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

When John Zorn announced back in January that he was doing a live premiere of a third Masada book, I was… excited. I was very excited. I immediately booked a train and hotel and started trying to convince everyone I know to come with me. I had my browser refreshing to get a ticket the second they went on sale (sadly, that turned out to be kind of a bust since all the best seats were reserved for the musicians and their plus-ones – oh well). Zorn’s Masada compositions were my introduction to his work and they opened up a whole new world of music to me that I’d never been exposed to before. The second book of Masada, the Book of Angels, contains some of my absolute favorite music, and I’ve religiously collected all twenty volumes to date. We’ve been hearing rumors for the last couple of years that the Book of Angels was drawing to a close, so the announcement of a third book was thrilling for me. A temporary reprieve, as it were.

It’s unclear what form the third book will take – Zorn told us early in the show that the book would consist of “92 tunes which will be played by 92 different ensembles,” which is pretty amazing in and of itself. I don’t know if they’re planning to record them in the studio and release them (maybe in a box set?) or just to do concerts; hopefully both, and hopefully I’ll be able to see them all! He also mentioned one final piece to close the book, which would be a longer piece that he would do in the studio after book three is finished.

Wednesday night’s concert premiered 20 of the 92 tunes, with 20 different ensembles or soloists – most of them were either pre-existing bands (Zion80, Secret Chiefs 3, Cleric, etc.) or variations on existing ensembles (e.g., the Merkaba Quartet, the Aleph Quartet, Mephisto). Quite a few of them have already created albums for the Book of Angels series, so they were no strangers to the Masada universe (or working with Zorn, which I imagine is a rather unique experience for most musicians).

Usually for a show with so many bands I would just pick a few favorites, but I think I have to go against my better blogger instincts and write up most of them – I’m only skipping a couple that just weren’t my style. Nothing against the few bands I’m passing over, some of them were just not my scene at all (on both ends of the spectrum – too aggressive, or not aggressive enough…).

It’s possible that the very first piece was my favorite one out of the whole night. The arrangement was by violist Eyvind Kang, and the performers were Eyvind Kang (viola); Mark Feldman (violin); Timba Harris (violin); Erik Friedlander (cello); Shanir Blumenkranz (bass); Hidayat Honari (tar); Ches Smith (drums) and Frank London (trumpet). It was melodic and beautiful, with lots of drama and emotion. Lots of klezmer influence from Frank London’s trumpet playing, and the strings just sounded incredible. I actually wish they hadn’t put this band on first, because it was so good and I wasn’t ready for it to be that good yet – I needed them to ease me into things a bit more. (Although this probably was Zorn’s idea of easing us into the show, now that I think about it.) Kang’s Book of Angels album, Alastor, is being released in a few weeks, and after hearing this ensemble I can’t wait to hear it. I’m not sure if the same ensemble is on the album, but he clearly has some affinity with this music and I’m sure he has done a great job with it.

Mark-kang(Eyvind Kang’s ensemble. Photo courtesy of Mark Kirschbaum)

The next piece was a quick three-minute hit from (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: John Zorn & friends improvising at the Stone

It’s become somewhat of a tradition for John Zorn to hold a series of improv concerts at the end of the year with a whole passel of downtown NYC musicians taking part. The concerts raise money for the Stone, the experimental music venue in Alphabet City. (That’s a neighborhood in New York, for those who aren’t familiar.) My office closes down between Christmas and New Years Day, so for the last few years I’ve made an effort to come down for some of the improv concerts. This year they did a five-night run and I made it to four of them, making it the fourth year I went to four sets of year-end improv at the Stone. Very symmetrical of me!

The fun of these concerts is the surprise element: you really never know what you’re going to get. The basic formula is for John Zorn plus maybe eight or nine other musicians to show up, and they all hang out in the basement and periodically send up small groups of musicians (usually 2-5) to play a fully improvised piece. Then for a finale they all get on stage together and perform. (This last piece can be a bit bizarre depending on the makeup of the group – you might have more pianists than pianos, more drummers than drum kits, more guitarists than amps, or simply too many people to fit on stage – but the name of the game is improvisation, so they always make it work!)

