John Zorn at 60 – One of those real ‘I was there’ concerts

In September 2003, John Zorn curated a month of music at Tonic in New York to celebrate his 50th birthday.

Just about every Zorn and Zorn-related project performed that month. What we got at the Barbican tonight, ten years on, was like that month of music making and a whole career compressed into an evening.

It felt like a once in a lifetime experience, and yet, it would not be surprising to see a still youthful John Zorn celebrating his 70th, 80th birthdays (and beyond) on stage.

John Zorn appeared, as ever, in hoodie and combat trousers with tzitzit – prayer tassels – attached. He promised us, almost apologetically, three hours of music: there would have been more if the Barbican had not insisted on an interval. With a minimum of fuss, the ‘Song Project’ band crashed into a version of ‘Batman’ from the Naked City album with Mike Patton singing a new set of lyrics where Zorn’s saxophone used to be.

Zorn appears reluctant to play his horn anymore. It is hard to tell whether this is because of his desire to be seen as a composer and conductor, rather than an instrumentalist, or whether he just likes to save his energy for the moments in the marathon set where he is required to play. Either way, it is a shame, because he is a hell of a player and one of few modern sax players to forge a unique, instantly recognisable sound.

Zorn instead conducts his ensemble with an equally idiomatic set of gestures that he first developed for his improvisational ‘game pieces’, but which he now uses to direct his more conventional ‘band’ music. This is perhaps slightly megalomaniacal and counter to the spirit of much improvised music (I recall disgruntled letters to WIRE magazine when Lou Reed used a similar technique for his Metal Machine project, which featured John Zorn), but it is certainly effective.

I could happily have sat through a whole set of the Song Project. Their repertoire extended from the breakneck thrash jazz of ‘Batman’, through to delicate rhumba numbers sung by Sofia Rei and a tribute to Lou Reed sung by smooth jazzman Jesse Harris that evoked the slow-fast spirit of ‘Heroin’ by the Velvet Underground as well as the elaborate bombast of Berlin. Mike Patton demonstrated his versatility with softer numbers that recalled The Godfather theme, and Ennio Morricone, before screaming his way through ‘Osaka Bondage’.

Next up in this all-vocal first half was The Holy Visions, an a capella ‘mystery play in 11 strophes’ in Latin, about the 12th Century polymath Hildegard von Bingen, performed by an all-female quintet. The work took us on a tour through sprightly Reichian rhythms, Einstein on the Beach-style arpeggios, Stockhausen-esque mysticism and the babbling vocal stylings of Luciano Berio, as well as more satanic incantation that came close to the over-the-top Omen soundtrack. It was all enjoyable, and wonderfully sung, but it did not feel an especially cohesive piece, and slightly disappointing given Zorn’s usual skill for hanging wildly disparate elements together in a way that appears to make sense.

A brief aural assault by the punk-metal quartet Moonchild was enjoyable at the time, but in retrospect memorable only for the sight of John Zorn, a sixty year old man, with his hood up bouncing around the stage with Mike Patton, himself approaching fifty.

After a well-earned break, the instrumental half kicked off with string quartet piece The Alchemist. This was sensational, and better confirmation that Zorn is a serious composer than the earlier choral work. The work recalled the classic modernist quartets of Bartók, Ligeti and Ravel with a rhythmic and occasionally jazzy sensibility that is entirely Zorn’s own. The quartet played it incredibly, and it was telling that Zorn was visibly moved by their performance more than almost anything else on tonight’s programme.

Just as austere, but not as good in my opinion, was the piano trio piece Illuminations. Kenny Wollesen on drums and Trevor Dunn on double bass improvised around a fully notated piano part, inspired by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. The concept was neat, but the music left me cold. Others I spoke to found it deeply affecting however.

The concert ended on a high with two ensembles, The Dreamers and Electric Masada, playing back-to-back, identical in personnel but for the addition of sound artist Ikue Mori for the latter group. The Dreamers played a totally sincere and utterly thrilling take on surf music, lounge, mambo and ‘tropical’ music – the sounds of 50s America used as a springboard for the group’s improvisation. Guitarist Marc Ribot, who cut his teeth playing for Tom Waits, but is probably better known now for his longstanding collaboration with John Zorn, was the star of the show here, especially on trademark number ‘Little Bittern’.

Ikue Mori took to the stage and Kenny Wollesen switched from vibes to a secondary drum kit as the group morphed into Electric Masada, but more importantly, John Zorn took his sax out of its case and gave us a little of what we wanted to hear. Zorn is capable of making the saxophone sound nothing like a sax (a duck, a chicken or an air raid siren, say), and like the most ‘saxophoney’ sax you’ve ever heard with his expert (and knowing) deployment of clichéd gestures – slides, vibratos, and post-bop licks.

One short encore was enough to round off a perfect evening of music and a real ‘I was there’ concert. John Zorn shows no signs of slowing down and here’s hoping he’ll return on his next landmark birthday with a new set of provocative and incendiary new ensembles, as well as the now classic Masada and Dreamers line-ups.

words Thom Hosken


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