Words can’ do justice to saxophonist and composer John Zorn’ immense legacy. He’ made music in an astonishing array of genres, everything from classical to punk, worked in film, theatre, composed ballets, cartoons and orchestras. He’ performed extensively in numerous ensembles over the years, runs a performance space in New York (The Stone), runs a record label (Tzadik), which at 700+ releases has provided some of the most adventurous, extreme and remarkable music you could ever hope to hear. He’ become the figurehead of the New York Downtown Scene with an imposing array of remarkable musicians orbiting around his uncompromising visions and participating in his various projects. It’s not surprising they call him a â€œmusicians musician,â€ and it’s this sense of community that the organisers of the Adelaide Festival have tapped into. To celebrate Zorn turning 60 this year they’ve brought out not just Zorn but almost all of his regular contributors, the likes of guitarist Mark Ribot, vocalist Mike Patton, percussionist Cyro Baptista, keyboardist John Medeski, cellist Erik Friedlander and about 30 or so others for a 4 night run of concerts. The key to these musicians is that they all have their own careers and musical visions to pursue, but when Zorn calls they come running.
When Zorn, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron stride onto stage as the Masada quartet for the opening night, there’ a short period of silence before the audience erupts into loud applause and screams. You can tell that many of us still can’ quite believe our eyes. But there he is leaning into his sax, duck calling and squalling into the mic, playing these incredibly beguiling ancient Jewish melodies. The Masada project, which has since spawned over 600 pieces, was established as an attempt to integrate his Jewish origins with his own predilections, to fuse Klezmer music with jazz and improv. With a short wave to the crowd, they begin playing and the fusion is remarkable, Dave Douglas solos in particular are astounding and the interplay between the brass is truly something special.
Later Mycale a quartet of female vocalists provides a real change of pace, the songs coming acapella style, fragments of voice combining to make a whole, drawing on a diversity of worlds with African and Spanish inflections thrown into the mix of singing and exclamations, with each performer seemingly in her own world, almost blocking out the others. Yet the combination is astounding, further highlighting Zorn’ eclectic and relentless spirit.
Perhaps the other highlight is the roar of the crowd for guitarist Mark Ribot (Tom Waits), bespectacled with a mop of white hair he seems almost bemused by both the experience and the reception, peering searchingly into his sheet music. His performance in Bar Kokhba, the smooth vibes heavy Dreamers and later Electric Masada feel like a real gift, with Zorn regularly attempting to coax something new and unexpected from him. Even from a distance their relationship is intriguing.
The Masada String Trio, with Cohen, Mark Feldman (violin), and Erik Friedlander (cello), sees Zorn seated in front of Friedlander issuing instructions to the group. In fact for the entire night even when not playing Zorn faces the bands with a sheaf of sheet music, controlling dynamics, delivering tempos, pointing out artists to solo and generally shaping the music live in the space. Aside from providing a unique insight into how he works, it also keeps the music live and vital with a certain unpredictable energy based on Zorn’ whims.
Though it’s when he reaches for his sax again, the Electric Masada, with Jamie Saft (electric piano), Trevor Dunn (bass), Joey Baron & Kenny Wollesen (both on drums), Ribot, the hyperactive Cyro Baptista (percussion), and Ikue Mori (electronics) that he takes things to a whole new level. There is an intensity of playing from this ensemble and in particular from Zorn that feels like it could strip the paint from the walls. Moving effortlessly between more composed melodic material and improvised chaos, this is undoubtedly the performance of the night, with Zorn playing with one hand and composing with another, building into giant electric crescendos and sending us exhausted off into the Adelaide streets after almost four hours of Masada.
The following night is a dramatic change of pace, his classical works. Whilst the various smaller ensembles demonstrate the links between Zorn’s experimental and classical works, as well as his unconventional approach to composition, it is when his work is performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra that the walls start to shake. The earlier performances, with the Ellison Ensemble in various configurations that includes the likes of Erkki Veltheim (who has performed with Anthony Pateras) and Eugene Ughetti (Speak Percussion), display an intimacy that is undeniably compelling. Both Zorn and Patton sit in the first row watching proceedings with glee, and periodically Zorn bounces up onto the stage to embrace a performer or the conductor, and you can’t wipe the smile from his face. Yet the ASO are a different beast. They can barely fit on the stage and the immensity of the sound is remarkable. This has to be an incredible experience for even someone of Zorn’s stature, to hear his compositions so widescreen, so overwhelming, so large. To the audience it further solidifies his reputation. Is there anything this man can’ do?
