Review: John Zorn’s “Angels at the Vanguard” (part one)

Faithful readers of Concert Manic will have already read about John Zorn’s week at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, thanks to an in-depth guest post previewing all of the concerts (click here if you haven’t read it and would like to). This week I relocated to my new apartment in New York City approximately 28 hours before the start of “Angels at the Vanguard,” which I swear was a complete coincidence. An hour after my parents dropped me off with the remainder of my belongings, my Zornfest companion for the week arrived from Spain, and the rest is history…

We’re now halfway through the Vanguard residency, and I’ve gotten internet access installed at my new apartment, so I am back in the business of writing concert reviews!

The first set of the first night was one I was particularly looking forward to: Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier on violin and piano. Their Book of Angels album, “Malphas,” is one of my favorites in the series (I think it was the first one I stumbled across in a Tower Records store bin back in the day) and I’m never disappointed when I see them live, whether it’s performing their own compositions or those of John Zorn. I had just picked up Sylvie Courvoisier’s latest album, “Double Windsor,” that afternoon* and was really excited to see her play. (*At the world-famous Downtown Music Gallery, because I live in New York now! It’s exciting.)

It was a Tuesday night and therefore not as busy as some of the weekend sets will no doubt be, but the room was more or less full and I think everyone was excited to be kicking off Zorn’s debut appearance at the Vanguard. I think the two musicians on stage were a perfect choice for the first set – they made one of the really classic Book of Angels albums, and they have played together enough that there was very little chance of nerves or pressure marring their set. In the end, I think they set the tone for the rest of the week, performing brilliantly and beautifully throughout – among the very best sets I’ve seen them play. Several of us in attendance at these shows have remarked on what a pleasure it is, after so many Masada Marathons and shuffle concerts, seeing these talented performers really spreading their wings and playing a full hour or more instead of 10-15 minutes at a time. It feels almost decadent to sit back and revel in these long sets.

The second set of the first night was one I was quite curious about: Eyvind Kang (on viola) and his large band (Mark Feldman – violin; Erik Friedlander – cello; Doug Wieselman – clarinet; Graham Haynes – cornet; Hidayat Honari – tar & guitar; Shahzad Ismaily – bass; and Ches Smith – drums). His recent Book of Angels album, “Alastor,” frankly confused me from the start, although I started getting into it after a few listens. The Vanguard set had an almost entirely different lineup from the album, so it was a bit of a mystery as to what we would get (especially when I’m looking at the list of musicians and thinking: “two-thirds of the Masada String Trio on stage with two-thirds of Ceramic Dog? What!?”). The set turned out to be quite beautiful, I liked it (at least in terms of first impressions) a lot more than I liked the studio album. I’m not sure if it was the different line-up/instrumentation/arrangements or if it’s just something that works better live, but I really enjoyed this set a lot. If I had to find a complaint about it, I would say it was maybe a bit restrained, which is perfectly understandable as it is a very new ensemble and they may not be fully ‘broken in’ yet, as it were. (At least Shahzad Ismaily looked relaxed, barefoot and sitting on his own amp in the back of the room.)
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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…)