Review: Ches Smith’s residency at the Stone (9/30 – 10/5/2014)

In the interests of my health, hearing, and sanity, I did not go to every single set in Ches Smith‘s 12-set residency at the Stone… but I did manage to catch ten of them. (It turns out that those 12-shows-a-week runs are a lot easier when you’re on vacation and not working a full-time day job at the same time.) Ches is one of my favorite drummers, but having been up in Cambridge for most of the last 15 years, I hadn’t had a chance to see that many of his bands. I’d seen him in Ceramic Dog and as a sideman in a few other people’s bands, but out of his own bands I’d only ever seen his trio with Mat Maneri and Craig Taborn. I loved that trio when we saw them at Winter Jazz Fest, so I was really looking forward to seeing what he would do with all of these other projects. And I was looking forward to seeing them all at the Stone since it’s such an intimate, up-close-and-personal venue with a great vibe. (As an aside, I’ve never been so happy to have fancy musician’s earplugs in my life as when I saw 10 drum-heavy sets in a row at the Stone while sitting as close as possible.)

Ches Smith with Ceramic Dog

These were the ensembles I saw:

1. We All Break – a meeting of Haitian Drums and Creative Music: Matt Mitchell (piano) Daniel Brevil (traditional Haitian percussion) Markus Schwartz (traditional Haitian percussion) Ches Smith (drums, percussion)
2. These Arches: Tim Berne (alto sax) Tony Malaby (tenor sax) Mary Halvorson (guitar) Andrea Parkins (accordion, electronics) Ches Smith (drums)
3. Ches Smith Quartet: Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) Craig Taborn (piano) Stephan Crump (bass) Ches Smith (drums)
4. Congs for Brums: Ches Smith (drums, electronics)
5. A free improv trio: Matt Nelson (tenor sax) Henry Grimes (bass) Ches Smith (drums)
6. A different free improv trio: Tyshawn Sorey (drums, piano) Randy Peterson, Ches Smith (drums)
7. Ceramic Dog: Marc Ribot (guitar, vocals) Shahzad Ismaily (bass, drums, electronics) Ches Smith (drums, electronics)

I’m not sure if you really get the scope of the variety and breadth just from reading that list, but it was a wide-ranging week of music. Percussion instruments alone spanned all the way from traditional wooden drums made with leather and rope to electronic effects played via a smartphone and tablet. Genre-wise there were several flavors of jazz and new music as well as a more-or-less rock trio (Ceramic Dog).
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Review: Sean Rowe at Rockwood Music Hall (9/25 & 9/26/2014)

Back in NYC (for good this time – we finally closed our old office in Massachusetts and opened a new one in Manhattan!) and I’ve seen four concerts in the last five nights. I’m starting to wonder about the sustainability of a 1:1 ratio of blog posts to concerts in a city with this many good shows, but we’ll see how it goes.

Two of the four concerts I saw were Sean Rowe performing on two different stages at Rockwood Music Hall. I was coming in to the shows a bit blind, not having heard his new record, Madman, yet (I pre-ordered it, but didn’t manage to get my hands on it for a few weeks because of reasons I won’t bore you with). I’d been hearing lots of good buzz about it from some of my more music-savvy friends, so I had high expectations.

I’ve seen Rowe perform three times before, always solo, but this time since it was his big record release party, he had a full band with him (please forgive me for not remembering all of their names, I was exhausted and forgot to write anything down). He had an adorably excited-to-be-playing band member named Rex on accordion, percussion, his mom’s roasting pan and a gyill (I had to look up the spelling of that one: it’s a wooden xylophone-type instrument from Africa involving gourds, leather and spiderwebs – really!); a female vocalist; and someone playing bass and flute (but mostly bass). Rowe himself sang and played guitar. The band added a lot of fun and variety to his show, but the main attractions for me are his songs and his voice, so don’t hesitate to catch one of his his solo shows!

I’m not sure if one of the nights was really better than the other, but I was feeling a lot better on Friday so I enjoyed that show a lot more. I also had a nice spot to take some videos of some of the quieter songs he played (the louder/more energetic ones distorted my camera mics too much).

This was (IIRC) the last song he played on Friday night, “Signs” from his second album, “The Salesman and the Shark.” It was a great closer and was a nice way of getting the band back on stage for the finale after he did a few songs solo.


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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:

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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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Review: King Crimson in Albany, NY (9/9/2014)

I’ve been away from home with spotty internet access for the last few days, so part two of Zorn at the Vanguard isn’t ready yet; but in the meantime we’ve got a submission from our new Massachusetts correspondent, Mike Stack, who traveled to Albany to catch King Crimson on their current tour. – Sarah V.

King Crimson is, quite unexpectedly, back, and with a new lineup. Parting ways with their 30-year frontman, guitarist and singer Adrian Belew, the band reformed with 3 drummers (!) – 20-year band veteran Pat Mastellotto, Gavin Harrison (who joined the band in the 2008 tour) and newcomer Bill Reiflin. The three are set up as the so-called “front line”, joined by the “back line”, Mel Collins on saxophones and flutes (a veteran of the band circa 1970-1972), Tony Levin returning on bass and Chapman Stick (Mr. Levin having served in this role with the band in the ’80s, ’90s and their 2008 tour), guitarist and vocalist Jakko Jakszyk (son-in-law of original Crimson drummer Michael Giles and former frontman of the Crimson reunion band 21st Century Schizoid Band) and of course, guitarist and band leader Robert Fripp. This tour, dubbed “The Elements of King Crimson” (and occasionally, the more concerning “Farewell Tour”), is something I never anticipated – a look back for a band that always looked forward.

Given that it was within driving distance, there was no way I could miss opening night at a truly unique concert venue, The Egg in Albany, New York (Google it, it’s something to behold). King Crimson, of course, has their famous “no photos” policy, so I didn’t risk it, but I did snap a shot of the stage setup beforehand, the unique drummer front-line on full display:

MikeStackKingCrimson

The band began their romp through their history with “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part I” (last performed by them live some 40 years ago), and winded through two hours of music, mostly Crimson classics, though a pair of cuts from 2011’s “A Scarcity of Miracles” (credited to Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins) also found their way into the setlist. I think the first truly noteworthy performance was an absolutely ferocious reading of “One More Red Nightmare” (never previously performed live by the band), with Collins picking up his baritone sax and adding grit and color to the monster guitar riff that opens the piece alongside Mastelotto’s explosive drumming effort. Another pleasant surprise was “The Letters” (from 1971’s Islands), not a song I’ve ever really loved, but Fripp seemed to revel in the guitar riff, Collins took an absolutely magnificent solo turn and Jakszyk sounded born to sing the part. Fripp also got a chance to really air it out on another cut from Islands, “A Sailors Tale” – his legendary chord solo was just jaw-dropping to hear live. The band closed their main set with a magnificent reading of the legendary “Starless”, bringing the entire room to its feet, perhaps moreso than the expected encore of “21st Century Schizoid Man”.
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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.)
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