Review: Masada Marathon at Nublu (12/4/14)

So, I’ve seen a lot of Masada Marathons. I’ve lost count, really – three nights in Rome, Montreal Jazz Fest, NYC Opera, two nights at the Abrons, Book of Beriah at Town Hall, twelve sets at the Vanguard, Nublu (twice now), the Skirball Center, 92nd Street Y… it’s a long list. But even with all that competition, this little mini-marathon (we have to call a 6-hour set a mini-marathon because it was “only” five bands, right?) probably wins the top spot for the weirdest Masada show I’ve been to as well as featuring one of the best Masada sets I’ve ever seen. It was a hell of a night!

The night started out worryingly slow – the first set (Uri Gurvich Quartet) was at 8, and I showed up about 2 minutes before 8 to find that the place was almost entirely empty. Uh-oh! I had suspected it was going to be a tough night – Marc Ribot was playing at the same time in Brooklyn, Henry Threadgill was playing at the same time, Jon Madof was down the street at the Stone… a lot of competition for the type of audience that might come to a show like this. Not to mention that people were worried about transportation and other issues due to heavy protests around the city… it had taken me almost twice as long as usual to get home from the Stone the night before.

People did trickle in and when they finally started the set, about 20 minutes late, there was a little bit of an audience forming. Uri Gurvich’s quartet was the first band and I’m happy to say I found their set to be a lot more fun than the other time I saw them. I think they played better, and I think they’re better suited to play first and gently warm up an audience than they are to play after a really raucous band like they did at the Vanguard.

The second set of the night was Erik Friedlander playing a solo “Volac” set. Always a favorite of mine, and he somehow managed to outdo himself again. (How good can “Volac” get? Shouldn’t there be some kind of upper limit on how good you can make the same piece of music? It’s beginning to defy logic at this point.) There was a bit of a bigger audience by this point in the evening, although in the way of crowds everywhere they were lurking in the back, not wanting to appear too eager. My friend Tom and I had no such misgivings and eagerly parked ourselves front and center in the middle of the floor. Nublu is a pretty small and intimate space for this kind of concert (it somehow felt much more so than the Vanguard, maybe because of the tiny stage?). It felt like a very special moment, with the nearly dead-silent audience, the intimate atmosphere, and music that I need to invent new superlatives for. I had fleeting thoughts that it should be recorded for posterity, but the moment was too perfect and I didn’t dare break it by pulling out a camera to sneak a video or even a photo. Sometimes even an obsessive concert documentarian has to just let things be.
(more…)

Review: John Zorn’s “Angels at the Vanguard” (part two)

(Continued from part one.)

We lined up a little earlier for Friday night’s shows, knowing that the presence of John Zorn on stage for the first set (Masada String Trio) would probably spur the fandom to greater heights of dedication. We ended up getting a front row table, and because of a rearrangement of seats due to the band configuration, I ended up sitting right against the stage; the band sat right up front due to the presence of a large percussion setup for the late set, so we ended up sitting about 1-2 feet from John Zorn and Erik Friedlander, which was a pretty crazy POV for this band. They sit in a tight circle with Zorn’s back to the audience, but my close-up sideways view let me see all of his conducting in detail. It was an amazing way to watch an amazing set – one of my favorites from the whole week. They played tunes from book 1 and 2 including the title track from their first Book of Angels album, “Azazel,” which was my favorite piece of the night. The string trio is one of the oldest Masada bands, and it shows – they are extremely talented musicians and about as tight a group as you’ll find anywhere. Zorn’s compositions show them off perfectly, with some pieces featuring lush melodies and others featuring sudden starts and stops and abrupt changes.

