Concert(s) review: Ode to the Nonas: Bonebridge and Abraxas in Milan

Today we have a guest blog from Ariëla Flusser – long-time reader, first-time contributor! She’s a Belgian currently living in London, and enjoys traveling around Europe to see her favorite downtown NYC musicians. Incidentally, traveling internationally for live music qualifies you almost instantly for the diagnosis of “concert manic!” – Sarah V.

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Each year from October to March, Teatro Manzoni in Milan stages a series of concerts of contemporary jazz, avant-garde and world music from around the globe: Aperitivo in Concerto, rhythms of our times. The concerts have a very unique set-up. They take place in a beautiful red velvet theatre from 1873 at 11AM on a Sunday and attract a curious mix of open-minded no-nonsense people of all ages and backgrounds, artists, music lovers, students, families with children, and tourists. The eclectic crowd joins in to be surprised, sometimes challenged, but above all to enjoy fabulous live music. And most ‘Aperitivo’ concerts I’ve seen over the years were out of this world.

I often wondered what makes these concerts so special. Is it the untimely hour? You already have to want to be there, to get up and dressed and in the mood at 11 on a Sunday morning. The musicians also have to switch to another gear from evening to (early) morning playing. Is it the stately theatre with its plush chairs, programme books and stewards showing you your place? Such a setting in a way ‘forces’ you to be quiet and focus on the music. Is it the down-to-earth audience? Some of the continental avant-garde/jazz venues can be so snobbish, attracting a ‘’tu m’as vu’ crowd who come ‘to see and to be seen’ rather than to hear. The Manzoni magic is probably a mix of all these elements and much more.

This year’s 29th edition hosted the David Murray Quartet featuring Macy Gray, the reunited Jazz Passengers, the controversial writer-poet Amiri Baraka with his word music project (and one of his last public performances before he passed away in January) and jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell, amongst others. I made my way to Milan for Erik Friedlander’s Bonebridge and Abraxas playing John Zorn.

Cellist Erik Friedlander is one of my favourite artists and always an absolute pleasure to hear live. He manages to give the best of himself in all circumstances, be it a 1000-seat hall, a small attic room, in open air on top of the Dolomites or a venue with a sound system breakdown and a chatty audience. Bonebridge is Erik Friedlander’s latest band with Doug Wamble on slide guitar, Michael Sarin on drums and Trevor Dunn on bass. I did not manage to go to any of last year’s European concerts, so I was double excited to finally see the band live in my favourite venue. Bonebridge were promoting their new album Nighthawks, due to be released in May.

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Erik Friedlander, cello.
Photograph by Roberto Cifarelli (click here for the full gallery)

Erik Friedlander opened the concert by thanking everybody for turning up so early and set the tone for a warm interaction between the band and the audience. The band played tracks from both Bonebridge and Nighthawks and took the audience on an interesting journey through American music, blending blues, country, cocktail jazz, swing and jazzy funk grooves in Friedlander style. They played with gusto, a big grin on their faces at times, and completely absorbed in the music at other moments. It proved very infectious and the audience happily travelled along with them. Throughout the concert Erik Friedlander alternated between bowing and plucking. Bowing to add soul, depth and lush lyricism. Plucking to softly open a song or to fight fun duels with Doug Wamble and Trevor Dunn, resulting in some of the grooviest and most swinging moments of the set (see “Tabatha” below).

It was beautiful to see how much space Erik Friedlander gave to the other musicians to blossom and shine. I had never seen Doug Wamble play before and he was a true revelation. What I found most striking is that he could go completely loose in a solo yet do so in an introspective kind of way. I was especially pleased to find Trevor Dunn in the spotlight so often, to show what an amazingly versatile and talented musician he is. One of the highlights of the set, Caribou Narrows, opened with an intense bass solo, after which Trevor Dunn picked up his bow to play a deep dark melancholic phrase, while Erik Friedlander softly plucked his strings. After a few of those phrases they switched place, with Erik Friedlander bowing the phrase, expanding it and taking it to a higher level. Absolutely breathtaking.

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Trevor Dunn, bass.
Photograph by Roberto Cifarelli (click here for the full gallery)

The new songs – “Hopper’s Blue House” and the encore, “One Red Candle” – were soulful, evocative pieces with a gently weeping guitar dancing cheek to cheek with a longing cello. I can’t wait until Nighthawks will be released. The album can be pre-ordered on Bandcamp (click here to order/listen), with a few tracks for immediate download if you buy the album.

