New York is destination number one for Christmas. You've got the Rockettes at Radio City, you've got a chance for miracles on 34th Street at Macy's, the tree at Rockefeller Center and all the gift-wrappable, gray market camcorders you could ever dream of in between. But what about those of us that don't celebrate Christmas, those of us who get fat and jolly on latkes and spend eight straight nights scraping wax off our kitchen tables? Is New York a Hanukkah hot spot as well?
This December I aimed to find out by treating myself to a little live music festival of nights. In my younger, less responsible days, I probably would have taken a shot at eight straight marathons on the town (and there certainly were enough scrumptious choices to fill that plate), but things being what they were, I settled for what I could get, which was four spins of the proverbial dreidel on three different nights.
Three is a pretty magical number, but on Wednesday, the second night of Hanukkah, the magic number was undoubtedly "2." A holiday just ain't a holiday without a feast, and New York offers them up like chocolate gelt from your bubbe. The magic was already working when my friend suggested we grab a bite at 2nd Avenue Deli for pastrami and potato pancakes to get us in the mood. What had to be 2 pounds of smoked meats and 2 latkes later, we were on our way to the Lower East Side and Tonic for a much-anticipated evening with John Zorn. This was to be a very special show, 2 sets on the first night of a four-day "mini-festival" where Zorn was introducing his new project: Masada Book 2. Could there be a better show to celebrate Hanukkah with?
John Zorn from ljudmila.org
It seems that last year's 50th birthday bonanza inspired the prolific Zorn to sit down and write another 200+ songs for the Masada song book – a collection already bursting at the seams with tasty music. The beauty of Masada is that it isn't a band or a person or an album or any other normal musical entity. Masada is the music itself, the songs are a living breathing thing that can be deconstructed, reinterpreted, stripped down or completely jammed out. And while there are regular ensembles that play this music -– as chamber music, as wild jazz-fusion, as solo guitar, as nearly-straight jazz, etc. -- the music is bigger than any one of these groups.
Wednesday's show started with Zorn in high spirits, excited to show off to the world his new creations. He announced that this music was not for any one band and as such, each song would be played by a different group culled from members of what he called the Masada family. Now when Zorn talks about the Masada family, he is talking about some of the best musicians in the city and, by extension, in the world. On this second night of Hanukkah, we were treated to 12+ musicians including Dave Douglas, Marc Ribot, Erik Friedlander, Kenny Wollesen, Greg Cohen, Jamie Saft, Zorn himself, of course, and many more.
There was too much music to describe completely here, even the highlights are too many as almost everything was quite spectacular with a couple of exceptions. The first group was Zorn, Douglas, Wollesen and Cohen playing in the style of the original Masada group (quickly, I might add, as Wollesen hopped off stage and into a cab on his way to the Village Vanguard to play two sets with Bill Frisell later that night!). Easily the most powerful music was played by the Masada String Trio – Cohen on bass, Friedlander on cello and Mark Feldman on violin. There are many trios out there who operate on that next-plane where telepathy becomes possible, where thoughts are finished before they've begun, where three musicians play with, at, on top of and around each other simultaneously. Well, maybe not that many. On top of all of them, I am inclined to place these three musicians. They can reach ecstatic rocking and breathe gentle zephyrs all at once, make you smile, cry and scream, instill passion and emotion while adhering to composition with algorithmic precision. In a word: phenomenal.
Wollesen from zula.ca
My personal highlight, though, was Marc Ribot, whose sole appearance on stage in the first set was for a solo piece. His playing on a flamenco-style acoustic guitar may have been the single greatest performance of the year for me. Each plucked string reverberated with the intensity of glaring sunlight, providing warmth while temporarily blinding with even the slightest gaze. The audience held a collective hush from first note to last and seemed to draw their ears toward the stage with each sound as if after that song, there may be no more to enjoy. Afterwards I turned to see if there was an official recording being made of the evening and alas there was not. I just do not trust my memory enough to fully appreciate moments like those.
Marc Ribot by Cyril Moshkow
Being a night where 2 was the operative number; it made sense that a pair of duo performances punctuated the show. Mark Feldman on violin and Sylvia Courvoisier on piano dazzled with a stop-start neck-breaker that combined some characteristic Zorn wildness with the unparalleled beauty of the Masada songbook. Trevor Dunn on double bass and Shelly Burgon on harp played a minimalist looping duet that was so quiet and wispy you could have mistaken the music for silence itself. I have decided that I don't have quite enough harp in my musical diet.
