Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/2013) – Part 2: Masada

(Click here to read part one of this series.)

The second concert of the John Zorn event at the Walker Art Center was a trio of Masada performances, mostly focused on the Book of Angels material. (The Book of Angels is a collection of Zorn’s compositions with a Judaic theme that have been recorded by a number of different bands and soloists.) Zorn’s Masada work is my favorite of his vast output, both live and on record, so I was particularly looking forward to this set, even though I’ve seen all of the performers many times before.

First up was a solo performance by cellist Erik Friedlander, playing material from the eighth volume of the Book of Angels, Volac. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen him play this material – off the top of my head I can think of eight – but I never get tired of it, and I swear he just gets better and better. He began with Harhaziel, which has always been one of my favorite pieces from the Book of Angels series. The studio version is beautiful, but hearing it live just takes my breath away – the intensity evokes such a visceral emotional response in me. The fourth piece he played was one of my favorites of the whole day/night – an intricate, contemplative pizzicato piece played with absolute delicacy and enormous depth of feeling. The kind of thing you can just close your eyes and get lost in.

His fifth and final piece was Sannul, which is another of my favorites from the album. Completely different from the previous piece, this one is played at approximately Mach 3. It’s the sort of impressive piece that makes audiences leap to their feet for a standing ovation. I was able to sneak a little video footage:

After that piece, they took a moment to rearrange the stage and the Masada String Trio walked out: Erik Friedlander on cello again, Mark Feldman on violin, and Greg Cohen on bass. They all faced each other in a tight circle, with John Zorn conducting from a seat on the floor.

The Masada String Trio is one of the oldest Masada bands, going back about fifteen years. The result of such a long collaboration is (more…)

Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/13) – Part 1: Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra, Composer Q&A

The John Zorn marathon concert day at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis looked like the sort of lineup that would challenge even the most dedicated concert-goer’s stamina. A composer Q&A at 3PM, a concert at 4PM (Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra), a concert at 7PM (Erik Friedlander solo, Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba), a concert at 10PM (The Concealed, Nova Express, Aleph Trio), and a solo pipe organ performance at the church across the street at midnight.

After picking up our tickets and wandering around the galleries for a while, we got in line for the Q&A. It turned out to be a very enlightening and funny 45 minutes or so, with the ever-charismatic Zorn taking relatively few questions, preferring to just go on his own tangents. He got more and more animated as he talked, touching on a lot of topics about his community of musicians and how he brings out their best work, the nature of creativity and the writing process, what it takes to put together these marathon concerts, what it means to be 60 years old, how he deals with critics, and more. I am a really big fan of his (both musically and as a person), and I found the talk very interesting and illuminating. One of my friends said afterwards that she could have listened to him talk all day, and I’d agree – we would have stayed and listened for hours if there hadn’t been another event at four o’clock.

After the talk was over, we hurried over to the McGuire theater, where the concerts were taking place. We didn’t have long to wait before it started, and Zorn had decided to start the day with some of his stranger material: Marc Ribot playing selections from the Book of Heads. This is a collection of short pieces that thoroughly explore the possibilities of extended techniques for the guitar. (For those not familiar with the term, ‘extended techniques’ refers to playing an instrument in ways not intended – say, knocking on the side of the guitar, or rubbing balloons against the strings.)

There is not a lot of melody going on, and in my experience when one listens to the studio recording, you’re liable to spend half the album thinking “what is he DOING to that guitar?” It is much more fun to watch since you can see what he’s doing – licking his finger and making squeaky noises on the guitar with it, playing or muting the strings with various objects, stamping on the balloons that were on the floor around his chair… it’s fascinating to see. He was taking it very seriously (with the exception of a couple of reactions to the crowd being surprised by something he did) and looked very studious and reverent, bent over and peering at his notes/sheet music. I imagine it is a pretty challenging sort of music to play.

I unfortunately was unable to film or photograph any of the first set due to being seated next to some sort of venue personnel with a flashlight and walkie-talkie, but here is a Book of Heads piece filmed at the Kessler in Dallas a couple of years ago:

The next piece being performed was Hockey. I’d never seen or heard it and didn’t have much of an idea what to expect, other than knowing that it was one of Zorn’s game pieces. (His game pieces are essentially sets of rules that he has written for musical games, where one or more people direct the music by signalling to each other while playing.) Hockey turned out to be a trio… and a very unusual one! John Zorn played an assortment of duck calls, Erik Friedlander was there with his cello, Kenny Wollesen had a table full of percussionish objects as well as something in his mouth that may have been another duck call. The three of them performed and Zorn conducted. (more…)

Two weeks, no concerts.

