Concert Review: John Zorn: The Hermetic Organ, St. Paul’s Chapel (9/23/2013)

Tonight I went to see John Zorn performing The Hermetic Organ at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University in Manhattan. It’s the first of four concerts this week at Columbia which are part of the Zorn@60 series. The other three are coming up in the next few days, all at the Miller Theatre. On Wednesday Sept 25th: Orchestra; Thursday Sept 26th: Chamber music; and Friday Sept 27th: Game pieces. My friend Craig and I needed to pick up some tickets at the box office today and got to hear a few minutes of the orchestra rehearsing one of his pieces while we waited.

Fun fact: In addition to meaning something that is sealed tight, the word “hermetic” has another meaning: “of or relating to an ancient occult tradition encompassing alchemy, astrology, and theosophy. Esoteric; cryptic.” So now you can stop wondering why John Zorn has a thing for air-tight pipe organs, which doesn’t even make sense as a concept. You’re welcome!

There isn’t a lot of opportunity to take pictures or film at a concert like this – it’s quite dark, they ask you not to take photos, and it’s hard to see much of anything anyway. I did take one not-terribly-good photo before it started, just to give you an idea of the beautiful room where the concert took place. (The big silver poles were microphone stands, so maybe they are recording it for a 60th Birthday Celebration series? One can only hope!) The very center of the photo is where the console is that Zorn performed at.
St Paul Chapel

The Hermetic Organ is really a simple concept: John Zorn, solo, improvising on a pipe organ. But it’s very interesting, for a few reasons. One is that since pipe organs are often very different in size, scope, and capabilities, his performance may vary greatly depending on which pipe organ he plays. And of course, since it’s all improvised, it may be completely different from one day to the next even on the same organ. I’m not a musician or composer myself, but I guess that solo improvisation and composition are closely related for someone like Zorn. He’s compared playing a pipe organ to improvising with an orchestra – you have so many options available to you. And as I was listening to this concert, I really thought I was watching Zorn the composer more than Zorn the improviser. He’d layer things together, then throw in some melodies, experimentally, seeing what worked; occasionally he’d startle us with bursts of noise (and they can get quite loud in that room!). Really an interesting insight into (more…)

Concert Review: John Zorn’s Masada Marathon (9/15/2013)

On Sunday I went to the Skirball Center at NYU for one of John Zorn’s spectacular Masada Marathons. I’ve seen a number of them before (five, IIRC) and every one has been both different and wonderful in its own way. This one featured more bands than any I’d seen before, a total of thirteen – including a couple I hadn’t seen before. In order of performance: Bar Kokhba, Banquet of the Spirits, Mycale, David Krakauer & his band (billed on the program as simply “Krakauer”), Erik Friedlander solo, Secret Chiefs 3, the Dreamers, Malphas, Roberto Rodriguez Octeto Masada, Uri Caine solo, Abraxas, Masada String Trio, and the grand finale, Electric Masada.

If you’re not familiar with Zorn’s Masada music, it’s basically a songbook of tunes that he wrote based on certain rules – they are all short (and meant to be improvised/expanded upon by the musicians interpreting the tunes) and are based on certain scales/modes that have a Judaic feel to them. He’s released dozens of albums based on the hundreds of tunes in the Masada songbooks, and in recent years he has put together a number of Masada Marathon concerts where he gets together a large number of bands to play Masada material.

For this article, I’m going to write about the bands I thought were particular highlights, instead of trying to be completist – thirteen bands in one post is a bit overkill even for me. I really thought all 13 of the bands were at the very least good and/or interesting, but sometimes a blogger has to make tough choices…

Bar Kokhba was first up, and they are always a favorite of mine. It’s a real all-star band: Marc Ribot on guitar, Joey Baron on drums, Cyro Baptista on percussion, and the Masada String Trio (Erik Friedlander, Mark Feldman, and Greg Cohen) on cello, violin, and bass, respectively. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better band, and they’ve been playing together for about fifteen years as a group (some of them have been working together since the 80s) and they are always really tight and throw down a fantastic groove. I thought the first piece was a bit tame, understandable when they’re warming up the crowd. But in the second piece they really knocked it out of the park – especially Marc Ribot, with a few fiery solos. He just flipped that “It’s Time To Be Awesome Now” switch somewhere in his brain and cranked out some crazy, fun stuff. Bar Kokhba is a band that can be pretty laid back – surfy and groovy – but it’s a slow burn that can really go over the top when they have a chance to stretch out on stage. I think sometimes the limited time they get in these Masada Marathons works against them, since they have to stop playing almost as soon as they really get going.

I had terribly unfortunate camera problems on the night of the show (and me sitting front row center, too! What a wasted opportunity) so you’ll have to settle for audio with no picture:

Banquet of the Spirits was up next, and their set was a lot of fun. They are pretty much a band designed for fun: Cyro Baptista, the Brazilian percussionist who seems like he must have rhythm flowing through his veins; Brian Marsella, a fantastic and wild keyboard player (who you can also hear playing in Zion80, a band I’ve mentioned before); Shanir Blumenkranz, a talented multi-instrumentalist who played in several bands throughout the evening; and Tim Keiper on drums… I always feel a little bad for someone playing drums in Cyro’s band, how can you keep up with him?! But Keiper manages to do just that. The band only played a few tunes, but they changed the tone considerably, from Bar Kokhba’s sunny surfy grooves to something darker, weirder, and more exotic. The very beginning of the set started with some deep rumbling, strange and difficult-to-identify percussion noises, and some slightly creepy piano. Very atmospheric, and totally different from the band we’d just seen. But after that eerie introduction they launched into some faster, more rhythm-focused music, featuring a lot of interesting bass textures and some wonderful work on the keyboards from Brian Marsella. It’s a bit hard to pin them down into a genre, I guess you could call it “world jazz.” I’ve seen them 4-5 times and they are always exciting and fun.

Another favorite from the first half of the night was Erik Friedlander – I’ve always been impressed with his solo performances, but he’s taken these Masada pieces so far beyond the (more…)

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 (more…)

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…)