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Eastern European tunes a la Monk

A Bulgarian quintet melds traditional melodies and jazz at Schoenberg Hall.

October 15, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

"Bulgarian bebop" may seem like an odd combination of elements, especially as a description of an Eastern European wedding music band. And when the five members of the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble walked on stage at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall on Thursday, the label seemed even more puzzling.

Clarinetist Ivo Papasov, alto saxophonist Yuri Yunakov, accordionist Neshko Neshev, drummer Salif Ali and guitarist Kalin Kirilov, dressed in workmanlike blue-collar fashion, a few sporting more than ample girth, had no difficulty passing as a Bulgarian wedding band. The bebop connection was more difficult to perceive.

Their first number, "Belomorsko," didn't initially help clarify matters. Starting softly, with wind instruments moving gently through soft accordion sounds, the music was surprisingly laid-back, tinged with occasional piquant dissonance. But when the tempo kicked into high speed and moved into the rapid-fire, finger-busting lines typical of Eastern European traditional dance music, everything began to come into focus.

Papasov, Yunakov, Neshev and Ali were principal participants in a movement, dating back to the '70s, that searched for links between traditional music and jazz.

While the traditional elements have remained dominant in its music, virtually every piece that the ensemble brought to Schoenberg contained a subliminal sense of the rapidly ornamented lines of the bebop style.

The occasional off-center rhythms and melodies were reminiscent of Thelonious Monk. And Papasov's extraordinary soloing was often tinged with the note flurries and tonal colorations of avant-garde jazz.

Working with the intuitive connectivity of players who instantly anticipate each other's every move, Papasov, Yunakov and Neshev were strongly supported by Ali's remarkable drumming -- Elvin Jones meets the Romany rhythms of Bulgaria and Turkey -- and the subtle guitar work of Kirilov.

Singer Carol Silverman, from the University of Oregon, an expert on Balkan culture, added atmospheric songs and informative commentary to this fascinating evening of compelling sounds.

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