Preview: John Zorn’s “Masada – Angels at the Vanguard”

Today we’ve got a guest blog from Concert Manic’s renowned Ohio correspondent, Mark Allender – you may know him as the voice behind the excellent Masada: Book of Angels Facebook fan page. Today he has given us an in-depth preview of John Zorn’s special series “Angels at the Vanguard.” It’s Zorn’s first appearance at the world-famous Village Vanguard in New York City, and – true to form – he is doing it differently than everyone else, with eleven different bands performing in six nights instead of the usual Vanguard format of one band playing twelve sets in a row. I’m planning on being at every set, but if you need to pick and choose a couple to see, this post has everything you need! – Sarah V.

Feldman/Courvoisier – Malphas
Tuesday 9/2 @ 8:30 pm
In the Masada canon, there is a type of piece that Zorn refers to as an “event piece.” Specifically, in an event piece, the score calls for periods of guided improvisational playing that lasts for a certain amount of time. A score might indicate a melodic phrase, followed by a period of frenetic playing, which cuts off into a period of drones, which segues into another melody. These periods are typically guided by a conductor, who is typically Zorn himself, who is typically very entertaining to watch doing it. OR, in the case of Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier, these event pieces are led by body language, where wild, screeching noise turns on a dime to the sweetest, most elegant chamber music you’ve ever heard with a nod, or a full-body gesture or even half a raised eyebrow communicating the changes.

Feldman and Courvoisier perform together like dancers. Elegance – you can’t get away from that word when describing these two. Tempo, dynamics, timbre – these wax and wane dramatically – sensuously even – over the course of the music. And they are always intimately in step with each other. Their on-stage chemistry – the physicality of the way they play together – makes this performance a must-see.

Hope to see: “Zethar.” Promises to have the most visual drama.

Eyvind Kang Ensemble – Alastor
Tuesday 9/2 @ 10:30 pm
Eyvind Kang’s Alastor takes Masada into a lush orchestral realm of splendor and majesty. In Xanadu did Eyvind Kang a stately pleasure dome decree. Exotic – with a pan-Asian flair, Kang’s arrangements communicate a mysticism not found in the other recordings. All sonics have soft edges, creating a dream-like atmosphere accented by slow, sensual percussion. This music would not be out of place in a Bollywood film score. The ensemble for the evening is comprised of Kang on viola, Mark Feldman on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Doug Weiselman on clarinet, Graham Haynes on cornet, Hidayat Honari on guitar as well as the tar (a six-stringed central Asian lute), Shahzad Ismaily on bass, and Ches Smith on percussion. With such a versatile set of musicians on the set, I can only imagine this will sound amazing.

Hope to see: “Variel.” That opening flourish makes me happy every time I hear it.

Jamie Saft Trio – Astaroth
Wednesday 9/3 @ 8:30 pm
My entry into the Book of Angels series was volume 3 by Feldman/Courvoisier. But it was volume 1 by the Jamie Saft Trio that kicked this series into an obsession. Saft had previously been known as an electric keyboard player with an occasional thing for death metal. In this all acoustic jazz piano set, the results are sublime. Saft has a couple playing signatures that I love. First, the guy LOVES to play in triplets, which in the jazz trio format creates an air or a breath to the music that is just amazingly cool. Second, in more raucous passages, he plays like a cat jumping around on the piano keys. In the trio, Saft is augmented by the incomparable Greg Cohen on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. The original trio featured Ben Perowsky on drums. And no slight against Wollesen, but I kinda miss Perowsky with this group. The lightness of his playing on the recording mixed with Saft created something really special. But what am I saying? Wollesen is an accomplished vibraphonist – if he can’t bring it, nobody can.

Hope to see: “Shalmiel.” For me, this tune is like a first kiss.

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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(s) Review: John Zorn’s Song Project & Moonchild (9/29/2013)

Sunday night was (sadly) the last night of my New York Zorn@60 adventure – and it was the end of a rather remarkable run of shows for me. I ended up going to 18 concerts in September, 10 of which were Zorn@60 events. (I didn’t have a chance to write about some of the shows, unfortunately – it’s hard to combine that level of concert attendance with a full-time job, travel and blogging.) I was a little worried that after the big blowout week of music we’d just seen, this night would be a bit of a let-down, because I have kind of mixed feelings about both projects. But I’m not the sort of person who would skip a Zorn concert (under pretty much any circumstances you can think of) so I went along and hoped for the best.