...and I could go on. The music was fresh and new and yet, as Masada compositions do, came off as if they were written a few hundred or a few thousand years ago. In a way, they were.
I started the fifth night of Hanukkah returning to Tonic for one more set, bumming that I could only make two nights when four would have been too, too few. I had the hankering for some vicious rocking out, for some Electric Masada, but alas I missed out. Saturday was actually similar in many ways to Wednesday, which was disappointing, but not enough to ruin another good stretch from the String Trio, this time with Shanir Ezra Blumencranz of Rashanim on bass.
Which brings us to Rashanim who also played on Wednesday and made it onto my list of bands I need to see along the way. The band consists of Jon Madof on guitar, Blumencranz on bass and Mathias Kunzli. Their sound is power-trio klezmer with Madof's guitar leading the way with a schizophrenic gentle/vicious tone and a great feel for leading his band through undiscovered passages. Unfortunately for them, John Zorn is a perfectionist. On Wednesday he forced them to play their piece twice in a row with a semi-disgusted "we're going to do that again" in between. Then upon coming back for the second set, they played the piece yet again. As I left I couldn't help but think that Zorn was being a bit of a hard-ass, they hadn't screwed up that badly (the power of the final chord left a bit to be desired), but had to admit that by the third time the band had gelled to a new level that wasn't there in the second set. Coming back to Saturday after zipping through a different tune to start their mini-set (Zorn didn't alternate every song on Saturday), they played the guilt-inducing song yet AGAIN! That makes four times in three sets, which has to be a record for me as an audience member. And yet this time the song took on a new, aggressive feel, it was as if I was listening to a different band. Blumencranz, who, the previous three takes, had been pretty deft with a solo midway through the song, took that section to another kibbutz altogether, filtering in a nasty, fuzzy effects pedal that made my ears prickle in contrast to the quiet music that had punctuated the night up to that point. In a matter of three days, John Zorn had turned a band brimming with talent into a single-purpose, three-candled menorah, each man a branch of a single piece of art. The improvement was palpable and the results were impressive.
After the early set at Tonic, the dreidel dropped on "hey," meaning take half the pot and move on, so I hopped across town to The Knitting Factory, hustled downstairs to the improved Tap Bar for my third present of the week. There was a time when every night was like Christmas in the city, when no matter what was going on, there almost always seemed to be a package worth unwrapping at the Wetlands Preserve. Since that shrine has closed its doors, the availability of off-the-cuff jam sessions in the city has waned considerably. It certainly hasn't been for lack of talent, because wherever you go there seem to be bad-ass musicians with instrument in hand ready to play. That was certainly the case late on Saturday at the Tap Bar, but unfortunately for those with guitars and saxes strapped to backs, the talent on stage was blowing enough fire to keep all comers at bay.
The group was Marco Benevento, Marc Freidman (The Slip), Skerik, Ari Hoenig and DJ Olive and if Zorn talks about a Masada family, these gents are from another, equally impressive family of musicians (maybe we could call it the Ropeadope family?). There was a point early on Wednesday at Tonic when John Zorn gave a hearty "fuck you" to the "traditional" jazz scene in New York, saying "take that Lincoln Center" when he introduced his Book Two. I know what he meant and felt his sentiment exactly. It is nights like these, where heavy troops of players lay down Maccabian music, explore a non-traditional variant, defeat convention... make miracles in downtown NYC.
DJ Olive & Benevento by Greg Aiello :: 12.11.04
These guys are the up-and-comers and they showed why at the Tap Bar on Saturday. I'm as big a Marco Benevento fan as there is, his playing has lit all eight of my candles and yet, I was not prepared for how impressed I was with his playing at this session. Known almost primarily for his organ playing with The Duo (with drummer Joe Russo), Marco showed a full house that his Jedi training allows for much more than just wicked grooves. See, while you might look at that line-up and think: funky good time! It was really a night of exploratory jazz where Marco led the group through some next-level improv that sprinkled tightly composed pieces around some all-out jams that never left the realm of listenability. Yeah, sure, you could dance to it, and many in attendance did, but perhaps the correct reaction was just to stand back and marvel in its yummy goodness.
