Concert Review: Sylvie Courvoisier Trio (The Stone, NYC, 6/8/2013)

I had been vaguely planning to go see John Zorn & co. at Le Poisson Rouge on this particular night, but at the last minute I changed my mind and decided I’d seen enough of him lately and should check out Sylvie Courvoisier‘s trio at the Stone. I absolutely love her piano playing, and I haven’t seen her perform for quite a while. The last time I saw her at the Stone, she played the single most fantastic piano solo I have ever seen in my entire life, so suffice it to say: I am a fan. On this particular night, she was accompanied by Kenny Wollesen on drums and Drew Gress on upright bass.

The Stone is pretty bare-bones as far as venues go, but it’s one of my favorite places in the world to see music. Partly because they attract such uniquely talented performers, and partly because of the purity: no drinks, no bar, no food, no stage. People play music, you get a chair to sit in, end of story. There are few distractions beyond the occasional city sounds from outside. The audience members are there for serious music listening and always show great respect for the performers.

I got the exact seat I wanted for this performance – there are ten or twelve seats located behind the area where the instruments are set up, and they are just behind and to the left of the pianist. I took the middle of the front row of these seats – I sacrificed most of my view of the bass and drums, but in exchange I was able to see every single key she played on the piano, which was wonderful. I took some surreptitious video, as usual:

Sylvie Courvoisier is an unusually creative pianist, using a variety of extended techniques in addition to her intense keyboard skills. For this show, she used duct tape, mallets, and metal spheres on the strings and piano interior to elicit a wide variety of sounds. The duct tape, stuck across a series of strings, changed the sound of those particular piano keys into a sort of wood-block sound. The metal spheres were able to bring out something almost slide-guitar-y. I love seeing these kind of techniques – for me, it takes the instrument to a higher level when I see someone coming up with sounds that I didn’t even know a piano could make. But aside from the extended techniques her more conventional piano techniques are simply spectacular. Veering from absolute delicacy to near-violence in any given piece, the passion and intensity of her playing always leaves me in awe. The whole concert was excellent from the first note to the last – my only regret is that I couldn’t stay for the second set!

Ms. Courvoisier is currently scheduled to play dates in New York and all over Europe (and I even spot a couple of 2014 dates in Australia and New Zealand) – check out her tour schedule here: http://sylviecourvoisier.com/calendar.htm.

Concert Review: ZoRN@MoMA (4/24/2013)

New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) played host to a mini-marathon of John Zorn projects in another Zorn@60 event in honor of Mr. Zorn’s 60th birthday (which is in September, but being celebrated with epic concerts all year long).

The concept behind this concert was a beautiful one: each set would be performed in a gallery with ‘matching’ art, with music and artists selected by John Zorn based on where his inspirations for each composition came from. My only complaint was that I wish we’d had a little more time between each set to look at the art, but there was only ten or fifteen minutes between each set, and there were a lot of people in attendance, so we generally scooted between rooms pretty quickly. (Mind you, other people probably didn’t have to power-walk to the Port Authority to catch a bus to Boston afterwards – maybe everyone else went back and spent some more time with the art later.)

The first set was billed as the Gnostic Preludes, which is an album released in early 2012 with performers Carol Emanuel (harp), Kenny Wollesen (vibes) and Bill Frisell (guitar). This performance was a little different, and was a duet between Wollesen and Emanuel with no guitarist.

I have heard the studio recordings of the Gnostic Preludes, but it was a very special experience to see it performed live in that beautiful setting. Some instruments feel very different in a live setting, and to me this set was a great example of that. The sound was so rich and gorgeous. I especially enjoyed watching Kenny Wollesen, he is such a unique performer and he was very animated and interesting to see. I was able to sneak a video of the second piece:

The next set was “Apophthegms for Two Violins,” performed by Chris Otto and Dave Fulmer (both on violin); I believe these were pieces from Zorn’s recent ‘Lemma’ album. (All three of you who get the mathematical reference are chuckling right now, I’m sure.) These pieces were (more…)

Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/2013) – Part 3: The Concealed, Nova Express, Aleph Trio and The Hermetic Organ

(Click to read Part One and Part Two of this series.)

We were heading into our eighth hour at the Walker Art Center when the third concert of the Zorn@60 marathon was set to begin. There was some sort of delay (we were too far back in the line to hear the cause) and we ended up waiting for a while in a line stretching down the stairwell and into the bar/restaurant area. Eventually, they let us into the McGuire Theater for the third time that day and the concert started relatively quickly.

The main part of this set was music from “The Concealed” and “Nova Express,” which were both released within the past two years. Nova Express was performed by John Medeski (piano), Greg Cohen (bass), Kenny Wollesen (vibes), and Joey Baron (drums). The Concealed was the same quartet with two more players added: Mark Feldman on violin and Erik Friedlander on cello. Apparently Zorn thinks of these two projects as being very closely related; he mixed the pieces together into a single set, with the strings having a little break during the Nova Express pieces.

I was especially interested to hear The Concealed in a live setting, since it was one of my favorite recent Zorn releases and has only rarely been performed live (just once or twice, I think). Naturally, as a new ensemble, they were not as masterful as the bands we’d just seen who had been playing together for a decade and a half – that wouldn’t really be a fair expectation. But the music is brilliant and the musicians are all top-notch, so we still got a very worthy performance. I was pleased that they played my favorite track from the album, Towards Kafiristan – I just love Medeski’s piano on this piece. And, as you might have guessed, I filmed it for you:

Nova Express is not necessarily one of my favorite albums to listen to, but I enjoyed it more live than on CD. The less melodic pieces were a lot of fun to (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…)