John Zorn’s relentless musical search reaches corners well tread and niche-hidden, barely no genre is untouched by his alchemical hands. On this unique visit to Australia, no less than four consecutive nights surveying the breadth of his work were granted to the ravenous audiences. A cast of musicians best able to interpret Zorn’s difficult work travelled over the water for the festival, some for only a half hour appearance – it is understandable why many other festivals have failed to attract the Zorn juggernaut, and the coup was relished by Adelaide.
The large and appreciative audience at the Festival Theatre for the last of four programs, known as Zorn@60, heard fields of music as diverse as wild Jewish prog-rock mayhem, intimate acoustic guitar driven melancholia, and technically challenging a capella from classically trained female vocalists. This was the widest reaching program for the week. But for Zorn, genre is nothing – composition and performance are all! Zorn lives to coax surprise out of the endless moment from his willing performers, who go to any lengths to see their conductor satisfied. Perhaps throwing his head back, holding his fist in the air as if to say – yes, maintain that! Keep on! Or to lift up his glasses and flare his eyes, as he did at one point towards Kenny Wollesen on vibraphones, finding a rich seam between the chords.
Opening proceedings was the Song Project, where Zorn’s band the Dreamers: effectively a dream team to rival any Globetrotters, who interpreted older compositions, sung by Mike Patton, Jesse Harris and the gorgeous Sofia Rei. One or two singers at a time put their own words (and Sean Lennon’s) to these beautiful songs, while Zorn, seated, conducted with his back to the audience. He was there for the music, not for any pretence, that was clear – his trousers, as ever, were rather informal camouflage happy pants.
Mike Patton, though not dominating the musicians, led with equal measure of crooning as well as heavy and harsh top-gear metal style screams, settling himself in a low horse stance, ready to shoulder-charge a Mack. He was a reason a good percentage of the audience were there, including my wife, and he didn’t disappoint; suave but spring-coiled. Jesse Harris, by comparison, the writer of tunes such as Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, murmured his songs, but managed to pick out delightful obscure melodies, so disarmingly. Sofia Rei, an absolutely resplendent Latin beauty in sequined black dress, sang in Portuguese and Spanish, and mesmerised, exotic swells of her voice reminding me of Bebel Gilberto.
It’s been these songs which stuck in my mind perhaps more than any other on the night. The Song Project allowed vocalists to interpret Zorn’s beautiful music – generous of him – as this entire four-night stint in Adelaide was. What surprises me is that there is no Zorn on the radio, nor on television, and yet this recognised genius works tirelessly from his New York base to further music, creating and nurturing so many gems. Zorn wore a t-shirt featuring The Stone, a NYC East Village performance venue he helped establish, which has hosted over 5000 gigs. This is a man who, as my wife said, must never sleep. He directed his bands on the night with absolute commitment and split-second timing. Should he desire to hear drummer Joey Baron double the tempo, he will hold up two fingers, and the automatic transmission glides into a higher gear – four fingers, and the snare doubles again! The language of hand signals reminded me of a furious Italian driver, gesticulating with vigor.
In 2011 Zorn was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame by Lou Reed, and his song sung by Patton – Of Wonder and Certainty – was fittingly Reed-esque, sawing back and forth between two chords, then opening up with a flourish (“I remember how they turned away”) just as the best lifts in Reed’s solo songs took off. Zorn clearly feels, as so many do, the loss of this equally towering New York fixture. The lyrics took us through a growing obsession with Reed, being dimly aware of him and then entranced, as I and so many fans have been.
Osaka Bondage, one of Zorn’s favourite pieces from his Naked City time, had a brief introduction from Zorn, who seemed to almost apologise that “this was where my head was at in 1988” with an audience member calling back “what a beautiful place!” Zorn replied “Worked for me – it’s still working for me!” What followed was a minute and a half of pure animal outburst delivered by all on stage – Zorn’s conducting representing physically the whipping (pun intended) surges and unexpected silences from the frantic players, Patton blasting the microphone, a collective smiling and feeling like a cigarette afterwards.
