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

(Continued from part one.)

We lined up a little earlier for Friday night’s shows, knowing that the presence of John Zorn on stage for the first set (Masada String Trio) would probably spur the fandom to greater heights of dedication. We ended up getting a front row table, and because of a rearrangement of seats due to the band configuration, I ended up sitting right against the stage; the band sat right up front due to the presence of a large percussion setup for the late set, so we ended up sitting about 1-2 feet from John Zorn and Erik Friedlander, which was a pretty crazy POV for this band. They sit in a tight circle with Zorn’s back to the audience, but my close-up sideways view let me see all of his conducting in detail. It was an amazing way to watch an amazing set – one of my favorites from the whole week. They played tunes from book 1 and 2 including the title track from their first Book of Angels album, “Azazel,” which was my favorite piece of the night. The string trio is one of the oldest Masada bands, and it shows – they are extremely talented musicians and about as tight a group as you’ll find anywhere. Zorn’s compositions show them off perfectly, with some pieces featuring lush melodies and others featuring sudden starts and stops and abrupt changes.

I didn’t take any photos or video during this set because it would have been disruptive to the musicians and other audience members to watch me be thrown out of the venue by John Zorn when I pulled out a camera two feet from his face 😉 but here is another live video of the band, from 15 years ago when they collectively had about 3x more hair:

The late set that night was Banquet of the Spirits, and my seat next to the stage meant that I had a faceful of Cyro Baptista’s large and complex percussion setup:


This set was a lot of fun – it’s hard not to enjoy yourself when Cyro Baptista is playing, he’s almost in a class of his own when it comes to percussion. He brings not only technical mastery but also tons of creativity and a sense of humor. (In related news, I am really looking forward to his residency at the Stone in a couple of months!) The other members of the band are all excellent as well – Shanir Blumenkranz on bass and oud, Tim Keiper on percussion, and Brian Marsella on keyboards (he had a variety of instruments I couldn’t see in addition to the piano, I think there was a harmonium and a melodica as well). I had a great under-the-table photography spot during this set so I took a few nice photos…

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With half the band being percussionists, it is of course a rhythm-heavy band, which made for an interesting change of pace in the week’s line-up. The Vanguard was a fun, intimate room to see them in – I think they lose a little something in the larger venues that we usually see Masada Marathons in.

Saturday night’s double header of the Masada Quartet (Zorn: saxophone; Dave Douglas: trumpet; Joey Baron: drums; Greg Cohen: bass) was expected by many of my Zorn-loving friends to be the highlight of the week. Both sets sold out quite far in advance and I had several friends who couldn’t get in. (This is when it pays off to be concert manic, since I had bought tickets for myself and my friend the minute they went on sale, with the aid of a web app to alert me as soon as the Vanguard’s website was updated. I don’t fool around when it comes to concert tickets!)

Once again I have no photos or footage of these sets because John Zorn doesn’t like cameras and he kind of scares me 😉 So here is a representative video of them performing live:

Like the Masada String Trio the night before, this is one of the oldest Masada bands; they have played together a lot, and it shows. They play almost flawlessly together – honestly, it’s kind of amazing they haven’t played at the Vanguard before now. One of the most fun parts of seeing this band is Joey Baron – he plays well in other bands, of course, but he really gets to show his stuff in the Masada Quartet. Lots of jaw-dropping extended drum solos. These were really fun sets. In spite of the sign out front saying this week was featuring music from Masada books 2 & 3, I think most of the pieces they played were from the first book. (But in all honestly, I am not even close to keeping the hundreds of Masada tunes straight, let alone memorizing titles or which piece is in which book…so don’t quote me on that!) I really hope they get to come back and play the Vanguard again before too long.

The final night of the residency, Sunday night, was one I didn’t have terribly high expectations for – both the early set and the late set were bands that are brand new to the Masada universe and I am pretty sure both of them were playing most or all of the compositions in public for the first time that night. I wasn’t expecting the same level of performance from them as I was expecting from some of the other bands that have been playing together for 10-15 years or more.

That said, I did enjoy the first set quite a bit – Roberto Rodriguez & Octeto Masada (actually a nonet since it’s an octet plus Rodriguez himself). The band had a pretty interesting selection of instruments, including percussion, bass, flute, clarinet, violin, piano, accordion and trombone. The sound mix was a little percussion-heavy for me since we were sitting in the front row again, but aside from that it was a good set. My view was mostly drumkit, a sea of music stands, and the accordionist – luckily, I like accordion players. I think it was probably one of the weaker sets of the week just because the band was, as I mentioned, not terribly well-practiced with the material. If they actually went on tour with the material, I think it could be a lot of fun. I’d certainly go see them again.

We were excited to be able to pick up copies of Roberto Rodriguez’ new Book of Angels CD, “Aguares,” which is being released in a week or two – I’ve given it a couple of listens and I think it’s excellent. (I have to admit at this point I would probably buy a Book of Angels album from just about anyone because I can’t bear to break up the set, but this is genuinely a good one!)

The final set of the week was the Uri Gurvich Quartet. I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it as much as I was hoping to, partly because immediately following a somewhat traumatic interstate move with thirteen concerts in seven nights is a really stupid thing to do and I was both burned out and exhausted. (Not to mention I had to go home from the concert and pack my suitcase for an 11-day trip I was leaving on the next morning – I seriously need my life to calm down.) In addition to my personal issues, the style of jazz they played is not really my favorite – a little too mainstream/tame. They will probably be a lot more popular than the stuff I usually listen to. 😉 That being said, I did especially enjoy the bassist, Peter Slavov; he was great and a lot of fun to watch. And I really liked some of the compositions – it’s good to know that there are still some great tunes left to be heard in future Book of Angels records.

In the end, attending all twelve sets of Zorn’s residency at the Village Vanguard felt like a bit of an exercise in musical masochism – I think we spent about 28 hours there (not including waiting in line outside). The seats are uncomfortable and the drinks are expensive (not to mention the $400 in concert tickets). But… it was worth it. It really was. There wasn’t any set that was majorly disappointing, and there were several that were even better than I’d expected. And the ones I expected to be great were all wonderful. And on a more personal level, it was a beautiful introduction to my new life in New York City and a perfect way to see a lot of my NYC friends all at once.

It really was a special treat to see all the bands stretch out and play for that hour (or more) instead of the increasingly-short sets they’re given at Masada marathons these days. I think the first Masada marathon I saw was in 2006 and they were getting 45-minute sets. The last one I saw before the week at the Vanguard had bands playing one piece each and crammed twenty bands into a single concert. That’s a cool way to show off Zorn’s versatility and all that, but I think it does a bit of disservice to the bands, who don’t really get a chance to show their best side. I would love to see another Village Vanguard Masada marathon week next year with all the bands that didn’t get to play this time: Electric Masada, Bar Kokhba, the Dreamers, Cracow Klezmer Band (aka Bester Quartet), Secret Chiefs 3, Abraxas, etc. – and you could probably throw in the Masada String Trio again since they did two Book of Angels albums and we can count them twice!

Now I’m going to go catch up on my sleep for a week or two before attending any more concerts… after packing, moving, multiple trips back and forth from Boston to NYC, and going out late every night for a week at the Vanguard, I’ve got a sleep deficit approximately the size of Rhode Island!

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