Ilie Stepan, Horea Crisovan and Mario Florescu close off the Timisoara Baroque Festival

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Like I said in my previous article: October has so far been a good month for music, especially last weekend when I got to attend two great events; both of which were outstanding in their own way. Saturday I was at the JazzyBIT concert that brought the house down and Sunday found me at the Philharmonic for the closing concert of the Timisoara Baroque Festival, a gig featuring three very well-known and extremely accomplished musicians: Ilie Stepan, Horea Crisovan and Mario Florescu.

Mario Florescu is the leader of Mario & The Teachers, an ethno-Jazz act I’ve written about before and is an accomplished and talented percussionist. Both him and Ilie Stepan have been around for decades and have been part of some true revolutions – not only in music, as Stepan is known for having been on the Opera balcony giving the proverbial finger to the Ceausescu regime in a time when things were getting pretty hot all over Romania. He is also known for composing the revolutionary anthem “Timisoara” together with Marian Odangiu, while at the helm of rock band Pro Musica.

Still, while I greatly respect both these artists and their indisputable accomplishments, the real reason I attended the event was to see guitar player Horea Crisovan. Horea has got the Romanian musical audience divided: some say that he is one of the best guitar players in Romania while others claim he is the absolute best guitar player in the country. I’ve been following his career ever since the early 2000’s when he was performing with Jazz-Funk band Blazzaj (among many many…many others), a band I was really into at the time. The thing with Horea is that he is involved in so many projects that you never know what you’re going to get. Though he is immensely talented, his talent is not always showcased at maximum potential in some of the bands he’s part of, which is probably the only downside of being a very versatile and very active musician. Still, when I read his name alongside that of Florescu and Stepan as well as the word “acoustic” I knew it was going to be Horea at his very best. Not only was I not disappointed but the show completely exceeded my expectations.

The performance was divided into two parts. The first was a straight-forward showcasing of the two guitar players’ talent, with the main focus on Horea and his incredible speed and dexterity through an abundance of lighthearted compositions as well as some well-known international tracks (“Hotel California” and “Fragile” by Sting). I was completely blown away by Horea’s playing. Perhaps because of his many musical projects, some requiring less of his gifted input than others, it is easy to forget just how amazingly talented and multilateral this man is when it comes to his approach to the guitar. Since I will return to the Philharmonic to see Al DiMeola perform in November I couldn’t help but wonder what the veteran guitarist would think of Horea’s playing but I can’t imagine he would do anything else  but enthusiastically clap with the rest of us.

The second part was what I called the “nostalgia” part, with Stepan and Florescu front-and-center, playing songs from the heyday of their careers, complete with intense and sensitive musical videos and with Horea backing them up on electric guitar. It was a very emotional performance that could be enjoyed in its entirety only with the empathetic connection and involvement from the audience, as many remembered the era in which these songs were in their prime.

Unfortunately, because of the big age-gap, I know I couldn’t entirely connect with the music like a large part of the audience seemed to do and I’m sorry that I couldn’t award this second part of the show the emotional investment that it deserved. Even so, I did enjoy it greatly and the passionate presence of past memories was almost palpable. All-in-all it was a beautiful event that had something for everyone. It showcased the superb talent of a young musician as well as the staying-power of the veteran performers but most of all it demonstrated the beautiful symbiosis between them.

You can watch the entire event live at the following link:

http://www.infoo.ro/Evenimente-INFOO-LIVE-ZS776971TD.html

JazzyBit live in “Rost” – a hot act on the threshold of a debut album

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With the beginning of October autumn was shaping up to be a very musical season. There is, of course, the highly anticipated Al DiMeola concert coming up in November, Iva Bittova played the synagogue as part of the SoundCzech festival, the Simultan Festival (that I sadly didn’t get to attend) brought some good quality music among the many other art forms it aimed to promote, and the well-advertised Timisoara Baroque Festival featured more concerts than you can shake a conductor’s baton at (more on one of these concerts in a future article). Meanwhile, on the local Jazz-scene a young trio that has been growing in popularity for the last year and a half announced that they will be playing their last gig in town for this year before retiring to the studio to record their debut album.

