As a New York dweller who's often virtually consumed by the exigencies of making a living, I frequently worry that I don't partake sufficiently in the Cultural Advantages the city ostensibly has to offer. Some of this anxiety is of course offset by the fact that the aforementioned living is largely made writing about culture, and yes, I know I get to see motion pictures such as Inside Llewyn Davis way, way ahead of many of you. Still, I worry. I haven't seen the Vermeers at the Frick nor the Magrittes at MOMA and those are like my favorite artists, guys.
In 2013 I did manage to make it out to a fair number of live music events, though, and some of them were, in the word of I think Shelley Duvall's character in Annie Hall, "transcplendent." Here, some brief accounts of a few of them.
William Parker's "Alphaville Suite" at Roulette, Brooklyn, February 14
Master bassist, composer and improviser Parker has been performing this unusual work since mid-decade, I think. On paper, it sounds like one of those alternative-soundtrack things that are sort of in fashion in avant-garde or cult circles, especially since the piece is performed, yes, as a version of Godard's film Alphaville is projected. Except it's not really that. Perker's work doesn't attempt a scene-by-scene correspondence, and by using not only repeated melodic leitmotifs but also songs, recitations, and improvised passages it presents a very African-American-defined commentary on the movie's themes of alientation, dehumanization, love, and poetry. In a cultural atmosphere that's so thoroughly dominated by white appropriation of African or African-American modes and works, it is entirely refreshing to see an African-American appropriation of what is at least incidentally a very Caucasian-identified piece. Also, the music itself cooks.
Bells≥ and Pauses at Tiger Lounge, Brooklyn, May 4
The Tiger Lounge is not really a proper venue but rather a low-ceilinged rehearsal space under a bar in Williamsburg that occasionally hosts private or semi-private shows, or so I understand. In any event, it's got the potential to be a punishingly intimate place, as I learned with the top of my head nearly grazing a ceiling pipe. On this evening the knowingly naive and not-entirely-fecklessly winsome songcraft of Pauses made a provocative appetizer for the irresistable force of Bells≥, an instrumental quartet anchored and driven by monster drummer Zach Barocas who, full disclosure, is a friend. I'd like this combo quite a bit even were that not the case, given the volume at which they play; the Park Avenue Armory would be challenged to contain its wall of sound. The music is difficult to describe: imagine if Polyrock ditched its keyboard player and spent a summer dropping mushrooms and listening to AC/DC and that hits a part of it, maybe. Intricate but remarkably unfussy, swinging even, the music, played without barriers between the band and the audience, was almost literally transportive. Taking out my necessary earplugs afterwards, I thought maybe I'd been inside the Large Hadron Collider.
Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists, St. Mark's Church, Manhattan, May 26
This account of the show by one of the musicians is an evocative window into an event that moved its performers and spectators equally, I reckon.
Gary Peacock and Marilyn Crispell, Rubin Museum, Manhattan, June 14
Christian Wallumrød Enemble, Rubin Museum, Manhattan, June 21
The Rubin Museum of Art, a beautifully laid-out and friendly haven of Himalayan and Buddhist culture, continues to sponsor an ever-intriguing series of jazz concerts, and last summer I saw two shows by artists who record for the ECM label. The recital by bassist Gary Peacock and pianist Marilyn Crispell, tied to their recent excellent release Azure, was a marvel of instrumental command, musical "telepathy" achieved through years of interplay, and concentrated meditation. The New York debut of the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, from Norway, showcased music of a more immediately architectural structure, with the musical interlinkings performed by sometimes unusual instrumentation (toy piano, Hardanger fiddle, harmonium) giving way to improvisation that was constricted by design, but never felt restricted.
The Feelies, Maxwells, Hoboken, New Jersey, July 6
I am sure I'll be able to see the band play at Brooklyn's Bell House soon, but I'll always miss the ritual trek to my old old stomping grounds. I wrote about the show here.
