Performer Spotlight: John Zorn (a guide to Zorn@60 in NYC)

(NOTE: I updated the Sept 28 Metropolitan Museum concert section after they posted the full schedule on 8/30.)

I don’t really have any big concerts for a couple of weeks (and the last few concerts I went to ended up unblogged due to a variety of factors like illness and a painful dental emergency) so I decided I would write up a little overview of one of my favorite performers/composers, John Zorn, and the line-up of concerts he’s got going on in the next month or two.

Zorn is in the middle of an incredibly prolific part of his career – he’s released five albums this year, and I think there were eleven last year. It can be hard to keep up, and even harder to know where to jump in if you’re just starting out. (I usually tell people to start with the Bar Kokhba triple-CD live set – absolutely great music, and very easy to get into.) As far as genres go, he does anything from twinkly Christmas music to stuff that will scare the neighbor’s dog if you play it too loud. (I’m also told that Anulikwutsayl freaks out my friend’s cat. But what do cats know, anyway?) Anyway, he covers a lot of territory: classical, jazz, rock, world(ish), improv, avant garde, noise – there’s hardly anything he hasn’t at least briefly touched upon.

As part of his 60th birthday celebrations, he’s arranged a wonderful array of marathon concerts around the world – I believe he’s hit 14 countries plus a couple of cities in the U.S. so far this year, with a couple more European dates still to come. I’ve managed to see a couple of different marathons in 2013 already, and I’m very excited about all of the upcoming shows in New York – during the next month or so he’s got a truly spectacular series of concerts lined up in his hometown. I understand that not everyone aspires to my level of concert mania, so I thought I’d go over the list of upcoming NYC shows and make some recommendations for the more casual fan or the curious listener who wants to try live Zorn for the first time.

