THE EDGE: Swinging Violas
by Alexander Gelfand
Jazziz Magazine (April 2007)
…This past January, the Russian-born, New York City-based violist Ljova and his Vjola Contraband drew a full house at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, forcing fans to stand three-deep at the room’s swanky, dimly lit bar. Rarely have I seen so many young, attractive people pay to hear a band with no less than two violists not to mention an accordion player, an acoustic bassist, and a percussionist who bears a striking resemblance to Sideshow Bob. Yet there they were in astonishing numbers, knocking back $10 cocktails and whooping it up at the end of every tune.
Ljova, otherwise known as Lev Zhurbin, was born in Moscow in 1978 and emigrated to the States in 1990 with his parents, the composer Alexander Zhurbin and the writer Irena Ginzburg. He graduated from Juilliard and immediately took off in all directions. He has written music for folk, jazz, and classical ensembles; has arranged world-music material for marquee groups such as the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble; has composed music for film; and, with his fellow composers Ronen Landa and Jonathan Zalben, co-founded Mediant Music, a commercial-music production company that has worked on projects for the likes of Kraft and Coca-Cola.
The music that Ljova performs with his Vjola Contraband is deeply indebted to European folk traditions, though you’d be hard pressed to pinpoint a precise origin. Looking a bit like Maxwell Smart talking into his shoe-phone, the bespectacled 28-year old spoke directly into his instrument’s microphone-pickup between tunes. But when he mentioned his “strong bias toward uneven meters,” he wasn’t just talking. The off-kilter rhythms he favors recall the asymmetrical dance beats of central and southeastern Europe, where time signatures tend to look like hat sizes (7/8, 13/8, 15/16). They tug and pull at you in strange and mysterious ways, as do Ljova’s melodies, which have the tuneful, emotive quality of good pop.
Occasionally, he makes direct reference to his source material. One as-yet-unnamed tune was inspired by music Ljova heard in Hungary while traveling with his girlfriend, Inna Barmash, lead singer for the Gypsy-klezmer-funk band Romashka….
Back home, he sought to capture the unique rhythms employed in the Hungarian town of Szek, where the dancers appear to have what he jokingly called “a really organized way of stumbling from side to side.” Despite the goofy introduction, the tune itself turned out to be a haunting drone-like lament that made me instantly homesick for my wife and child. Pathetic? Yes. But impressive, too – at least on Ljova’s part. Music rarely punches my emotional buttons that way. And it almost never makes me feel anything remotely resembling lonesomeness or longing.
The emotion most often summoned by a Ljova performance, however, is elation. His tunes frequently display the kind of driving punch-drunk intensity that typifies Raymond Scott’s music — especially the “Powerhouse” theme that accompanies all of the assembly-line scenes in those old Warner Bros. cartoons. And Ljova’s colleagues take obvious pleasure locking into the tricky grooves and intricate parts evident in so much of the band’s repertoire.
Ljova repays the favor with beneficence on the bandstand. Given his own considerable skills, the Vjola Contraband could be just a star vehicle for its leader. But Ljova promotes many compositions by fellow band members. He appears to be equally happy backing a bandmate or creating a scene-stealing solo. On those rare occasions when he does grab the spotlight, his performance displays the same rhythmic and melodic flair as his writing. More typically, however, he simply plays lead on a composition then gracefully steps aside. I especially liked the results on “Tango for Patty,” a showpiece for accordionist Patrick Farrell, who occasionally threw in some jazzy dissonance alongside his Eastern-European melodic inflections.
Perhaps Ljova’s humility came from years spent playing second fiddle to violinists. Or maybe he already knows something that many musicians – and most people in general – only learn later in life: the more you give, the more you receive.