Last month John Zorn celebrated his 50th birthday by setting up shop at Tonic in NYC's Lower East Side for the entire month of September. For those keeping score at home, that's 30 straight days of Zorn gigs. Now, I do not consider myself a Zorn expert by any stretch... I am merely a big fan determined to absorb as much of the music as I can. In the end, this amounted to a lot of decisions and sacrifices, but I made it to seven nights and swear I am ruined for any other music I may see for months to come.
John Zorn's music is a universe unlike any other. It is a gigantic house where each room serves a different purpose and is decorated in different ways. From the elegant dining room of the Masada String Trio to the dirty business bathroom of Painkiller, there is an unbelievable range of styles, ensembles, and experiences to be had under the Zorn roof. On top of that there are multiple ways to become a fan: some walk through the classical music door, others come from a jazz background, others love to rock, and even more come for the pure noise.
Zorn from ljudmila.org
For me, the highlight of the month was the many incarnations of Masada. In my limited experience with music, Masada stands as a singular entity. It is not a band, it is not even Zorn himself in any way... it is a musical being based purely on the songs themselves. They are not jazz numbers or classical or rock or anything you can put your finger on except to say that they are Masada songs. Masada is a songbook of supposedly 200+ compositions, which are flushed to life by a string trio, a jazz quartet, solo guitars, and a balls-to-the-walls electric band. These are not cover bands; they are all Masada in their own way. To understand this phenomenon is to understand the present state of John Zorn (as musical genre) from my point of view.
You can tell where each audience member stands by asking them what other shows they had seen that month or were planning to see, what they enjoyed and what they just shook their heads at in complete disbelief. See, most of us had to make choices and my choices certainly tell the story of where my love for John Zorn's music lies. Here I try to run down as best as I can remember the seven nights I had at Tonic in September. You'll forgive my memory lapses as my first trip was almost two months ago already.
Saturday, 6 September 2003 (early)
Bands: Painkiller – Zorn (alto), Bill Laswell (bass), Hamid Drake (drums)
Advertised as the most "intense" of the Zorn bands, I could in no way have prepared myself for the reality of the intensity this band brought to the stage. If anything, they were the coolest looking band of the month. Badass through and through.
The anchor to this trio was Drake on drums, one of the hardest hitters I've ever seen. Instead of the expected M.O. of a trio with all three members interacting equally, the music all seemed to flow through Hamid. It was almost like two duos playing simultaneously and overlapping in an ear-blistering assault of music. The effect was, at times, an affront to the principle of truth in advertising with ear-pain being the operative response. Yeah, it was LOUD! Eventually, the intensity served to numb and, as if crossing to the other side of an alternate universe, the beauty of the music became apparent. Laswell's bass was exquisite: each note seemed to have the width of a dozen, allowing the listener to wade comfortably within. Zorn alternated between vicious squonking and note-a-second soloing while Hamid just kept pounding, pounding, pounding away.
Laswell from deconstructinist.com
About the time I was really starting to get off on the music, they called up a guest, Mike Patton on "voice." Patton had a table set up with a couple of different microphones wired through digital effects and other gadgets with knobs attached. What he did, however enhanced electronically, was essentially scream. The painkilling effects of the first part of the set immediately wore off and I was reduced to staring slack-jawed at this maniacal set of hysterics.
Thursday, 11 September 2003 (early)
Bands: The Gift – Marc Ribot (guitar), Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards), Cyro Baptista (percussion), Roberto Rodriguez (percussion), Joey Baron (drums), Zorn (keyboards)
Ah, here's where we start to pretty things up. This band essentially plays the album of the same name, and if you're looking for a nice way to ease your way into the Zorn abode, this might be a good place to start.
The music couldn't be more beautiful. Led by the reverberating surf guitar of Marc Ribot and the jingling percussion of Cyro Baptista, the set of exotica music borders on easy listening. Each composition sets up a relaxing riff, often from Saft and Dunn, which loop lazily like the tide. The guitar solos over the top of these ebbing rhythms are picture perfect, building to a quiet climax at just the right pitch. The two words I would use to describe this music are "beauty" and "restrained." The real hero of The Gift, to me, is Baptista, who cycles through a never-ending array of percussive tricks and treats to create just the right sound for every second of each song. Watching him live is a real treat because he brings an addictive energy to each slap of a conga or ding-a-ling of a triangle. One song has the entire band clapping in time for minutes on end as Cyro plays some gourd-with-a-stick contraption that twangs wonderfully and hypnotizes your synapses.
