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(s) Review: Abraxas plays John Zorn’s Masada & Metempsychomagia (11/29 & 11/30/2013)

I always appreciate it when musicians schedule great concerts when I’m coincidentally planning on being in a city for unrelated reasons – in this case, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz’s residency at the Stone corresponded with my five-day Thanksgiving holiday, which I was spending a few miles outside New York at my parents’ house. I was able to sneak into the city for a set on Friday and a set on Saturday to see Abraxas performing material from their Book of Angels album and premiering some new music from John Zorn called “Metempsychomagia.” (Let’s see if I can manage to spell that correctly throughout this blog post!)

Abraxas is a quartet consisting of Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz on electric guitars, Kenny Grohowski on drums and Shanir Blumenkranz on electric bass/gimbri (he played the gimbri for Masada and the bass for Metempsychomagia). Blumenkranz is the band leader and I believe does the arrangements as well. All four of them are simply excellent musicians, I’ve heard each of them in various ensembles over the years and always enjoyed their work. You might have seen one or two of them on tour recently – Kenny Grohowski was performing with Secret Chiefs 3 this fall and Aram has been touring with both Lou Reed and Diana Krall for the last couple of years.

The first night at the Stone was the Masada night, and while I’ve seen them perform this material about four times now, I think this might have been the strongest set I’ve seen them play. (I feel like I always say that when I see them – hopefully because they are getting better and better and not because I go to so many concerts that I can’t remember anything I heard more than six weeks ago…) Maybe I liked it so much in part because the Stone is such a great place to see music, you feel like you are a part of the performance rather than just watching. Or maybe you only feel like that when you’re sitting eighteen inches from one of the guitar players, like I was. Anyway, it was a really fun show, loud and aggressive and very well done in general. If you haven’t heard them, they have a heavy rock sound but with an exotic flavor thanks in large part to Blumenkranz’s gimbri and his flavorful arrangements.

Due to a game of Uno with my four-year-old nephew taking much longer than planned, I was very pressed for time and didn’t have a chance to pack up my music-blogger kit; I showed up to the concert with no camera or other recording devices. Luckily, my friend John brought his camera and took some footage from the seat next to mine:

On Saturday night, for the premiere of Metempsychomagia, I made sure to bring all the (more…)

Concert(s) Review: John Zorn’s Song Project & Moonchild (9/29/2013)

Sunday night was (sadly) the last night of my New York Zorn@60 adventure – and it was the end of a rather remarkable run of shows for me. I ended up going to 18 concerts in September, 10 of which were Zorn@60 events. (I didn’t have a chance to write about some of the shows, unfortunately – it’s hard to combine that level of concert attendance with a full-time job, travel and blogging.) I was a little worried that after the big blowout week of music we’d just seen, this night would be a bit of a let-down, because I have kind of mixed feelings about both projects. But I’m not the sort of person who would skip a Zorn concert (under pretty much any circumstances you can think of) so I went along and hoped for the best.

Both of the concerts on Sunday were at Le Poisson Rouge, a venue I really like in Greenwich Village. The early set was the Song Project, which is more-or-less the Dreamers with a replacement keyboard player (John Medeski instead of Jamie Saft) with the addition of a few vocalists. The full band line-up: John Zorn (conducting), Marc Ribot (guitar), Kenny Wollesen (vibes), Trevor Dunn (bass), Cyro Baptista (percussion), Joey Baron (drums), and John Medeski on keys. The vocalists were Mike Patton, Jesse Harris, and Sofia Rei. They play some Dreamers material, but they also play a bunch of other stuff ranging anywhere from Filmworks to Naked City.

The reason I have mixed feelings about the group is that (more…)

Concert review: John Zorn’s Metropolitan Museum Marathon (9/28/2013)

I’ve been to a number of concerts that called themselves “marathons.” I’ve been to all-day festivals. I’ve been to multiple concerts in one night (sometimes in two different cities). I’ve even been to a couple of Zorn marathons in museums. But this? This beat them all. Twelve sets over ten and a half hours, from the minute the museum doors opened to the time it closed. Each one in a different room, paired with or inspired by a particular piece of art or architecture. I suspect this is a record that will never be broken (for the sake of my health, if nothing else!). In short, this was The Big One. I had been so excited about it in advance that I’d researched the locations and created an overlay on a map of the museum with a list of performances and times, so I could print it out and know where everything was without having to figure it out on the day of the show. And if you think THAT is obsessive, you probably don’t want to know about the “Zorn Reconnaissance Mission” that I went on with a friend a few days earlier to check out all the rooms, view the art in advance, figure out the best viewing angles, acoustics, etc. (I’d learned from ZoRN@MoMA that it was actually quite difficult to appreciate the artwork on the day of the performances, since the rooms were so crowded that you often couldn’t get near the piece in question.) We were well-prepared and determined to eke out every last drop of the experience.

We showed up at 9:30 in the morning to be at the front of the line for a 10AM performance, and the music didn’t end until 8:30 at night, eleven hours after we arrived. We saw fourteen separate performances. I made it through the entire day on a few granola bars and water. I had gone in with the idea that I would have a nice sit-down lunch break and skip a performance just to keep myself sane, but in the end I never got desperate enough to do it and I just pushed through the whole day.

We entered the museum within seconds of the doors opening at ten o’clock, knowing that there was a trumpet fanfare (Opening Antiphonal Fanfare for Six Trumpets) planned for 10AM in the entrance hall. We didn’t know exactly where it would be, so as we picked up our tickets we were distractedly looking around everywhere for evidence of trumpet players. I didn’t see any, but did spot John Zorn, Erik Friedlander (who was scheduled for an 11AM solo performance) and a bevy of museum staff members wearing “ZORN AT THE MET” T-shirts. I also spotted a few friends, some of whom would be joining us for the entire day and some who just wanted to see a couple of events in the morning. We anxiously milled around, waiting, wondering if we should move on to the Temple of Dendur where there was a performance scheduled at 10:15. But we figured as long as John Zorn was in the room, we probably wouldn’t miss anything. I think they realized that there was a long line of people outside and they should wait until everyone was in the room before starting the fanfare, so as not to disappoint the fans who had been waiting.

Finally at 10:08AM, we heard (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…)