|String Quartet for The Alchemist. Zorn@60. Barbican July 2013
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2013. All Rights Reserved
(Barbican, 12th July 2013; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)
For once, John Zorn didn’t quite get his own way. He had wanted a straight run-through of three hours of music, but, as he recounted, the promoter didn’t like the idea so Zorn split it in to “a vocal half and an instrumental half”. He recruited radical vocalist, Mike Patton, Argentinian songstress, Sofia Rei, and new folk-tinged songwriter Jesse Harris along with his Masada musicians, a close-knit group of exceptional collaborators, who provided the instrumentation in a flux of changing juxtapositions.
Zorn has a reputation as an iconoclast, a catalyst, a prodigious talent and a profoundly generous, but also prickly, personality. He lives 24/7 for his art and his devotion to the broad experience of music with which he’s aligned himself was unequivocally expressed in this concert to celebrate his 60th birthday, which scooped up his immersions in Gregorian chants, modernist classical, rock, jazz, improv and thrash punk and the innovative and boundary-threatening processes that he has evolved as performance templates.
His is a complex character, with a world view that both accepts and defies conventions. Champion of the radical, unabashed admirer and appropriator of varied musical streams, never comfortable if too settled, he is a permanent multi-tasker who has had the self-awareness to re-evaluate his own Jewish identity and use this as the basis for a major strand in his oeuvre. He founded the Tzadik label almost 20 years ago and The Stone performance space in New York’s East Village to allow experimental music its voice.
He seeks out kindred spirits, enjoys writing for friends and is not averse to making them jump through hoops to achieve results that define his creative vision. His methods include game plans and conduction, a direction technique he has explored after being included in the first ever conduction performance by Butch Morris in New York in 1985, where the musicians become the conductor/composer’s instruments in live performance. He is also a peerless alto saxophonist.
The concert was indeed a concert of two halves. The Song Project saw lyrics from invited writers applied to his tunes. Mike Patton‘s shredded vocals, and Marc Ribot‘s searing guitar kicked off with uncompromising energy, one of several numbers in homage to the intense brevity perfected by Napalm Death. Rei changed the landscape instantly with an acoustic, traditional Spanish lilt and backing to match recalling Ribot’s Los Cubanos Postizos band. Jesse Harris floated through a gentle duet with Rei, a touch of ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, and a lovely vibes solo from Kenny Wolleson with its echoes of Teddy Charles.
The multiple references flowed with Cuban grooves, Doors-inflected riffs and raw, jazzy, low-slung rhythms. ‘Osaka Bondage’ introduced the gritty, scarred edge from Zorn’s Naked City days, followed immediately by the total contrast of ‘Holy Visions’ for a poised, 5-piece female a cappella ensemble taking inspiration from 12th century chants, combined with subtly processed sound. After the interval a zestful, young string quartet admirably maintained the spring-loaded tension of ‘The Alchemist’, flashed through with barely discernable, quasi-soundtrack soundbites. Wolleson on drums and Trevor Dunn then backed up Steve Gosling‘s extraordinary achievement in interpreting the fully notated extravaganza of Zorn’s ‘Illuminations’ for piano.
The Electric Masada machine got in to a massive, flowing groove in the final 45 minutes with a tremendous combination of virtuosity and vision, with Zorn exploding on alto, whilst gesturing instructions to the ever attentive band. Ribot, the consummate guitarist, carved crunching chords and jarring runs out of the rock face. Joey Baron shaded, filled, grinned and didn’t miss a beat, while Jamie Saft held it together with subtle fills and trickling solos. Cyro Baptista‘s duck calls were a signal to the whole band to adopt bird calls, creating a jungle atmosphere as they blended with his percussion cornucopia. Finally, with two drummers in tow, Ikue Mori added electronic absurdia, geed up by Zorn to take it to the outer limits of outer space.
An intense encore inspired a spontaneous verse of ‘Happy Birthday’ from devoted members of the audience as the metaphorical curtain went down on Zorn’s unique musical potpourri.
John Zorn: alto sax, conductor
Mike Patton: voice
Jesse Harris: voice
Sofia Rei: voice
Jamie Saft: keyboards
Marc Ribot: guitar
Trevor Dunn: bass
Kenny Wollesen: vibes and drums
Joey Baron: drums
Cyro Baptista: percussion
Ikue Mori: electronics
Steve Gosling: piano (on ‘Illuminations’)
‘Holy Visions‘ performed by
Jane Sheldon: voice
Lisa Bielawa: voice
Mellissa Hughes: voice
Abby Fischer: voice
Kirsten Sollek: voice
‘The Alchemist’ performed by
Jennifer Choi: violin
Jesse Mills: violin
David Fulmer: viola
Jay Campbell: cello
Thanks to the ultra-vigilant Andy Boeckstaens for the following correction to the personnel in the quartet which, given the flux of proceedings, had eluded me!
'the listed violinist Jennifer Choi (on The Alchemist) was replaced by Pauline Kim Harris on the night'