Quite possibly the perfect way to get your mind smiling on an otherwise dread-worthy day of the year.
Saturday, 13 September 2003 (early)
Bands: Bar Kokhba – Mark Feldman (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), Ribot (guitar), Greg Cohen (bass), Baptista (percussion), Baron (drums), and Zorn conducting.
My first taste of Masada in September would ultimately be my favorite set. As noted earlier, there are different versions of Masada and this is what "they" call Masada chamber music. To me, though, it is like the best of all Masada worlds. You take the Masada string trio of Feldman, Friedlander and Cohen, half of "regular" Masada (Cohen again and Baron), and two parts of Electric Masada with Ribot and Baptista. The result is a little bit of all three takes on the song book and therefore, in Zorn logic, absolutely nothing like any of them.
Cyro by Eleonora Alberto
Here is where the power of John Zorn as a bandleader becomes perfectly apparent. During these shows, whether he is playing with the band or just sitting in front conducting, Zorn is in complete charge of the proceedings. He is a virtual sculptor, taking the ultra-talented clay on the stage and forming it into ear-tickling delights. For the cast of usual suspects in his various ensembles, this has lead to not only an unwavering concentration on Zorn himself no matter how involved they become with the piece they are performing, but also incredible attention paid to what the other musicians are doing. The level of communication is unlike anything you've ever seen.
While this phenomenon is the centerpiece to many of the bands, I think it is easiest to see and follow in the Bar Kokhba sets. This is not the kind of separated-at-birth kind of ESP communication that you sometimes find with musicians who were born to play with each other. This is subtle glances and raised eyebrows and slight twitches and hand cues that, when followed closely, appear as colorful ribbons tossed across the stage in intricate and beautiful design.
Ribot shines once again, but on another level than with The Gift. The band is purely acoustic save for his electric guitar and as thus, he has to transform his playing to match the tone... and does so perfectly. Joey Baron, playing so restrained on Thursday to fit the mood, starts to break out with a talent unmatched on the drums. His soloing is akin to solos from Feldman or Friedlander and Joey plays his drum kit as another string player, achieving the most melodic tones I've witnessed on drums. The violin and cellos are locked in for much of the set--Feldman and Friedlander operate as a single entity for much of the songs, setting the tone with alternating long bow strokes and short string plucks. Their solos were often taken together over an adventurous set of measures of intertwining improvisations that somehow root themselves in classical, jazz, and miscellaneous categories all at once. Few people can balance electric guitars and a string trio with such efficient ease... my worldview is small and filled with hyperbole, but from where I'm sitting, there is only one person.
Tuesday, 16 September 2003
Compositions: Book of Heads (early) – Ribot/Masada Guitars (late) – Ribot and John Madof
One of the best parts about the whole month, for me personally, was Marc Ribot. Plain and simple, he is my favorite guitar player and if I had any doubts about his position on my "list" September of 2003 put them to rest. Like a chameleon, he showed the ability to morph his talents to his surroundings. He seems to possess a different guitar for each facet of his ability and by my count he played almost a dozen different guitars last month.
I had no clue what to expect for Book of Heads. It is a set of 35 or so pieces for solo guitar that has rarely been performed live and now I know why.
Many know the term "atonal," which can be used to describe a lot of jazz music. The Book of Heads is "amelodic"--it is marked best by the complete absence of melody. Marc sat down with guitar in hand and even read off of sheet music, but everything else could not be construed as normal. Among the implements he used to play his guitar were many, many balloons, pens, straws, metal pieces that might be used to catch fish in another venue. The strange thing was that although I call it anti-music, it was enchanting to watch. This was especially true after Ribot started to let a few comments out that let the audience know he wasn't taking himself too seriously. Later he moved to what he called the "operating table" to play three guitars that were prostrate on a table with two bows. It wasn't loud or annoying in any way--it came off merely as an experiment of a sort of metaphysical nature. What is music and what is just sound? This question is what I took out of this set.
While the Book of Heads was interesting, thankfully this wasn't the only set of the evening, as we shifted our weight in our seats for the mind-blowing performance of Masada Guitars--yet another incarnation of the Masada songbook.
Transcribing the multiple parts of a Masada song to a solo guitar completely re-realized the music and there was no one more appropriate than Marc to play them. When he is in the zone, he closes his eyes and arches his body into another state of mind--this is when he is at his best and, to me, his fingers seem to pick the notes out of the guitar like ripe fruit from a tree. As his solos get more and more intense it's as if the musical juices are dripping from his fingers. There were many of these moments all month long, but this Tuesday was a special treat as he played these well-worn pieces on acoustic guitar.
