So, I’ve seen a lot of Masada Marathons. I’ve lost count, really – three nights in Rome, Montreal Jazz Fest, NYC Opera, two nights at the Abrons, Book of Beriah at Town Hall, twelve sets at the Vanguard, Nublu (twice now), the Skirball Center, 92nd Street Y… it’s a long list. But even with all that competition, this little mini-marathon (we have to call a 6-hour set a mini-marathon because it was “only” five bands, right?) probably wins the top spot for the weirdest Masada show I’ve been to as well as featuring one of the best Masada sets I’ve ever seen. It was a hell of a night!
The night started out worryingly slow – the first set (Uri Gurvich Quartet) was at 8, and I showed up about 2 minutes before 8 to find that the place was almost entirely empty. Uh-oh! I had suspected it was going to be a tough night – Marc Ribot was playing at the same time in Brooklyn, Henry Threadgill was playing at the same time, Jon Madof was down the street at the Stone… a lot of competition for the type of audience that might come to a show like this. Not to mention that people were worried about transportation and other issues due to heavy protests around the city… it had taken me almost twice as long as usual to get home from the Stone the night before.
People did trickle in and when they finally started the set, about 20 minutes late, there was a little bit of an audience forming. Uri Gurvich’s quartet was the first band and I’m happy to say I found their set to be a lot more fun than the other time I saw them. I think they played better, and I think they’re better suited to play first and gently warm up an audience than they are to play after a really raucous band like they did at the Vanguard.
The second set of the night was Erik Friedlander playing a solo “Volac” set. Always a favorite of mine, and he somehow managed to outdo himself again. (How good can “Volac” get? Shouldn’t there be some kind of upper limit on how good you can make the same piece of music? It’s beginning to defy logic at this point.) There was a bit of a bigger audience by this point in the evening, although in the way of crowds everywhere they were lurking in the back, not wanting to appear too eager. My friend Tom and I had no such misgivings and eagerly parked ourselves front and center in the middle of the floor. Nublu is a pretty small and intimate space for this kind of concert (it somehow felt much more so than the Vanguard, maybe because of the tiny stage?). It felt like a very special moment, with the nearly dead-silent audience, the intimate atmosphere, and music that I need to invent new superlatives for. I had fleeting thoughts that it should be recorded for posterity, but the moment was too perfect and I didn’t dare break it by pulling out a camera to sneak a video or even a photo. Sometimes even an obsessive concert documentarian has to just let things be.
Vocalist Sofia Rei’s band was up next, and this set was a surprise to me – for some reason I’d been thinking it would be something along the lines of Mycale, another Masada band she was involved with. But it was not like Mycale at all; it was closer to her own (i.e. non-Zorn) music and performed with her trio (one of whom we saw playing with her at the Book of Beriah concert in March). They had some unusual instruments (which I always love to see) including a saz bass (pictured below) and something that looked a little bit like a tiny ukelele with 10 or 12 strings, but I didn’t catch the name of that one.
Rei’s set was very beautiful – hopefully there is a Masada album forthcoming. From the sounds of this concert it would make a great record.
The penultimate band of the evening was one that I not only had never heard before but had never even heard OF – they’re called Forro in the Dark, and their music is based somewhat on Brazilian forró music. They apparently have a regular gig at Nublu and they had a lot of fans there who were thoroughly enjoying themselves (you don’t usually see so much drinking and dancing at Zorn gigs). They mentioned that it was only the second time they’d played the music and it did seem hesitant in spots, but I think with a few rehearsals it could be a great addition to the Masada lineup (they mentioned that they were going to record an album). After a couple of pieces, they got into it a bit more and the music was really fun.
I don’t think they ever introduced their band members, so I’m not really sure who’s in the band, but this is them (plus they had a guitarist out of the frame):
The final band of the night was one I was particularly looking forward to – Abraxas. Abraxas is a quartet led by Shanir Blumenkranz, with Yoshie Fruchter and Eyal Maoz on electric guitars, Kenny Grohowski on drums and Shanir himself on gimbri (which is a vaguely bass-like instrument originating from Africa, I believe). It was quite late when they finally came on and I think the audience was split between being either quite tired or quite drunk. They were the loudest and heaviest-hitting band of the night, and although the crowd had thinned quite a bit by this late hour on a weeknight, they put on an absolutely killer energetic performance. All the more impressive since Shanir had been playing two sets a night at Jon Madof’s residency at the Stone and this was his seventh set in three nights! I ended up seeing him do six sets in five days with three bands and I have a whole new appreciation for his playing now.
I didn’t take any video that night, but if you want to hear them live you can check out something I filmed earlier this year: click here!
The one sad/bad/weird/crazy thing about the Abraxas set was that some guy, who looked and acted like a very drunk Mike Patton impersonator, was heckling and harassing the band for a while at the beginning of their set (IIRC he started before they even got on stage). There appeared to be no security at the venue (and no other staff seemed the least bit interested in intervening) and the band was left to fend for themselves. Long story short, the guy actually got on stage to try and sing, at one point proclaiming that they were “his” new band. He climbed on stage several times, each time being eventually shooed off or stumbling drunkenly away. At one point they tried to placate him a bit by inviting him to introduce the band – since no one else could do it while he had the vocal mic, after all – but he was so drunk (or possibly just stupid? I can’t rule that out) that he couldn’t really understand much, and I’m pretty sure I heard him introduce “Joe Masada” on bass.
I found myself wishing that John Zorn hadn’t already retired for the evening (he was in attendance for the first few sets) because I’m guessing he would have lambasted that guy until he ran home to his mother in tears. Shanir was finally forced to literally kick the guy’s ass, gently applying his boot to the drunk’s butt and shoving him off the front of the stage. Pretty sure the entire audience was silently thanking you for that one…
It was overall a great concert and a great night, but I’d probably think long and hard before playing at Nublu, if I were a musician. There’s no security, and they NEED security because their bartender is apparently so irresponsible that they serve alcohol to people until they’re nearly insensible. (On the plus side, the woman working the coat check was super nice, and the guy working sound was on the ball, so they’re not a total failure as a venue.)
In other news: If I find the time to write more this week, you’ll be reading all about Jon Madof’s residency at the Stone!
In other other news: Another John Zorn residency has just been announced at the Village Vanguard, and the line-up is bananas. Two sets of Masada Quartet? Two sets of Bar Kokhba! TWO SETS OF ELECTRIC FUCKING MASADA. Get your tickets before they sell out.