My self-curated guitar festival with Aram Bajakian, Nels Cline, Marc Ribot and Stephen Ulrich

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks here in Concertville, having attended eleven sets of live music in the twelve days after I wrote my last blog post. (Edit: And I’ve attended four more concerts since I wrote that sentence because I haven’t found the time to finish this blog post all week!) I realized partway through that eleven-set run that I was in the middle of an inadvertent celebration of all things guitar, with several of my favorite guitarists playing multiple shows all in a row.

The main event was Aram Bajakian’s residency at the Stone. I only made it to seven sets (going to the Stone is a lot harder when the MTA does late-night construction on your concert commute, grrr!) but I heard some wonderful music along the way. I have a hard time narrowing it down to favorites, since the music was so diverse that it’s hard to compare one set to the next; but I think my top three were Dálava; music inspired by “The Color of Pomegranates,” and his duo set with Alan Semerdjian.

Aram did two sets of Dálava during his residency, one with a full band and one as a guitar/vocal duet. I saw the one with a full band, which was Aram Bajakian on guitar; Julia Ulehla doing vocals; Tom Swafford and Jake Shulman Ment playing violins; Frank London on trumpet; Shanir Blumenkranz on bass; and Ted Reichman on accordion. (It was funny since I’d had a fairly random interaction with someone the previous night on the subway, and said something about there not being enough good music written for accordions. And the very next night: great music with an accordion! Wish: granted.) I’d seen Dálava’s New York premiere a few months ago, and although I enjoyed that first show, I thought this set at the Stone was by far the better of the two. The attentive, appreciative audience at the Stone and the intimate space makes everything better, and I think the band was just feeling it more this time. The music is an unusual blend of old Eastern European folk music and modern downtown New York sensibility. Very interesting stuff. (Check it out here.)

The duo set with Alan Semerdjian was really very special; Alan would recite poems (written by him as well as some poems by Armenian writers, translated into English, in tribute to the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide) while Aram played music to underscore and illustrate the texts. The poetry was excellent and thought-provoking, and the solo guitar accompaniment was beautiful. I would love to hear more of this collaboration, it really worked well and was an emotionally powerful experience.
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Recent concert highlights: Erik Friedlander, Trevor Dunn’s PROOFReaders, Marc Ribot, Sean Rowe, and Zion80

I’ve had a light three weeks of concerts (well, light for me) between two head colds, a sinus infection and a round of antibiotics – yuck! Hopefully now that summer has arrived a couple of months early, the cold and flu season is over. I did manage to push through and get to a handful of shows, though I didn’t feel well enough to write about them until this week.

Erik Friedlander‘s solo set at Dixon Place, premiering his new album “Illuminations,” was a real treat. The new album is a must-hear – I’ve really been enjoying it (you can listen and buy it by clicking here). It reminds me a little of “Volac,” the album he did for John Zorn’s Book of Angels series, but with a bit more of a classical sound. I hadn’t been to Dixon Place before and it was an excellent place to see a very focused and intense solo set, with no distracting noise from the street or a bar. It was a beautiful concert, and I was happy to bring home the new CD afterwards for some extended listening sessions.

Here’s a piece from “Illuminations” that he performed in Krakow:

The same night, and with a slightly overlapping set time, was Trevor Dunn’s band PROOFReaders, with Dunn on upright bass, Darius Jones on saxophone, Nate Wooley on trumpet and Ryan Sawyer on drums. Luckily this show was just a few blocks from Dixon Place at the Skinny, so we were able to scoot over there and only miss a little bit of the beginning of the show. They played a double set of Ornette Coleman tunes, so we definitely got our money’s worth even though we were late (not always a sure thing these days with lots of sub-60-minute sets happening in avant-garde/jazz venues). It was a great opportunity to relax on some comfy couches and take in some high-quality acoustic jazz performed by very talented musicians. What more can a jazz fan ask for?

I don’t think the PROOFReaders have any recordings or videos available to share, but I will definitely go see them again if I get the chance.
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Last week’s concerts: Mat Maneri, Lucien Ban, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Banquet of the Spirits, Marc Ribot, Emeline Michel, and last but not least, Sex Mob

…in that order! I had a pretty busy week, including checking out four new-to-me music venues in four days. It’s amazing how many different venues there are in New York – I’ve gone to 200+ concerts in this town and there’s still so many places I haven’t been. (I just checked my list, I’ve been to 18 different venues since January 1st this year.)

The first concert of the week was a last-minute decision after being sick in bed for a couple of days. I made a swift recovery on the last day and decided I was OK to go downtown to the Cornelia Street Cafe to see Mat Maneri and Lucien Ban‘s new quintet. Unfortunately, since it was last minute, the early set was already sold out… but I decided to hang out and see if I could get in on the waitlist. Concert karma won out and I ended up being the last audience member allowed in, and yet somehow got a second row table. Score!

I stayed for both sets and really enjoyed it. It’s a somewhat unusual mix of instruments – Lucien Ban on piano, Randy Peterson on drums, Tony Malaby on saxophone, Bob Stewart on tuba, and Mat Maneri on viola – but it worked really well. It’s hard to even pick favorites among the band – they were all so good.