When I had heard a few weeks ago, that JazzyBit was going to be performing at the launching party of my latest writing project, a Romanian comic book series called Fairytale Therapy, I was very happy and excited but also a bit embarrassed. Pianist Teo Pop and I had worked together in tech support at my old job (albeit in different departments) and, though I’ve been aware for a while that he’s in a Jazz trio and though I like to call myself a “Jazz journalist”, I had never seen him in action.

Things always turned out in such a way that we were never in the same place at the same time, even though the very young band already has some pretty impressive gigs under their belt (including the Jazz festival in Gărâna, arguably the biggest event of its kind this side of Europe). Well, at least I was going to hear them at the book-launching event so I was happy about that. The party turned out great but I had little time to focus on the music, being pressed by the responsibilities that plague the debuting comic-book writer:  drinking wine, mingling with friends and signing autographs, stuff like that…but I digress. Anyway, I had heard enough to know that I like their sound so when I got a Facebook-notification warning me that this would be their last gig in a while I knew it was now or never.

The show was held in a place called Rost, a quirky but rather narrow newly-opened bar in the center of the city. What the place lacks in acoustics it makes up for in ambiance since no matter where you are seated you will be close to the musicians. That always helps one get into the “vibe” of a show even if one forgot to make reservations ahead of time and got stuck with the worst vantage point in the room (I already apologize for the bad pictures). Anyway, once the guys started playing you didn’t care where you found yourself because they plain and simply rocked the house.

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Pictured: JazzyBit rocking the house
Not pictured: A good vantage point

The trio, consisting of my work-buddy Teo Pop on everything with a keyboard, Mihai Moldoveanu on bass and Szabo Csongor-Zsolt on drums (who looks young enough to be my son but plays with the self-confidence of Lewis freakin’ Nash) was founded in 2011 and started performing together at the beginning of 2012. Though only playing together for rather short time JazzyBit have the chemistry of a band with a lot more years under its belt and on stage that translates into high energy and great fun.  I’ve never made a secret of the fact that this is a very subjective website, more of a musical diary than a review-blog, so I have to start off by saying that I’m not really into Latin-Jazz nor am I a big fan of synthesizer in a Jazz trio (I always prefer the piano) but in spite of that I was instantly captured by the performance.

Throughout the hour and a half of their performance there was never a dull moment and I was impressed with the great talent of these young musicians whose charismatic and high-octane delivery kept them safe from ever falling into a generic sound. Teo Pop is incredibly fast and very versatile and his interactions with Szabo Csongor-Zsolt, including the round of back-and-forth one-upmanship – always a crowd pleaser at a Jazz show – provided the spice for the performance while Mihai Moldoveanu’s bass was a powerful backbone.

The band played their own compositions, most of which will probably be found on their debut record Touch the Sky. The songs, with a predominant Latin-Jazz influence, also contained elements of funk, blues, straight-up piano trio and even a bit of rock at one point. My favorite pieces have to be “Curacao” (seen here as performed at the Budapest Jazz Club) and “Poate de ce” (“Maybe Why”) for its low-key delivery that reminded me of another pianist whose music I greatly enjoy.

While the band still seems to be working on carving out a more well-defined identity for their sound (a process that is completely understandable at this point in their careers and will no doubt be finalized by the time they finish recording their album) the interaction between the musicians is really good. All in all, JazzyBit is a hot act right now, worth seeing at this point primarily for its “bang-for-your-buck” delivery. You have a fresh and energetic band that plays like a veteran act and the best time to catch them live is right now. I predict a massive growth in demand and popularity sooner rather than later and, at this point in their career, you can still catch them is small, intimate venues. If before getting to see them live I was interested in their debut record only from what I had seen on Youtube, after their show this Saturday I am counting the days until “Touch the Sky” hits the shelves!

