John Zorn's 50th Birthday, a few of my favorites

When downtown avant-music legend John Zorn turned 50 in 2004, he put out 18 albums. 12 of them fell under a banner of multicolored, Venetian-blind style covering. Each album has the number 50, raised to a power. It seems that with Zorn, now 50 years old, age is a just a number.

In talking about the 12 volumes, which are all live recordings from Tonic in New York that September, one needs to slim down the scope. I picked my 3 favorites. 50th Birthday Celebration includes selections from the Masada (in its many forms), Bar Kokhba Sextet, Hemophiliac, Locus Solus, and many inspired trios and duos. It ranges from the psychotic, to the collected, back into rage and fucked animosity of function and form.

Electric Masada was formed in 2004 and they were my first glimpse into the celebration set. Drummer duo Joey Baron and Kenny Wollesen are the first ones you hear, erupting a 3 minute drum solo inviting laptop electronics and guitar wizardry from Marc Ribot and Ikue Mori. Zorn reached into the Tzadik bullpen big time for this performance. As he, Jamie Saft, and Trevor Dunn begin to attack the Klezmer-scaled Masada songbook selection Tekufah. As the layering of the group begins to become apparent, Zorn, in his usual fashion, duck calls his way into starts and dime-stops letting aspects of the group shine in and out of the picture, and in and out of functionality. With each following piece, the group gains capability. Perhaps incited by a 'Holy shit!' from an unknown crowd member at the 14:11 mark after Tekufah's conclusion. From there, the Electric Masada enters a cross section of Prog Rock/Jazz/Metal unbeknownst before. Idalah-Abal has Zorn freaking like a noise rock guitarist on speed, and Hasasha brings them back into a Jewish garage-rock mambo spectacle. Each different track utilizes a certain piece of the Electic Masada puzzle, before allowing the rest of the group enters. The dark Yatzar features Ribot's desolate plucking complementing Jamie Saft's eerie keys, whereas Lilin, a songbook mainstay, is the longest, most epic cut on the album clocking in as a 15+ minute crescendo which seems to rattle all of the Lower East Side. However, my personal favorite, tied with the opening salvo of Tekufah, is Hath-Arob. Although Lilin carries some weight for percussionist Cyro Baptista, Hath-Arob does he and Ikue Mori justice. It starts with pulsating electronics and skittish free-auxiliaries from Mori and Baptista, with Dunn providing a structure less bass feel. Then Zorn begins to call in snippets of spastic freak outs from Ribot, Saft, and the drummers.

For something drastically different we find volume 11 is Zorn's other large-group masterpiece Bar Kokhba. This sextet, consisting centrally of Marc Ribot (again), bassist Greg Cohen, violinist Mark Feldman, and cellist Erik Friedlander provides one of the most tasteful percussion sections ever with Cyro Baptista and Joey Baron . Over the course of three discs we have Zorn third-streaming and perhaps at his most masterful. Bar Kokhba is his composer child, taking a seat not with his group, but in front as conductor. By using the group as a duality, Zorn can perfectly complement his incredible drummers with violin and cello. Ribot's contribution is electric, but surprisingly fitting, at the beginning of Lilin he is a forefront of the melody, inducting the strings and so on and on Kisofim the featured player. He is also utilized to accent the bass line on Ner Tamid. Such beautiful, atmospheric group can come out blazing. Karet is a 3 minute blitzkrieg of concentrated madness, with Baron buzzing and Friedlander and Feldman nearly setting fire to their instruments. No one member of the group ever over powers the other, playing as if they are perhaps the most polite group of musicians ever. (See the 2:11 drop out on Karet). Other highlights include the timid Kochot, deliberate, spastic Teli, and an epic version of Yatzar.

Milford Graves is one of the greatest living drummers. Apart from being a modern day shaman, his drumming is all his own and he combines Asian and African hand styles into his traditional set playing. For all his speed and ability, Graves is also spiritual a la Coltrane. Since 98 he releases two albums on Tzadik, but the 2004 performance with Zorn is perhaps the most memorable. The duo performs 7 tracks, more of spellbinding ritual than music. On Inserted Space Zorn, in usual fashion, comes out swinging with duck calls and Graves creates a wall of delicate ride rhythm, unending splashy high hat, and unsnared rolls. Two tracks later, Graves introduces the track by singing a hymn. 'Calling in Proceed' is more tame. Zorn keeps the horn on the low end, moaning long calls over Graves' hymn which ducks in and out around his drumming. The track builds and overflows again and again. 'Talk' is a conversation between the two wher Graves discusses the spiritual gathering of the audience, but as it's recording extends it to us the listener: "We are in a very creative part of the planet right now." From there, he hymns once again into the staggering staccato of 'Synchronicity'. Which blisters in and around some of Zorn's most impressive playing throughout the entire series. The last 1:30 of the song includes the crowd going nuts over Graves' chanting and drumming and Zorn reaching for the limits of what he can do with his sax.

Obviously, three of the albums can't speak for all 12, but they can sing praises of Zorn himself. Obviously the selections I chose are roped within a realm of Zorn, which is seemingly devoid of boundaries. I feel he excels best as the Ornette Coleman-inspired saxophonist, and here, already leaving fruition, is somewhat self-actualized. Having ascended, he can dabble in any musical form with relative ease and comfort. In the four years since this series was released, Zorn has returned to his filmworks, solo stuff (most notably Moonchild from '06), and an incredible Bar Kokhba album and String Trio album.


Post a Comment