NYC's Raya Brass Band presents a hard-to-resist blend of brass band music and American rhythms.
The music of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean often attracts in musicians not necessarily associated with it by birthright. Just as Jewish klezmer music drew jazz clarinetist Don Byron to its intricate melodies and tricky rhythms, the brass-driven folk music of Macedonia, Greece, and the Balkans has pulled its own share of musicians into the fold, and New York City's Raya Brass Band stamps their own infectious groove on this tricky genre.
"This draws a lot of us to the music," Greg Squared, Raya's clarinet and saxophone player, says. "The challenge of the meters. All over the Balkans, you get lots of dances and songs in seven or sometimes in nine. But in Greece, you get tunes in 9/7, these amazing compound odd meters with certain beats that swing and stretch."
But the complexities of the music aren't always apparent in Raya Brass Band's second full-length, Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders. The band effortlessly cruises through the tricky odd-meter pieces, augmenting the twisting horn lines with heavy backbeats and handclaps that are a little more East Coast than Eastern Bloc.
The group's collective jazz knowledge is evident in their solos as well -- it's possible to hear more than a few "blue notes" in the torrential streams of the soloists. Jazz clearly also weighs heavily on the band's compositional sensibilities as well: "Tavernitsa," an original by trumpeter Ben Syversen, features a brief interlude between the trumpet and sax solos that wouldn't be out of place on an uber-hip modern jazz recording. The transition is briefly jarring, but ultimately pleasant, and speaks volumes about the band's eclectic flavor.
Tuba player Don Godwin deserves much of the credit for the band's surging pulse -- his nimble solo on "Hasapikos" is more than a little reminiscent of sousaphone phenom Kirk Joseph's work with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and his playing on "DJevadov Cocek" is so funky and choppy it almost sounds like a hip-hop bass sample. But percussionist EJ Fry is a force to be reckoned with as well: "Nevestinsko Oro" opens with his propulsive tupan (double-sided bass drum) groove before blooming into a lovely major chord.
Another highlight is Squared's opening solo on "Melochrino", a Greek santouri (hammered dulcimer) song translated to saxophone. Squared slips and slides out of pitches in the unaccompanied intro to the song, threading his way in and out of your ear's comfort zone: at times he flirts with dissonance, but always resolves his explorations with a vocalist's practiced restraint.
Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders is a compelling album, but it's not one that should be forced on anyone unaware of what they're getting themselves into: the music can at times start to sound same-y to anyone unacquainted with brass band music or Eastern European/Mediterranean music in general. This isn't the band's fault: their robust rhythms and assured sense of melody do more than enough to keep you interested. But it's not a record to get your aunt raised on Johnny Mathis.
Rather, get out to one of Raya Brass Band's live gigs. They're guerilla-style affairs that have been conducted everywhere from street corners to inside Russian bathhouses. Find a seat somewhere away from the teeming mass that will quickly surround the group, and watch as five people conjure a massive party around them. Then see if you can resist the temptation to get up and start dancing. It's pretty unlikely.