Zorn came away from the stage during the next four sets, other than ensuring all musicians were personally introduced. A set of complex and relatively discordant music followed, from virtuosic pianist Stephen Gosling backed with Trevor Dunn on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums called Illuminations. This music whirled in obscure intervals and seemed to draw from Shostakovich as much as fast, free jazz, pushing the musicians considerably.
One of the most transcendent moments of the night was when five female vocalists took to the stage in lovely white dresses, for The Holy Visions, which was a reverent a cappella piece and highly intricate. During some moments the group (chosen presumably for their individual ranges from contralto up to soprano) provided bass, mid and high notes for a rhythmic workout, approaching Bjork-like pop. The piece also moved into more abstract regions, the sounds of speaking in tongues, other trance-like utterances. The technicality of Zorn’s piece was evident because each of the singers kept in their hands a tuning fork, tapping and holding it to their ears frequently.
Next, a string quartet composition dedicated to Dr John Dee, Her Majesty’s Physician, from the late 1500s. Dr Dee: the fabled mage, used all rare elements at his disposal, and wielded sharp tools to effect the alchemy that he and his Queen craved, and after more than four hours of hand-picked Zorn in one night, you feel he similarly leaves no lodestone unturned. At sixty years, he has the infectious energy of a much younger man, the playfulness of a cat. This piece was so restless and ever expanding into barely chordant sound – just how is this music scored? Are the musicians really reading the score and would it sound similar by another quartet, or even the same quartet on another night? Such was the speed and intricate mix of pizzicato and bow. Zorn appeared pleased and came back on stage to thank the quartet.
As Moonchild, Trevor Dunn, perhaps the hardest worker on the night on his double bass and electric bass, was joined by self-taught drum feel machine Joey Baron, John Medeski (from wonderful jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood) and Patton. Dedicated to the Knights Templar, keepers of sacred transcendent knowledge, often doggedly pursued and forced into hiding, or tortured if caught, one felt the pounding heaviness of the chase and righteous aggression of the Templars, then, as with Zorn so often, pauses and quietude to emphasise the violence.
After a welcome second interval, we headed back in to witness one of the more gentle of Zorn’s musical incarnations, The Dreamers. One of the groups I am familiar with from his mammoth back catalogue, it was a treat to experience the confident and respectful group in their often Arabic-tinged, surf, sparse moods. The surf element is due to Marc Ribot in no small part, whom it must be said, has an embarrassingly close relationship to his tremolo bar. There were no songs from albums The Gift or A Dreamers’ Christmas, but these are suggested as a gentle entry point to the Zorn catalogue.
Here as with the following Electric Masada set, we saw Zorn’s control of his players once again. Music played as well as played with, alive under his gaze. Jamie Saft, with the improbably long beard joined the core of musicians on Fender Rhodes as well as grand piano, adding filigree runs and careful accent to the pieces. This instrumental set was a delight, a night of this lineup alone would have made a wonderful fifth night of the program!
If you don’t know the story of the Masada project which are really his signature stamp on modern jazz, recognising fully his Jewish heritage, John Zorn wrote 200 pieces in two years for the first set of Masada songs. His second set, in the next decade, were 300 pieces – written in three months. One full night of the Adelaide Festival program was dedicated to the often frantic Electric Masada.
Kenny Wollesen was brilliant on vibraphone in the Dreamers, lighter than air, and he swapped to a second drum kit played with gangly abandon during the Electric Masada section of the night. He and all the musicians in the last two sets were easy to watch, none more than Cyro Baptista, percussionist extraordinaire, sympathetic always. My friend Anthony, during the Dreamers’ set, said “it must be almost time for some saxophone” and copped a sidelong glare from Zorn. Never one to overshadow his contemporaries, we had to wait till the final Masada set. As Zorn slowly adjusted his reed, and finally joined the klezmer dervish of sound, his shoulders hunched and rather contorted body belied the gorgeous tones from his alto saxophone. Trills, impossibly high squeals, modal runs, and chromatic solos burst forth. It felt like the previous music of the night was underlined, the composer and ringleader coming forth and blowing the ass off his instrument. Exhilarating.
The sound and experience of this music live was something else – having revisited Song Project online, only a fraction of the live subtleties were audible or visible. The audience were very grateful to have seen one of his four Australian shows.