Traditional Crossroads, 2001
80702-4306-2 - Website
The scene of what is misleadingly referred to as Bulgarian "wedding" music is truly a mind-warping Bulgarian-Gipsy-Turkish-Macedonian spectacle of frenetic 9/8 and 11/16 rhythms that are executed with ebullient verve and at dizzying speeds while careening effortlessly through strangely bent chromatic harmonies. Its greatest living saxophonist is without a doubt Yuri Yunakov, one of a handful of phenomenally gifted Balkan virtuoso who have taken the genre to unexpected places that only bear faint semblance to the traditional danceable tunes that first inspired the moniker wedding music.

Ex-national prize fighter turned national -- and now expatriate -- treasure, Yuri was discovered in a restaurant band playing clarinet. Ivan Milev, accordeonist/founder of the celebrated Tracian band Mladost, recognized untapped potential and offered to make Yuri a famous saxophonist. Practicing for 12 to 13 hours at a stretch under his tutelage, Yuri's debut occurred during Mladost's 1984 appearance at the national Stambolovo festival, an officially sanctioned music competition in a genre usually only tangentially tolerated by those very same officials.

The crowd at Stambolovo remembered Yuri as three-time middleweight boxing champion. When he took to the stage with saxophone in hand, the masses went berserk and the rest is history. Monster clarinetist and bandleader Ivo Papasov subsequently stole Yuri for his own band Trakija that was banned from the festival competition after its by-a-mile win in 1986. Everybody knew that if Papasov and Yunakov were allowed to continue competing, they'd remain indefeatable to unfairly hoard the annual trophy.

In 1995, Yuri immigrated to New York to escape the ongoing government harassment that could lead to imprisonment and other shenanigans for performing this crowd-stirring type of Balkan Rock music. He now lives in the heart of a Macedonian, Roma and Albanian enclave in the Bronx. The liner notes explain how only in cosmopolitan New York did Yuri finally rediscover his formerly shunned Gipsy origins that now form the foundation for last year's album Roma Variations.

Variations teams him up with mentor Ivan Milev on accordion, Catherine Foster on clarinet, Georgi Petrov on drum set, Lauren Brody on keyboard & vocals, and son Danko on clarinet on the concluding track.

As energetic as its muscular front man, Roma Variations' original compositions view authentic Balkan dance forms as though through eyes enhanced by ecstatic mushroom vision. They spiral outwards from a central motif in wild runs between accordion and saxophone that are fractured by rapid trills impossibly embedded in the already furious arpeggios. In typical Gipsy fashion, tunes shift gear in mid-tempo, performers inject musical quotes from famous Jazz or Classical themes, and the overall milieu is pervaded by a truly unhinged sense of beyond-human technical skill and blistering inventiveness.

Because of this, Roma Variations must be approached in the appropriate frame of mind. When you can really pay attention -- rather than getting unnerved by the obvious inherent demands -- you'll notice the kind of focus-shifting effects that some of the minimalist music of Reich induces. Repetitive circular forms introduce minor, nearly subliminal changes to derail habitual mind fixation and thus open venues for altered states.

Unlike Reich's weightless inner space explorations of course, Roma Variations occurs at hyper speed and with highly unorthodox scintillating chordal progressions that wreck havoc with well-tempered expectations. And when Yuri and Ivan get sentimental as they do in their central duet, you'll feel overrun by uncontrollable emotion, a mixture of melancholy, beauty and alien influence .

Roma Variations is highly recommended to the already converted, and equally suggested to those who occasionally need to follow the paths less traveled. If you think you knew everything there was to know about sax, think again. David Sanborn was fascinated enough to invite Yuri to a nationally televised performance as early as 1985 ... just speculate about the artistic maturation that has ripened in this Bulgarian saxman since and take a walk on the wild side.