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 review: John Zorn’s Metropolitan Museum Marathon (9/28/2013)

I’ve been to a number of concerts that called themselves “marathons.” I’ve been to all-day festivals. I’ve been to multiple concerts in one night (sometimes in two different cities). I’ve even been to a couple of Zorn marathons in museums. But this? This beat them all. Twelve sets over ten and a half hours, from the minute the museum doors opened to the time it closed. Each one in a different room, paired with or inspired by a particular piece of art or architecture. I suspect this is a record that will never be broken (for the sake of my health, if nothing else!). In short, this was The Big One. I had been so excited about it in advance that I’d researched the locations and created an overlay on a map of the museum with a list of performances and times, so I could print it out and know where everything was without having to figure it out on the day of the show. And if you think THAT is obsessive, you probably don’t want to know about the “Zorn Reconnaissance Mission” that I went on with a friend a few days earlier to check out all the rooms, view the art in advance, figure out the best viewing angles, acoustics, etc. (I’d learned from ZoRN@MoMA that it was actually quite difficult to appreciate the artwork on the day of the performances, since the rooms were so crowded that you often couldn’t get near the piece in question.) We were well-prepared and determined to eke out every last drop of the experience.

We showed up at 9:30 in the morning to be at the front of the line for a 10AM performance, and the music didn’t end until 8:30 at night, eleven hours after we arrived. We saw fourteen separate performances. I made it through the entire day on a few granola bars and water. I had gone in with the idea that I would have a nice sit-down lunch break and skip a performance just to keep myself sane, but in the end I never got desperate enough to do it and I just pushed through the whole day.

We entered the museum within seconds of the doors opening at ten o’clock, knowing that there was a trumpet fanfare (Opening Antiphonal Fanfare for Six Trumpets) planned for 10AM in the entrance hall. We didn’t know exactly where it would be, so as we picked up our tickets we were distractedly looking around everywhere for evidence of trumpet players. I didn’t see any, but did spot John Zorn, Erik Friedlander (who was scheduled for an 11AM solo performance) and a bevy of museum staff members wearing “ZORN AT THE MET” T-shirts. I also spotted a few friends, some of whom would be joining us for the entire day and some who just wanted to see a couple of events in the morning. We anxiously milled around, waiting, wondering if we should move on to the Temple of Dendur where there was a performance scheduled at 10:15. But we figured as long as John Zorn was in the room, we probably wouldn’t miss anything. I think they realized that there was a long line of people outside and they should wait until everyone was in the room before starting the fanfare, so as not to disappoint the fans who had been waiting.

Finally at 10:08AM, we heard (more…)

Concert Review: ZoRN@MoMA (4/24/2013)

New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) played host to a mini-marathon of John Zorn projects in another Zorn@60 event in honor of Mr. Zorn’s 60th birthday (which is in September, but being celebrated with epic concerts all year long).

The concept behind this concert was a beautiful one: each set would be performed in a gallery with ‘matching’ art, with music and artists selected by John Zorn based on where his inspirations for each composition came from. My only complaint was that I wish we’d had a little more time between each set to look at the art, but there was only ten or fifteen minutes between each set, and there were a lot of people in attendance, so we generally scooted between rooms pretty quickly. (Mind you, other people probably didn’t have to power-walk to the Port Authority to catch a bus to Boston afterwards – maybe everyone else went back and spent some more time with the art later.)

The first set was billed as the Gnostic Preludes, which is an album released in early 2012 with performers Carol Emanuel (harp), Kenny Wollesen (vibes) and Bill Frisell (guitar). This performance was a little different, and was a duet between Wollesen and Emanuel with no guitarist.

I have heard the studio recordings of the Gnostic Preludes, but it was a very special experience to see it performed live in that beautiful setting. Some instruments feel very different in a live setting, and to me this set was a great example of that. The sound was so rich and gorgeous. I especially enjoyed watching Kenny Wollesen, he is such a unique performer and he was very animated and interesting to see. I was able to sneak a video of the second piece:

The next set was “Apophthegms for Two Violins,” performed by Chris Otto and Dave Fulmer (both on violin); I believe these were pieces from Zorn’s recent ‘Lemma’ album. (All three of you who get the mathematical reference are chuckling right now, I’m sure.) These pieces were (more…)