Halfway through the set, John Madof took over and really impressed with his take on more Masada with a nicely restrained electric guitar. It took quite a bit of talent to make sure there was no letdown after Marc's heroics, and Madof, in my first time seeing him play, did not disappoint in the least. His technical skills were letter-perfect, although I will admit he did not have the emotional punch that Ribot brings to the table. Finally, Marc rejoined him on the stage and they finished up with a delicious dessert of duos. Yummy!
Friday, 19 September 2003 (early)
Bands: Masada – Zorn (saxophone), Dave Douglas (trumpet), Cohen (bass), Baron (drums)
The band that started it all. With Joey Baron no longer residing in New York, these shows took on a reunion/curtain call air to them--you felt lucky to be catching this band and weren't quite sure if and when you'd see them again. They did not disappoint, putting on a show of epic proportions. I'm sure each of the six sets they played was magnificent to the note. This is the "jazz" version of Masada and they bust that genre open with some utterly electrifying playing.
I have to call out Joey Baron first and foremost as he put on a show this Friday night like no drummer I've ever seen. In the Bar Kokhba set he transformed his drum kit into a string instrument; here he was another horn player, blaring away with fingers and toes instead of lips. I'm sure if I tried to, I could move my hands as fast as Joey does, but there is no way I could do anything meaningful with such movement. The magic in Baron's limbs is that he is so uncontrollably under control that it boggles the mind to try to reel it all in. Playing his kit with brushes or palms or fingertips aren't mere contrivances for him; he aims to get tone out of his drums and each pulse of his muscles is directed toward those goals. Everyone else is superb as well, of course. These tunes really start with the bass lines, and Greg Cohen has mastered the slow, hypnotic, shtetl-tinged backbones perfectly. Dave Douglas and Zorn do great work with their solos, but the best is when they just play on top of each other and all four members of the quartet blur into one steady sound. This is not a group for individuals to take the reins.
The main impression from the Masada set, besides the flabbergasting music they produced, was how much these four guys were enjoying themselves and each other. These smiles carried over into their solos and their jamming and their compositionally-driven playing which, in turn, carried over onto us in the audience. Like so many other times, the audience felt as if they were a part of something special. Certainly some of these weekend shows could have been reduced to a single show in a larger venue with more seats and less waiting outside, but this music was made to be played and appreciated in small batches like a thick, micro brewed porter sipped for the flavor and for no other reason. So happy to have a taste.
Thursday, 25 September 2003, early/late
Bands: Electric Masada – Ribot (guitar), Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards), Baptista (percussion), Kenny Wollesen (drums), Zorn, Ikue Mori (laptop)
My favorite Zorn band. This is Zorn's present-day "baby" that's playing on a regular basis and whenever they're playing at Tonic, the website always describes them as the "powerhouse" version of Masada. A nice program was put together for the month and in the blurb about this band, Zorn says, "this band could be my best yet." I just call it badass!
I've heard the comparison made and I'm finally ready to join the chorus who compare this band to Miles Davis' electric bands of the late sixties and early seventies. I say this not to be cute or to say they sound like them in any way. I say this because they are the band that most closely approximates what that band was doing in terms of direction, talent, and overall product. This band is taking an original brand of music into completely uncharted and undeniably exciting territory. I truly believe that John Zorn is a musical genius on par with some of the greatest minds in Western music and that comparing him to Davis is completely appropriate.
Wollesen from zula.ca
Here the Masada songbook is a starting point and all of Zorn's planets align as heavy composition overlaps with inconceivable band improvisation all harnessed under an unspoken set of rules. Ear-blistering rock 'n' roll, thrash metal, slick funk, way-out-there (but controlled) improvisation, and just jamming grooves all are a part of Electric Masada. If I swear to you that if played some of the jams that went down at this show, you'd be drooling with "best ever" rolling through your head.
Trevor Dunn is phenomenally fitting as the bassist in this group; in some regards he's the electric version of Greg Cohen. He lays down a groove and sticks with it through thick and thin. While each number seemed to begin in an amorphous goo of pleasantly loud improvised noise, Dunn's bass lines would quickly appear and crystallize the music into song form. One tune might harken a deep Meters funk while the next has you mired in a balls-to-the-wall rock 'n' roll that's evocative of a heavy Widespread Panic jam. Of course, none of these are influences on the music, which breaks all molds or attempts at classification. And while the music gets out there in full-jam mode, Zorn is always the Captain Kirk to the Electric Masada Enterprise. His genius manifests itself here in his ability to balance his complete control of the music with the longest leashes in the history of bandleaders, allowing his musicians as much leeway as they need to make their points.
