Concert(s) review: John Zorn & friends improvising at the Stone

It’s become somewhat of a tradition for John Zorn to hold a series of improv concerts at the end of the year with a whole passel of downtown NYC musicians taking part. The concerts raise money for the Stone, the experimental music venue in Alphabet City. (That’s a neighborhood in New York, for those who aren’t familiar.) My office closes down between Christmas and New Years Day, so for the last few years I’ve made an effort to come down for some of the improv concerts. This year they did a five-night run and I made it to four of them, making it the fourth year I went to four sets of year-end improv at the Stone. Very symmetrical of me!

The fun of these concerts is the surprise element: you really never know what you’re going to get. The basic formula is for John Zorn plus maybe eight or nine other musicians to show up, and they all hang out in the basement and periodically send up small groups of musicians (usually 2-5) to play a fully improvised piece. Then for a finale they all get on stage together and perform. (This last piece can be a bit bizarre depending on the makeup of the group – you might have more pianists than pianos, more drummers than drum kits, more guitarists than amps, or simply too many people to fit on stage – but the name of the game is improvisation, so they always make it work!)

One of the more interesting aspects of these shows is that Zorn will throw together musicians from all kinds of genres and just see what happens – classical, jazz, rock, avant garde, they just get put on stage and they have to come up with something on the spot. It’s always fun to see what works and what doesn’t – and more importantly, which musicians are up to the challenge. Often you will see people performing who had not only never played together before, but had never even met. It doesn’t always work, but the surprising moments of brilliance are worth it.

I took a bunch of surreptitious flashless photos, as usual, so I thought I’d try out a little photo gallery thingy with my favorite pics from this week’s concerts:

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(I’m going to ask your forgiveness in advance if I miss or screw up any names here, there were so many different musicians and this was the first time I’d seen a lot of them…)

The first of the four concerts this year was on (more…)

Concert Review: John Medeski at the ICA (12/12/2013)

On Thursday night I had the great pleasure to see John Medeski play a solo piano concert at one of the nicest venues in Boston, at the Institute of Contemporary Art. I always look forward to their high-quality sound, perfect sightlines and a generally beautiful room (and view). They also have a special free admission on Thursday nights, so I was able to leave straight from work, get there early and check out some contemporary art before the show. I also got there early enough to get the best seat in the house!

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I’d seen Mr. Medeski play a solo set before, about two years ago at Lilypad (you can watch most of that set on Youtube; a collaboration between my camera footage, the footage of the person sitting next to me, and his friend’s audio recording). I’d really enjoyed that performance, so I was fully expecting something really good this time around. The concert at the ICA started out in a fairly similar vein to the Lilypad set, but after he got warmed up it seemed like this set was at a higher level – it may well be one of the very best piano-based jazz sets I’ve ever seen. Dynamic, interesting, and fun. He was very (more…)

Those ubiquitous end-of-year “best of” lists…

I was trying to think of something to write about this week since I’ve been sick and had to cancel some planned concert attendance. The obvious choice was one of those end-of-year best-of lists that all the music writers in the world seem to do sometime in early December. But… I just can’t bring myself to write one! There are a lot of great reasons to make best-of lists, I get that. You want to get the word out about great stuff people might have missed. And people write them in early December so “Santa” can get some ideas for Christmas gifts for music lovers. (Chanukah’s already over, so that’s a moot point for me.) But even when I sit down and seriously try to come up with a list of the year’s best concerts, I can’t do it. Plus, the more compulsive aspects of my personality refuse to let me do a “year end” list when the year hasn’t ended yet. And last, but not least: Art is not a competition! Music is not a game you can win (not even if you’re playing game pieces!). It’s a collaborative effort by everyone involved. That’s kind of nice, isn’t it? Let’s not ruin it by picking winners and losers.

However, for the last few years I’ve written up “concert year in review” posts, with a full list of concerts seen and various commentary/statistics. I’ve also done some “concert moments of the year” posts. I didn’t have a blog to post them on back then, so unless you’re friends with me you probably haven’t seen them. I’ll post the 2013 year in review here in January, when the year is actually over. (You’ve heard the saying “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” well… my motto is “the year ain’t over till Spiritual Unity plays Bells at midnight.”)

Now, all that being said… as I mentioned above, one of the reasons people post these things in early December is to give gift ideas to readers. And I have no problem giving a little extra promotional space to support good music, so here are some Concert Manic gift suggestions for the music lovers in your life. Completely useless to all of my fellow Jews, but we are all distracted by our latke-induced box grater injuries anyway. (…just me?)

I’ll start with a trio of recent John Zorn releases:
In Lambeth: Visions from the Walled Garden of William Blake – This one was released a few days ago, so your favorite Zorn fan probably doesn’t have it yet. It’s also a great place to start for a Zorn neophyte, as it is very accessible. Beautiful, gentle, but still interesting music featuring Kenny Wollesen (vibes), electric guitar (Bill Frisell), and harp (Carol Emanuel).
The Concealed – This one is about a year old, but it’s my favorite Zorn album in quite a while. It reminds me of a cross between the Dreamers and Bar Kokhba, but without the guitar. I love it, check out the samples and see what you think. Also, the artwork on the Amazon page I linked to isn’t accurate – the package is very cool and uses transparent/reflective inks. It would make a neat gift. Here’s a video I shot of this band in April, to give you an idea what they sound like:

If you want to really wow someone with amazing packaging, check out (more…)

Concert(s) Review: Abraxas plays John Zorn’s Masada & Metempsychomagia (11/29 & 11/30/2013)

I always appreciate it when musicians schedule great concerts when I’m coincidentally planning on being in a city for unrelated reasons – in this case, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz’s residency at the Stone corresponded with my five-day Thanksgiving holiday, which I was spending a few miles outside New York at my parents’ house. I was able to sneak into the city for a set on Friday and a set on Saturday to see Abraxas performing material from their Book of Angels album and premiering some new music from John Zorn called “Metempsychomagia.” (Let’s see if I can manage to spell that correctly throughout this blog post!)

Abraxas is a quartet consisting of Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz on electric guitars, Kenny Grohowski on drums and Shanir Blumenkranz on electric bass/gimbri (he played the gimbri for Masada and the bass for Metempsychomagia). Blumenkranz is the band leader and I believe does the arrangements as well. All four of them are simply excellent musicians, I’ve heard each of them in various ensembles over the years and always enjoyed their work. You might have seen one or two of them on tour recently – Kenny Grohowski was performing with Secret Chiefs 3 this fall and Aram has been touring with both Lou Reed and Diana Krall for the last couple of years.

The first night at the Stone was the Masada night, and while I’ve seen them perform this material about four times now, I think this might have been the strongest set I’ve seen them play. (I feel like I always say that when I see them – hopefully because they are getting better and better and not because I go to so many concerts that I can’t remember anything I heard more than six weeks ago…) Maybe I liked it so much in part because the Stone is such a great place to see music, you feel like you are a part of the performance rather than just watching. Or maybe you only feel like that when you’re sitting eighteen inches from one of the guitar players, like I was. Anyway, it was a really fun show, loud and aggressive and very well done in general. If you haven’t heard them, they have a heavy rock sound but with an exotic flavor thanks in large part to Blumenkranz’s gimbri and his flavorful arrangements.

Due to a game of Uno with my four-year-old nephew taking much longer than planned, I was very pressed for time and didn’t have a chance to pack up my music-blogger kit; I showed up to the concert with no camera or other recording devices. Luckily, my friend John brought his camera and took some footage from the seat next to mine:

On Saturday night, for the premiere of Metempsychomagia, I made sure to bring all the (more…)