The Balkans. Centuries of unrest, revolution and occupation have left
much of the region without a clear identity to the point where
historians are inconsistent on which countries accurately form its
constituency. Culturally, an organically developed assimilation took
precedence over national boundaries and a type of regional folk music
called sevdalinka, along with strong elements of Gypsy music,
became most prominent. If one were inclined toward this dark, somber
style, its integration with other genres was a long time in the offing.
Jazz groups like pianist Michael Jefry Stevens and bassist Joe Fonda's led Eastern Boundary Quartet have infused elements of Balkan folk music into their compositions as has guitarist Brad Shepik
and a handful of others. Those examples are a far cry from the
traditional (and regionally more popular) Balkan brass band format that
dates back to the early 1800s and—for the most part—whose
instrumentation has changed little. The accordion, a traditional
instrument front-line instrument in sevdalinka, was a natural cross-over
to the brass bands.
Over the past seven years, the Raya Brass
Band has been winning hearts, minds and ears playing everywhere from NYC
Subway stations to Lincoln Center to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge;
the latter location being the approximate home-base of the group. This
wildly eclectic band's previous album Dancing On Roses, Dancing On Cinders established their personal twist on the genre with contagious grooves. With their new CD, Raya, the group moves to another level.
Nezih Antakli replaces EJ Fry; Rich Stein—on snare drum and
percussion—has been added to a lineup that includes the two main
composers Greg Squared on saxophone and trumpeter Ben Syversen. The
sextet is completed by the excellent accordionist Matthew Fass and Don
Godwin on tuba. Godwin also penned "Dren Gajda" and "Club Mono." The
influences are many and far reaching with the opening "Unify" boasting
of a strong salsa flavor while "Sugar and Salt" clearly owes some of its
tone to the Celtic style. The highlight of Raya is "Sunken Angels," a cinematic and sweeping piece with great leads from Syversen and Fass.
compositions throughout are high energy with only "With Every Drop That
Falls" slowing the tempo a bit at an appropriate mid-point of the
album. Despite the multicultural inputs on of Raya the music
rarely moves to obviously defined styles but opts for a more understated
blend. The musicianship and writing here are brilliant and Raya has clout and is full of revelations.
Track Listing: Unify; Dren Gajda; Sugar and Salt; Sunken
Angels; With Every Drop That Falls; Ivan's Tune; Bag Of Nails; Mirage;
Personnel: Greg Squared: saxophone/composer; Ben Syversen:
trumpet/composer; Matthew Fass: accordion; Don Godwin: tuba; Nezih
Antakli: percussion; Rich Stein: snare drum, percussion.
Year Released: 2015
| Record Label: Self Produced
| Style: Modern Jazz
Despite appearing on at least fifty recordings since 2001, Ches Smith
remains the more under-recognized, yet highly in-demand, member of this
newly formed trio. The drummer/percussionist and vibraphonist for Tim Berne's Snakeoil, Smith has played with John Zorn on Voices in the Wilderness (Tzadik, 2003), as well as Wadada Leo Smith, and guitarists Fred Frith and Marc Ribot. The Bell is his fifth outing as a leader, three being solo efforts and one with his recent group, These Arches, which included Mary Halvorson, Tony Malaby and accordionist/organist Andrea Parkins.
Here, Smith teams with pianist Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri on viola.
Taborn and Maneri had previously worked together more than ten years ago
on Taborn's Junk Magic (Thirsty Ear, 2004).
track is a meditative piece for eight of its nine and one-half minutes.
At that point Smith introduces some tension as the drums begin to
thunder against Maneri's haunting drone and repetitive phrasing from
Taborn. "Barely Intervallic" and "Isn't It Over?" are more avant-garde
and experimental in nature giving improvisational masters like Taborn
and Maneri plenty of freedom to create innovations that sound both spare
and lavish within Smith's minimal structures. It isn't until the second
half of "I'll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth" that Smith injects
more heated intensity with a rock beat over a discordant swirl of
sounds from Taborn and Maneri.
The second half of the program
remains in the chamber music approach with Maneri adding flashes of his
uniquely exotic playing especially evident on "I Think." Taborn's
playing ranges from snippets of melodicism to rapid-fire cascades of
notes and Smith's drumming sounds impressively musical. The leader uses
the vibraphone sparingly but its presence—especially in the midst of
freer group improvisations—adds a delicate balance to the sometimes more
For Smith, The Bell was not meant
to be the stepping off point for a new group but rather a one-time
impromptu session. However, after he, Maneri and Taborn played live in
New York, Smith realized he an opportunity to create something more
lasting with this exceptional group. His written compositions are
intentionally kept minimal so as to let the improvisations take center
stage. The trio responds to this approach with an appealingly patient
mix of empty spaces, complex phrasing and textures that play in the
moment and with an organic feeling. Smith/Taborn/Maneri will perform on
the opening night of the New York City ECM Jazzfest on January 15, 2016.
Track Listing: The Bell; Barely Intervallic; Isn't It Over?;
I'll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth; I Think; Wacken; Open Air;
It's Always Winter Somewhere; For Days.