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If You Don’t Catch It, It’s Gone: Zorn @ 60

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Tuesday’s concert by John Zorn. Agree or disagree? […]

John Zorn at Jazz Middelheim 2012 Photo: Bruno Bollaert, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

John Zorn at Jazz Middelheim 2012
Photo: Bruno Bollaert, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Tuesday’s concert by John Zorn. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

There’s something curious about having retrospectives for music and musicians, to commemorate or, perhaps worse, memorialize this music or that musician, especially since music is the ephemeral art form par excellence. This is especially true in the case of John Zorn, the subject of last weekend’s celebrations at the Walker, who has in many ways built his musical career on the most ephemeral of musics, that of improvisation in its various guises.

Herbert Marcuse once wrote that works of art can become “neutralized as a classic.” After an audience member asked him what he thought his greatest accomplishment was, he responded curtly, “I don’t think in those terms.” There is very little sense that Zorn is worried about his works becoming neutralized, if only because of his acerbic wit personality. (He launched more f-bombs in one performance at the Walker than I think I’ve heard in all the shows I’ve reviewed, combined.) And yet Zorn is well-known for celebrations of his “decade” birthdays, and the 60th is no different, with events happening around the world.

Such a juxtaposition (at best, or at worst, a contradiction) is only one that was on display at the Walker. Zorn’s yellow-inflected camo pants with the Jewish tzitzit was perhaps the most visible, but there were deeper musical things happening on the McGuire’s stage. Having never seen Zorn live before, I was struck how the dynamics of improvisation and composition, freedom and control played out through the day’s concerts, which drew on music from his earliest game pieces (Hockey, Cobra) to more recent works (released by groups Nova Express and The Concealed).

There were only two pieces in the evening where Zorn wasn’t on stage: Marc Ribot’s performance of excerpts from The Book of Heads, where he used all manner of objects (including balloons!) on his frayed guitar that looks like it had seen many performances of this particular Zorn work, and Erik Friedlander’s gorgeous solo cello arrangements of pieces from Zorn’s Book of Angels series.

Zorn himself only played on two pieces, Hockey (an early game piece) and, one of the highlights of the entire festival, a blistering live score to Wallace Berman’s cut-up film Aleph. Zorn’s contribution was skronky-as-hell alto sax runs, Kenny Wollesen on drums (where he is equally impressive, though he spent most of the night on the vibes), and Greg Cohen. Given the applause afterwards, this was what many folks in the audience were waiting for (including one heckler who had earlier questioned Zorn as to where his sax was; the response he got from the sax’s owner was characteristically Zorn: “At home, motherfucker.”)

More often than not, though, Zorn was a conductor of the various ensembles that took the stage, even some that didn’t necessarily need a conductor. Conducting and leading for Zorn is just as much of an active role as the musicians making the sounds that make up the music. For perhaps his best-known work, Cobra, he was conductor, signal caller, and ringleader all rolled into one, holding up various cards and signaling to musicians what to play and when. Yet the musicians (which included Twin Cities improvisers Michelle Kinney on cello and Joey Schad on keyboards) could also choose who they wanted to play with (or sometimes against) and could even assume the role of conductor by donning a piece of headwear. As the musicians moved through four movements, sometimes cacophonous, sometimes luminescent, it seemed that Zorn struck an incredible melding of both the fun of the best sports moments with the intellectual exercise and reward of avant-garde improvised music.

Yet I think his presence for groups like the often-manic, Klezmer-influenced jams of the Masada Trio (comprised of Friedlander, violinist Marc Freedman, and bassist Greg Cohen), in which he sat on the ground in front of them calling out tempos and pointing at musicians for solos, backgrounds, and other musical sections, speaks more of a desire—or perhaps need—for control. Later in this same set, the larger band Bar Khokba took the stage, and again Zorn was just off to the side, sitting with score in front of him,  calling out tempos and solos much the same way he did with the Masada Trio. Yet here he was even more precise in his demands and gestures, at one point even telling what specific pattern the drummer Joey Baron should play.

In all of these instances, though, Zorn and the musicians playing his music look like they’re having the time of their life. Especially Joey Baron. The smile on Baron’s face was only eclipsed by the bulging neck muscles as his arms catapulted to the different parts of his set. One of my great joys in life is seeing really joyful musical collaboration and connection in live improvised music performance, and the relationship between Zorn, his musicians, and between the musicians themselves, was absolutely thrilling. And the person who seemed to be having the most fun on-stage was often Zorn himself.

Why do musicians like this arrangement? None of these musicians need a conductor or bandleader, at least not in any conventional sense. Perhaps it frees them to explore their own improvisational capacities without necessarily having to worry about the dynamics of the “piece,” i.e. doing this for this many bars, that for that many bars, etc. Or they can avoid deciding things like solo order, length, etc before the performance, meaning that each performance has a greater feel of spontaneity. There is also a deep sense of care from Zorn towards his musicians. At one point, Wollesen wanted one of the stage crew to get him a towel and, until that happened, Zorn kept checking on him until someone handed him that towel.

Despite so much emphasis on collaboration and creation with other people, the festival ended with Zorn having, in many ways, the ultimate exercise of musical power and control. Sitting at the organ console at St. Mark’s, an eerie blue-green light casting upwards from the music stand, he played towering block chords, Bach-like chorales, and pedal tones that barely registered as “notes” but shook the cathedral’s fixtures and pipe enclosures, making the entire building his rhythm section.

Ending the concert in a more traditionally sacred space seems to bring the juxtapositions and contradictions of the evening to a head. While what Zorn created on the organ was certainly keeping in his iconoclastic character, and most likely tones, clusters, and foundation-shaking pedal tones are not usually played on this particular organ, there still was a sense of reverence, if not for the space, than for what the music makes the space become. In conversation with curator Phillip Bither at the start of the festival, Zorn spoke of the ritual, magic, and purity of music that works—and works for—a higher plane of knowledge and truth, even if that truth might only be a fleeting moment, in a basement studio, a multimillion dollar stage, or a towering cathedral, and even after 60 years.