I didn’t take any photos or video during this set because it would have been disruptive to the musicians and other audience members to watch me be thrown out of the venue by John Zorn when I pulled out a camera two feet from his face 😉 but here is another live video of the band, from 15 years ago when they collectively had about 3x more hair:

The late set that night was Banquet of the Spirits, and my seat next to the stage meant that I had a faceful of Cyro Baptista’s large and complex percussion setup:

IMG_4708

This set was a lot of fun – it’s hard not to enjoy yourself when Cyro Baptista is playing, he’s almost in a class of his own when it comes to percussion. He brings not only technical mastery but also tons of creativity and a sense of humor. (In related news, I am really looking forward to his residency at the Stone in a couple of months!) The other members of the band are all excellent as well – Shanir Blumenkranz on bass and oud, Tim Keiper on percussion, and Brian Marsella on keyboards (he had a variety of instruments I couldn’t see in addition to the piano, I think there was a harmonium and a melodica as well). I had a great under-the-table photography spot during this set so I took a few nice photos…
(more…)

Preview: John Zorn’s “Masada – Angels at the Vanguard”

Today we’ve got a guest blog from Concert Manic’s renowned Ohio correspondent, Mark Allender – you may know him as the voice behind the excellent Masada: Book of Angels Facebook fan page. Today he has given us an in-depth preview of John Zorn’s special series “Angels at the Vanguard.” It’s Zorn’s first appearance at the world-famous Village Vanguard in New York City, and – true to form – he is doing it differently than everyone else, with eleven different bands performing in six nights instead of the usual Vanguard format of one band playing twelve sets in a row. I’m planning on being at every set, but if you need to pick and choose a couple to see, this post has everything you need! – Sarah V.

Feldman/Courvoisier – Malphas
Tuesday 9/2 @ 8:30 pm
In the Masada canon, there is a type of piece that Zorn refers to as an “event piece.” Specifically, in an event piece, the score calls for periods of guided improvisational playing that lasts for a certain amount of time. A score might indicate a melodic phrase, followed by a period of frenetic playing, which cuts off into a period of drones, which segues into another melody. These periods are typically guided by a conductor, who is typically Zorn himself, who is typically very entertaining to watch doing it. OR, in the case of Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier, these event pieces are led by body language, where wild, screeching noise turns on a dime to the sweetest, most elegant chamber music you’ve ever heard with a nod, or a full-body gesture or even half a raised eyebrow communicating the changes.

Feldman and Courvoisier perform together like dancers. Elegance – you can’t get away from that word when describing these two. Tempo, dynamics, timbre – these wax and wane dramatically – sensuously even – over the course of the music. And they are always intimately in step with each other. Their on-stage chemistry – the physicality of the way they play together – makes this performance a must-see.

Hope to see: “Zethar.” Promises to have the most visual drama.

Eyvind Kang Ensemble – Alastor
Tuesday 9/2 @ 10:30 pm
Eyvind Kang’s Alastor takes Masada into a lush orchestral realm of splendor and majesty. In Xanadu did Eyvind Kang a stately pleasure dome decree. Exotic – with a pan-Asian flair, Kang’s arrangements communicate a mysticism not found in the other recordings. All sonics have soft edges, creating a dream-like atmosphere accented by slow, sensual percussion. This music would not be out of place in a Bollywood film score. The ensemble for the evening is comprised of Kang on viola, Mark Feldman on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Doug Weiselman on clarinet, Graham Haynes on cornet, Hidayat Honari on guitar as well as the tar (a six-stringed central Asian lute), Shahzad Ismaily on bass, and Ches Smith on percussion. With such a versatile set of musicians on the set, I can only imagine this will sound amazing.

Hope to see: “Variel.” That opening flourish makes me happy every time I hear it.

Jamie Saft Trio – Astaroth
Wednesday 9/3 @ 8:30 pm
My entry into the Book of Angels series was volume 3 by Feldman/Courvoisier. But it was volume 1 by the Jamie Saft Trio that kicked this series into an obsession. Saft had previously been known as an electric keyboard player with an occasional thing for death metal. In this all acoustic jazz piano set, the results are sublime. Saft has a couple playing signatures that I love. First, the guy LOVES to play in triplets, which in the jazz trio format creates an air or a breath to the music that is just amazingly cool. Second, in more raucous passages, he plays like a cat jumping around on the piano keys. In the trio, Saft is augmented by the incomparable Greg Cohen on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. The original trio featured Ben Perowsky on drums. And no slight against Wollesen, but I kinda miss Perowsky with this group. The lightness of his playing on the recording mixed with Saft created something really special. But what am I saying? Wollesen is an accomplished vibraphonist – if he can’t bring it, nobody can.

Hope to see: “Shalmiel.” For me, this tune is like a first kiss.

(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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(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…)