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.
Things were running behind schedule because the singer, Gisburg, had her peripatetic toddler in tow and was waiting for a babysitter. Her set was a mixture of songs set to the words of Bertolt Brecht and trip-hop, and if that sounds incongruous, it was. Percussionist’s Phil Painson’s beats were decent, but Gisburg had to restart several songs because she was out of tune, and she didn’t have the voice to carry the ambitious minor sevenths she kept attempting.
After three songs, I was surreptitiously looking around to see if other people were hating this woman as much as I was, but no one’s eyes mirrored my agony. I wondered if I just didn’t understand the appeal of off-key histrionic German pseudo trip-hop. The scruffy guy in battered Converse next to me was bobbing his head with the Portishead-aspirational beats as if he was an integral part of the music. When he took out his phone and started holding it out to take a picture, I started to think the entire show was a farce.
At the end of the set, I breathed a big (though silent) sigh of relief, and hightailed it out the door. Daniel the door guy followed me out and asked what I thought of the performance. I mumbled something noncommittal and asked him what he thought. He told me it was total shit, and said he thought I had showed up because I knew the woman. He said, "Come back tomorrow, the show will be much better. A jazz quartet, and then a trio. They’re great." In a flash I realized that Daniel is the secret to decoding this place’s schedule, and it had been stupid of me not to ask him about Douce earlier.
You’ll need his advice, because the curator changes every month, and much of the schedule will be obscure to people who aren’t immersed in the downtown jazz and avant-garde scene. According to Ned Rothenberg, composer/performer and April’s curator, the changing curator is designed to "break down barriers and get people listening to different things." May will be curated by Mischa Mengelberg, a Dutch jazz pianist and composer. Mengelberg will play every night for the first half of the month, with a rotating cast of musicians including downtown laptop artist Ikue Mori and trumpet player Dave Douglas. The second half of the month the space will be closed for renovations. In June, classical cellist Fred Sherry will curate.
If you’re not crazy about the programming possibilities of Dutch jazz pianists or classical cellists, consider the following. With the Killers on The O.C. and Kidz Bop recording a version of Modest Mouse’s ‘Float On’, it’s apparent that indie rock is now anything but. If you’re searching for a new indie scene, the Stone is a contender. It’s defiantly musician-centric, and while you may not always like the results, it’s an exciting place to go because you never know what might happen. While I’m a devoted fan of the Bowery Ballroom, I can’t say that about 99 percent of the concerts on their schedule.
To minimize the potential for Gisburg-like experiences, do some creative googling of the show’s calendar, or make friends with Daniel and ask his advice about shows. The Stone is worth the effort. It’s refreshingly hipster-free, the ticket policy encourages spontaneity (only sold at the door, night of), and it’s only $10 a show. For those who are deterred by the lack of alcohol, there’s no shortage of bars in the neighborhood, so find one, have a drink, and then steel yourself for some of the strangest (and most beautiful) music you’ve heard in a long, long time.•