Concert review: Winter Jazzfest Marathon (Jan. 10-11, 2014)

This weekend I attended both days of the Winter Jazzfest marathon in Greenwich Village. It’s a festival that has a unique appeal to those of us who are particularly manic about concerts; it’s basically an all-you-can-eat buffet of live music held in a bunch of venues in Greenwich Village. For one relatively low price you can run around and hear as many bands as you can stuff in your ears in the time allotted. Most sets were 45 minutes with a few double-length sets here and there. (I took it relatively easy and caught eleven ensembles plus the “round robin” duo improvisation set.)

This year was the tenth anniversary of Winter Jazzfest and featured a huge amount of bands (more than ninety). It was, of course, impossible to see them all, and there were some tough decisions to be made. We’d been warned by friends about previous years having long lines and big crowds at some venues, so we simplified our schedule a bit and tried to do multiple sets in the same venues as much as we could (without sacrificing the bands we most wanted to see). I spent most of my time in the NYU Law venue and the Judson Memorial Church, which was a pretty cool-looking room:

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(That’s Ches Smith on the left and Shahzad Ismaily on the right, during Ceramic Dog’s late-night Saturday set.)

The funny thing was that after I simplified things and tried to make my schedule less ambitious, I somehow ended up seeing (more…)

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: 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…)