Zorn 2013 – Lemma, Mysteries and Dreamachines

One of my favorite things about being a freelance writer and working from my home office (aside from spending half my day in pajamas or a bathrobe and being able to take the time to properly enjoy my wife’s delicious coffee) is that I get to play the music I love all day long.  It helps me relax and focus on my writing by completely eliminating any trace of boredom that might understandably arise from spending 8 hours in front of the PC screen in a room all by myself.

One day a few weeks ago as I was searching Youtube for any gigs I could find from Jazz in Marciac I came across this little gem. I loved this show so much that I’ve been playing it every single day since and I think it’s one of the best concerts you will find online.

Anyway, that made me curious to check out what has been going on with Zorn in 2013. I decided to just focus on his “solo records” due to the roughly 17497 collaborations[i] he’s been featured on this year alone.

So what do we have solo-wise? Well, so far this year (and keep in mind, the year is not over) we have three records: Lemma,Mysteries and Dreamachines, all released on Zorn’s own Tzadik label.

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Let’s start off with Lemma, released in February and featuring three enormously talented violinists: David Fulmer, Pauline Kim and Chris Otto. The record starts off with “Apophthegms 1 through 12” a suite of 12 miniatures for 2 violins  to be enjoyed first and foremost for the virtuosity of musicians Fulmer and Otto. Naturally, since this is an avant-garde composition one should not approach it expecting what I like to call “conventional musicality” as these tracks abound in scraping noises and downright dissonant changes of pace, serving as sort of a barrier between Zorn’s art and the audience.  That means you are either instantly turned off and desperately run away to play some Mozart in order to cleanse your ears or you open yourself up to Zorn’s work with no prejudice and complete trust in this brilliant composer. If you decide to go with the second option, you will be surprised at how quickly you’ll be able to adapt and focus on the virtuosity of these violinists. I’ve had a similar experience with David S. Ware’s Saturnian: Solo Saxophones a few years ago, where, after a few minutes of getting almost annoyed with the structurally chaotic music I found myself gradually adapting to the point where I could “pay attention to that man behind the curtain”. After that I found it as soothing as any lullaby. That is not to say that Lemma is without fault, but I will get to that. The “Apophthegms” are followed by “Passagen” an intense and beautifully aggressive piece for solo violin delivered by Pauline Kim which is also the most open and extrovert, almost vulnerable composition on the record and thus, in my opinion, the highlight. The album follows with “Ceremonial Music” 1 through 4, starring David Fullmer, at times emotional and harmonic, at times harsh and raw and very dramatic at the end, abounding in repetition that made me think of Michael Gallasso’s Scenes. Zorn’s whole record (especially “Ceremonial Music”) carries much of Gallasso’s tension and anxiety but fails to match it in depth and density just as it displays the inventiveness found in Iva Bittova’s record (that I wrote about last time) but does not completely equal its distinctive character. Still, a brilliant avant-garde work the highlight of which is the impeccable performance of the musicians.

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In April, Zorn teamed up again with Bill Frisell, Carol Emanuel and Kenny Wollesen to deliver The Mysteries a continuation of their 2012 collaboration Gnostic Preludes. The mystically minimalist Mysteries (see what I did there!?!) which features Frisell on guitar, Emanuel on harp and Wollesen on vibraphone is by far the softest, most melodic of the three records, and a perfect fit for Bill Frisell who really gets to do his thing on this album. The nine songs on the record seem designed for mediation, the very contemplative tone is kept throughout the record though the songs are by no means interchangeable (like purposefully designed Buddha Bar or Chill Out records or whatever the hell they’re called). Each of these songs has its distinctive personality though there is also a common thread that runs through this record making it a very solid body of work. “Sacred Oracle” starts off the album with a lovely two-minute long intro that has Emanuel provide a fertile ground from which Frisell’s guitar then gently blooms, after which Frisell takes over the melody allowing Wollesen’s vibes and bells to softly ascend, like the sun rising over the Mediterranean (this record is bringing out my poetic side). But all kidding aside this is an excellent opening track and those who have followed my blog know that I have a soft spot for a good structure. “Hymn of the Naassenes” is next and provides the general ambiance that will define  the record, with Frissell’s melancholy guitar taking the lead. On “Dance of Sappho” the musicians get to have a little fun with the tone and pacing, though never losing the air of ancient mystery that characterizes the whole album, while “The Bachannalia” returns to a more low-key, somber mood. In every song something stands out, whether it’s the beautiful melody in “Consolamentum”, the “storytelling” in “Ode to the Cathars”, the interplay and perfect timing in “Apollo” or the tension in “Yaldabaoth”. At 11 minutes long, “The Nymphs” closes off the album in powerful fashion mixing together everything that stood out in the rest of the tracks and providing a brilliantly thought-out closure which, in my opinion, is almost as important as a powerful beginning. For the careful and sensitive listener, meaning someone who has a well-developed musical attention-span and doesn’t merely expect explosions of instant gratification, The Mysteries is a veritable gem, well-worth taking the time needed to immerse oneself in this minimalist yet immensely complex work.

