Concert Review: Zorn@60 at Gent Jazz Festival (7/14/2013)

Today’s concert review was written by our esteemed Belgian music correspondent, Bjorn Weynants. I’m posting this video of excerpts from the show here at the top so you can listen while you read! – Sarah V.

When it was announced that John Zorn would do a world tour with his “Zorn@60″ celebration, it came as no surprise that a Belgian stop at the Gent Jazz festival was included. After all, John Zorn has been a popular guest at this festival and its sister-festival Jazz Middelheim (which has the same organisers). You may be familiar with the live album by the original Masada Quartet Live in Middelheim 1999. The (multi-day) Gent Jazz festival takes place at the Bijloke site in the city of Ghent, which is a former hospital/abbey that has been beautifully converted into a museum/music centre, with a tent in the gardens where the concerts take place.

Apart from the “classic” Zorn@60 line-up on the main stage, we did get some extra (Zorn-related) concerts at a second – much smaller – Garden Stage. The concept behind Zorn@60 was not to look back at Zorn’s career thus far (he is not the type of musician to look back at what he did in the past), but rather to give an idea of what he is doing right now musically, at the age of 60.

The opening act was the Song Project, a new project. The central idea behind it was to write lyrics to a selection of Zorn songs, lyrics written by the likes of Sean Lennon, Laurie Anderson, Mike Patton and others. Three singers were present: Mike Patton (of Moonchild and Faith No More fame), Sofia Rei (from Mycale) and Jesse Harris (songwriting collaborator of Norah Jones). The backing was done by a band (directed by Zorn) which was basically The Dreamers, but with John Medeski instead of Jamie Saft on piano. A wide selection out of Zorn’s oeuvre was played: from Naked City to The Concealed (The Road to Kafaristan) to the Book of Angels (Dalquiel).

It will come as no surprise that the harder stuff was sung by Mike Patton, such as the Naked City song Osaka Bondage, which was introduced by John Zorn as “And now Mike Patton will take you back to 1989 and the days of Naked City”, while Sofia Rei gave more of a world music touch to the songs, even if only because she sang them in Spanish. The soft voice of Jesse Harris even brought us close to Joe Jackson territory. I read some mixed reviews from previous shows, but I found this to be an excellent show, though it was clear that there was more enthusiasm for the louder songs. But the juxtaposition between the softer songs on the one hand and the louder songs on the other hand worked really well. As encore we even got the vocal version of Dostoevsky (from the Filmworks series) as a world première.

Then it was time for the Koby Israelite Group on the Garden Stage, who played a selection of songs from their Book of Angels release Orobas. By playing accordion, an instrument that is not too often used in jazz music, Koby Israelite manages to give his own touch to the Book of Angels songs. He might have had a tough time competing with the noise from the drinks stand that was close by, but he managed to play a short but interesting set. His group (Ant Lew on guitar; Neil Charles on bass; and Laurie Lowe on drums) gave the songs a sound that was close to rock music (maybe a bit too close even), with Israelite’s accordion taking care of the Masada-touch. He also had some nice words for John Zorn, who was the only one to see his talent after sending him some demos of his work a couple of years ago.

The second part of the main program was more of a voyage through history – three short concerts (20 minutes each), each focused on a historic figure. First was Illuminations, a piece from Zorn’s 2012 album Rimbaud, about the – you guessed it – French 19th century poète maudit Arthur Rimbaud. The group consisted of Steve Gosling on piano and a rhythm section of Trevor Dunn on bass (the only one to appear in all four main concerts) and Kenny Wollesen on drums. While the piano part was written out, the rhythm section got free reign and could improvise. I found this to be a very good piece, however it would have been nice if they had a bit more time.

The second part was The Holy Visions, a vocal project that took us back to the 12th century and the figure of Hildegard Von Bingen, writer, composer and mystic. Five voices (Jane Sheldon, Lisa Bielawa, Melissa Hughes, Abby Fisher and Kirsten Sollek) sang Gregorian-style chants. While this was beautifully done with the interwoven voices – singing, whispering or just making noises – this was not really my cup of tea. I guess this would have been better placed inside an old monastery or church which would have added the right atmosphere to these songs.

The third part was The Alchemist, about the 16th century alchemist Dr. John Dee with Jay Campbell on cello and a violin trio of Jennifer Choi, Jesse Mills and David Fulmer. Young musicians, but they proved that they really are talented. Not your average string quartet music of course, you wouldn’t invite them over for gracing your marriage celebrations. This might be quite complicated music on the one hand, but on the other hand it’s also very compelling and they managed to really get a great response from the audience afterwards. As far as I know they are yet to release an album, but that might be one to look forward to. Despite the fact that the three concerts of the second part were all some kind of stylistic exercises, showing the breadth of what John Zorn is doing these days, they proved to be strangely captivating; and while definitely being the least “star-studded” of all the ensembles that played on the main stage, they absolutely had their place in the festival.

