Concert Review: Zorn@60 at the Barbican in London (7/12/2013)

Today’s concert review was contributed by William Sarginson, founder/moderator of the John Zorn/Tzadik/Merzbow forum at

Of course I was excited for this show ever since it was announced. I always try to see Zorn (in whatever incarnation) whenever he visits the UK, and this was my sixth time. At Barbican too, which is always a plus for me as I’m straight off the train and five minutes walk to the venue – no subway, no hassle. In the heat of this time of year, believe me that was a plus point! So, a few drinks sank and on to the show!

The Barbican hall is a great venue, acoustically and aesthetically. Seats are comfortable, staff are helpful and it’s a great place to see anything performed. Probably why Zorn favours it as his London venue of choice. Looking through the evening’s programme we were in for a varied night of great music, although the actual billing of the show was to be altered. As the players arrived onstage and were introduced by Zorn, he explained that his original intention was to have each act as advertised, in that order of billing. However, the venue “didn’t like that idea” apparently, and insisted on an interval. As a result JZ split the evening into two – vocal, followed by non vocal. Made sense I guess…

First up was The Song Project – Zorn tunes performed with added vocals and lyrics, courtesy of Jesse Harris, Mike Patton and Sofia Rei. Now, I kinda spoiled things for myself here and previously watched footage from the recent Moers Festival show so I knew what to expect. Each vocalist took it in turns to do a song which included Naked City, Filmworks and Book Of Angels pieces as well as Towards Kafiristan from The Concealed. Rather than break things down tune by tune, the overall effect of this set was lost on me. All the players performed very well as you’d expect, but I just think that the whole idea of putting lyrics to already established songs is a little futile. I believe all the singers contributed to the lyrics, but the absent Sean Lennon’s contribution had this reporter wincing at the entry-level lyricism! I can’t remember which song they were applied to, but they were all pretty poor in my opinion. I can’t help but think this spot could have been used to greater effect with the inclusion of a different part of Zorn’s oeuvre. (Nova Express? Cobra? Hell, why not aim really high and say Naked City? Painkiller? :) ) Highlights here as ever was watching the musicians interact with each other. I could watch Joey Baron and Mike Patton laugh to themselves all day. Zorn conducting is always great to observe too. Overall though, The Song Project was a mis-fire for me.

Next up was The Holy Visions – an a cappella piece for five female voices inspired by Hildegard von Bingen. This was mind-blowing. I’m out of my depth even beginning to decipher what goes into writing or performing this type of music, but it was awesome to watch. Bewildering and almost trance inducing at times! The good thing about having front row seats is that I could see all the interactions between the singers – intricate hand movements and their use of tuning forks – all very interesting. I look forward to hearing the full (30 minute) piece which is due for release sometime this year apparently. All misgivings about The Song Project fell by the wayside after this set! [Note: You can see the Holy Visions in NYC this week at Lincoln Center on July 18! Click here for details. – Sarah V.]

The final act in the “vocal” segment was Moonchild / Templars. For whatever reason, John Medeski was not in attendance so it was a Patton / Dunn / Baron trio, with Zorn (hood on and up!) conducting. I was fortunate enough to see the Moonchild premiere in 2006, so was quite disappointed at the added keyboards / organ not materialising tonight. This was a storming set, though. I was pleased to see Zorn conduct the trio as he didn’t do so for the premiere, and YouTube footage of the South American dates looked insanely energetic and enjoyable. Which this was! About 20 minutes of noise then out for an interval….

First up after stretching the legs was The Alchemist, a piece for string quartet. After introducing the players, Zorn told us the full title of the piece, which I’m afraid was WAAAYY too long to remember. I thought Evocation of a Neophyte and How the Black Arts were Revealed unto Her by the Demon Baphomet in 2006 was a long-winded title, but this took the biscuit! Like The Holy Visions before it, this stuff goes right over my head. I love listening to it and watching it, but to try and wax lyrical about it would be ridiculous! These players look so young too! So talented. This piece is in the nature of a lot of Zorn’s string pieces – lots of plucks urgency and mania into light bowing and melody. Again, mesmerising and thoroughly all-encompassing. The telling thing about this piece was that upon its completion and during the audience’s appreciation, Zorn came on to congratulate the players – he was visibly moved, like he had been brought to tears. He was so congratulatory and appreciative to the four musicians it was quite something. God only knows how Zorn himself hears his music played. Breathtaking.

Possibly my favourite act of the nights was Illuminations – pianist Steve Gosling, drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Trevor Dunn. Gosling’s part fully orchestrated and written, while Dunn and Wollesen improvise around him. As a drummer, watching Wollesen play was great – he is so musical and so fluid, just like Joey Baron. Although they are totally different players. This piece (featured on the Rimbaud album) is just brilliant fun to watch and hear. Unfortunately, a stiff neck wasn’t the only downside of a front row seat – the sheet music stands scuppered my view of Dunn somewhat. Gosling played with his back to us anyway, but… Yeah. Enjoyed this a lot.

So the two “headline” acts of the evening closed the show – The Dreamers and Electric Masada – with about 20 minutes each. Not enough, of course! When Zorn and the band (sans Cyro Baptista, who everyone had to wait for!) walked onstage carrying his horn, behind me I heard “At last, finally!” as if they had come only to hear Zorn blow. I found this to be a bit churlish, especially since in 2009 his solo set and duo with Z’ev in Kings Cross was so poorly attended! That aside, what fun the culmination of the evening was. Wollesen on vibes for The Dreamers set before switching to the kit for the EM tunes, joined by Ikue Mori. Not much can be said about the final two sets that hasn’t already been said! Electric Masada was IMMENSE. The only downside was the short set and rather obvious song selections. I’m not going to pick holes, as this was my first time seeing Electric Masada and it was awesome. Relating to my earlier rantings though, with no Song Project, both The Dreamers and EM could have played for at least 30 minutes more between them….Jus’ sayin….

All in all, a great night. I look forward to the next time John Zorn comes over, hopefully before “Zorn@70″!

[Vito Salvatore posted a nice melange of clips from this concert on Youtube, if you’d like to hear it for yourself; I’ve embedded it below – Sarah V.]

For more information about upcoming Zorn@60 events in New York and around the world, check this page or stop on by the Zorn forum where information about new shows is regularly posted by fans like us!

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