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The aforementioned explosion of instant gratification takes place in Dreamachines, my favorite record of the trio, as the opening track “Psychic Conspirator” wastes no time throwing avant-garde awesomeness at the listener. The track sounds like someone took the sheet of a Nik Bärtsch song, put  it in the paper-shredder, then mixed-up all the little pieces and glued-them together dada-style before handing this post-apocalyptic partitur to the band. Speaking of the band you can’t help but marvel at their mastery as they deliver this very intense and difficult arrangement. But one would not expect nothing less from the likes of John Medeski (piano), Trevor Dunn (bass), Joey Baron (drums) and, again, Kenny Wollesen (vibraphone).

“Git-le-Coeur” is at the other end of the Zorn-spectrum, more laid-back but sprinkled, at times, with short rapid sequences. Baron’s drums are highlighted nicely throughout the song (if you pay attention). The third track, “The Conqueror Worm” matches the first in intensity but with a more conventional Jazz approach and is exactly the sound that comes to my mind when I think of a John Zorn recording. It’s also one of my favorite tracks on the record if only for the incredible sense of pacing and timing that is usually the norm on a John Zorn composition.  The rest of the tracks keep this repetitive tone and structure, with occasional “zornian epileptic fits” that get to really test the skill of the musicians (and they all pass with flying colors). All the tracks are excellent but highlights include “The Dream Machine”, my personal favorite and especially a highlight for pianist Medeski whose show-stealing virtuosity is nothing short of magical, “Note Virus” for its pure madness and “1001 nights in Marrakech” for its hypnotic rhythm. Like I said though, these songs are the cream of the crop in an already excellent record.

With this trio of really powerful works Zorn has once again demonstrated not only his imagination and versatility as a composer but also his work-ethic and his talent in choosing and linking together musicians with great chemistry. Undoubtedly, Zorn is one of the greatest musical minds of his generation.


[i] Citation needed

Iva Bittova at the synagogue in Timisoara – Everything is Music

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Photo by Andrei Cherascu

A few days ago I wrote an article about Iva Bittova’s self-titled album released this year under the prestigious ECM label. While researching the record, I wanted to see what the artist has been up to lately, so I checked out her tour dates as well. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Iva was going to hold a concert at one of the synagogues in my city just a little over one week later.  Now, I had never seen the inside of a synagogue before but, most importantly, I had never seen Iva Bittova perform live before. As I wrote in my article, I enjoyed the record and her distinctive brand of music so I was more than curious to see what a live performance would involve especially since what I had seen on Youtube was very promising.

Let me just state this from the get-go: a recording does not do Iva Bittova justice! Her live performance was out of this world, a unique experience I will not soon forget. But let’s start with the beginning: I got there a few minutes early and I immediately spotted Iva walking around. Many people did not seem to know who she was. Since the concert was part of the SoundCzech music festival, promoting Czech music and culture perhaps some people just came because of that, not necessarily knowing who would be performing. This also brings me to my only major gripe with the concert, one that does not have anything to do with the performance itself. I’ve noticed many young girls and boys attending and it didn’t take me long to figure out that they were schoolkids more or less forced to be there by what I can only assume was their music teacher. It also didn’t take them long to become a complete nuisance, constantly giggling, talking and probably wishing they were at home listening to One Direction. They bothered me to the point where I had to switch seats. That turned out to be to my advantage though because I got closer to the artist and thus able to better appreciate her quirky stage presence. But the presence of those hapless teenagers does prove my point that you cannot force-feed art and good taste. The teacher who came up with this little field trip, though well-intended, should definitely rethink his or her teaching methods.