This video is a duet and not the same quintet we saw live, but perhaps it will give you an idea of the sort of music that Mr. Ban and Mr. Maneri come up with together:

(OK, that sounds so nice that I just opened a tab in my browser and bought the album from Amazon MP3 so I can listen to it while I’m writing the rest of this article. I love the 21st century sometimes!)

The second concert of the week was Tuesday evening at the Jazz Standard: Rudresh Mahanthappa‘s quintet playing “Bird Calls”. Believe it or not, this was my first visit to the Jazz Standard! I liked it a lot more than I thought I would – in my imagination, every jazz venue with table seating is overcrowded and annoying, and every jazz venue that serves food is terrible and overpriced. Happily, this venue turned out to be an exception to the rule, and we had a really nice time. I look forward to seeing more shows there.

Venue aside, the concert itself was also very enjoyable – we’d seen (and liked) this band at Winter Jazzfest, but in this more relaxed and intimate venue, with better sound quality, it felt like a whole different ball game. As you may guess from the title, “Bird Calls” is heavily influenced and inspired by the music of Charlie Parker. (If you want to read about the album in-depth, check out this great article from All About Jazz.) Mr. Mahanthappa’s saxophone was clearly the star of the show, although he was supported by an excellent band. He made the intricate melodies and ideas seem effortless, and as the show went on, it just got better and better. Check out one of the tracks from “Bird Calls” here:

The next night was a show I’d been particularly looking forward to: Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Another new-to-me venue, it is a pretty nice place to see a show and gets a lot of bonus points for being walkable from my apartment. Double bonus points: it was a free concert. (NB: you need to RSVP in advance for their free shows, so make sure you reserve a spot early.)
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Three months of undocumented concert mania

I guess the comment in my last post about having an unsustainable lifestyle was pretty spot on. I’ve seen 57 concerts since the last one I reviewed. Between general lack of time, lack of sleep, and all-too-frequent illness I just can’t keep up with it. Plus I’ve been having bad writer’s block lately (I’ve been trying to write one concert review for over a week now and finally gave up to write this instead.) But I hate-hate-hate to just give up on these years of work, so I’m trying to come up with ideas for a slightly less intense blog that I could actually do without having to be institutionalized. Maybe a weekly or biweekly post with briefer reviews and highlights instead of the really in-depth stuff I’ve been doing. I don’t know. Ideas are welcome!

Anyway, I can at least give you some of the highlights of my winter concert schedule.

Dave Douglas & Uri Caine at Subculture: Whenever I go to this venue I wish they had more music I liked, because it’s a great space and in a great location. I’ve only been there a few times, but I really like it. And this particular concert was so nice – I don’t listen to a ton of music that I consider relaxing, but this was a rare gig that I found both engaging and de-stressing. Couldn’t have come at a better time as it was in the midst of a hectic holiday season and on my monthly work deadline. I bought their new album, “Present Joys,” after the show, and I listened to it quite a bit over the holiday season.

Winter Jazzfest: I only managed to see eight bands this year at WJF (compared to last year’s 12) but I had a really good time seeing shows with a group of friends (I won a couple of extra passes at the last minute so I got to bring extra concert buddies!). Highlights included a sort of reprise in miniature of the John Lurie tribute show that I saw at Town Hall last year, this time with Marc Ribot stepping in as a guest for a couple of pieces; Henry, Hampton & Low; Wooley & Vandermark; and the Young Philadelphians, who played a mostly-disco set which was difficult to take seriously, but a lot of fun if you pretended you weren’t at a jazz festival.

Jazz & Colors Festival: Hosted in the Metropolitan Museum, this was a great chance to get a quick taste of some bands I’d been wanting to hear. There were something like a dozen bands playing simultaneously, so you had to skip around from room to room to see them. My favorite was Jenny Scheinman’s ensemble (we ended up seeing about 2/3 of her set and spending the other 1/3 checking out other bands) but I also really enjoyed Amir ElSaffar’s group as well as Cellar and Point.

Jason Isbell at the Beacon: This show went on sale when I was still in Boston, and it was on sale so far in advance I wasn’t even paying attention to NYC shows. So I didn’t have tickets (so sad!). But… I never give up on concerts entirely, so I patiently checked Ticketmaster a few times a day for a few weeks until, hey look! Front row center, on sale the day before the show. (So happy!) I am so grateful for this bit of luck, because it was one of the best rock shows I’ve seen in ages. Isbell’s a great songwriter and a fantastic singer, and it was easily the best show I’ve seen him do. The quality on this isn’t super (someone else’s video from a few rows back in the orchestra) but the strength of the performance comes through, especially the powerful vocals:

The energy in the room during that song was almost tactile, growing steadily throughout the song and earthing itself in occasional audience outbursts, until it erupted into a several-minute-long standing ovation at the end of the song (in the middle of the set – not trying for an encore, just showing appreciation). I walked out of that show feeling better than I had in probably two months. (more…)

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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