It might have been a cold night on the upper west side this past March 4, but in the basement of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a surprisingly large and energetic crowd gathered to see a hauntingly kinetic doublebill of two very different bands, Ichka and Siach HaSadeh, from the thriving Montreal klezmer scene. Ichka play minor key party music. Siach HaSadeh play hushed, slow, sometimes rapt, sometimes utterly morose soundscapes using ancient ngunim as a stepping-off point for improvisation (although they did romp through one unexpectedly upbeat number in about half an hour onstage).
Ichka clarinetist Julien Biret, violinist Isaac Beaudet and trombonist Eli Richards showed off sizzling chops right from the start,. While Biret’s swirls and dips and Beaudet’s slashing cadenzas and flickering trills were adrenalizing to the extreme, and their sub accordionist, Emily, filled in solidly both as a sidewoman and soloist in place of their usual player Laurence Sabourin, the band’s not-so-secret weapon is Richards. He’s what sets this band apart sonically, cuttting through with slinky basslines, ragtime-flavored riffage and occasionally the kind of tongue-in-cheek bursts you might expect from a tuba. In an all-acoustic setting such as this, having Richards instead of a bass brought the energy another level higher.
Counterpoint and dynamics are a big part of what this band does, the songs rising and falling, the band opening with a somber stroll before leaping into a joyously bouncy if biting and acerbic groove. As lively and entertianing as their set was, their best song might have been a stately, somber dirge by Alicia Svigals. A tune from the catalog of USSR-era researcher Moishe Beregovsky served as a long, slow launching pad for intense, lickety-split soloing from Biret and Beaudet. They closed with another steadily crescendoing number that they’d picked up from Michael Winograd, which they assumed was from the Beregovsky repertoire as well but actually turned out to be a Winograd original.
Siach HaSadeh didn’t waste any time changing the mood about 180 degrees from celebratory to sepulchral with their “improvisational Jewish chamber music,” as clarinetist/bandleader Yoni Kaston put it. Bassist Joel Kerr propelled their opening number with a tighly circular vamp that wouldn’t have been out of place in a west African soukous song – or one by Vampire Weekend, for that matterr. An even more subdued number was a dirge that Kason had recently unearthed on a wax cylinder in an archive in Kiev: it’s not inconceivable that this band was the first to play the melody in over a century, or for that matter, outside Ukrainian soil. How cool is that?
Gael Huard’s cello and Daniel Fuchs’ violin provided otherwordly, ambered washes of sound along with ghostly harmonic flickers as Kaston’s broodingly crystalline, sometimes Middle Eastern-toned melodies floated overhead. Afterward the two bands, joined with Ariane Morin, Kaston’s alto saxophonist partner in Turkish music duo Ihtimanska, along with several audience members for a robust jam on some familiar themes from across the centuries.
Drummer Aaron Alexander – one of the prime movers in New York Jewish-themed jazz for the past two decades – runs the Tuesday night series in the synagogue basement, and the concerts are consistently excellent. Concertgoers have many options: at the top end, $35 gets you a music class at 5:30, the show and jam afterward plus refreshments. If you just want the class, that’s $25; just the show by itself is $15. The next concert here is on April 1 at 7:30 with luminous singer Inna Barmash and her all-star band – featuring her paradigm-shifting violist husband Ljova Zhurbin – playing tracks from her haunting new collection of mostly Ukrainian Yiddish lullabies and love songs.
And Ichka have an album release show for their new one Podorozh on March 23 at 9 PM at Casa del Popolo, 4873 boul. St-Laurent in Montréal; cover is $10, or $20 including a copy of the album.