While Marco was the undeniable leader of the bunch, the strength, as it always must be for a gig like this to succeed, was the rhythm section. Freidman and Hoenig were both rubber and glue, alternately bouncing off and sticking to each other with steady grooving, hyperkinetic outbursts and explosive declarations of rhythm. The music segued in and out of distinct sections but never really died down enough to stop. The drums and the bass made this possible and they played like it was the normal gig, like it wasn't a holiday but a workday. By the way, if Ari Hoenig is the one name you don't recognize in this bunch, do yourself a favor and acquaint yourself.
Freidman & Hoenig by Greg Aiello :: 12.11.04
Of course, to this near-perfect piano trio, you add saxophone guru Skerik and anything can happen. Skerik was the applesauce on this monster latke, blowing solos where needed, spreading loud nastiness just enough times to make his presence not only felt, but necessary. Skerik is and always has been an incomparable addition to any band – I'm not sure I've ever seen him detract from a stage full of musicians. Saturday night was no different. DJ Olive was a similar addition, although a bit less so. He added just a dollop of electricity to the mix, samples and loops and beats that brought a much-needed dance-ability, yet never drawing too much attention away from the greasy goods.
The Knitting Factory :: 12.11.04 by Greg Aiello
In the end, it was a holiday and it was a party and the room was perfect for it. The Tap Bar has expanded over the past year and now adds a little size and dance room to its coziness. It felt, if only for Saturday night, as if a little bit of the old Wetlands was trying to eke its way out in the Tap Bar. Hopefully, it's not just a Hanukkah miracle, but a sign of things to come.
Finally, a quick note about night number seven, which brought me, back to the Lower East Side (could there be a better place to spend my three nights of Hanukkah?) and the well-loved Bowery Ballroom. On this night it was one of my personal favorites of the year, Broken Social Scene. Amazingly, this was my fourth time seeing them in 2004 and each time they flat-out blew me away. Monday night was no different. While each time was similar, I still feel like I could go see these guys every night and not get tired; each show was a new present to be unwrapped.
The sound is difficult to capture in a couple paragraphs. First off, I just can't for the life of me figure out what exactly the Broken Social Scene is. It's like this amorphous group of musicians that, in many cases, are in other bands or overlap with other bands and... Well, I just don't know. I do know that the music this particular group of Canadians is making puts a smile on my face without fail, pure and simple. "Amorphous" is a good word for them, there are no constants here. Musicians seem to materialize from nowhere and then disappear in the ether. Guitarists become trombonists, the bass trades hands every few songs and anyone seems to be available to take vocals if necessary. The musicians are always clearly enjoying themselves, grooving around on stage, pirouetting around each other, lifting their guitars like triumphant rock stars and just generally lapping up the wonderful music they are making. And wonderful it is. At times, they have five guitarists on stage but unlike a Drive-By Truckers or My Morning Jacket that use a too-many-guitars arrangement to unleash an onslaught of rock and roll on your ears, the Broken Social Scene m.o. is that of a guitar-orchestra. Passages overlap and interleave and compose around each other and each note from each guitar has a place in a grand order. It is not quite as loud as the Truckers or MMJ, but it does rock and it is very powerful and at times it is very quiet and very beautiful and at others almost funky and dancetastic. The key is an unbelievably solid bass presence. The theory of this music seems to start with a great bass line – once you have that you can add anything you want on top of it. And add they do, guitars, keys, horns, voices and voices. One song they'll have five guitars making nice with each other in delicious harmony and the next the same intensity and orchestration will be achieved with five voices. It's a treat to watch, these guys are a blur of beauty.
Broken Social Scene
Monday night's show was punctuated with several songs from their truly-epic album You Forgot It In People. The show was sold out on a Monday with another non-Hanukkah show slated for Wednesday and the crowd could not get enough of it. Each song started with an excited yelp from the crowd in anticipation of the overwhelming energy each climactic tune would provide. The songs are colorful candles, soft waxen entities, solid melting to liquid with bright wisps of flame, a steady wick of bass; burning, burning, burning and then – poof! – a wisp of smoke vanishing in a dazzling vortex floating and dancing and then gone.
Just like that, my Hanukkah in New York was over. It truly was a festival of lights.
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