Sometimes the randomness of my life and concert touring schedules means that I find myself without a good concert to go to for weeks at a time. I’m currently halfway through a two-week concert desert, but I didn’t want to let my blog sit here with no new posts! So here’s an update on the goings-on of the temporarily concertless concert blogger.

I just finished reading Bettye Lavette‘s autobiography, “A Woman Like Me.” I picked up a copy at her last concert in Boston. It was a fun and easy read, and I found it to be written very much in her own highly unique voice. Assuming everything in there is true, she has lived quite a crazy life! I really can’t decide if I think she is a great bullshitter or if the book is brutally honest. Maybe some of each, who knows? Most people will probably find something controversial in the book – drugs, sex, prostitution, domestic violence – but it’s a good read nonetheless.

I have also been obsessively stalking (more…)

Concert Review: Tim Sparks and Noah Lubin at the Boston Jewish Music Festival (3/5/2013)

On Tuesday I went to see a concert that was part of the Boston Jewish Music Festival. Tim Sparks and Noah Lubin were playing at Passim’s in Harvard Square in Cambridge. Passim’s is a small and very intimate basement venue with a capacity just over 100. They primarily focus on folk music, but they aren’t too strict about genre. It’s a room with a lot of history – it’s been in its current location for 50 years, and legends like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits played shows there early in their careers.

I have a couple of Tim Sparks’ albums, but I had never seen him perform live; I was excited that he was playing a gig so close to home, and bought tickets as soon as they went on sale, landing me a spot in the front row.

I hadn’t heard of Noah Lubin before, so I was interested to see what kind of music he would play with his band. It turned out to be laid-back bluesy roots music with Bible-themed lyrics. While my tastes tend to run more to music that grabs you by the throat and shakes you around a little, I did enjoy his set a lot. It happened to be a day where I really needed to relax a little and it was very nice to kick back with a drink and watch Lubin’s set. You can listen here to a song from his most recent album:

Tim Sparks was up next, and his set was quite different from Mr. Lubin’s. He played a steel-string acoustic guitar and coaxed a really nice tone out of it. He told us about being asked by John Zorn to contribute to Tzadik Records’ Radical Jewish Culture series, and joked that it was especially radical for him to contribute, because he’s not Jewish! But of course music is not genetic, and Mr. Sparks has made some beautiful albums of Jewish music for Tzadik, including a lot of tunes by both John Zorn and Naftule Brandwein, two people who have been extremely influential on the genre in very different ways.

I filmed one of the most beautiful solo pieces he played:

I was thoroughly impressed with Tim Sparks’ set, every piece he played was excellent and beautifully performed.

At the end of his set, Mr. Sparks asked (more…)

Upcoming concerts and tours of note

I’d meant to see a concert or two over the long weekend, but was unfortunately sidelined by the flu – so instead you’re getting a look at some upcoming concerts and tours that I think are worth checking out.

National/International:
Bettye Lavette – one of my favorite voices on the planet and a consummate performer, Bettye has a few dates scheduled in Australia (Byron Bay, Sydney, Melbourne), Cape Verde, and the U.S. (Pittsburgh, NYC, DC, Chicago). If you haven’t heard her before, click here to listen to one of the performances that made her famous.

Marc Ribot – probably my favorite musician on the planet in terms of live performance. He has lots of great shows coming up: a concert with David Hidalgo in Burlington, VT on Jan 26th; a Ceramic Dog concert in Brooklyn on the 29th; and in February and March he’ll be all over Europe with both solo sets and a Ceramic Dog tour. Here’s a clip of him playing one of his own compositions with Chad Taylor and Henry Grimes:



The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is touring all over the U.S. from February until May – including a visit to Brooklyn Bowl where I had such a good time seeing them last summer. If you get a chance to see them at a standing and dancing kind of venue, don’t miss it! I’m honestly not sure about other kinds of venues – I saw them at Boston Symphony Hall and it was kind of underwhelming, but I think it was in large part due to some sound problems they were having that night.

The Underscore Orkestra – who I’m recommending simply because I saw them one time and it was so much fun – are currently doing an Australia/New Zealand tour, and will be doing a U.S. tour in March. Listen to some of their music here. I remember their live performance as being much more exciting than the studio tracks would indicate, though.

Sean Rowe, a deep-voiced singer-songwriter who impressed me when I saw him perform an opening set a few months ago, is currently touring the UK; he’ll be doing a sixteen-date U.S. tour from west coast to east coast in March. Here’s a video from his latest album:



John Zorn, my favorite composer (a word that doesn’t do him justice), is putting together a very special series of concerts in 2013 in a number of countries in (more…)