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Ljova and the Kontraband Release Their Debut CD, "Mnemosyne"

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Ljova and the Kontraband
MNEMOSYNE is the debut release of LJOVA AND THE KONTRABAND, a new ensemble project dedicated to original music that washes away distinguishing lines between chamber music, jazz, contemporary global folk music. The ensemble was founded by violist and composer, Lev 'Ljova' Zhurbin, an active collaborator of Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, composer Osvaldo Golijov, as well as a growing list of independent filmmakers. (Among them, Francis Ford Coppola, who used Ljova's composition “Middle Village” in his latest film, “Youth Without Youth”; and “Man on Wire” director James Marsh, for whom Ljova scored the BBC documentary “The Team”, co-directed with Basia Winograd.)

Ljova explains: “Mnemosyne is the Greek name for the goddess of memory, and in a way, this is a tribute to our collective experience. In the past few decades, there have been massive revivals in almost every genre and region of music. While a major part of these revivals has been to rediscover the proverbial “Golden Era”, we've concentrated on trying to take these directions further, freeing our musical influences from their historical characteristics and context.”

As a classically-trained violist and composer, in leading an ensemble of jazz- and folk-trained musicians for the first time, Ljova found great new creative freedom in rehearsal and performances. The Kontraband never performs the same set twice, and Ljova constantly adds new pieces to the repertoire, each one unique, challenging and yet instantly accessible.

Speaking about the arch of the album, Ljova talks about the album having an upswing at both ends, “but in the very center of the album, there is a feeling of loss and sadness,” he says. The album begins quite innocently with a gentle rustle of percussion and found toys in MATHIAS, a tune Ljova wrote to celebrate the hyper energy of his percussionist, Swiss-born Mathias Kunzli, and also one for which Ljova has asked a young electronica producer, EmiKa, to re-space and re-interpret the original composition in the digital domain, re-sampling the instruments to create alternate atmospheres and beats, striving to create a new kind of upbeat dance music, in 5/8 time, and also featuring a fearless solo by accordionist Patrick Farrell. It is quickly followed by MNEMOSYNE, the title track, from a completely different sound world, a tango-influenced setting of a hundred year-old poem by Trumbull Stickney, featuring the vocal of Ljova's wife and the lead vocalist of the gypsy band Romashka, Inna Barmash, and Grammy-winning trumpeter Frank London of the Klezmatics. The track was mixed by Anibal Kerpel, whose work with Oscar-winning composer, guitarist and producer Gustavo Santaolalla and his group Bajofondo has continuously pushed Tango – and indeed a whole generation of Latin music – further.

Next follows WALKING ON WILLOUGHBY, an elegant bittersweet composition that is inspired by the streets of Brooklyn by the group's accordionist, Patrick Farrell; Ljova's frenetic LOVE POTION, EXPIRED jump-cuts between Brazilian and Balkan influences, all the while blasting through an accelerating tarantella. Things take a sad turn in KOYL, Ljova's arrangement of a song found in the Moshe Beregovski collection of Old Jewish Folk music, featuring once again the voice of Inna Barmash and Frank London, this time on flugelhorn; but optimism shines again in the tranquil HOW EASILY I GET LOST, a composition by the ensemble's bassist, Mike Savino, who uses wrapper from a bag of potato chips to create a gently fuzzing effect on his solo, recalling his bass's African counterparts.

Midway through the album comes LESS, a composition Ljova recorded by multitracking his viola to create a quintet of searching voices for the soundtrack of the poetic short film “Un Peu Moins”. It is followed by CRUTCHAHOY NIGN, a Klezmer-inspired piece alternating between melancholy and celebratory dancing, which Ljova penned to console his mother when she fell in an accident, and had to walk on crutches for several weeks. UNTANGO and SZEKI are two compositions from the soundtrack to the independent film “Serpent's Breath”, keenly influenced by the music of Tango Nuevo and Astor Piazzolla. UNTANGO features the soulful performances of guest accordionist William Schimmel, of the Grammy-nominated Tango Project, and pianist Uli Geissendoerfer; SZEKI is a crossroads of Tango harmonies with the rhythmic inspiration from the folk dances from the Transylvanian town of Szek.

As the album draws towards its end, the Kontraband offers GONE CRAZY, the humorous end-title song from the short film “Cupcake,” which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, featuring guest pianist Alon Yavnai, tubist Marcus Rojas, and the voice of Inna Barmash. At last, the band performs Ljova's BAGEL ON THE MALECON, a signature tune made popular on his debut recording, and numerous concert performances by the Enso String Quartet, Brooklyn Rider, and others.

The album's cover art features work by Rena Effendi, an Azeri photographer living in Baku. The two booklet photographs feature mysterious female figures, perhaps alluding to modern expressions of Mnemosyne, the Greek Goddess of Memory, while the interior tray image of a deserted stove makes sure that the CD is always kept at proper heat.

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