To the Garden Stage again, for the only Belgian group of the day: the recently formed Tirzah Quartet playing a selection of music from Zorn’s filmworks (though they added a piece from Femina as well). It’s a quartet under the leadership of guitarist Jan Van Der Perre, with Eva Vermeiren on violin, Karen Peeters on harp and Herlinde Verheyden on cello. Even though maybe it lacked some adventurousness, it sounded beautiful and was quite a nice surprise. Their main focus was on the softer songs from the filmworks series, so they focused on that atmosphere.

On the main stage it was time for the third act – Moonchild. They played their most recent album, Templars – In Sacred Blood, in full, which is a concert album of sorts about the Knights Templar. “This is sacred music”, John Zorn said when introducing the band (Patton-Dunn-Baron with added organ by John Medeski). And indeed, soon we found ourselves at some kind of mass, albeit rather a dark mass. Mike Patton went from soft whispering to loud screaming all the while excellently backed by Dunn/Baron/Medeski. The energy could be felt throughout the whole tent. And, under impulse of a shamanic dancing spectator, the all-seated concert quickly became a standing one at the front rows. This was clearly the concert the public was waiting for. There was a lot of energy in the air that just had to be released. After a loud standing ovation, they came back onstage, with a hooded John Zorn this time, who directed Moonchild to a grand finale. Those who weren’t converted to the church of Zorn before the show, were probably among the staunchest believers afterwards. A concert to remember for a long time.

On the Garden Stage it was time for guitarist James Moore playing études from the Book of Heads. Unfortunately he lost the battle against the noise of the nearby bar, as quite of few of the pieces he played were rather quiet. Very interesting stuff, but probably not the right place for this kind of music.

Headliner on the main stage was a Dreamers/Electric Masada concert. First up was The Dreamers, whose easy-listening music (not to be confused with the easy-listening music you hear in elevators all over the world though) was quite a contrast with the Moonchild concert before. As they are all such great musicians I feel I should mention them all here: Marc Ribot on guitar, Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone, Jamie Saft on piano, the ever-smiling Joey Baron on drums, Trevor Dunn on bass, Cyro Baptista on percussion and other strange noise-making objects. While they started out pretty mellow with Little Bittern (martini jazz à la John Zorn), pretty soon they got somewhat wilder, mainly due to Marc Ribot’s manic guitar work.

Those who have already seen a Zorn concert will know that he conducts by using sometimes strange hand movements, and it is always really interesting to see how all the musicians consistently keep an eye on John Zorn to know how to follow the music and Zorn’s vision. The Dreamers became Electric Masada when Kenny Wollesen moved to drums (resulting in two drummers (and a great double-drum solo) and one percussionist), Ikue Mori entered the stage with her laptop and electronics, producing bleeps and other noises, and John Zorn took up his saxophone. With Electric Masada we got some classics from the Masada songbook (Idalah-Abal, Hath-Arob, etc.), going from strangely atmospheric broken klezmer to creepy saxophone sounds, but from time to time also sheer beautiful classic klezmer. Electric Masada is truly one of the very best bands from John Zorn’s stable, which they proved once again at Gent Jazz. The public went wild and the band left to huge applause. “To another 60″, said John Zorn at the end. I hope that was a promise.

A memorable day of Zorn music, which showed that John Zorn is not only ridiculously prolific but also one of the true giants of the last thirty years. A triumph. Happy birthday Mr. Zorn (even if it’s not until September the 2nd)!

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3 Responses to Concert Review: Zorn@60 at Gent Jazz Festival (7/14/2013)

  1. Marco says:

    Thanks for that review!

  2. Sarah V. says:

    BTW, when you mentioned the “church of Zorn” I had to think of the Minneapolis Zorn@60 we went to – Ina was talking about starting a church of Zorn in order to have a chance to worship him properly… 😉

  3. Denis says:

    Thanks for the nice review.
    I spent a great week end in Gent, and it was worth the 7 hours train ride to get there and again to get back.

    Count me as part of the Holy church of Zorn. “This is sacred music, but loud music” said John Zorn when introducing Moonchild. I’d definitly go more often to church with such Sacred Music :-)

    Can’t wait to see them again in Paris in September.

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