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 Christmas Day, and featured the following lineup: John Zorn (saxophone); Ikue Mori (electronics); Ches Smith (drums); Uri Caine (piano); Chuck Bettis (electronics); Nonoko Yoshida (sax); David Watson (guitar); Sylvie Courvoisier (piano); Mark Feldman (violin); and Chris Otto (violin). The stars for me that night were Ches Smith and Sylvie Courvoisier. Smith is one of my favorite drummers and he’s always fun to watch, and obviously has a lot of experience improvising and playing in different genres, so he’s a natural for this sort of thing. Sylvie Courvoisier is also a favorite of mine and her improvisational skills are remarkable. My favorite music of the whole night was a duet of Chris Otto and Sylvie Courvoisier, really good stuff.

The following day, there was a completely new set of musicians (aside from Zorn, of course): John Zorn (saxophone); Marty Ehrlich (saxophone); Tim Keiper (drums); Chris Speed (reeds); Matt Wilson (drums); Anthony Coleman (piano); Steve Swell (trombone); Ty Citerman (guitar); George Spanos (drums); Shanir Blumenkranz (upright bass); and Lukas Ligeti (drums). My favorites from that night were probably Shanir Blumenkranz and Tim Keiper (although I really liked all of the percussionists, I’ve been all about drums lately for some reason). Shanir was just playing really well all night, and it was fun to watch Tim Keiper’s creativity running rampant. If I had to pick a favorite piece from this night, I think it was the trio of Blumenkranz, Keiper and Citerman. I also really liked the triple-percussionist piece.

On the third night I brought my friend Cynthia for her first visit to the Stone. I was hoping to impress her with a great night of music, and we definitely got one! The lineup was as follows: John Zorn (saxophone); Uri Gurvich (saxophone); Eyal Maoz (guitar); Ron Anderson (guitar); Chris Cochrane (guitar); Sylvie Courvoisier (piano); Ikue Mori (electronics); Shanir Blumenkranz (bass); Michael Nicolas (cello); and Don McKenzie (drums). I have a harder time picking favorite musicians from this night, although Sylvie Courvoisier was a standout again – I think my favorite piece was once again one of her duets, this time with a cellist, Michael Nicolas. I also really enjoyed the trio of electric guitarists with the drummer, Don McKenzie (and I think there might have been a fifth musician on that piece, but I can’t remember who it was! I wasn’t taking notes that night, I’m sorry).

The fourth night had a lineup I was particularly looking forward to: John Zorn (saxophone); Jeremiah Cymerman (clarinet); Jon Madof (guitar); Dave Scanlon (guitar); Annie Gosfield (keyboards); Frank London (trumpet); Brian Marsella (keyboards); Billy Martin (percussion); Briggan Krauss (saxophone); and Doug Wieselman (clarinet). I was especially excited about seeing Brian Marsella, because the last time I’d seen him at a Stone improv set, he was so amazing that I was asking around for weeks afterwards if anyone knew who he was, because I hadn’t caught his full name at the show. (It turns out to be fairly difficult to find someone who knows who “a pianist with dark hair named Brian, or maybe Ryan” is.) I was a little disappointed to find that for a lot of the pieces he played on tonight, I was having a hard time hearing him (not because he was playing too quietly, but because he was playing an unamplified piano and it wasn’t keeping up, volumewise, with some of the drums and amplified instruments – at least where I was sitting). I should have sat in the back by the piano – lesson learned. My favorite of the night turned out to be drummer Billy Martin – he was not only an excellent, skilled player but also very creative and not afraid to introduce some good rhythms into improv pieces that would otherwise have been a bit meandering or formless. I’m having a hard time picking a favorite piece from this show, but I’m leaning toward the trio with Cymerman, Wieselman and Marsella.

Usually I try to end a post with links to musicians’ sites and telling you when they’ll be playing next, but clearly with thirty-odd musicians involved, that isn’t really feasible here. I will say that a number of them are playing at Winter Jazz Fest, which is in two weeks and looks like a whole lot of fun for those of us who like a little mania with their concert attendance. (Check out the weekend marathon nights! Wow.) I also want to mention that one of the musicians I saw tonight, Jeremiah Cymerman, recently announced a pre-order of his next album, which you can get by clicking here. (And your order includes a limited-edition T-shirt! You know you want it…)

I have a strong suspicion that this will be my last blog of 2013, so: Happy New Year! Let us know in the comments if you’ve got some cool live music plans for New Years or coming up in 2014.

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

  1. scott says:

    the Swell photo is…swell.

  2. Ariëla says:

    Fabulous pictures, Sarah. As a European Downtown music lover I go green :); I do envy you a bit.
    But … some of the Downtown Highnesses are making their way to Europe soon. Erik Friedlander’s Bonebridge is coming for a 2-week tour mid January and the cuties of Abraxas are finally traveling over early February. Yay!! Having read your raving reviews, I just can’t wait. John Zorn is giving an organ recital of a new film score he wrote for the Cabinet of Dr Caligari in Berlin 9th Feb, but I waited to long to book tickets and it’s sold out now.
    I will be flying to Milan to see Bonebridge and Abraxas. They are performing at the Aperitivo in Concerto in Teatro Manzoni in Milan, a series of concerts at 11am (!!) on Sunday morning. What an untimely hour and setting for an exciting jazz concert, you might think. Well, I saw my best concerts in the plush red velvet seats of this old theatre from 1873. The concerts attract a mixed audience of intellectuals, students, music lovers and dressed-up nonnas straight from church with the grandchildren. The atmosphere is so relaxed and down to earth, but the audience is attentive and very responsive. Despite the early hour, I’ve always found the musicians playing sharp and fresh and giving the best of themselves. And where else would I find a 6-year old in a sailor suit with hat and short trousers, standing up in his chair, clapping, grooving away and thoroughly enjoying the Banquet of the Spirits? Not in the Stone, I guess.
    My best wishes and keep up with the reviews in the New Year.

  3. Sarah V. says:

    I’ll admit I’ve never seen anyone dressed in a sailor suit at the Stone! :-)

    Sounds like you’ve got a nice run of shows coming up! I would love to see Bonebridge, I haven’t seen them yet. I might get a chance at Winter jazz fest next weekend, they are playing a late-night set, but it overlaps with Marc Ribot, so I’ll have to see how the timing works out. Actually, Bonebridge is playing back to back with Abraxas that night, I guess they are getting ready for Milan…

    Thanks for your comments! I wish I had the resources to keep my readers up to date on all the great shows going on in Europe – comments like yours are really helpful to inform people…

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