Review: John Zorn’s “Angels at the Vanguard” (part one)

Faithful readers of Concert Manic will have already read about John Zorn’s week at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, thanks to an in-depth guest post previewing all of the concerts (click here if you haven’t read it and would like to). This week I relocated to my new apartment in New York City approximately 28 hours before the start of “Angels at the Vanguard,” which I swear was a complete coincidence. An hour after my parents dropped me off with the remainder of my belongings, my Zornfest companion for the week arrived from Spain, and the rest is history…

We’re now halfway through the Vanguard residency, and I’ve gotten internet access installed at my new apartment, so I am back in the business of writing concert reviews!

The first set of the first night was one I was particularly looking forward to: Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier on violin and piano. Their Book of Angels album, “Malphas,” is one of my favorites in the series (I think it was the first one I stumbled across in a Tower Records store bin back in the day) and I’m never disappointed when I see them live, whether it’s performing their own compositions or those of John Zorn. I had just picked up Sylvie Courvoisier’s latest album, “Double Windsor,” that afternoon* and was really excited to see her play. (*At the world-famous Downtown Music Gallery, because I live in New York now! It’s exciting.)

It was a Tuesday night and therefore not as busy as some of the weekend sets will no doubt be, but the room was more or less full and I think everyone was excited to be kicking off Zorn’s debut appearance at the Vanguard. I think the two musicians on stage were a perfect choice for the first set – they made one of the really classic Book of Angels albums, and they have played together enough that there was very little chance of nerves or pressure marring their set. In the end, I think they set the tone for the rest of the week, performing brilliantly and beautifully throughout – among the very best sets I’ve seen them play. Several of us in attendance at these shows have remarked on what a pleasure it is, after so many Masada Marathons and shuffle concerts, seeing these talented performers really spreading their wings and playing a full hour or more instead of 10-15 minutes at a time. It feels almost decadent to sit back and revel in these long sets.

The second set of the first night was one I was quite curious about: Eyvind Kang (on viola) and his large band (Mark Feldman – violin; Erik Friedlander – cello; Doug Wieselman – clarinet; Graham Haynes – cornet; Hidayat Honari – tar & guitar; Shahzad Ismaily – bass; and Ches Smith – drums). His recent Book of Angels album, “Alastor,” frankly confused me from the start, although I started getting into it after a few listens. The Vanguard set had an almost entirely different lineup from the album, so it was a bit of a mystery as to what we would get (especially when I’m looking at the list of musicians and thinking: “two-thirds of the Masada String Trio on stage with two-thirds of Ceramic Dog? What!?”). The set turned out to be quite beautiful, I liked it (at least in terms of first impressions) a lot more than I liked the studio album. I’m not sure if it was the different line-up/instrumentation/arrangements or if it’s just something that works better live, but I really enjoyed this set a lot. If I had to find a complaint about it, I would say it was maybe a bit restrained, which is perfectly understandable as it is a very new ensemble and they may not be fully ‘broken in’ yet, as it were. (At least Shahzad Ismaily looked relaxed, barefoot and sitting on his own amp in the back of the room.)

The next night, Wednesday, was the night of piano trios, with Jamie Saft joined by Kenny Wollesen and Greg Cohen for the early set, and a late set consisting of pianist Uri Caine with Greg Cohen again and Joey Baron on drums. Jamie Saft’s set was consistently excellent throughout – it’s possible, if you put a gun to my head, that I might pick out Saft’s set as being the strongest of the first half of the week by a hair. He also asked my friend to take some pictures, and my friend asked me to do it since I had a camera and a slightly better angle, so I felt empowered to sneak a few photos and videos in spite of the Vanguard’s no-camera policy.

Jamie Saft

The last piece of Saft’s set was the first on-stage appearance of Mr. Zorn, who came out to do a guest appearance with Dave Douglas (which ended up with a very “Stolas” sort of sound, if you’ve heard that album). That was a lot of fun and got the crowd really pumped up. The overall excellence of the set and the energy that the horns brought to the encore resulted in an audience so enthusiastic that the Village Vanguard had to send someone up on stage to tell everyone that although they appreciated our enthusiasm, it was time to leave unless we’d already purchased tickets for the late set.

Saft, Douglas, Zorn

Uri Caine’s set was one we’d been wondering about – his Book of Angels album is a solo piano record with a more classical sound, and he was slated to perform with what appeared to be a jazz trio. In the end it was an interesting mix – some pieces sounded jazzy with the trio and some retained more of an avant-classical sound. The set certainly showed off the versatility of the performers. As in the first set, Zorn and Douglas came out and joined the trio for something Stolas-y for the last piece of the night. This time, since there was no late set to prepare for, they decided to go ahead and play an extra encore piece, Rahtiel, which I really enjoyed.

Thursday night was the one I’d been looking forward to the most out of the whole week – Erik Friedlander’s solo set because he’s just flat-out amazing, and Zion80 because they are a ton of fun and I hadn’t seen them perform anything from their new album live yet. (Plus I figured it would be an adventure just fitting the entire band on that little stage.)

Mr. Friedlander’s set was pretty much stunning, including most of his “Volac” album and a couple of new ones (which I’m assuming are both from the Masada Book 3). A beautiful bunch of pieces performed with all of the precision, delicacy and purity they deserve. My only problem with this set was that some of the pieces are so quietly intense that they really require dead silence from the audience and venue, and there were some annoying noises during the set including some kind of hissing machinery that would start and stop and the subway rumbling past. But the good news was that I had a really excellent seat and was able to sneak a video under the table:

Simply beautiful, and the performance just got better and better as it went along, until a final triumphant “Sannul” ended the set.

The venue had added an extra extension to the stage in order to fit all of Zion80’s 11 members, and I managed to end up sitting in the bend of the L-shaped stage so I was more or less surrounded on one side by the band at point-blank range. Some people would have probably been very uncomfortable there, but I really enjoy the visceral quality of live music when sitting really close, and I loved it. I think the sound mix would have been a touch better had I not been sitting in the middle of the band and nearly straddling a monitor, but you can’t have everything!

Zion80 played a very, very fun set – definitely the most fun music of the week so far – and the undeniable highlight for me was Brian Marsella’s astounding five-minute piano solo. I can’t say it was an absolutely perfect solo because it seemed slightly out of place in the context of their set, but it was, as I said, astounding. Maybe you had to be there, or maybe not, but at that time and place I thought it was one of the finest solos on any instrument I’ve ever heard. I think it was in part because it was so unlikely: we’d just seen three piano sets with three amazing pianists who were being spotlighted for their piano playing, and then the keyboard player (who, previously, I’ve only seen play Farfisa when he’s with Zion80) sitting in back of a big band, behind four saxophones and two electric guitars, breaks out the most incredible, beautiful, delicate extended piano solo of the week. I don’t think anyone saw that coming! The rest of the set was excellent as well, full of energy and excitement – the audience loved it. I’m already looking forward to their upcoming shows in December during Jon Madof’s residency at the Stone.

Six sets down, and six to go… check back in a few days for part two!

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