Michael Hurley, City Winery, Manhattan, July 29
The legendary Vermont-based artist and folkie snuck into Manhattan as an opening act for Black Prairie, a Decemberists offshoot. I bought a seat at the end of the bar closest to the stage to witness the white-haired, frail-looking but strong-voiced (relatively speaking—even in his early years he was never what you'd call a belter) Hurley reel off, with a young, game, and distinctly unshowy band, a batch of his quirky but not particularly silly tunes, subjects ranging from the lusts of werewolves to the depradations of Monsanto. It was while he and bandmates were reeling, lucid but slightly indolent, through the outro of one of his classics—it might have been the tipsy "I Paint A Design"—that I felt I really finally understood the idea of "psychedelic folk." Anyway, it ruled, and I did not stay for Black Prairie, but I thank them, if indeed it was their idea for Hurley to open.
Fred Frith, The Stone, Manhattan, Aug 28-30
I had only originally intended to catch a set or two, ended up going to five. I wrote about them here.
This show, a beautiful indoor/outdoor event in not-quite deepest Red Hook, was the opening event of a ten-year-anniversary series celebrating ISSUE, a venue and concept founded by the late Suzanne Fiol, who I had been honored to call a friend since 1985. I kind of drifted in and out of the show, getting caught up in socializing in the Pioneer Works yard, buying some pretty excellent food from a vendor whose name escapes me, so I can't speak with a great deal of authority on the music—I have almost no memory of Trimble's ensemble. I dug Gunn's spin on raga-rock, enjoyed the semi-busking stylings of 75 Dollar Bill featuring No Wave stalwart Rick Brown and guitarist Che Chen, and boy can Syria's Omar Souleyman move a crowd. I am generally skeptical of events that provide entertainment for Hipsters And Their Children but I have to admit that the sense of community this day finally acheived was rather moving.
John Prine, Beacon Theater, Manhattan, September 6
A pair of tickets to this was thrown into my lap by my friend and onetime director Preston Miller, and my wife and I were instantly converted from distant admirers of Prine to hardcore fans. Roseanne Cash and her husband John Levanthal opened, beautifully. I was particularly impressed by the way Prine and his bassist and guitarist marched onstage like gunslingers about to prove a point. I wish Mr. Prine a speedy recovery from his recently announced illness, not only because I hope to be able to see him play again.
John Zorn's Masada Marathon, Skirball Center, Manhattan, September 15
Advertised as a three-and-a-half hour show, it came out to four-and-a-half, and I would not have missed a minute. About a dozen or so permutations of performers laying out a cornucopia of Zorn-composed themes, in styles ranging from klezmer to speed metal to electric Miles and beyond. Too many highlights to name, but man, what a privilege it was to see Marc Ribot just sit down and spit out the best guitar solos you've heard all year, or maybe even ever, from twenty feet away. Also a treat to watch Zorn egg on Ikue Mori and her laptop.
Fred Frith performing Gravity, Roulette, Brooklyn, September 20
Frith is not one for the nostalgia trip so I was a little surprised that he had formed a large band to perform his 1980 dance record (I, and he, use the most expansive form of the term "dance") Gravity for selected audiences around the world. It's a testament to his modesty and generosity of spirit that he did not compel this band—made up largely of Bay Area progressive musicians including what I presume to be a substantial number of Frith's Mills College students, former and current—to slavishly recreate the record's particular drive. (Gravity, recorded with two different support bands, one per LP side, was a kind of declaration of independence for a newly envigorated Frith, who had recently departed both the band Henry Cow and his native England.) On certain songs ("A Career In Real Estate," and the encore "Killing Time," which originated with Frith's proggy power trio Massacre), the excellent drummer Jordan Glenn's disinclination to lower any kind of sonic boom was noticeable; these were not necessarily tunes that wanted the kind of breathing room a softer touch provided. But the prevailing humaneness of the bandleader meant the music got across anyway. It was a particularly poignant gig, as news of the death of Frith's former bandmate Lindsay Cooper had come down that day; Fred's voice broke as he dedicated the show to that great musician.