The third night is positively sci fi, beginning with Blade Runner, which is ostensibly improv without borders – without anything for the performers to hold onto. Whilst ex Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Zorn seem at ease stretching out and feeling for space, legendary bassist Bill Laswell doesn’ seem to be in the zone, absently tinkering with his bank of pedals, transforming his bass into a more melodic creature, cloaking it in reverb and losing it in the clatter and splatter of the other two. You want to rip out his jack, bypass the effects and plug it straight into the amp and tell him to play some freakin bass. It’s a noisy unit, not in the least due to Zorn’ squalling, searing sax. Yet whilst he’ abrasive he is also giving, often playing long extended drones in an attempt to draw Laswell in. They each take a turn to begin a piece, and finally when it’s Laswell’ turn after an extended melodic intro he gets a groove, albeit heavily fuzzed and distorted, but it works and suddenly there is cohesion and the trio are all the better for it. Finally they bring out Patton who woops and screeches, diving on the ground dodging Zorn’ clucking duck calls. It’s the most dangerous piece they perform, with Patton’ presence adding a certain frenetic electricity to proceedings.
Zorn’ film work has been long celebrated, released over the years in his Filmworks series. His ability to self release offers him a certain freedom as he is rarely paid and can often just do what he wants as opposed to being constrained by the director’ vision. This music however, the most recent being from 1967 feels more like commissions from after the fact. So whilst it’s a shame we weren’ shown Tears of Ecstasy, a 1996 Japanese film about a family of aliens coming to earth and spending all their time having anal sex, we are provided somewhat of a tour of American avant-garde filmmaking. Titled Essential Cinema, it’s distinctly musical, despite the avant-garde nature of the films, incorporating the talents of frequent film scoring buddies, Ribot, Saft, Baron, Baptista, Mori, Friedlander, Wollesen on vibes as well as Aram Bajakian. They’re playing along to films by the likes of Maya Deren and Harry Smith, often bringing a western guitar twang to proceedings. Wallace Berman’ 1966 film Aleph sees a frantic improvised trio between Dunn, Zorn and Wollesen on drums. With the lights off to reveal the films it’s frustratingly dark, and by projection light we can occasionally make out Zorn conducting proceedings.
Finally there’ the all out insanity of the Cobra game piece which is unpredictable and hilarious, with all these master musicians putting up their hands like they’re in school, then donning a hat or headband to take control. Zorn holds up cards, picking out who should play what, with Baptista using a megaphone babbling incoherently, and all manner of duos and trios being instantaneously developed. I last saw this game about 15 years or so ago when Mr Bungle toured Melbourne, but these guys are masters and it’s spellbinding. Suddenly composition is up for grabs, anything is possible based upon the whims of someone else – either Zorn or another musician. Both the musicians and the crowd are on the edge of their seats. The energy is palpable. After this composed music will simply be boring.