Saft's electric piano is a wicked treat and carries much of the groove the way Keith Jarrett or Herbie Hancock did for Miles. Wollesen is relentless on the drums and has some extra freedoms with Cyro holding some rhythm duties as well as Dunn's superglue grip on the grooves. Zorn's saxophone is a powerful rock/funk beast that builds at a perfect clip before exploding in a messy tangle of notes.
So, there are the song portions and the building full-band grooves and improvisational sections and then there are... well, I don't know how to describe them other than "Zorn breakdowns." Sometimes suddenly, he will, with hand cues or otherwise, group together one, two, three or more musicians who then just play notes for a prescribed number of measures. Since they are being put together in real time, there is no form to what they are playing, but since these guys have played together and know the rules, the result, while not always centered or thematic, is an interesting juxtaposition to the music. The key is that Zorn knows exactly how long to keep these bits going as he will do three or four groupings in a row before perfectly cueing Dunn or Wollesen to bring the original groove back in. In these cases, it isn't quite the journey that matters so much as how he gets the band in and out that is truly fascinating to watch. As each tune started in a cacophonic improv, the songs often ended in stunning fashion with gorgeous outros bringing the audience down from the outer limits we had just visited.
Just thinking back and writing about them now makes me giddy about the prospect of seeing them again. Hopefully they'll be playing New Year's Eve again.
Tuesday, 30 September 2003
Compositions: Filmworks – Saft (keyboards), Baptista (percussion), Friedlander (cello), Ribot (guitar), Dunn (bass), Wollesen (vibes), Ganda Suthivarakom (voice), Zorn (piano, conducting), Feldman (violin), Cohen (bass), Rob Burger (accordion), Baron (drums)
I HAD to get there on the final night... it had been quite a month and judging from the lineups it would be another can't-miss evening in the Lower East Side. This was to be a performance of four of Zorn's Filmworks series, i.e. some of Zorn's movie soundtracks.
The first set was the most soundtrack-like of the four: Volume Ten, In the Mirror Of Maya Deren. A simple riff was played and repeated over and over and over to the point of boredom at first, and then a complete hypnosis to where you could almost imagine scenes from a movie in front of the music. The heroes of this set were easily Saft and Friedlander, who seemed to go back and forth with each piece, playing magnificent solos around the basic themes. This set also featured the most shuffling of musicians, as Zorn seemed to be literally plucking them out of the audience. The first row was reserved for the musicians who weren't playing on stage at a given moment, so it was an added treat to be able to watch musicians sit as part of the audience of a Zorn performance.
The second set was easily my favorite, Volume Fourteen: Hiding and Seeking. Surprise, surprise, it also featured some of the best Ribot playing of the month, as he used yet another guitar to do Zorn's bidding. Actually, it was a completely different type of guitar as he used an acoustic, nylon-string in this set to jaw-dropping effect. The music was beautiful all around and very reminiscent of the exotica of The Gift. Suthivarakom on voice added an entirely different texture though as she chilled the bones with no lyrics other than "la la la's." John Zorn knows how to pick and perfectly place each sound in his groups and Ganda is no exception here. Trevor Dunn moved to stand-up bass and Kenny Wollesen played vibes to add even more new and interesting sounds to the month long mix. The drum kit was as stripped down as possible, as Baron was playing only a tiny bass drum, a single snare, and a cymbal. This pretty much sums up this night's music, stripped to the bone: not beautiful in spite of this but beautiful because it is naked and pure.
After a set break the third band took the stage: basically the Masada String Trio of Friedlander, Feldman, and Cohen. It was very Masada-like and may have actually included songs from this book. This was Volume Eleven: Secret Lives. The trio was joined by a host of "guests" including Ganda again as well as Cyro and others.
The final set was, Volume Thirteen: Invitation to a Suicide, and saw Marc pick up yet another guitar, this time back to electric for some truly vicious solos. Even though the band was essentially Electric Masada, give or take a couple, it was entirely different in every way. This set was punctuated by some nice, synchronous ensemble playing and some nice repeated themes by Wollesen on vibes, Ribot on guitar, and Burger adding a new sound of accordion to the mix.
I have all these notions about Zorn and they all came to a head on the last night of the month. As the clock rolled over into October 1st and the month came to a close, I pondered the English language and wondered if it possessed words enough to describe John Zorn. What is the superlative form of "prolific," anyway? Can a man be a complete genre of music that is, in itself, completely free from genre?
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