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No New Abnormal

Tag: Yoni Halevy

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.

Avi Fox-Rosen’s Album-a-Month Steak Isn’t Dead

Since this past January, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Avi Fox-Rosen has been releasing a new album (or at least an ep, to be precise) every month at his Bandcamp page as a name-your-price download. Has there ever been another rock artist who’s done that? He’s got two more months to go to bring the yearlong marathon full circle. Plenty of other artists, especially in the jazz and classical worlds, have pulled off similar feats – another multi-instrumentalist, Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal comes to mind. Then there’s John Zorn, who’s probably written or improvised at least one piece of music for every day he’s been alive.

Sheer volume aside, what makes Fox-Rosen’s stunt worth following – which this blog has done since day one – is that the music has been so consistently excellent. Of the ten albums Fox-Rosen has put out this year, only one of them is a dud, and that one is all cover songs. Whether this whole undertaking is just Fox-Rosen emptying a very deep songbook he’s been building for years, or coming up with new stuff month by month, isn’t clear, but it’s an impressive feat any way you look at it.

Having reviewed the initial release back in January, a mighty handful from February through June and then July and August together, it’s time to take a look at September and October’s releases. September‘s theme (each one of these explores a specific concept) finds Fox-Rosen confronting his Seventh Day Adventist roots (you didn’t think he was Jewish, did you? ha ha, jk…). One important thing to know about Fox-Rosen is his music has a dark, ironic (some might say Jewish) sense of humor. He is unsurpassed as a parodist…and the first song on this album sounds suspiciously like a spoof of indie whiteboy blues. The longer it goes on, the more he slurs his words. “I’ve lied, overcharging my credit card til the day I die,” he drawls. The second song, This Year, takes the dirty blues vibe in a White Light/White Heat direction – it reminds of Sway Machinery before that band discovered Malian music. Alone sets a gloomy existential lyric to pensive folk-rock, followed by the album’s real zinger, The God Who Lives in Your Head, where Fox-Rosen gets to do a pretty amusing one-man Oasis approximation. This particular deity is a real, um, meshugganeh: he’s a “meticulous accountant” who keeps a shit list, who watches you like a hawk, who “has a famously inflammable tongue – he gets dissed anytime anybody smiles, anytime anybody looks his damn way.” And he might resemble you more than you want to admit.  At the end of the album, Fox-Rosen finally lets down his guard with the broodingly catchy, nonchalantly haunting acoustic anthem Days Become Weeks Become Years. On this album, aside from a single percussion track from the ubiquitous Rich Stein, Fox-Rosen plays all the instruments.

The theme of October’s album is Scary. Here Fox-Rosen has a full band including Dave Melton on keys, Rima Fand on violin and Yoni Halevy and Chris Berry sharing the drum chair. The first track, Everybody Dies is basically Misirlou with lyrics and some snarling klezmer trumpet from Ben Holmes. Characteristically, Fox-Rosen’s black humor has a message:

Little boy, your german shepherd’s gonna die
The goldfish you won at the carnival’s definitely gonna die
Your teddy bear’s not gonna die
But the kids who sewed him at the factory are gonna die

Apocalypse Party is Fox-Rosen doing yet another one of his spot-on 80s imitations, in this case an irresistibly funny Prince parody. “This shit ain’t global warming, this heat’s not from the south,” he wants all the peeps banging in the VIP section to know. Terrified is a very different, and more subtle parody, a self-obsessed singer-songwriter contemplating the unthinkable fate of fading into obscurity – or simply into the background. When I’m Dead seems to be a spoof of hi-de-ho noir swing – and it would be a great song with or without the snidely macabre lyrics. October’s installment ends with I’ll Be Leaving, which is sort of a musical version of the movie Ghost…or something like that. It leaves the listener guessing to what degree it’s supposed to be funny or serious, one of Fox-Rosen’s signature traits and reason to look forward to what he’s got in store for November. He’s also got a couple of shows coming up, at 9 PM on Oct 10 at Pete’s and then at around 9 again on Oct 27 at Freddy’s.