The last night begins with that Naked City slide, an aural equivalent of a carnival ride as Patton squeals, the instruments wail and we’re deposited into Batman off Naked City’ legendary first album, all machismo and half started musical ideas barely joined together at breakneck speed. This is the Song Project, with vocalists Mike Patton, Jesse Harris (Nora Jones), and Argentine Sofia Rei who draws on influences as diverse as jazz and more traditional South American folkloric approaches. With Zorn seated facing the band and conducting in his own unique way, the group is made up of Baron, Baptista, Ribot, Medeski, Dunn and in particular Kenny Wollesen, who looks like a mad professor on vibes and really shines here. Baron grins happily as Zorn whips up a gorgeous Argentine lullaby into a searing rock out with Ribot shredding manically. The singers when they finish their phrases all turn to face the band, they too have no idea what’s going to happen next. That seems to be the key here, Zorn points to individuals for solos, raises tempo, lowers volume, even gesturing the type of playing they should doing, so a soft samba can turn into a wall of sound in seconds, only to be replaced by some solo Medeski keys or the sparseness of Dunn twanging away on his upright bass. It’s elastic music and where in the hands of others this collection might be considered standards, Zorn instills a certain joyful unpredictability. This music is brimming with life. Towards Kafiristan with Rei and Harris’ smooth vocals is particularly beautiful, though the highlight is the brutal frenetic throat punch that is Osaka Bondage, from Naked City’ Infamous Torture Garden album. It’s both terrifying and awe inspiring, melding brutal noise with smooth jazz for the ADHD set. â€œNow that’s what I call a song,â€ laughs Zorn, â€œthat’s a peek at where my mind was at in 1988.â€ â€œIt’s a beautiful place,â€ comes a reply from the audience, â€œit works for me laughs Zorn,â€ it’s still working for me.â€
Next up is a trio of Dunn, Wollesen (this time on drums) and Stephen Gosling, who is perhaps best known for his chamber and new music composition work. This is anything but, with Gosling reading the sheet music of Illuminations and Dunn and Wollesen reacting. It’s a long piece of at times furious and frenetic improv.
Holy Visions is another vocal piece, a quintet of female acapella singers, though this time it feels like they’re operating as a Greek chorus, in a more traditional style with classical sopranos singers about the 12th-century nun Hildegard of Bingen . â€œI’m sure this is in Latin,â€ offers the person seated behind me to their companion, â€œthere’ definitely a hidden agenda, it’s probably Latin pornography.â€
What follows is a return of the Elison ensemble with an unsettling plucked, picked, twitchy and quite chaotic piece The Alchemist. Apparently alchemy is created through turmoil, through abrupt changes, mournful strings and atonality.
Moonchild, a quartet of Baron, Dunn, Medeski and Patton is perhaps the most brutal part of the evening. It’s quite a stripped down approach with Dunn’ repetitive electric bass acting as a backbone, keys coming in and out operating in a jarring textural manner and Baron approaching the kit in a more traditional manner working in with Dunn’ almost locked grooves. Patton meanwhile mutters, snarls and squeals, often in Italian, working off sheet music, yet still writhing around stage and throwing himself into every screech. It’s truly peculiarly bleak music, there’ no warmth here, coming across somewhere between doom cocktail and an austere Giallo soundtrack.
The Dreamers make another appearance and again it’s gorgeous music with their characteristic soft and smooth jazz jams, with Wollesen on vibes and Jamie Saft on electric piano, both of whom are incredible. Zorn is seated and conducting, pointing at the various musicians, and his dynamic changes and split second composition decisions are nothing short of astounding, demonstrating that smooth seductive music can be every bit as complex, exciting and dynamic as some of his more jarring and abrasive works. His attention to his performers is unparalleled, despite all of this work; he still finds time to steal a bottle of water from Baron to give it to Ribot. Midway through the Dreamers someone screams out â€œsurely it’s saxophone time.” Zorn rubs his nose with an extended index finger.
Ikue Mori joins this core group on electrics, Wollesen moves to drums and Zorn picks up his sax â€œAre you happy now?â€ He offers. The crowd screams. And so do the band as the chaos of Electric Masada reigns. The music is vital, unrestrained, Zorn squawks and splutters duck calling, but also steps back building up the noise. Even Mori thinks it too much and backs off, but Zorn is having none of it, spontaneously creating duos and trios and coaxing her back in. Just when you think you can’ handle anymore he begins playing again, and rather than adding to the bluster he creates a path through it, and in doing so we hear it through his ears and its remarkable. They finish with the noisy guitar centric chaos of Idalah-Abal and it feels like a blitzkrieg, like the world is ending. And unfortunately it is, as they leave the stage to a standing ovation those who witnessed this four night Zornathon will never be the same again. Happy birthday John. Thanks for the present.
Concert photos by Tony Lewis. Zorn in Oz photo by Carla Martins.