounds.

Meanwhile, Ilhan and Dede have expanded beyond their home base. They’re the only American promoters doing national tours for some of the most happening Turkish rock and folk acts. And numerous iconic Turkish artists have made their American debuts at Ilhan and Dede’s annual showcase, Istanbulive – “the Turkish Woodstock.”

You could make a case that Drom is CBGB, LaMaMa, Carnegie Hall and Mehanata – the downtown Bulgarian bar where Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz held court for so many years – rolled into one. Except that the sound is on par with any good New York jazz venue, and the ambience is more inviting: among New York music spots, few are as unabashedly romantic as Drom.

If your agenda in running a music blog is to cover the entirety of New York and the vast expanse of styles across this city, you need to move around a lot. But it helps to have an anchor. In Manhattan, Drom is New York Music Daily’s home base. If you’ve followed this blog, especially if sounds from around the world and the Balkans are concerned, you’re no stranger to Drom. If you’ve never been, now is as good a time as any to discover the space. June is looking especially hot. Since they’re celebrating ten years of going against the tide – seriously, did anybody really expect these guys to last ten months, let alone ten years? – their ten-year celebration month is off the hook. Just for starters, on June 9 at 7 there’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Advance tix are a bargain at $20.

Then on June 10 at 8 Romany guitar legend Stephane Wrembel airs out material from his wildly eclectic, psychedelic new double album The Django Experiment, with another show at 11 by Brooklyn Balkan brass faves Slavic Soul Party featuring sensational Serbian trumpeter Demirhan Cerimovic; advance tix for those are $15.

On June 14, the wildfire NY Gypsy All-Stars are joined by brilliant guest oudist Ara Dinkjian at 9:30; advance tix are $10. On June 21 at 8, there’s one of the year’s hottest jazz lineups: imagine seeing the Rolling Stones’ Tim Ries on sax, leading a quintet with Randy Brecker, the great Chano Dominguez on piano, with James Genus on bass and Clarence Penn on drums, for real, and for fifteen bucks! And for fans of serious esoterica, percussionist Navin Chettri‘s band makes jazz out of rarely heard Nepali themes on June 25 at 9:30, and that’s ten bucks if you buy in advance. That’s just a taste of what’s coming up.

Which is something that adventurous New York concertgoers have taken for granted, and can pretty much still take for granted. Day in, day out, nobody in Manhattan does more fearless programming than these guys. July will no doubt be just as good as June…then there’s the annual New York Gypsy Festival to look forward to as we get into the fall. Here’s to another ten years of minor keys, intoxicating grooves and Yeni Raki!

Istanbulive 2012: A Historic Night at Lincoln Center

Last night’s Turkish Woodstock, a.k.a. Istanbulive night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was probably the closest in spirit to the original Woodstock, meteorologically speaking: with the rain, gently cool and comforting as it was, the sight of empty seats in Damrosch Park was surreal to the extreme. This year marked the fourth annual festival of Turkish music put together by Serdar Ilhan and Mehmet Dede, the brain trust behind Drom, the downtown world music mecca: as usual, the concert was brilliant, with a special historical significance. This show was especially notable for the American debut of legendary Turkish chanteuse and freedom fighter Selda Bagcan. It took her til age 64 to get here; she sang for almost two hours as the rain picked up and then abated, and got stronger as she went along. Dressed in her native Anatolian colors of red and white (and waving a Turkish flag during one song, to thunderous applause), she’d often sing a verse and then turn her mic to the crowd, or even let the audience open a song after a familiar intro. Known for her clever, satirical, politically-charged Turkish lyrics (which resulted in her imprisonment by the junta there in the early 80s), she frequently ad-libbed them to reference current events, which further energized the audience. Watching a circle of young people pushing their way to the front, linking hands in a circle, then spinning and bouncing to a psychedelic folk protest song that had to be at least 40 years old was heartwarming to the extreme: this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Bushwick, at least not in the trendy areas.

Much of the psychedelic rock that came out of the non-English speaking world during the 60s and 70s makes the American and British stuff seem sober and timid by comparison, often because the Peruvians, and Koreans, and Estonians and so forth used a broader sonic pallette. Bagcan was backed not only by electric guitar, keyboards and drums but also by saz (Turkish lute) as well as clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski and kanun virtuoso Tamer Pinarbasi, who comprised two-thirds of the evening’s extraordinary opening act, the Secret Trio. Microtones and overtones flew from the Turkish instruments as the rock band held the center, acoustic guitar and saz frequently blending together for an intoxicatingly, glimmering river of jangle and clang as the kanun flickered in the upper registers and Lumanovski added tersely plaintive washes of sound. With her minutely jeweled, muanced melismas, Bagcan sang like a woman forty years younger, as subtle as she was undeterred and defiant.