Anyway, on to the performance itself (but without leaving the aforementioned teenagers behind just yet): Some people representing the festival took the stage and said something barely audible in the rather big synagogue. Meanwhile Iva Bittova had appeared completely unnoticed from somewhere close to the back rows and near the entrance. She stopped right next to my row. I think I was one of the few people (if not the only one) who noticed her and…what, you don’t believe me? Fine, here’s a picture:

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Pictured: I told you so!

Anyway, when she started singing, in typical Iva fashion she scared the bejesus out of the aforementioned teens much to my amusement. The humoros moment as well as the mild commotion caused by Iva’s ghost-like appearance quickly dissipated and within a few moments the entire synagogue grew silent in amazement with Iva’s voice. I believe she started off with “Fragment X” but I’m not entirely sure.

I mentioned before that the record does not do her justice. The first thing you notice upon listening to her live is just how incredibly powerful and versatile her voice is, an aspect of her music that is perhaps a bit underplayed in her latest album. You could already tell in the recording that she has a lovely voice and I believe I wrote “make no mistake; hers is a powerful and educated voice that the singer purposefully chooses not to flaunt and instead, to use only as much as a certain song requires.” Well, that powerful and educate voice really shined last night in a manner that left me completely impressed. It is not uncommon for capable singers to sound much better live than on a record but I’ve never before experienced such an enormous difference. The reason for that I believe has as much to do with the subjective experience of her performance as it does with the incredible accoustics of a place of worship.

Again, that is not to say that Iva’s voice does not sound good on the album, it most certainly does, but I think there is a dynamic aspect to the way she delivers her vocals that just cannot be captured on audio. Iva sings, not only with her voice, but with her entire body, her face, her hands and her feet. Also, the way in which she interacts with the crowd, often making eye-contact, smiling like Alanis Morisette when she played God in the movie Dogma, seeming to sing directly to and for some random member of the crowd becomes such an integral part of her art that – I can now state -, you can feel its absence from the record. Mostly, it is the facial expressions of the very expressive singer that help convey the message of her music and the humor, that I mentioned also in the CD review, is an even larger part of her work than I expected. Her voice often changes registry, she stops singing abruptly, then starts again in a higher-pitched tone, switching gears like Jeremy Clarkson on crystal meth (sorry, I’ve recently seen the ending of Breaking Bad) all the while walking back and forth in the synagogue so that the sound of her voice and violin move with her like sentient entities and she occasionally stomps, swivels and claps her hands, all part of her act.  Many (avant-garde) singers like to brag that they are doing something different but in the case of Iva Bittova that is undoubtedly true. I don’t even think there is a name for what she does yet.

A few days before the event I had sent the talented lady an e-mail asking for the opportunity to conduct an interview. My e-mail sadly never got answered but that does not mean that I didn’t get the opportunity to catch a small glimpse into her worldview. Shortly after the first couple of songs Iva started talking to the audience and more or less warning them expect an open and dynamic performance, referring to the many shrieks, wails, hums and bird sounds produced not only by her voice but her violin as well, a very emotional spectacle. As Iva herself so wonderfully put it “Everything is music!”

Then, as if predicting my never-asked questions she started explaining how, unsure of her violin-playing ability, she began using her voice to stregthen her playing, thus creating a musical symbiosis that works incredibly.

Not that she would have any reason to worry about her violin-playing as her masterful control of the instrument provided a powerful backbone for her performance.

To conclude: if you have the opportunity go see this talented and intelligent artist live! Also, if you have the time, read my prior article and then this one again for a pertinent picture of the difference between experiencing music on a record and in a live performance.


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

Mindguard Cover