Musaner Misses the Mark but DeLeon is on Target

Musaner; DeLeon
Once Upon a Time; Tremor Fantasma
Lucent Music; Tremor Fantasma

Jazz has become the masala of music. It spices everything from rock and folk music to Celtic and Country. In fact, we’re so used to hearing it mixed with other things that it can sound uninspired on its own, a problem that plagues a new release from the Armenian jazz ensemble Musaner.

I had high hopes that I would hear some intriguing experimental fusion music from an 11-member ensemble led by classically trained pianist Ara Sarkissian, a man of Armenian ancestry born in Cyprus, sired in Lebanon, and now in Boston. What we get instead is pretty tame stuff that would be pleasant if heard in a late-hours cafĂ©, but is tepid stripped of context. Many of the titles belie what we hear. “A Ride Through the Mountains” sounds like an unfocused Paul Winter composition, with clarinetist Todd Brunet in the Winter role. There are intriguing piano and sax notes interspersed throughout, but they are cool in both senses of the word: impressive, but also unapproachable. The title track is the album's strongest track. It too is cool in that it has a wintry feel enhanced by Sarkissian’s icy-but-light keyboard fingering. But at 9:13 it’s way too long to sustain the feeling and it has an improvised middle section that comes off as a force fit. You’d probably expect tracks such as “Overnight Train” or “Strewn by the Wind” to pick up the pace, but they don’t. In fact, the saxes in the latter composition hardly stir let alone blow hard. In all, a languid release and not what one would expect from such a large ensemble.

 DeLeon’s Tremor Fantasma is more properly a world music/rock release than jazz, though there are jazzy riffs throughout–as well as smatterings of many other things. Multiple influences are precisely what one would expect from a group specializing in Sephardic music. Unlike Musaner, DeLeon front man Dan Saks freely mixes the musical influences of peripatetic Jews. “Barminian,” for example, is a Turkish folk song redone in mariachi style. If you can picture a group of Turks with accordions and oversized guitars singing in Ladino in a Oaxaca plaza, that’s the effect! Saks repeats this throughout, with Greek and Spanish songs given a Latin flavor in Mexico, where he went to make this record. But it’s not really “Mexican” either; a song such as “Buena Semana” sounds like it should be, but only if we call it Mexico by way of Jamaica. DeLeon use an unorthodox combination of instruments: banjos and guitars, but also trumpets, glockenspiel, and “junk” drums, the latter basically anything that can be thumped, banged, clapped, or crashed together. It is often compared to Balkan Beat Box or Gogol Bordello, not because it’s a sound-alike, but because the ensemble is often irreverent, innovative, and delightfully unpretentious. Check out “Ya Ribon Alam,” which is haunting in the way that a pop anthem set in an echoing cathedral might be. It also has more life in its first 30 seconds than in the entire of Musaner’s latest. Tremor Fantasma makes the earth move. 

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