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(s) review: John Zorn at the Anthology Film Archives (9/21 & 9/22/2013)

This weekend my friends and I were lucky enough to see two “Essential Cinema” concerts and one screening/discussion with John Zorn at the Anthology Film Archives. Essential Cinema is what Zorn calls his concerts where he has a live band performing scores along with silent short films. I’d seen one of these concerts years ago at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect going in.

The theater at the AFA was fairly small, and the band set up directly beneath the screen, in front of the seats. The front row of seats was roped off, so we sat in the second row (hoping for the best view of the band in a darkened theater, since we are much more live music junkies than we are film junkies). It turned out that the front row was blocked off so that Zorn could sit there and conduct the band (and occasionally play his saxophone) while still being able to see the film as it was playing on the screen. This worked out pretty well for us as we had a great view of the conductor as well as the dimly-lit band.

He asked us at the beginning to turn off and put away our phones and cameras and “pretend it’s 1958″ and enjoy the show. So: I have no pictures or Youtube videos to share with you! I wasn’t about to go against his explicitly stated wishes while sitting two feet away from him.

Night One

On the first night, they played scores for five short films. The films we saw did not completely match the program, but I believe it was Joseph Cornell’s “Rose Hobart” as well as “Collage No. 36″; Harry Smith’s “Oz, the Tin Woodman’s Dream”; Wallace Berman’s “Aleph”; and Maya Deren’s “Ritual in Transfigured Time.”

Two of the films (I believe it was the Cornell films) had scores very reminiscent of the Gift or the Dreamers material – the band consisted of Jamie Saft (keys, guitar), Shanir Blumenkranz (bass), Marc Ribot (guitar), Tim Keiper (drums), Cyro Baptista (percussion), Kenny Wollesen (vibes) and Ikue Mori on laptop/electronics. They had a very lush, exotic sound, mostly pretty smooth but with the occasional crescendo of intensity.

One of the films – Harry Smith’s, if my memory serves me correctly – had a soundtrack consisting entirely of (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…)

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…)

Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/2013) – Part 3: The Concealed, Nova Express, Aleph Trio and The Hermetic Organ

(Click to read Part One and Part Two of this series.)

We were heading into our eighth hour at the Walker Art Center when the third concert of the Zorn@60 marathon was set to begin. There was some sort of delay (we were too far back in the line to hear the cause) and we ended up waiting for a while in a line stretching down the stairwell and into the bar/restaurant area. Eventually, they let us into the McGuire Theater for the third time that day and the concert started relatively quickly.

The main part of this set was music from “The Concealed” and “Nova Express,” which were both released within the past two years. Nova Express was performed by John Medeski (piano), Greg Cohen (bass), Kenny Wollesen (vibes), and Joey Baron (drums). The Concealed was the same quartet with two more players added: Mark Feldman on violin and Erik Friedlander on cello. Apparently Zorn thinks of these two projects as being very closely related; he mixed the pieces together into a single set, with the strings having a little break during the Nova Express pieces.

I was especially interested to hear The Concealed in a live setting, since it was one of my favorite recent Zorn releases and has only rarely been performed live (just once or twice, I think). Naturally, as a new ensemble, they were not as masterful as the bands we’d just seen who had been playing together for a decade and a half – that wouldn’t really be a fair expectation. But the music is brilliant and the musicians are all top-notch, so we still got a very worthy performance. I was pleased that they played my favorite track from the album, Towards Kafiristan – I just love Medeski’s piano on this piece. And, as you might have guessed, I filmed it for you:

Nova Express is not necessarily one of my favorite albums to listen to, but I enjoyed it more live than on CD. The less melodic pieces were a lot of fun to (more…)