Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/13) – Part 1: Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra, Composer Q&A

The John Zorn marathon concert day at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis looked like the sort of lineup that would challenge even the most dedicated concert-goer’s stamina. A composer Q&A at 3PM, a concert at 4PM (Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra), a concert at 7PM (Erik Friedlander solo, Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba), a concert at 10PM (The Concealed, Nova Express, Aleph Trio), and a solo pipe organ performance at the church across the street at midnight.

After picking up our tickets and wandering around the galleries for a while, we got in line for the Q&A. It turned out to be a very enlightening and funny 45 minutes or so, with the ever-charismatic Zorn taking relatively few questions, preferring to just go on his own tangents. He got more and more animated as he talked, touching on a lot of topics about his community of musicians and how he brings out their best work, the nature of creativity and the writing process, what it takes to put together these marathon concerts, what it means to be 60 years old, how he deals with critics, and more. I am a really big fan of his (both musically and as a person), and I found the talk very interesting and illuminating. One of my friends said afterwards that she could have listened to him talk all day, and I’d agree – we would have stayed and listened for hours if there hadn’t been another event at four o’clock.

After the talk was over, we hurried over to the McGuire theater, where the concerts were taking place. We didn’t have long to wait before it started, and Zorn had decided to start the day with some of his stranger material: Marc Ribot playing selections from the Book of Heads. This is a collection of short pieces that thoroughly explore the possibilities of extended techniques for the guitar. (For those not familiar with the term, ‘extended techniques’ refers to playing an instrument in ways not intended – say, knocking on the side of the guitar, or rubbing balloons against the strings.)

There is not a lot of melody going on, and in my experience when one listens to the studio recording, you’re liable to spend half the album thinking “what is he DOING to that guitar?” It is much more fun to watch since you can see what he’s doing – licking his finger and making squeaky noises on the guitar with it, playing or muting the strings with various objects, stamping on the balloons that were on the floor around his chair… it’s fascinating to see. He was taking it very seriously (with the exception of a couple of reactions to the crowd being surprised by something he did) and looked very studious and reverent, bent over and peering at his notes/sheet music. I imagine it is a pretty challenging sort of music to play.

I unfortunately was unable to film or photograph any of the first set due to being seated next to some sort of venue personnel with a flashlight and walkie-talkie, but here is a Book of Heads piece filmed at the Kessler in Dallas a couple of years ago:

The next piece being performed was Hockey. I’d never seen or heard it and didn’t have much of an idea what to expect, other than knowing that it was one of Zorn’s game pieces. (His game pieces are essentially sets of rules that he has written for musical games, where one or more people direct the music by signalling to each other while playing.) Hockey turned out to be a trio… and a very unusual one! John Zorn played an assortment of duck calls, Erik Friedlander was there with his cello, Kenny Wollesen had a table full of percussionish objects as well as something in his mouth that may have been another duck call. The three of them performed and Zorn conducted. (more…)

Concert Review: Davina and the Vagabonds (4/5/13)

I went to Minneapolis over the weekend with some friends to see the John Zorn marathon at the Walker (blog coming soon!). The night before the Zornathon, my friend Terry invited us to the Dakota Jazz Club to see a show featuring a local Minneapolitan band, Davina and the Vagabonds.

I was very interested to check out the Dakota, since it’s a venue I often see on the tour schedules of very talented artists. It was a nice place, better than most of the venues I’ve been to where they want to serve you dinner during the concert. And they had some good hot spiked-coffee drinks for when we came in out of the snow (I love taking vacations where it snows in April, don’t you? đŸ˜‰ ).

The band consisted of Davina Sowers on piano, Michael Carvale on bass, Alec Tackmann on drums, Daniel Eikmeier on trumpet, and Ben Link on trombone. The band would step in sometimes on both lead and backing vocals as well. I particularly enjoyed the trombone and the piano. Their style (both musical and sartorial) was very retro, and they played lots of covers ranging from Etta James to the Squirrel Nut Zippers to Fats Domino. They also played some of their own original songs.

I was in vacation mode and not blogger mode that night – no notes, pictures, recordings, etc. seem to have happened (which is why my review is so short!). But here is a video you can check out to get an idea of their sound:

They mentioned that they are doing quite a bit of touring soon, including the Monterey Jazz Festival; you can check out their tour schedule here.

Concert Review: The Underscore Orkestra (3/29/2013)

I was very excited for the Underscore Orkestra concert at Lilypad here in Cambridge – I saw them for the first time almost a year ago in the same venue, and they were brilliant. And in spite of severe post-Australian-tour jet lag, they gave us an excellent show again this time around. I was pleased that they played a longer set than last year, so we got to have an extra dose of fun.

They’re one of those bands that can write songs that sound like standards, so I can’t always tell how many of their songs are original and how many are interpretations of older tunes. Their music tends towards somewhat “old timey” genres – gypsy jazz, swing, klezmer, etc. – which adds to the feeling that everything they play is about 80 years old. Mind you, they never sound dated! They remind me a bit of the wonderful Ghost Train Orchestra in that they play old styles of music with a modern touch that makes it sound fresh to 21st-century ears.

I took a video of a song they did early in their set – it’s called “Honey” and it’s from “A Little Bit of Magic in Every Batch…

After that they moved on to what might be my favorite song of the night, “It Ain’t Right,” (more…)