  • August 29: John Zorn & Fred Frith at the Stone. As far as I know, this will be a fully improvised set. Frith mainly plays guitar and has been in many bands, including Henry Cow, Naked City, and Cosa Brava. This show is recommended for the more hardcore fans and those who have a particular love of improv. Probably not a great introduction to Zorn’s work, if you’re looking for that.
  • Sept 2: John Zorn improv birthday party at the Stone, with guests including Ikue Mori, Sylvie Courvoisier, Cyro Baptista, Nava Dunkelman, Jeanie-Aprille Tang, Uri Gurvich, Erik Friedlander, Fred Sherry, and Chuck Bettis. Another fully improvised set, although this one will probably be more fun since it will have a lot of great musicians playing in different ensembles (with high potential for first-time-ever collaborations). I’ve been to lots of these improv parties at the Stone and 90% of them are really fun. Bonus: 100% of the cost of admission will benefit this non-profit experimental venue.
  • Sept 11: At the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT) at Roulette in Brooklyn, Zorn’s piece “Antiphonal Fanfare for six trumpets” is being premiered along with trumpet pieces by other composers. I’m personally giving this one a miss since the piece will also be performed at the Metropolitan Museum on Sept 28, but if you’re in town and like trumpets I think this would be a fun event.
  • Sept 15: Masada Marathon at the Skirball Center. If you are going to pick one show to go to – or if you want a broad introduction to Zorn’s music in a live format – this is, in my opinion, your best choice. You’ll get to see a dozen or so bands, including some of his best, most accessible, and most popular work. Lots of different kinds of music, some older and some brand new. Here’s a video from 1999 of one of the older Masada groups that I hope to see at this concert:
  • Sept 21 & 22: Essential Cinema at the Anthology Film archives. There is also a discussion/Q&A at 5PM before the concert on the 22nd, and a number of screenings of films that Zorn has scored (see link for dates/times). These two live shows, featuring some avant film obscurities, would be especially fun for avant-garde film buffs; but the music is a bit of an unknown quantity since some of them are never-heard-before premieres and there is no listing of participating musicians to give us any hints. I believe the music is composed rather than improvised, but as I said, it’s an unknown quantity.
  • Sept 23: The Hermetic Organ; this is a solo improvised pipe organ performance. It takes place at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University. I’ve seen two Hermetic Organ performances, and I think they’re pretty interesting and fun, although not as fantastic as some of his really top work. The concert is free and will likely be fairly short (under an hour) – so it’s not much of a commitment if you decide to check it out!
  • Sept 25, 26, 27: Three nights of concerts at the Miller Theatre. Night one is orchestral music; night two is chamber music; and night three is game pieces. You can get one $100 ticket to get you into all three of these concerts, or buy single tickets for one or two shows. If you’re into modern classical music, and are more interested in Zorn’s classical compositions than his work in jazz etc., the orchestral and chamber concerts will be right up your alley, and I expect them to be top notch. The game pieces are another thing entirely; they are in the “must be experienced live” category more than just about any other music I’ve ever seen. They are decidedly avant garde, heavy on the improv, and can range anywhere from “difficult” to “tons of fun,” depending. The lineup of musicians is phenomenal, and I have really high expectations for this one. Strongly recommended for the musically adventurous.
  • Sept 28: A full day of Zorn music at the Metropolitan Museum. UPDATED 8/30 with new information. They’ve just posted the full schedule of this day and it looks unbelievable! There are more than a dozen separate performances in different locations around the museum, spaced out between 10AM and 8:30PM. Material covering everything from the Gnostic Preludes to Masada to Six Litanies for Heliogabalus. Almost 30 musicians/vocalists… wow. I am now incredibly excited about this day of music! I’m not sure how many people will want to stay for the entire thing, but if you have the stamina, it will be a pretty broad and impressive overview of Zorn’s music in the space of a single day.
  • Sept 29: Two back-to-back concerts at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. The early set is the Song Project, which I haven’t heard but has a very cool band line-up (Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Mike Patton, Cyro Baptista, etc.). The late set is Moonchild (Templars editon) which is Mike Patton, John Medeski, Joey Baron and Trevor Dunn. I think this will be a very fun night, although it might hold more allure for the more dedicated fan than the casual observer. Moonchild in particular is quite different than the other performances scheduled throughout the month, and if you like heavy music and Mike Patton, this would probably be right up your alley. Plus I think a small club like Le Poisson Rouge will be a particularly fun place to see Moonchild. I’m less sure about the Song Project – I haven’t seen it yet myself and it’s been getting mixed reviews. (I’ve decided not to listen to it until the night of the concert, so I don’t make my mind up in advance.)

    You can see an excerpt from a Song Project concert here:

    And here is a Moonchild set:
  • Oct 4: John Zorn & Ryuichi Sakamoto at the Japan Society. Another fully improvised set – probably not for the neophyte, but of great interest to fans of one or both musicians. The early set is already sold out, so if this one piques your interest, buy tickets now.

So… that’s a lot of concerts. I will most likely be at ten of them, because I’m a little crazy that way. I guess I’ll have a lot of blogging to do come September! 😉

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3 Responses to Performer Spotlight: John Zorn (a guide to Zorn@60 in NYC)

  1. Roddus says:

    If I lived in NY I would be attending as many as possible. I am green with envy you lucky lucky lady.

    I’ll just have to keep playing all these Zorn CD’s that keep turning up in my post box.

    I’ve also been hitting the Tzadik Catalogue and am very impressed with the quality of wonderful new sounds that have afflicted my ears so far, and I have only had one that I didn’t quite connect with so far out of nearly a dozen CDs I have scored from this years releases.

    • Sarah V. says:

      Well, I don’t live in New York, but I’m attending as many as possible anyway! 😉 I’m also slotting in a couple of Marc Ribot concerts which were sufficiently close (timewise) to the Masada Marathon to be worth taking a couple of extra days that weekend.

      August has turned out rather intensely unlucky, so I’m really hoping things turn around for my September concert travels…

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