Barbez (NYC Part 2)

One problem with having a wide-open evening in New York is the number of choices available, even when you limit yourself to more adventurous music. The particular Friday night that I had free on my recent trip was particularly stacked.

Out of the blue, a Brooklyn friend (who had no idea I was agonizing over the schedule) suggested I hop the subway to the new Roulette building to check out Barbez, a band with a very modern take on Klezmer and an interest in history. In fact, their next album, on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, will include melodies taken from the Roman Jews — there was such a people, apparently, and of course they date all the way back to Roman times.

That’s not to say Barbez (unrelated to the Brooklyn venue Barb├Ęs AFAIK) plays antiquated themes. It’s vibrant sextet music with energetic Klezmer-jazz attitude, some thick electric guitar from bandleader Dan Kaufman, and some new-classical turns on violin and clarinet.

They put together a varied show that took advantage of Roulette’s theater stage. For two quieter pieces, two dancers came out and performed slow-motion routines excerpted from a program called “The Making of Americans.” One of these pieces was also accompanied by vocalist Shelley Hirsch reciting some prose (Gertrude Stein?) and a silent film of Indiana scenes.

Hirsch, decked out in elegant black, took the stage for a couple of these readings and for an over-the-top Brechtian cabaret finale.

In addition to Kaufman’s bright guitar, the music included sparkling vibraphone lines and some aggressive electric bass from Peter Lettre (also of the indie band Shearwater). I wish I’d been able to hear more of Peter Hess on clarinet and especially bass clarinet; he was kind of buried by the amplified instruments. I liked what I heard from him, though, a blend of klezmer, jazz, and classical.

The next day, I did find myself really regretting that I hadn’t caught Berne’s band (formerly Los Totopos, now snakeoil) later that night. With the grace of the subway-transfer gods, I could have made it. But I can console myself by waiting for Feb. 28, when they’ll be playing at Yoshi’s in Oakland.

By the way, that Roulette theater is really nice. It’s unfinished — we sat on folding chairs instead of theater seats, for instance — but it’s a theater, with decent acoustics, a clean look, real stage lights, and balcony seating. I had trouble finding the front door, as did several other people I met outside, so apparently some of New York is still discovering it (or maybe Barbez attracts a very non-Roulette kind of crowd). I hope Roulette succeeds. This is the kind of venue that could hold a few decades’ worth of good music memories.