Balkan Brass by the Bay

Brass Menazeri

Vranjski San (Porto Franco Records PFR018, 2010)

You never quite know how it’s going to turn out when a style of music closely identified with one particular region, Balkan brass band music in this case, is attempted by musicians whose home base isn’t even in the same hemisphere as the style they’re taking on.

Perhaps I’d have been better off not knowing, before slipping this disc into the player, that Brass Menazeri (pronounced “menagerie,” by the way) are from San Francisco. Then I would have simply marveled at how deft and spunky they can be on certain tracks and how melancholically moody they can be on others. Or how they can throw in shades of Bourbon Street, Bollywood or Iberia while still giving the impression that they just might be from Bosnia, Serbia or Romania.

While not as brashly brassy as, say, the Boban Markovic Orkestar or Fanfare Ciocarlia, Brass Menazeri can nonetheless tear expertly into Balkan standards and their own originals. Euphonium, sousaphone, trombone, trumpet, sax and clarinet majestically ride melodic hairpin turns atop strutting percussion and the occasional vocal, invoking Roma village dances, Macedonian wedding fetes, Ottoman military roots and shared musical connections with jazz, klezmer and funk.

Some of the band’s members have spent time soaking up local music in and around what used to be Yugoslavia, and what they absorbed is evident in Brass Menazeri’s finely honed, visionary version of Balkan brass delights.

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