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The Music Stops


"How do you keep the music playing?
How do you make it last?
How do you keep the song from fading
Too fast?"

- Alan and Marilyn Bergman, "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?"

Monday nights are usually quiet in New York: Broadway is shut, museums and galleries are closed, jazz clubs are either dark or have a house band playing. But, this Monday is different: there is no music, no art, no activity to be seen anywhere. Life as we know it has shut down for an unknowable period of time, thanks to this horrible, contagious, deadly coronavirus that has spread unchecked throughout the city, and around the world. Everything is on Pause.

Art and culture certainly come second to health and welfare, but looking at the impact COVID-19 is having just on music in New York City shows just how extraordinary and unprecedented a moment this is. As of today, both the Met and the Phil have canceled the remainder of their seasons, and the loss of income from ticket sales (estimated in the tens of millions of dollars) is compounded by the impact the concurrent stock market crash has had on their endowments. Carnegie and BAM and the Met Museum will try to reopen in May, but I wouldn't bank on it. All that planning, all those sets, all those bookings made years in advance - gone.  

Of course, these are major institutions with the resources to continue providing their employees with full benefits, if not at least partial pay. They should survive (I think.) But, what about all of the independent musicians: the new music peeps, the jazz players, the indie rockers, the bluegrass and old time fiddlers? Most of them get paid by the gig, and have little, if any safety net.

What about the clubs? Blue Note and the Vanguard aren't going anywhere, but what about Smalls or Smoke? I'm sure Bowery will be fine, but what about the standalone places, like LPR or Elsewhere, not to mention the dozens and dozens of bars that showcase live music on a nightly basis? I assume the better-capitalized new music venues like National Sawdust and Roulette are ok, while others can probably just go into hibernation and come out fine on the other side of this. 

Hopefully, this thing will blow over before long (though probably not as soon as some irresponsible leaders would like) and we'll all be back to gigging with a beer or two. In the meantime, go stream some opera, symphonies, or random bedroom gigs. And remember what live music brings to your life, now that we don't have it. DSC06308Stay safe, and remember to wash your hands.

Ramy Essam “Tahrir and Beyond” at National Sawdust


IMG_1835Egyptian singer-songwriter Ramy Essam played an electric show at National Sawdust on January 25th , part of a multimedia tour called “Tahrir and Beyond" commemorating the ninth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution. Essam was joined by the street artist Ganzeer; both gained notoriety during the 2011 Arab Spring for their musical and artistic interventions in the streets of Cairo. Ramy and Ganzeer now live in exile, but their commitment to justice in Egypt has now risen to global prominence. Case in point: Essam’s song “Irhal” was selected as Time Out’s third most world-changing song of all time.

After Ganzeer presented a slide show of his work and a historical overview of the Revolution, Essam took the stage with a classic four piece rock ensemble. The curly-haired rocker brought his 90’s grunge aesthetic to life with songs that addressed everything from the freeing of political prisoners to celebrating the spirit of the revolution. Despite the ultimate suppression of the uprising between 2011 and 2013, Essam and Ganzeer sought to bring the fervor of that moment in history into the present, refusing to forget the spark of hope they helped to build through their art.

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Faraj Abyad and his Orchestra at Symphony Space

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by Kat Pongrace

Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the trance and ecstasy that Egyptian singer Faraj Abyad and his Orchestra wrought upon the audience last Saturday at Symphony Space. Presented in collaboration with the World Music Institute, Faraj performed classics from the Golden Age of Arab Music. Directed by the violinist Layth Sidiq, the orchestra was comprised of nine musicians playing a mix of traditional Arab instruments like the Oud, a short-necked lute-type instrument; the Qanun, a stringed instrument; and the Ney, an end-blown flute, as well as more familiar western instruments like the violin, cello, and tambourine. 

Tight-suited in black, Faraj performed Tarab songs from Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Taraab music, which doesn't directly translate to English, is mostly noted for its extreme sentimentality, full of love and intense longing. One of Tarab's best known exponents, Umm Kalthum, was the most celebrated Egyptian singer of the 20th century. Known as the “Star of the East,” and “The Fourth Pyramid of Egypt,” Kalthum's career spanned two world wars, two revolutions in Egypt, and the social and cultural turmoil of the 1960s; one of her songs “Wallahi Zaman, Ya Silahi” (“It’s Been a Long Time, O Weapon of Mine”) was adopted as the Egyptian National Anthem from 1960 to 1979. 

"Enta Omri," an Arabic term of endearment meaning ‘You Are My Life,’ began with gentle plucking by the string section leading into Ney and Quanrun solos, accompanied by the percussive beat of the tambourine. Faraj employed a style of singing known as Mawwal, characterized by prolonged vowels, setting the emotional stakes high. 

“All I saw before my eyes saw you is a lifetime wasted / you are my life, you are my life / with your light my life’s dawn began.”

The audience was ripe to participate, clapping and singing along at the slightest encouragement from Faraj. It probably didn't hurt that the event featured an Arak bar with spins on classic Levantine cocktails, to put everyone in the right frame of mind.

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Winter Jazzfest Marathon - Saturday

by Dan Lehner and Pete Matthews

Greg Osby and Lakecia Benjamin at Le Poisson Rouge

A warm Friday gave way to an even warmer Saturday - making Winter Jazzfest seem almost like Spring Jazzfest, encouraging causal wandering between venues and neighborhoods. Fortunately for attendees, there were plenty of reasons to get out of their comfort zones (literally and physically) to check out what each venue had to offer. 

L-R: Matt Brewer, Steve Lehman, Damion Reid

Starting at Zinc Bar, saxophonist Steve Lehman’s trio with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid is well-known for its icy precision, darting between the cracks of rhythm and harmony. But the addition of pianist Craig Taborn opened up even further dimensions to Lehman’s aesthetic map. Taborn countered Lehman’s intensity with a certain softness, allowing Lehman’s microtonalities to become even more pronounced, and he even seemed emboldened by the piano’s presence to round out some of the hardcore edges. Nevertheless, velocity was still the name of the game in Lehman’s group, the group’s energy bounding and stopping on a dime, through Lehman’s originals and one particular burning version of Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “A Shifting Design.”


Helen Sung Winter Jazzfest 2020
Helen Sung and Kush Abadey

Over at The Dance, Helen Sung was trying out a new configuration as well with her “Sung With Words” project. Not only was this a new instance for the acclaimed pianist to work with vocals (in this case, the adept and nimble Christie Dashiell) but also to adapt pre-existing text - in this instance, the poetry of former NEA chair Dana Gioia. Giving the audience a preview of the poem first, Sung's adaptations were diverse and layered; interpolations of the text would sometimes be in full, Mingusian avant-blues song form, sometimes reduced to the hush of single notes and cymbal scrapes. The musical landscape was, on its own, intricate enough - Sung utilized saxophonist Steve Wilson not only as a solo voice, but as a harmonic technique, locking in with right hand piano lines in unexpected ways. Not to be left out of the fun, Sung even had Wilson and herself contribute lush background vocals for a tune, giving Dashiell's interpretations even more depth.

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