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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