Both of the concerts on Sunday were at Le Poisson Rouge, a venue I really like in Greenwich Village. The early set was the Song Project, which is more-or-less the Dreamers with a replacement keyboard player (John Medeski instead of Jamie Saft) with the addition of a few vocalists. The full band line-up: John Zorn (conducting), Marc Ribot (guitar), Kenny Wollesen (vibes), Trevor Dunn (bass), Cyro Baptista (percussion), Joey Baron (drums), and John Medeski on keys. The vocalists were Mike Patton, Jesse Harris, and Sofia Rei. They play some Dreamers material, but they also play a bunch of other stuff ranging anywhere from Filmworks to Naked City.

The reason I have mixed feelings about the group is that (more…)

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…)

Concert Review: John Zorn’s Masada Marathon (9/15/2013)

On Sunday I went to the Skirball Center at NYU for one of John Zorn’s spectacular Masada Marathons. I’ve seen a number of them before (five, IIRC) and every one has been both different and wonderful in its own way. This one featured more bands than any I’d seen before, a total of thirteen – including a couple I hadn’t seen before. In order of performance: Bar Kokhba, Banquet of the Spirits, Mycale, David Krakauer & his band (billed on the program as simply “Krakauer”), Erik Friedlander solo, Secret Chiefs 3, the Dreamers, Malphas, Roberto Rodriguez Octeto Masada, Uri Caine solo, Abraxas, Masada String Trio, and the grand finale, Electric Masada.

If you’re not familiar with Zorn’s Masada music, it’s basically a songbook of tunes that he wrote based on certain rules – they are all short (and meant to be improvised/expanded upon by the musicians interpreting the tunes) and are based on certain scales/modes that have a Judaic feel to them. He’s released dozens of albums based on the hundreds of tunes in the Masada songbooks, and in recent years he has put together a number of Masada Marathon concerts where he gets together a large number of bands to play Masada material.

For this article, I’m going to write about the bands I thought were particular highlights, instead of trying to be completist – thirteen bands in one post is a bit overkill even for me. I really thought all 13 of the bands were at the very least good and/or interesting, but sometimes a blogger has to make tough choices…

Bar Kokhba was first up, and they are always a favorite of mine. It’s a real all-star band: Marc Ribot on guitar, Joey Baron on drums, Cyro Baptista on percussion, and the Masada String Trio (Erik Friedlander, Mark Feldman, and Greg Cohen) on cello, violin, and bass, respectively. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better band, and they’ve been playing together for about fifteen years as a group (some of them have been working together since the 80s) and they are always really tight and throw down a fantastic groove. I thought the first piece was a bit tame, understandable when they’re warming up the crowd. But in the second piece they really knocked it out of the park – especially Marc Ribot, with a few fiery solos. He just flipped that “It’s Time To Be Awesome Now” switch somewhere in his brain and cranked out some crazy, fun stuff. Bar Kokhba is a band that can be pretty laid back – surfy and groovy – but it’s a slow burn that can really go over the top when they have a chance to stretch out on stage. I think sometimes the limited time they get in these Masada Marathons works against them, since they have to stop playing almost as soon as they really get going.

I had terribly unfortunate camera problems on the night of the show (and me sitting front row center, too! What a wasted opportunity) so you’ll have to settle for audio with no picture:

Banquet of the Spirits was up next, and their set was a lot of fun. They are pretty much a band designed for fun: Cyro Baptista, the Brazilian percussionist who seems like he must have rhythm flowing through his veins; Brian Marsella, a fantastic and wild keyboard player (who you can also hear playing in Zion80, a band I’ve mentioned before); Shanir Blumenkranz, a talented multi-instrumentalist who played in several bands throughout the evening; and Tim Keiper on drums… I always feel a little bad for someone playing drums in Cyro’s band, how can you keep up with him?! But Keiper manages to do just that. The band only played a few tunes, but they changed the tone considerably, from Bar Kokhba’s sunny surfy grooves to something darker, weirder, and more exotic. The very beginning of the set started with some deep rumbling, strange and difficult-to-identify percussion noises, and some slightly creepy piano. Very atmospheric, and totally different from the band we’d just seen. But after that eerie introduction they launched into some faster, more rhythm-focused music, featuring a lot of interesting bass textures and some wonderful work on the keyboards from Brian Marsella. It’s a bit hard to pin them down into a genre, I guess you could call it “world jazz.” I’ve seen them 4-5 times and they are always exciting and fun.

Another favorite from the first half of the night was Erik Friedlander – I’ve always been impressed with his solo performances, but he’s taken these Masada pieces so far beyond the (more…)