When music inspires both feet and minds, the spirit can soar. The nine-piece band of merry makers, known as Slavic Soul Party! (yes, the exclamation point is part of their name), travelled to Amherst, by way of Brooklyn, by way of Skopje, to revel with 350 appreciative listeners at Bowker Auditorium, on Thursday, November 16, as the 29th season of the UMass Fine Arts Centers’ Magic Triangle Jazz Series marched on.
Led by percussionist Matt Moran, SSP! is a quintessential 21st century band, a hybrid, comfortable in a variety of settings. According to their biography, over 17 years they have performed “from pasha’s palaces to dive bars, Carnegie Hall to Serbian schoolyards, festival stages to prison courtyards.” Their concert on the elegant Bowker Auditorium stage was followed the next evening by a performance at the Williamsburg Grange (Massachusetts, not Brooklyn), playing in the middle of a spongy floor with dancers all around them.
The band’s ease of being was matched by Moran’s informative, easy-going engagement with his Magic Triangle audience. Throughout, he gave thoughtful, concise context for the selections, showing a real grasp and a high regard for the rich world of Balkan music. When he asked if there was anyone from the Balkans in the audience, there was a smattering of applause and shouts. He responded with a “welcome” and a thank you (the same in all Slavic-based languages), then played a traditional Macedonian lesno (a dance in 7/8.)
We know Moran as a fantastic vibraphone player, who in the last couple of years has performed in the Pioneer Valley with Nate Wooley’s Quintet and John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet. With SSP! he plays a bass drum with a small cymbal on top, known variously throughout the region as tapan (Serbia), toba (Romanian), davul (Turkey) or dhol (Armenia). The harnessed drum, produces two very distinct tones: a bass tone made with a mallet and a higher pitched sound made with a thin stick that easily cut through the band’s dense sound. Moran moved inside the slight semi-circle formed by the eight musicians, directing the ensemble with feints and choreographed drum accents.
SSP! began in 2000 and has had a slowly rotating cast of first rate instrumentalists. Four of the nine musicians in Amherst were not on their most recent release, the celebrated 2016 Ropeadope recording of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite. Their weekly Tuesday gig at Barbès, an intimate night spot in Park Slope, Brooklyn, gives the band ample opportunity to break in new members and new material. The Far East Suite was recorded live at Barbès.
What separates SSP! from other extraverted, good-time brass bands is the sheer virtuosity of its members. John Carlson, Kenny Warren (trumpet), Tim Vaughn, Beserat Tafesse (trombone), Eddie Barbash (saxophone), Kenny Bentley (tuba), Peter Stan (accordion), Jake Shandling (snare drum) and Matt Moran are all accomplished musicians with a wealth of varied playing experience. Their solos on the Ellington material, traditional Balkan tunes and Moran originals brought extra energy to the room.
Special mention must be made of accordionist Peter Stan, a Roma musician from Serbia. His unaccompanied solos were filled with rich, arpeggiated runs and, as the only chordal instrument on stage, his comping added a piquant modernity to the proceedings.
As the satisfied throng was leaving the theater, I heard people reference the heft of Tower of Power, the infectiousness of New Orleans marching bands and the dance-ability of a James Brown revue. This music – of, for and by the people – was distinctly East European, yet accessible to all who love music with a social purpose.