One of the more interesting aspects of these shows is that Zorn will throw together musicians from all kinds of genres and just see what happens – classical, jazz, rock, avant garde, they just get put on stage and they have to come up with something on the spot. It’s always fun to see what works and what doesn’t – and more importantly, which musicians are up to the challenge. Often you will see people performing who had not only never played together before, but had never even met. It doesn’t always work, but the surprising moments of brilliance are worth it.

I took a bunch of surreptitious flashless photos, as usual, so I thought I’d try out a little photo gallery thingy with my favorite pics from this week’s concerts:

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(I’m going to ask your forgiveness in advance if I miss or screw up any names here, there were so many different musicians and this was the first time I’d seen a lot of them…)

The first of the four concerts this year was on (more…)

Concert(s) Review: Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog in Brooklyn and Philadelphia (10/4, 10/5/2013)

I decided on Thursday night to grab some last-minute travel deals and head down to Brooklyn and Philadelphia for the last two-thirds of Ceramic Dog‘s three-date east coast tour. They’d announced the dates not too far in advance, and I already had all this travel planned for Zorn@60 concerts (see: my last two bazillion blog posts) so I didn’t think I could go. Then after all the Zorn concerts were over I started getting that concert itch, and I cobbled together bus schedules and Amtrak points and figured out that I could see two shows while only missing three hours of work if I tried really hard, so… yeah. I booked it all about 16 hours before I left, and e-mailed my mom to let her know I was traveling out of state on short notice.

When people ask and I need an easy answer, I always tell them that Ceramic Dog is my favorite band. Which is sort of silly, since the people who ask me questions like that tend to have simpler tastes in music and the response is always “who?” Those people clearly don’t know what they’re missing – everyone should see this band! They’re a rock band, and they ROCK, but there’s also a lot of experimentation and improvisation, which means they’re way more interesting than just a rock band. Their live shows rarely disappoint.

I had never been to the venue they were playing in Brooklyn, Union Pool, and I really liked it. They have a separate bar and outdoor areas where the less-interested attendees could talk without bugging those of us watching the band. I was in the front row so I can’t complain about the sightlines, and the sound was good (but not outstanding). They had a guest percussionist (didn’t catch his name – leave a comment if you know it!) but otherwise the lineup was as usual: Marc Ribot on guitar and vocals, Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Moog, and Ches Smith on drums. I had left on such short notice that I didn’t have time to charge my camera before the show, so I just have a couple of pics from before it died, and no video:

Marc Ribot at Union Pool
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Concert Review: John Zorn’s Game Pieces (9/27/2013)

(See previous post for explanation of why there are no photos or videos in this blog article. Welcome to Wordville, population: 1871. If you find any photos or videos from this show, feel free to link to them in the blog comments!)

Friday night was our third night in a row at the Miller Theatre, and out of the three nights, it was the music I was most excited about: John Zorn’s Game Pieces. I was sadly in a lousy mood going into it, partly because of the e-mail I’d received from them and partly because I wasn’t looking forward to spending another 3-4 hours in such a hot and stuffy room (it had been so bad the night before, people were falling asleep left and right, and my friends had to miss pieces of music to go out and get fresh air). I felt bad for the musicians – you know if it’s hot and stuffy in the audience section, it’s ten times worse on stage since they’re higher up and constantly under all those hot lights.

It is really a shame that there are no videos available of most of these pieces, because some of them I feel are almost pointless to listen to without being able to see them. It is so much easier to understand what’s happening when you can see the musicians and the prompter/conductor/director. It’s also lots and lots of fun to watch these pieces! On this particular night we got an incredible array of pieces, the likes of which has not been seen probably since (more…)