On Saturday night I headed to Brooklyn with some friends to catch John Zorn’s 30th anniversary performance of Cobra at Roulette. Cobra premiered at Roulette in 1984, so it was certainly the perfect place for the anniversary concert. (It’s one of my favorite NYC venues, I’m always happy when something I want to see is happening there.) Zorn put together an all-star cast of his usual suspects including a lot of my favorite downtown musicians: Cyro Baptista on percussion; Sylvie Courvoisier on piano; Trevor Dunn on upright bass; Mark Feldman on violin; Erik Friedlander on cello; George Lewis on trombone; Eyal Maoz and Marc Ribot on electric guitars; John Medeski on organ; Ikue Mori on electronics; William Winant on percussion; and Kenny Wollesen on drums.
The night kicked off with a Q&A which was supposed to be Anthony Coleman asking John Zorn questions about Cobra. It deteriorated quickly into a bit of a tirade when Zorn saw someone in the audience taking a picture with their cell phone. He went on at some length about how there should be no record made of this concert in any way – no recordings, no photos, etc. I hesitated to even write this blog, but I guess us writers still have that whole ‘free speech’ thing going for us. Since there was such a strict ban on photography I am forced to give you only this artist’s representation of the concert:
Unfortunately, the artist in question is me, and I’ve always been really bad at drawing…
For those unfamiliar with the concept of Cobra, it’s essentially a musical game with rules governing improvisation which is otherwise completely free. There is no melody or composed music at all, just the rules. The musicians are taught a series of signals, each of which symbolizes a different way to alter or control the music being played. Some of the signals are quite simple, and for the whole group, such as ‘everyone stop playing’ or ‘everyone play louder.’ Some are a little more complicated, like telling one musician to try to imitate what another musician is playing. There is also a sub-system where a musician can choose to go rogue and ignore the rules, or create a whole rules-ignoring trio, and there are a separate set of rules for that sub-system. Overall there are probably a couple dozen signals that will create different results.
You can only imagine the chaos that happens when twelve extremely creative musicians attempt this kind of game. I did my best to follow along and try to figure out what all the signals meant and who was doing what. It was of course impossible to watch all twelve musicians simultaneously, but I did notice that some of the band members were more passive players and some were constantly throwing new ideas into the mix. I guess you want some of each kind of musician in a Cobra piece, since it would get overwhelming if a dozen people were constantly trying to steer things in a different direction.
Some highlights for me were the ‘rogue’ trio with Ribot, Wollesen and Dunn on one piece, where they suddenly turned into some kind of improv rock band; the time when William Winant (pictured above) managed to pop a balloon to end the piece after inflating it to use in the production of weird percussion sounds; and the part where Medeski, Ribot, and Sylvie Courvoisier were playing completely unrelated pieces of music simultaneously – I am pretty sure Courvoisier broke into the piano part from ‘Azriel,’ while Ribot was playing some kick-ass guitar riff, and Medeski innocently dead-panned his way through something that sounded like it would have been played in the seventh-inning-stretch in an old-timey baseball game. I don’t think I’ve laughed as-silently-as-possible so hard since that time during the pipe organ concert at the Metropolitan Museum. The whole concert was full of delightful unexpected moments like those – lots of fun.
I am generally a proponent of live music over studio recordings (with obvious exceptions, as some music just isn’t meant to be live) but Cobra is one of the few things that I would say you HAVE to see live, or maybe on a pro-shot video with lots of camera angles and smart editing. It’s a deeply involving active-listener experience which requires you to be able to watch the band and see what’s going on and think about how it works. I would even recommend doing some research ahead of time and trying to brush up on the rules of the game to help you follow along. I’d love to see more frequent performances just because it is so specifically a thing you have to see live. But it is somewhat rare these days, so if you get a chance to go, take it!
John Zorn has a ton of shows in New York coming up, including Rashanim and Zion80 playing his music at the Stone this week; a Masada marathon at Nublu on Thursday; a 35-year retrospective at the Stone on Sunday afternoon; a duet with Fred Frith at the Stone; and a week of improv benefit nights over New Years. And that’s just in the next month! It’s a great time to be a Zorn fan in New York (as long as you don’t want to take pictures).