Review: John Zorn’s Cobra – 30th Anniversary (11/29/14)

On Saturday night I headed to Brooklyn with some friends to catch John Zorn’s 30th anniversary performance of Cobra at Roulette. Cobra premiered at Roulette in 1984, so it was certainly the perfect place for the anniversary concert. (It’s one of my favorite NYC venues, I’m always happy when something I want to see is happening there.) Zorn put together an all-star cast of his usual suspects including a lot of my favorite downtown musicians: Cyro Baptista on percussion; Sylvie Courvoisier on piano; Trevor Dunn on upright bass; Mark Feldman on violin; Erik Friedlander on cello; George Lewis on trombone; Eyal Maoz and Marc Ribot on electric guitars; John Medeski on organ; Ikue Mori on electronics; William Winant on percussion; and Kenny Wollesen on drums.

The night kicked off with a Q&A which was supposed to be Anthony Coleman asking John Zorn questions about Cobra. It deteriorated quickly into a bit of a tirade when Zorn saw someone in the audience taking a picture with their cell phone. He went on at some length about how there should be no record made of this concert in any way – no recordings, no photos, etc. I hesitated to even write this blog, but I guess us writers still have that whole ‘free speech’ thing going for us. Since there was such a strict ban on photography I am forced to give you only this artist’s representation of the concert:
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Concert review: John Zorn’s Masada Book Three: Book of Beriah – part two (3/19/2014)

(If you missed the first half of this review, you can find it by clicking here!)

After stretching our legs during the 15-minute intermission, I settled back in my seat for the next ten bands. Well, I say “my” seat, but technically I was sitting in someone else’s seat, because my friend M. tipped me off to a no-show empty seat, front row dead center. Yeah, I’ll take advantage of that, thank you! It was a very nice change of pace seeing everything except the keyboards, instead of nothing but the keyboards.

The first band in the second set that really wowed me was the trio of Loren Sklamberg (vocals, accordion), Frank London (trumpet) and Uri Caine (piano). Out of all the bands we heard that night, this one had the most klezmer at its heart. (This seems relevant as the Book of Beriah concert was part of the Newish Jewish Music Festival.) Frank London gave us a bit of an explanation before the beginning of the piece, saying the name of the piece, “Kelim,” which is “part of the kabbalistic-mystic concept of how the world was created” inspired them to use this particular text, which I think he said was Yiddish. Even without being able to understand the lyrics, I thought the piece was hauntingly beautiful with a very Old World feel. Really loved London’s trumpet on this piece.

Next up was Abraxas, a band that regular readers of my blog will be familiar with. Shanir Blumenkranz is the bandleader and gimbri player, accompanied by Kenny Grohowski on drums, and two electric guitar players: Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz. While the band was setting up and getting plugged in, some joker in the audience yelled out “What IS that thing?” This prompted John Zorn to grab the mic and retort, “A gimbri, you fool!” which got a laugh out of the audience. I especially liked the intro to their piece which had some really cool atmospheric guitar work over a melodic bass line (well, gimbri line).

mark-abraxas(Abraxas. Photo courtesy of Mark Kirschbaum.)

After Abraxas, we got to hear Mephisto – which (as Zorn explained) is usually called “Mephista,” but apparently the substitution of a male drummer (Jim Black) made them decide to alter the (more…)

Concert(s) review: Marc Ribot residency, part five (1/31, 2/2/2014)

It took us a while, but here we are: the final chapter of the Marc Ribot residency blog series. In this post we’ll be covering the “Songs” night (early set on Friday) and the John Zorn improv benefit (early set on Sunday). These two nights featured the largest line-ups of the residency, with 6-7 musicians per set. If you’ve missed the last few posts, you can read them here: one (improv duos), two (8mm film night), three (Marc Ribot Trio sets), four (solo sets/Zorn/Cage). But first, the gratuitous guitarist photo… here is George Spanos (left) and Marc Ribot performing at the benefit improv set:

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The “Songs” set on Friday was kind of a tricky one for me, which is why I’ve saved it for last. The band consisted of Ribot on guitar (acoustic and electric), Melvin Gibbs on bass, Tony Lewis on drums, and a three-piece string section of Christina Courtin (viola), Pico Alt (violin) and Christopher Hoffman (cello). It was quite a grab-bag of styles, everything from Philly soul to punk to delicate ballads. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Ribot putting together a collection of songs like this, really, but if you’ve ever heard a Ceramic Dog album you’re probably familiar with this eclectic approach to songwriting. (He commented wryly at one point that “you bring in charts for one night out of the whole week, and they write in ‘Time Out’ that you’re a singer-songwriter! The nerve of those people!”)

Some of my favorites of the night: the third song they played, La Noyee, was a cover/translation of a (more…)

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 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…)