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 (more…)

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 http://offering.proboards.com.

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 (more…)

Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/2013) – Part 2: Masada

(Click here to read part one of this series.)

The second concert of the John Zorn event at the Walker Art Center was a trio of Masada performances, mostly focused on the Book of Angels material. (The Book of Angels is a collection of Zorn’s compositions with a Judaic theme that have been recorded by a number of different bands and soloists.) Zorn’s Masada work is my favorite of his vast output, both live and on record, so I was particularly looking forward to this set, even though I’ve seen all of the performers many times before.

First up was a solo performance by cellist Erik Friedlander, playing material from the eighth volume of the Book of Angels, Volac. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen him play this material – off the top of my head I can think of eight – but I never get tired of it, and I swear he just gets better and better. He began with Harhaziel, which has always been one of my favorite pieces from the Book of Angels series. The studio version is beautiful, but hearing it live just takes my breath away – the intensity evokes such a visceral emotional response in me. The fourth piece he played was one of my favorites of the whole day/night – an intricate, contemplative pizzicato piece played with absolute delicacy and enormous depth of feeling. The kind of thing you can just close your eyes and get lost in.

His fifth and final piece was Sannul, which is another of my favorites from the album. Completely different from the previous piece, this one is played at approximately Mach 3. It’s the sort of impressive piece that makes audiences leap to their feet for a standing ovation. I was able to sneak a little video footage:

After that piece, they took a moment to rearrange the stage and the Masada String Trio walked out: Erik Friedlander on cello again, Mark Feldman on violin, and Greg Cohen on bass. They all faced each other in a tight circle, with John Zorn conducting from a seat on the floor.

The Masada String Trio is one of the oldest Masada bands, going back about fifteen years. The result of such a long collaboration is (more…)

Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/13) – Part 1: Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra, Composer Q&A

The John Zorn marathon concert day at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis looked like the sort of lineup that would challenge even the most dedicated concert-goer’s stamina. A composer Q&A at 3PM, a concert at 4PM (Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra), a concert at 7PM (Erik Friedlander solo, Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba), a concert at 10PM (The Concealed, Nova Express, Aleph Trio), and a solo pipe organ performance at the church across the street at midnight.

After picking up our tickets and wandering around the galleries for a while, we got in line for the Q&A. It turned out to be a very enlightening and funny 45 minutes or so, with the ever-charismatic Zorn taking relatively few questions, preferring to just go on his own tangents. He got more and more animated as he talked, touching on a lot of topics about his community of musicians and how he brings out their best work, the nature of creativity and the writing process, what it takes to put together these marathon concerts, what it means to be 60 years old, how he deals with critics, and more. I am a really big fan of his (both musically and as a person), and I found the talk very interesting and illuminating. One of my friends said afterwards that she could have listened to him talk all day, and I’d agree – we would have stayed and listened for hours if there hadn’t been another event at four o’clock.

After the talk was over, we hurried over to the McGuire theater, where the concerts were taking place. We didn’t have long to wait before it started, and Zorn had decided to start the day with some of his stranger material: Marc Ribot playing selections from the Book of Heads. This is a collection of short pieces that thoroughly explore the possibilities of extended techniques for the guitar. (For those not familiar with the term, ‘extended techniques’ refers to playing an instrument in ways not intended – say, knocking on the side of the guitar, or rubbing balloons against the strings.)

There is not a lot of melody going on, and in my experience when one listens to the studio recording, you’re liable to spend half the album thinking “what is he DOING to that guitar?” It is much more fun to watch since you can see what he’s doing – licking his finger and making squeaky noises on the guitar with it, playing or muting the strings with various objects, stamping on the balloons that were on the floor around his chair… it’s fascinating to see. He was taking it very seriously (with the exception of a couple of reactions to the crowd being surprised by something he did) and looked very studious and reverent, bent over and peering at his notes/sheet music. I imagine it is a pretty challenging sort of music to play.

I unfortunately was unable to film or photograph any of the first set due to being seated next to some sort of venue personnel with a flashlight and walkie-talkie, but here is a Book of Heads piece filmed at the Kessler in Dallas a couple of years ago:

The next piece being performed was Hockey. I’d never seen or heard it and didn’t have much of an idea what to expect, other than knowing that it was one of Zorn’s game pieces. (His game pieces are essentially sets of rules that he has written for musical games, where one or more people direct the music by signalling to each other while playing.) Hockey turned out to be a trio… and a very unusual one! John Zorn played an assortment of duck calls, Erik Friedlander was there with his cello, Kenny Wollesen had a table full of percussionish objects as well as something in his mouth that may have been another duck call. The three of them performed and Zorn conducted. (more…)