The Brooklyn avant-garde music scene is no longer burgeoning; it is flourishing.
Guitarist and New England Conservatory student Gabe Boyarin, who is sure to make waves in the scene when he graduates and moves to NYC next year, says it best: “Brooklyn’s really popping right now… Some say it’s the new Manhattan.” Boyarin first learned about this world by listening to music from the Tzadik label, created by downtown musician and bandleader John Zorn. He befriended the composer John Schott and the late vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg, who showed him “what people were up to” in New York. He’s been active in Brooklyn’s experimental and improvisational music scene since the summer of 2021 when he visited from the West Coast and met guitarist John King and bassist Brandon Lopez. In November of 2023, Boyarin played on the same bill with both of them at a Gaza benefit concert featuring a performance of his composition, 1948 Nakba. He lives in Boston and makes trips to New York once a month.
And where does he go when he comes here? I asked him and a dozen other musicians—veterans, leading lights, and up-and-comers—about their favorite Brooklyn venues to hear live music. Free jazz, improv, noise, experimental, “new classical,” creative, DIY: it’s all here, always new, and all for you. Many of these spots are off the G train, so hop on, hop off, and hop on again.
Roulette began in a musician loft in Downtown Manhattan in the late 70s, where it became the place to hear radical jazz (of the Coltrane kind) and other kinds of improvised and electroacoustic music (of the John Cage kind.) It moved a few times before setting up shop in 2001 at a concert hall near Fulton Street that was part of the YMCA. Today, the best play here: William Parker, Shelley Hirsch, Nate Wooley, Bang on a Can, and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Guitarist Ian Douglas-Moore, who curates the Striped Light concert series in Queens with David Watson, calls it “a great place to see bigger names or larger-scale shows from up-and-coming artists.” When violinist and composer Theo Haber goes to see music in his home borough of Brooklyn, he goes here. Bassoonist and former artistic director of ICE Rebekah Heller puts it at the top of her list. The people are friendly, and the drinks are cheap. Take them with you into the hall and strike up a conversation with someone. Everyone here has a story.
“Sisters is probably the best off the top of my head,” says trumpeter Nate Wooley, a key player in the Brooklyn avant-garde for the past twenty-plus years. Indeed, this venue came up more than any other among the musicians I asked. A Black-owned restaurant and bar with a beautifully decorated dining room and back room, Sisters opened in 2014 and hosts some crazy acts. David Grollman of The Jew-O percussion ensemble wore just a jockstrap and hit his crotch with a drum mallet. Other acts are less extreme. On New Year’s Eve, bassist Luke Stewart and cellist Lester St. Louis teamed up for a DJ set. Violinist and interdisciplinary artist C. Spencer Yeh says Sisters is “friendly and welcoming.” Boyarin, Supové, Heller, and Stewart himself all list it as a top venue.
Don’t get it twisted, this is a specific record shop at 360 Van Brunt St. in Red Hook. David Watson, a bagpiper who has been active in New York’s avant-garde since the 80s, when he was a frequent performer at Manhattan’s Knitting Factory, highly recommends Record Shop as a prime destination for hearing musicians improvise, as do Nate Wooley and Luke Stewart. Its Pool Improvised Music Series is run by drummer/saxophonist Kevin Murray and guitarist Aaron Rubinstein. They even have their own label, 1039 Records. Rubinstein says that Record Shop “is the absolute top shelf/community scene spot.” I haven’t been yet, but from what I hear, it’s worth the walk from the Smith-9th St. G stop.
A community space nestled in what used to be a vibrant Puerto Rican community, P.I.T. has an anarcho-syndicalist backbone. They accept donations for asylum seekers and for people in prison and collaborate with the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and Southside United HDFC–Los Sures, an organization that fights for affordable housing. P.I.T. has a stacked events list, hosting acts with names like Fuckcrusher. C. Spencer Yeh told me, “It’s worth keeping an eye out for what’s going on at P.I.T., especially for improv/free jazz vibes.” Gabe Boyarin also comes here when he visits the city. (See also the nearby Williamsburg Music Center run by Gerry Eastman, brother of Julius, the famous composer, for more free jazz vibes.)
When I moved to Williamsburg, my roommates touted Union Pool as the area’s prime hookup bar, but few know how important it is to the history of experimental music. In Pratt Professor Cisco Bradley’s essential 2023 book, The Williamsburg Avant-Garde, Union Pool shows up as one of the only remnants of the neighborhood’s once-busy DIY music scene, which peaked in the early 2000s. “Folks forget or don’t know that Union Pool is a very friendly place for the experimental,” says C. Spencer Yeh. “Much of the staff, both booking and bar, are some active/longtime members of the scene.”
Blank Forms not only hosts concerts, they also publish books and press records. Their output radiates a care for history and a preservation of the present. Their vibe is more spiritual and serious than some of the other venues on the list. In October, I sat on a pillow on the floor to hear Swedish musician Marcus Pal play a just-intonation piano last October. A recent highlight was a performance by the jazz group Ethnic Heritage Ensemble celebrating its 50th anniversary.
GRAMMY Award winning cellist Andrew Yee, a founding member of the Attacca Quartet, recommends Public Records. Another restaurant concert venue, this one with an all-vegan menu, Public Records hosts jazz, DJ, and other electronic experimental music shows in a futuristic and comfy listening loft upstairs. Go just to experience their incredible sound system or for a sexy, elegant hang.
Both David Watson and Ian Douglas-Moore are fans of Freddy’s monthly Limited Resources series, which is run by electroacoustic musician and drone guitarist Chris LiButti who serves up experimental and improvisational jazz. I haven’t been yet, but Douglas-Moore tells me that it can be loud since it is, after all, a bar, but the casual and non-precious feel creates a welcoming atmosphere. Be prepared for some gloriously noisy and cutting-edge sounds.
Founded in 2015, this is an institution of the more formal sit-down-and-shut-up kind of concert hall. But that’s not a knock. The hall itself feels like another world, and its state-of-the-art Meyer spatial sound system enhances the listening experience. The acts, which sometimes include dance, are always polished. Some lean toward the classical end of the experimental spectrum and most veer away from the noisy, drone sort of avant-garde. Sawdust also commissions works. Composer Paola Prestini, whose entrancing work for string quartet, It Is Finished (2019) I recently heard there, is co-founder and artistic director. I heard Han Chen’s miraculous (perhaps definitive) performance of Ligeti’s piano etudes here in September of 2023. Sawdust is another hall where you can grab a drink and bathe in sound.