Steely Dan, Beacon Theater, Manhattan, October 4
When they reformed their group for live gigs and later recording in the late 1990s, Steely Dan founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had the great good fortune to be able to draw upon a generation of musicians who had grown up with, and learned to replicate, the Dan music of the 1970s. (A notable exception in the current band is bassist Freddie Washington, a near-contemporary of Fagen and Becker well-tempered in jazz and funk.) This helps make the combo one of the most reliable tickets around, provided you can afford the ticket. To see this band whip out "Aja" with a perfectly balanced mix of precision and hard-hitting abandon remains a wonder, and any night that Keith Carlock is playing drums with this particular ensemble is a night on which the Best Drummer In The World competition is stiff indeed. The increasingly voluble Becker takes droll pleasure in his self-appointed master-of-ceremonies role. I don't think I've missed them on any of their hometown Beacon stands, and I've always had a blast despite being seated close to a different variety of jerk each time. On this occasion my wife and I were obliged to get up from our on-the-aisle orchestra seats about nine times for a trio of former frat brothers going back and forth from the bar and/or the pissoir. I'm not sure if this was the same group whose head alpha proclaimed outside the venue, "No, really, 'Steely Dan' is the name of the favorite dildo of the heroine of some 19th century novel they got into in college!"
Gary Lucas, "The Edge of Heaven," BAM Fisher Theater, Brooklyn, October 5
My friend Gary Lucas recorded his visionary album The Edge of Heaven back in 2001, and because it's a compendium of music he loves from a culture and period he reveres, he revives it frequently, but these shows at BAM's recently opened quasi-cabaret represent his most elaborate recent realization of the material in the U.S. Working with his band Gods and Monsters (bassist Ernie Brooks, drummer Billy Ficca, saxaphonist and keyboardist Jason Candler) and Chinese vocalists Sally Kwok and Mo Hai Jing, Gary applies his fearsomely kmotty guitar pyrotechnics to amazing, plaintive Asian melodies; the band arrangements coax the material westward while never overwhelming it. Sublime.
American Symphony Orchestra, Elliott Carter, Carnegie Hall, Manhattan, November 17
A bracing dose of musical polychromatics, well-chosen by Leo Botstein. Drawing from all over Carter's career, a sense of purposeful play made the program less severe than it otherwise might have been; a highlight was Anthony McGill's palpable sense of delight in handling the soloist's hurdles of Carter's Clarinet Concerto.
15-60-75 The Numbers Band, Bowery Electric, Manhttan, December 5
"Imagine Captain Beefheart crossed with Johnny Cash and your shop teacher." This was an old hand at the Bowery Electric bar trying to explain Numbers Band founder Robert Kidney to a newbie. That's apt, but it's not the whole story, as this rare New York gig for the Ohio band proved. On the way in a proud older fellow boasted to me, "I used to see these guys when they were the house band at Kent State University," and that tells a story too. In any event, over the course of a magnificently incantory 90-minute set, singer/guitarist Kidney, his multi-instrumentalist brother Jack ("a whole band in himself," Chris Butler, once a bass player with this unit, and later, well, Chris Butler, observed to me), alto sax player and keyboardist Terry Hynde (who's just a monster on the horn), bassist Bill Watson and drummer Clint Alguire, coiled and uncoiled and lashed out like a single organism: a rattlesnake, maybe. Magnificent, haunting, uncategorizable music.
