Review: Masada Marathon at Nublu (12/4/14)

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.
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Concert review: John Zorn’s Masada Book Three: Book of Beriah – part two (3/19/2014)

(If you missed the first half of this review, you can find it by clicking here!)

After stretching our legs during the 15-minute intermission, I settled back in my seat for the next ten bands. Well, I say “my” seat, but technically I was sitting in someone else’s seat, because my friend M. tipped me off to a no-show empty seat, front row dead center. Yeah, I’ll take advantage of that, thank you! It was a very nice change of pace seeing everything except the keyboards, instead of nothing but the keyboards.

The first band in the second set that really wowed me was the trio of Loren Sklamberg (vocals, accordion), Frank London (trumpet) and Uri Caine (piano). Out of all the bands we heard that night, this one had the most klezmer at its heart. (This seems relevant as the Book of Beriah concert was part of the Newish Jewish Music Festival.) Frank London gave us a bit of an explanation before the beginning of the piece, saying the name of the piece, “Kelim,” which is “part of the kabbalistic-mystic concept of how the world was created” inspired them to use this particular text, which I think he said was Yiddish. Even without being able to understand the lyrics, I thought the piece was hauntingly beautiful with a very Old World feel. Really loved London’s trumpet on this piece.

Next up was Abraxas, a band that regular readers of my blog will be familiar with. Shanir Blumenkranz is the bandleader and gimbri player, accompanied by Kenny Grohowski on drums, and two electric guitar players: Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz. While the band was setting up and getting plugged in, some joker in the audience yelled out “What IS that thing?” This prompted John Zorn to grab the mic and retort, “A gimbri, you fool!” which got a laugh out of the audience. I especially liked the intro to their piece which had some really cool atmospheric guitar work over a melodic bass line (well, gimbri line).

mark-abraxas(Abraxas. Photo courtesy of Mark Kirschbaum.)

After Abraxas, we got to hear Mephisto – which (as Zorn explained) is usually called “Mephista,” but apparently the substitution of a male drummer (Jim Black) made them decide to alter the (more…)

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 (more…)

Concert review: Winter Jazzfest Marathon (Jan. 10-11, 2014)

This weekend I attended both days of the Winter Jazzfest marathon in Greenwich Village. It’s a festival that has a unique appeal to those of us who are particularly manic about concerts; it’s basically an all-you-can-eat buffet of live music held in a bunch of venues in Greenwich Village. For one relatively low price you can run around and hear as many bands as you can stuff in your ears in the time allotted. Most sets were 45 minutes with a few double-length sets here and there. (I took it relatively easy and caught eleven ensembles plus the “round robin” duo improvisation set.)

This year was the tenth anniversary of Winter Jazzfest and featured a huge amount of bands (more than ninety). It was, of course, impossible to see them all, and there were some tough decisions to be made. We’d been warned by friends about previous years having long lines and big crowds at some venues, so we simplified our schedule a bit and tried to do multiple sets in the same venues as much as we could (without sacrificing the bands we most wanted to see). I spent most of my time in the NYU Law venue and the Judson Memorial Church, which was a pretty cool-looking room:

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(That’s Ches Smith on the left and Shahzad Ismaily on the right, during Ceramic Dog’s late-night Saturday set.)

The funny thing was that after I simplified things and tried to make my schedule less ambitious, I somehow ended up seeing (more…)

Concert(s) Review: Abraxas plays John Zorn’s Masada & Metempsychomagia (11/29 & 11/30/2013)

I always appreciate it when musicians schedule great concerts when I’m coincidentally planning on being in a city for unrelated reasons – in this case, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz’s residency at the Stone corresponded with my five-day Thanksgiving holiday, which I was spending a few miles outside New York at my parents’ house. I was able to sneak into the city for a set on Friday and a set on Saturday to see Abraxas performing material from their Book of Angels album and premiering some new music from John Zorn called “Metempsychomagia.” (Let’s see if I can manage to spell that correctly throughout this blog post!)

Abraxas is a quartet consisting of Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz on electric guitars, Kenny Grohowski on drums and Shanir Blumenkranz on electric bass/gimbri (he played the gimbri for Masada and the bass for Metempsychomagia). Blumenkranz is the band leader and I believe does the arrangements as well. All four of them are simply excellent musicians, I’ve heard each of them in various ensembles over the years and always enjoyed their work. You might have seen one or two of them on tour recently – Kenny Grohowski was performing with Secret Chiefs 3 this fall and Aram has been touring with both Lou Reed and Diana Krall for the last couple of years.

The first night at the Stone was the Masada night, and while I’ve seen them perform this material about four times now, I think this might have been the strongest set I’ve seen them play. (I feel like I always say that when I see them – hopefully because they are getting better and better and not because I go to so many concerts that I can’t remember anything I heard more than six weeks ago…) Maybe I liked it so much in part because the Stone is such a great place to see music, you feel like you are a part of the performance rather than just watching. Or maybe you only feel like that when you’re sitting eighteen inches from one of the guitar players, like I was. Anyway, it was a really fun show, loud and aggressive and very well done in general. If you haven’t heard them, they have a heavy rock sound but with an exotic flavor thanks in large part to Blumenkranz’s gimbri and his flavorful arrangements.

Due to a game of Uno with my four-year-old nephew taking much longer than planned, I was very pressed for time and didn’t have a chance to pack up my music-blogger kit; I showed up to the concert with no camera or other recording devices. Luckily, my friend John brought his camera and took some footage from the seat next to mine:

On Saturday night, for the premiere of Metempsychomagia, I made sure to bring all the (more…)