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Abraxas with The Book of Angels, then. I had mixed feelings about going all the way back to Milan for the gig two weeks after the Bonebridge concert. I enthusiastically booked a ticket when I saw the concert announced, but hadn’t heard the CD yet. When I got the CD, I could not relate to the music very well. I’ve outgrown wild, psychedelic guitar noise a bit and even though I could clearly distinguish the hand of the great master (John Zorn), it just didn’t click. Yet my curiosity took the upper hand, wondering how the middle-aged couples and nonas that were sitting around me last time would respond to the music. Most of them have a pass for the full series of concerts and sit in the same seat throughout. So last Sunday I walked up the stairs to the hall behind a group of ladies in their late seventies, early eighties, dressed in their Sunday best, fur coats and hats inclusive, chattering and slowly making their way up. Maybe they got lost and ended up in the theatre on the wrong side of the road (the famous La Scala opera house is about 200m further down the street)? I could not help but grin at the sight, knowing the racket that was going to fly from the stage. When I entered the hall, however, I could feel the electricity in the air. John Zorn is a Teatro Manzoni favourite and the band was awaited with eager anticipation. Abraxas is Shanir Blumenkranz on gimbri (and bass for the last encore), Eyal Maoz and Aram Bajakian on guitar and Kenny Grohowski on drums.

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Shanir Blumenkranz, gimbri; Kenny Grohowski, drums.
Photograph by Roberto Cifarelli (click here for the full gallery)

Shanir Blumenkranz started the concert with a very sweet apology for the noise they were going to make. He told the audience that the music might sound extreme at first, but he hoped that the purpose would be clear at the end. The audience did not need more than that. From the first note the response was ecstatic. “Domos” started with a mesmerizing gimbri solo, a string of bells attached to the headstock, before erupting into a wall of sound. That was enough for me to drown in. Listening to the CD I could not hear the subtle lines and shifts that were so prominent during the concert. The switch from noise to very intimate, atmospheric moments was perfectly timed and the crossover from wild, uncontrolled solos to structured phrases just hallucinating.

The scratchy start of “Muriel”, the slow build-up of the gimbri and drum intro of “Maspiel”, the funky workout of “Nahuriel” with Kenny Grohowski going in full overdrive – wow, what an energy… Both guitar players have a very distinguished, different sound, with Aram Bajakian playing sharp, cutting, vibrating riffs and Eyal Maoz’s at times almost acoustic picking combined with spacey sounds. In between the songs Shanir Blumenkranz talked about the origin of the gimbri, the healing ritual the instrument was used for, his own personal journey exploring his roots, the idea behind the music and set-up of Abraxas and the importance of John Zorn’s Jewish music as music for future generations. Bit by bit the purpose became clearer.

By the time the last notes of the spiralling trance of “Zaphiel” ended, everybody felt – and this might sound awfully hippie-ish – a bit healed and ‘loved’. The house went mad, almost a full standing ovation – two encores and the boys, moved and humbled on stage. Shanir Blumenkranz swapped the gimbri for the bass and skilfully led the group through the last encore, a blistering track from the new album Psychomagia with moody tempo changes and riffs with hints of “Beyond the Infinite”, one of my favourite Zorn songs. It certainly clicked with Abraxas during the concert and my copy of the new album is on the way from New York to London.

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Eyal Maoz, guitar (left); Aram Bajakian, guitar (right).
Photograph by Roberto Cifarelli (click here for the full gallery)

And the nonas, you might ask? Well, I could have hugged them all. They stayed until the very last second and loved it. Aram Bajakian was clearly the apple of their eyes. Every time he burst out in a solo the mobiles were lifted up for pictures/filming. Some even ventured front stage for autographs after the show.

Next year will see the thirtieth anniversary of the ‘Aperitivo in Concerto’. Hopefully some of you will join in the celebration. Keep an eye out for the program on http://www.aperitivoinconcerto.com.

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6 Responses to Concert(s) review: Ode to the Nonas: Bonebridge and Abraxas in Milan

  1. Pete says:

    Great review – such a pity musicians from the Downtown scene rarely come to London anymore.

    • Sarah V. says:

      I know what you mean. We can barely get them to come up the road to Boston, and it’s only a four-hour drive from New York…

  2. Ariëla says:

    Are you a Londoner as well, Pete? If so, maybe we should start our own club, The Stone on the Hill? The West End Vanguard? The Red Fish on the Green? 😉 .

    • Sarah V. says:

      Somehow a hill seems a bit grand for the Stone. 😉 Perhaps call it Stone-on-Thames and it could be in some dank little basement room by the river.

    • dennis says:

      Hey ariela dont know if its realy you that i think you are .. but i hope so, im dennis from familie baeyens hope you remember me from belgium … if its you pls respond to me if im wrong pls answer back ☺we denken veel aan u ! Grts dennis son of johan

  3. Roddus says:

    Great vids, Bonebridge were most impressive.

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