Last night at Lincoln Center, singer/accordionist Olga Mieleszczuk’s Polesye Project and the Shofar Trio made their American debuts in an often riveting program that spanned some of the best of Jewish music from the 19th century to the present, both melodically and lyrically. With a nuanced, expressive voice that ranged from plaintive and haunting to coyly whimsical, Mieleszczuk led her band – Ittai Binnun on multi-reeds and guitar and Uri Sharlin on accordion and piano, with the Klezmatics’ Lisa Gutkin guesting on violin – through an eclectic set of material from the repertoire of 1930s-era Polish-Canadian chanteuse Mariam Nirenberg. Nirenberg hailed from Polesye (now encompassing adjacent parts of Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia), “one of the wildest and most mysterious regions,” as Mieleszczuk put it, managing to make an escape just as Hitler’s reign of terror was getting underway. The songs she brought with her spanned much of the Jewish diaspora in Europe, as well as a similar range of emotional terrain rich with irony and dark humor.
The band opened with a sad brooding, klezmer waltz and closed with a lushly glimmering art-rock version of a Yiddish pop hit from the era that Nirenberg had recast as a lullaby. In between, they romped through a couple of dance numbers livened with Gutkin’s alternately wry and biting lines, a bitter deathbed ballad from Russia, a jauntily sardonic number about a guy who can’t seem to hook up with any of the girls at the party despite his fancy shoes, and a swooping and then sweepingly triumphant take of the old Ukrainian folk song Akh Odessa, done as more of an adventurous immigrant’s tale than nostalgic look back.
Another intriguing Polish group, the Shofar Trio headlined. Tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Mikolaj Trzaska, guitarist Raphael Roginski and drummer Macio Moretti worked suspenseful, dynamically-charged, frequently explosive vamps on ancient Jewish ngunim themes that evoked the work of John Zorn and especially Sex Mob: imagine that group, but with sax and guitar in place of the trumpet and bass. Trzaska held long, rapturous pedal notes via circular breathing, squalled and whispered and then brought the tunes back to the center with his austere Middle Eastern-tinged lines. Roginski alternated between carefully plucked, overtone-tinged staccato, frenetically noisy Velvet Underground scales, resonant jangle and even an interlude where he played spot-on Mississippi hill country blues: it was as if Junior Kimbrough had been transported to some remote shtetl on the Russian border. At the top of the music’s swells, the drums going full bore and the guitar throwing off layers of natural reverb, the trio reached for a snarling postrock feel similar to Mogwai. Moretti’s work behind the kit was masterful and amped up the suspense factor several notches as he played with his hands, often muting his beats and cymbals to add a surreal element of distance while the rhythms echoed throughout the atrium space. As the songs rose and fell, the melodies spanned from doomed ominousness, to stately apprehension and even unabashed delight, on a rhythmically tricky, Madedonian-tinged theme early in the set. It was something akin to watching a band jam out the legendary Darkcho album that came out several years ago. Fans of the Tzadik catalog as well as anyone who gravitates toward emotionally vivid music won’t be disappointed by either group.