Keith Jarrett Trio, Carnegie Hall, Manhattan, December 11
I wonder if there wasn't some selfish motivation in my decision to take my mom to this Carnegie Hall show for her 74th birthday. My mom had gotten to know Keith Jarrett a bit when she ran a video store in Washington, New Jersey in the mid-1980s. Somehow it had gotten out that I was some kind of video critic, and so it transpired that I lent Jarrett a couple of laser discs by proxy. He was particularly keen on seeing Roger Vadim's Dangerous Liaisons '60, I suppose because Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers (here bassist Bobby Timmons, French saxist Barney Wilen, searching tenor man Clifford Jordan, and the spectacular Lee Morgan on trumpet) appeared in the film. My mom came to enjoy Keith's music, and when I heard tell of this concert at Carnegie celebrating the 30th anniversary of the stalwart "Standards" trio he leads with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack De Johnette, I jumped, because I'd never seen the group live before. So I thought. My mom remembered otherwise, and cited a Carnegie Hall show I'd brought her to twenty years prior, taking her to dinner at Trattoria Dell'Arte beforehand. This can't be right, I insisted, because surely I'd remember having seen this band play, and I had no recollection of such a thing, although I DO remember taking my mom to that restaurant once. Horrors: what if I saw the trio in a blackout? It would not have necessarily been out of the question but I don't think so. In any event, we agreed to disagree and went forward, and my mom loved the show, as did I. Jarrett was in a chipper, chatty mood; his little granddaughters were seeing him play for the first time, so he opened with "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." Ballads were of course plentiful; their "It Never Entered My Mind," based around Red Garland's treatment of the theme in the legendary 1950s Miles Davis Quintet recording of the tune, was particularly breathtaking. The group was also downright funky at time, with an aggression I rarely hear on the recordings of their concerts. An encore reckoning with "God Bless The Child" had Jarrett's playing harking back to not just the Scandanavian quartet with Jan Garbarek but the Fort Yawuh years with Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden. Peacock and De Johnette were immaculate throughout. At the microphone by the side of the stage Jarrett related something that happened before this significant show; Peacock, showing in Jarrett's estimation the effect of one espresso too many, implored his bandmates, "Let's knock 'em dead tonight." Jarrett countered that he'd be happy just to play one or two good notes. I found it almost inexpressibly moving that Peacock, now almost 80 and having come into prominence playing music (with Albert Ayler and Paul Bley among others) that in some ways constituted a direct challenge to the jazz audience of the time, is still so engaged in that precise way. In any event, his mission was accomplished that evening.
One and Plymouth, Shapeshifter Lab, Brooklyn, December 13
I saw two-thirds of the RareNoise Records night at this friendly, spacious Gowanus venue. Aside from the raw vitality of the music, there was a bit of an object lesson in what a difference a drummer makes. The first group was One, a trio led by the adventurous tenor sax player Ivo Perlman. On electric bass was the guitarist Joe Morris, on drums Balázs Pándi, an avant-garde guy who has been, among other things, the live drummer for synth-noise terrors Merzbow. Where Perlman's default mode can be described as a knotty lyricism, in this ensemble he's the lead player in a power trio, and at times the music did indeed feel more like improvised rock than jazz, largely because of the way the ferocious Pándi was pushing both his fellow players. It was pretty cleansing. Following their performance was Plymouth, an ensemble I'm not sure is one-time-only or semi-permanent or what. Now the lineup here seemed like a more rock-oriented one: two guitarists, a keyboardist playing both acoustic and electronic instruments, bass and drums. The guitarists were Morris and Mary Halvorson, both superb players with distinct personalities (although Halvorson seemed a trifle intimidated by Morris, which was too bad); the keyboardist was Jamie Saft, a polymath of prodigious invention, and the bassist, Chris Lightcap, is also an eclecticist who's worked with The Swell Season and Regina Carter. But because the drummer was Gerard Cleaver, who plays jazz in a way that does not encompass rock sensibilities or rock beats—which isn't to say that he doesn't play hard, for he can play very hard indeed—the music that came out of the group, for all its psychedelic colorings, was more "Sun Ship" than "Dark Star." I had to split before the final group, the aggressively bluesy Slobber Pup, which features Saft, Morris, Pándi and bassist Tim Dahl. But I knew that they would rock.