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 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: 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: Zorn@60 at Gent Jazz Festival (7/14/2013)

Today’s concert review was written by our esteemed Belgian music correspondent, Bjorn Weynants. I’m posting this video of excerpts from the show here at the top so you can listen while you read! – Sarah V.


When it was announced that John Zorn would do a world tour with his “Zorn@60″ celebration, it came as no surprise that a Belgian stop at the Gent Jazz festival was included. After all, John Zorn has been a popular guest at this festival and its sister-festival Jazz Middelheim (which has the same organisers). You may be familiar with the live album by the original Masada Quartet Live in Middelheim 1999. The (multi-day) Gent Jazz festival takes place at the Bijloke site in the city of Ghent, which is a former hospital/abbey that has been beautifully converted into a museum/music centre, with a tent in the gardens where the concerts take place.

Apart from the “classic” Zorn@60 line-up on the main stage, we did get some extra (Zorn-related) concerts at a second – much smaller – Garden Stage. The concept behind Zorn@60 was not to look back at Zorn’s career thus far (he is not the type of musician to look back at what he did in the past), but rather to give an idea of what he is doing right now musically, at the age of 60.

The opening act was the Song Project, a new project. The central idea behind it was to write lyrics to a selection of Zorn songs, lyrics written by the likes of Sean Lennon, Laurie Anderson, Mike Patton and others. Three singers were present: Mike Patton (of Moonchild and Faith No More fame), Sofia Rei (from Mycale) and Jesse Harris (songwriting collaborator of Norah Jones). The backing was done by a band (directed by Zorn) which was basically The Dreamers, but with John Medeski instead of Jamie Saft on piano. A wide selection out of Zorn’s oeuvre was played: from Naked City to The Concealed (The Road to Kafaristan) to the Book of Angels (Dalquiel).

It will come as no surprise that (more…)