Yet a sense of longing pervaded much of what she and the band played. Big, sweeping anthems were bisected by quiet, tense interludes where the crowd quickly filled in the empty spaces with their voices. Hearing these many of these songs done as relatively straight-up, Pink Floyd-style art-rock was quite a change from the woozy textures (synths imitating a ney flute and tinny guitar without much sustain) of many of the original recordings. Bagcan has been called the “Turkish Piaf,” and there’s some truth in that considering her unwavering support for the working classes and her occasional penchant for drama: one of the evening’s best-received numbers was a torrent of lyrics, Istanbul cabaret style. As the end of the set neared, she and the band reached back for a more starkly acoustic, traditionally Middle Eastern flavored vibe, kanun and saz taking centerstage on an undulating, Egyptian-tinged anthem.

With grey skies overhead, the Secret Trio’s dark intricately pensive instrumentals set the tone perfectly and never let up through their abbreviated three-song set, Pinarbasi and Lumanovski’s lines grounded by oudist Ara Dinkjian’s terse countermelodies. Opening with the clarinet stark over a moody, neoromantic theme that could have been Ravel, or Morricone until an even darker detour into Arabic mode, they took it down even lower and more elegaically over a hypnotic web of prickly pointillisms. Then tenor saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin’s Wonderland treated the crowd to the most night’s most hypnotic moments, clarinetist Husnu Senlendirici spinning magical, ominously microtonal spirals in tandem with Ersahin over the ringing backdrop of Pinarbasi (who was doing triple duty tonight) and an electric rhythm section featuring a trance-inducing goblet drummer. Ersahin’s signature sound is swirling and dub-influenced: maybe because he and the band kept getting mixed signals about when they were supposed to wrap up their set (everybody seemed to be expecting a cataclysmic storm), there was a welcome edge and gypsy-flavored bite to the music along with the pulsing, shapeshifting atmospherics.

The New York Gypsy All-Stars Bottle Their Magic

The New York Gypsy All-Stars’ new album Romantech was worth the wait: it’s been a good five years since they did a studio recording. As you might expect, this is a good approximation of their incomparable, sizzling live show: in a city full of exciting bands, they are one of the best. As you might also expect from a band with members from Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Manhattan and Brooklyn, what they play is modern-day gypsy music, like what you’d hear in a club in Sofia or Istanbul, with electric bass and keys behind the lightning-fast, adrenaline-rush attack of clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski and kanun (Middle Eastern dulcimer) player Tamer Pinarbasi. Who knew that this project, originally put together as a house band for the first New York Gypsy Festival by impresario Serdar Ilhan, would still be thrilling crowds almost ten years later?

The title track takes a bouncy traditional tune and after a lusciously ringing Pinarbasi intro, fills it with spicy, lickety-split clusters of chromatics. Rather than indulging in Dave Matthews-style funkdaddy cliches, bassist Panagiotis Andreou swoops up elegantly and holds the notes, anchoring the song as Lumanovski spins and dives acrobatically, rising to a warily shimmering microtonal crescendo at the end of a verse. They segue into the steady, swinging Smiles, by Lumanovski, Jason Lindner’s distorted keys mimicking an electric guitar, Lumanovski sailing apprehensively over elegant kanun until the two join forces. Lumanovski’s blistering solo here is just one of many: to say this is a feast of scorching reedwork is an understatement.

Pinarbasi’s Cross Winds is more balmy yet also more moody, Lumanovski negotiating the thicket of tricky rhythm with uncanny ease, Pinarbasi adding suspense as they take it down to just the kanun and up again. Another one of his compositions, Revival is a darkly swaying, polyrhythmic anthem juxtaposing biting kanun with drummer Engin Gunaydin’s steady groove and Lindner’s lush Dr Dre. synth textures. A Lumanovski original, Balkan Bollywood is basically a hypnotic two-chord jam, banjolike kanun against a swaying backbeat and an elegant conversation with Lumanovski as it winds out.

The album’s only cover, Orhan Gencebay’s Sen Sev Beni (Ciftetelli) manages to be laid-back and biting all at once, with a murderously fast, unhinged solo by Lumanovski (one of the world’s most effortlessly exhilarating players on any instrument) contrasting with the precision of the kanun and Lindner’s Bernie Worrell-ish synth. Live in concert, it’s a real showstopper and even more intense than this version. Another big audience hit is the traditional Macedonian tune Butchers, this version including an unexpected salsa piano solo, Lumanovski reaching for heights that eventually deliver stinging layers of overtones as he takes it to a sudden false ending. Pinarbasi’s funky NY9 features Lumanovski at his most aching, packed with circular breathing, ominous atmospherics and a torrential rainstorm of a kanun solo. Outcry, another Pinarbasi tune, builds from a wary, Middle Eastern flavored solo clarinet improvisation to a slinky groove anchored by Andreou’s smartly boomy chromatics, Lindner matter-of-factly buildling a long launching pad for the kanun and clarinet to spiral away from deliriously, ending on an unexpectedly majestic note. The album ends winds up with Lumanovski’s EZ-Pass, a vivid motorway scenario. A cynic might say that the band made this because they needed more merch to sell at shows: if that’s the case, they’ll run out of these sooner than later. In the meantime, this is your chance to grab it before it ends up on every music blog’s best-of-2012 list. The New York Gypsy All-Stars make Drom their home base: watch this space for upcoming shows.