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New Year, New York / John Zorn, Steven Bernstein

So I meet Nick at Grand Central, we subway downtown and eat at a groovilicious Ethiopian place on MacDougal Street. After a brisk easterly walk (we passed Mulberry Street, bringing to mind Dr. Seuss) we arrive at the Tonic, where we were soon joined by Nick's beautiful and charming girlfriend.

John Zorn had the first show. His band included Bill Laswell on the space bass, Guy Licata on drums, Mick Barr on guitar and Wilfred Graves, also drumming and channeling some serious Yoruba orixas.

Facing the stage, to the right are Bill Laswell and Guy Licata. On the far left, John Zorn sits on a stool with his alto, behind him is Mick Barr (Nick's spittin' image) with a Gibson SG. Wilfred Graves's kit is set up just to the left of Guy Licata's. I thought of the sound as divided into two tendencies. Bill Laswell and Guy Licata had an almost drum and bass thing going. The left was the free jazz side (John Zorn and Wilfred Graves) with the addition of the manic guitar playing of Mick Barr.

The sound was free, noise, but extremely intense and expressive. The concert started with Laswell and Licata just kicking it. Laswell's tone alternates between high-speed bumping and and futuristic electronica tonalities. Licata's drumming is angular, intricate and intense. Laswell and Licata finish their part and the John Zorn / Wilfred Graves dyad does a bit. Graves's drumming is polyrhymic, he sometimes sings ...., no, chants.... as he plays. John Zorn was in a very staccato mood, rapid-fire notes up and down the harmonic range on the alto, with percussive pops and squeals.

These guys hadn't rehearsed, but rehearsal wasn't necessary. I got to speak with Guy Licata after the show. He said that the music was really free and that those guys weren't up there thinking about synchronizing the time signatures. Even so, there were certainly many complex rhythmic figures going down. For instance, Wifred Graves playing two or three rhythms simultaneously, or Guy Licata himself playing in odd time signatures.

Wilfred Graves stole the show. At one point, inspired by Bill Laswell, he got up and did an African dance. I felt like we, as the audience, should have responded to his calls, but we just didn't know how. But we were feeling and loving it. At another time, he came up behind Guy Licata, and laying on the hands, channeled some serious juju from the black ether regions through the cranium and into the cerebral lobes. Wilfred Graves also did a couple short and funny monologues saying, in effect, tomorrow we're straight; tonight we're crazy. And the music was just that.

Mick Barr's guitar work on this night was made up lightning-fast blocks of notes in the upper register, with maybe two power chords thrown in during the evening. It was a set devoid of riffs, though at one point I could hear John Zorn playing fast, minor key Jewish figures, familiar to me from listening to Masada.

Overall, the music was hard-edged, which served to make the roundness of Wilfred Graves's drumming stand out more. Intensity is perhaps the keyword. And hardness. And energy.

I found myself wondering, what does this music express? Is there something about our moment in time that calls out for these sounds? I don't know. What I will say is that our eardrums were, while not pulverized, at least prepared for the sweetness and fun of the second show.

NPR was on hand to broadcast Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra to the world. There was a dude with a big sign that said "Applause." Sheez. Show business. I don't think the sign was necessary, because the whole house was definitely down with what was going on.

Facing the stage, to the right, the horn section. First row: clarinet, tenor, and bari. Second row, electric violin and trombone. Sorry, but I never got the musicians' names. Steven Bernstein leading the band with delightful enthusiasm. Behind him, bassist Ben Allison, to the left of Bernstein, the guitarist. Vocalist Jennifer Charles sang a couple tunes, including an extraordinary rendition (sorry) of "Pennies from Heaven."

After John Zorn's scorching set, it was sweet to hear I-IV-V's in major keys. And the occasional minor chord provided some good texture. Steven Bernstein is a great bandleader, it was a joy to see him up there, urging the musicians on, calling for the crescendos and decrescendos, yakkin' his shtick, and playing great trumpet, slide trumpet and muted trumpet. In the Sex Mob tradition, he winked a couple times at John Lennon, playing the Beatles' "Cry Baby, Cry," and something else from the Lennon book that I can't quite name. For his encore, he evoked and paid tribute to James Brown with "I Love You, Yes I Do."

It was a great show. What I liked best was the interplay between clarinet and trumpet. No, what I liked best was the cat on the violin, wickedly soloing while the sax section riffed. No, what I liked best were the T-bone solos. No, what I liked best were the tenor and bari sax solos. No, what I liked best were those "'free" moments.

No, what I really liked best was see a band having a ball on stage, playing their asses off, riffing, making the music of the past come alive without any stilted deference...

OK. Afterwards we walked up to the dive where Nick hangs, drank a couple more alcoholic beverages ... and I had to go crash.

The train back was full of pimply faced late teens, who had been ringing in the new year in Manhattan. Times Square? I swear, I was the oldest dude on the 3:10 train by a factor of two.

I'm sorry that I couldn't see the Sun Ra Arkestra play in Philadelphia. I'm even sorrier that I couldn't see my favorite tenor man, Tyler Kittle, ring in the new year playing with Afromotive in Asheville.

But damn, I had a great time! I was struttin'.



Man you're livin large!
And I sat at home alone with my cat again, watching old KISS concerts on DVD.
Happy New Year!

May 2018



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