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 good stuff – video camera with mics for loud music, etc. – and then they made a special point of asking us at the beginning of the set not to record it, so I don’t have anything to share with you from that night at all. Words will have to suffice! I can understand that they would want to keep brand-new material under wraps until the official release – these shows were a sort of warm-up for the studio recording session which was taking place a couple of days later.
I really had no idea what to expect from Metempsychomagia – the Stone’s website was fairly uninformative, just listing the band and this: “WORLD PREMIERE of a complex new book of music written for the ABRAXAS band by downtown Alchemist John Zorn! MAJORI FORSAN CUM TIMORE SENTENTIAM IN ME FERTIS QUAM EGO ACCIPIAM — your fear in pronouncing this sentence over me is probably greater than mine who is receiving it.” A little research (i.e., five minutes with Google and Wikipedia) reveals that this quote is attributed to Giordano Bruno, an Italian who was burned at the stake in the year 1600 for heresy against the Catholic church. The sentence he refers to is his death sentence. Musically, though, this description didn’t tell me much except that it would be “complex,” and with Zorn that could mean just about anything.
I always have pretty high expectations of Zorn – he’s my favorite composer by far – but even so, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked Metempsychomagia. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed the first listen of one of his works so much since The Concealed. And this was the very first time they performed it in public, so I imagine it will only get better from here. I can’t wait for the studio release! The sound was less aggressive than their Masada performance the night before, frequently delving into surf-guitar territory. (I was sitting in a sort of awkward location, tucked into a corner behind Eyal Maoz, and could see his sheet music – several of the pieces were labeled “SURF” at the top.) If I had to compare it to some other work in Zorn’s catalog, I would say it is like The Gift with a very heavy Abraxas stamp on it. One could easily imagine this music being played by The Gift band, but here it was given a heavier treatment, with a more powerful rhythm section and a second electric guitar. Blumenkranz’s bass gave the music just the right touch of exoticism. I really loved it, it is definitely going on my “must buy immediately” list when it is released.
Abraxas doesn’t seem to have any more dates on the calendar at the moment, but you can ‘like’ their Facebook page here to keep up with their schedule. None of the band members have any shows listed on their sites, either, actually – but Aram Bajakian does have a new album coming out which you can pre-order right now – you’ll get a couple of free bonus tracks if you order in the next week or two. I really like his previous release (“Kef,” available from Tzadik) and am looking forward to this one. (It’s worth noting that he got the amazing Shahzad Ismaily to play bass, which is pretty much a guarantee of greatness in my mind.) You can listen to a preview of the album here: