The Stone, John Zorn’s new performance space at Avenue C and 2nd Street is so minimal that the Yamaha grand piano in the middle of the long, narrow room seems displaced. The floors are bare concrete and the room is lit like a mine shaft, with a series of 150-watt bulbs hung inside small, canary-yellow cages. It’s my second visit to this jazz and avan t-garde club, and I can’t shake the idea that if I come back next week, it might have vanished. The East Village’s raucous nightlife hasn’t stretched this far yet, so it’s not likely you’ll stumble across the Stone on your way to anywhere. The isolated location, the small lettering on the door, the pointed absence of publicity or inclusion in any of the city’s hip event listing magazines/websites/blogs — all signs point to the Stone being a place for people who seek it out. But what is it?
It’s easier to begin with what the Stone isn’t. Unlike Irving Plaza, the Knitting Factory, or even the downtown venue where John Zorn used to play a lot of gigs, Tonic, the Stone is a not-for-profit operation. Also unlike the aforementioned venues, 100 percent of the door proceeds go directly to the musicians. This is shocking, but what will be even more shocking (or disappointing) to some is that there’s no alcohol at the Stone. The website says "Only Music," and it’s not fucking around. The Stone doesn’t accept demos, because every month a different musician curates the shows, two a night (8 and 10 pm), Tuesday through Sunday.
My first visit to the club was a random Tuesday evening, a performance chosen because I wanted to hear a piano player, and the Stone’s website said that Satoko Fujii’s visit from Japan was a rare one. She would be playing with Natsuki Tamura (trumpet) and Elliot Sharp (guitar/soprano sax). I was surprised to find the black folding chairs lining the room almost full, with a crowd ranging from late twenties to mid-seventies. The vibe was strangely familial; many people seemed to know an elderly woman in the front row (who I later learned was Stefanie Stone, the wife of Irving Stone, the club’s namesake).
The musicians started, unceremoniously and without introduction, right at 10. Their improvisation had all the dramatic tension of Kabuki theater, with the cinematic scope and dynamic contrast of Radiohead. Fujii alternated between striking the piano strings with a mallet and playing ornate fugue-like figures. Tamura produced noises I’ve never heard from a trumpet before; if I hadn’t been watching him I would have thought a flute player and a DJ scratching records had joined the show. The slide guitar added ancillary effects from scraping wires to old blues riffs.
At certain points in the performance, noise filtered in both from the street (two men conversing in Spanish, a motorcycle backfiring), and upstairs (heavy footsteps across the length of the ceiling, the noisy whoosh of water through pipes). I was so transfixed by the performance that the background noise almost heightened the music’s effect. Part of this deep concentration stemmed from my feeling that the musicians were teaching me how to listen to their music as the performance progressed. Satoko Fujii was the first of four shows I saw that week, including Beck’s not-so-secret show at Hiro, and it was by far the best. I left the Stone with a Zen feeling of calm, resolving to go back as soon as possible.
My second trip could not have been more different, though the crowd was similarly eclectic. The manager of the space, Daniel Goldaracena, took my $10 at the door, keeping track of the turnout with pencil marks on a sheet of paper. He appeared semi-somnolent, and a battered copy of Fernando Pessoa poems, in the original Portuguese, sat beside him. I chatted with him about the month’s performances while I was waiting for Douce, a German vocal act with percussion, to begin.