REVIEW: John Zorn at 60 @ Walker Art Center & St. Mark’s (Minneapolis, MN – 4/6/13)
John Zorn turns 60 this coming September, and Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center wanted to throw a Zorn Fest of sorts. Since Zorn doesn’t like to travel, he wanted to keep it to a minimum: not a 3+ day fest, but hey, let’s do it all on one day! And thus “Zorn @ 60” at Walker Art Center was born!
There have already been a few great reviews already posted (Jazz Police / Walker Art / City Pages); so I’ll keep my write-up to my own personal reflections, and not as in-depth, per se. Here’s who Zorn had with him for this fest, in different assemblies… Cyro Baptista, percussion; Joey Baron, drums; Greg Cohen, bass; Chris Cunningham, guitar; Marc Feldman, violin; Eric Friedlander, cello; Michelle Kinney, cello; John Medeski, piano, Hammond B3; Ikue Mori, electronics; Marc Ribot, guitar; Joey Schad, electric keyboards; Kenny Wollesen, vibraphone, percussion, and drums.
Well, first off, due to documentaries, I know what Zorn sounds like… and I was getting off the elevator at my hotel and I heard a familiar voice. Then I looked up, and “whoa, John Zorn is getting on the elevator that I’m getting off of.” I almost wanted to act like I forgot something in my room and ride up with him. Alas, I wussed out. Then in the lobby, Marc Ribot was futzing around on his phone, and Greg Cohen’s massive upright bass case was blocking the front desk. It all added to my overall giddiness for the day…
John Zorn discussion w/ Philip Bither
The full day of Zorn @ 60 started at 3pm with a sit down with fest curator Philip Bither. Zorn is a lively, humorous, acerbic character. I kinda love him. Probably more f-bombs and frivolity than most Q&A sessions, the near hourlong session was highly interesting.
The first part of the discussion talked about Zorn’s age… as the fest was all about his experience and what got him to where he is now in the scene at 60. Zorn talked a little bit about other “60” celebrations he’s doing this year (of all things MySpace has the best list), and one that he’s doing at The Met (NYC) completely intrigued me… ten performances every hour on the hour in different galleries throughout the museum on September 1st (Facebook link). if I can swing a way to be in NYC for most of September, I’d be happy. Unlikely, though.
Some of the best quotes from the interview and Q&A (paraphrased from my scribbles):
[about turning 60]“You don’t have any more doubts.”
“They’ve been saying I’ve been playing ironically for decades… that’s bullshit. But they don’t believe me when I say that’s bullshit.”
“Ribot plays guitar like a mutha’fucka!”
“I live in a library [of books, LPs, CDs, DVDs]… I didn’t have a kitchen for over a decade, but I didn’t have cockroaches either!”
[on creativity] “There were probably Bach-types banging on logs [in the earliest times]. Creativity is mystical, spiritual, ineffable.”
[on his schedule for the day] “Eating is a drag… it’ll only slow you down.”
[on critics] “The secret to longevity is to stay away from negative people… all reviews are bad. We don’t need that bullshit.”
And while I write reviews (and perhaps this is one), I understand his take on the industry of critique.
Marc Ribot plays selections from The Book of Heads
(about 20 minutes)
First music of the day… Marc Ribot by himself with a guitar, some pedals, a violin bow, some balloons, and an intenseness in his eyes. The Book of Heads, an album of solo Etudes composed by Zorn, is a very difficult listen. It screeches, it hurtles into many different directions. It’s hard to follow, it’s hard to even want to listen to at some times. Seeing it live, though, was quite fascinating. It’s highly composed, but seemingly improvised. Just seeing Marc’s stern look at the sheet music showed the composition. He was intently following the haphazard that was on the page. When one of the greatest guitarists is using balloons as a key part of the music making process, you know things are weird. Weird but gripping.
Ribot played the following Etudes (not necessarily in this order): 13, 23, 9, 24, 22, 27, 7, 2.
Game Piece: Hockey with Kenny Wollesen & Erik Friedlander
(about 10 minutes)
The next piece was a trio game piece first created in 1978. Zorn’s game pieces are a strict set of rules and is a structured, improvisational collaboration between the artists. Hockey on record is OK to listen to, but like The Book of Heads and Cobra (below), it’s far more interesting in the live setting.
A game piece is…
As well as a sports game, a game piece may also be considered analogous to language: The performance is directed by a well defined set of rules (a grammar) but by no means fixed or predetermined (just as all sentences generated by the same grammar are not the same). The length of a piece may be arbitrary, just as a sentence can be of any imaginable length while still conforming to a strictly defined syntax.
This time is was Zorn on birdcalls, Kenny Wollesen on bird calls and percussion, and Erik Friedlander on cello. With Kenny and Erik looking intently at Zorn for his verbal and hand motion directions. The level of musicianship of these three players is amazing, and the game pieces are basically a way to stretch their creative musical muscles while making sounds that you’d never expect. It’s not for the casual listener.
Game Piece: Cobra (for 11 players)
(3 games; about 30 minutes total)
John Zorn heard off stage before Cobra started: “Just don’t make any mistakes!”
Cobra takes the game piece concept to whole new levels. The rules are more complex, and John Zorn doesn’t play but directs at the front. Based on the card he holds up and his verbal and non-verbal cues, the musicians go off on an adventure – never the same in any repeat performance.
With eleven players on stage (all listed at the top of this post), they played three games of Cobra. This was my first time seeing Cobra. It’s very interactive, starting with Zorn’s lead, but the players get room to lead things too. It’s improv, but still with a structure. Here’s a glimpse at the cue card structure:
Cobra was the end of the first program, and the fest broke for a couple hours.
Erik Friedlander plays selections from Masada Book Two: Volac
Masada String Trio, and
Bar Kokhba Sextet
(a little over an hour – total)
The second program was the chamber music segment (and also the part of the day where my notes have now gone missing).
I’d seen Erik Friedlander before (both solo with his own stuff and playing Volac), and it was a great warm up for the increasingly larger groups playing music from John Zorn’s Masada Book Two set of music. He played a gorgeous 20 minute selections from Volac.
Up next was the Masada String Trio made up of the aforementioned Erik Friedlander on cello, Mark Feldman on violin, and Greg Cohen on upright bass. While the music they played was composed (same with Bar Kokhba Sextet), John Zorn sat on the floor in front of them, conducting. They played about 20 minutes from their Masada Book Two set. Gorgeous players, gorgeous music!
Continuing in the chamber music written & conducted by Zorn, the Bar Kokhba Sextet found the Masada String Trio joined by Joey Baron on drums, Cyro Baptista on percussion, and Marc Ribot on guitar. This was probably the best part of the night for me – outside of the experience of seeing Cobra played for the first time. The group effortlessly brought Zorn’s Masada tunes some groove, and seeing both Baron and Baptista work together percussively was a delight.
John Zorn’s Nova Express & The Concealed
John Zorn playing to Wallace Berman’s film Aleph
with Kenny Wollesen & Greg Cohen
(about 75 minutes total)
At the beginning of the third program, someone yelled out from the audience, “where’s your horn!?” to which John Zorn yelled back, “at home mother fucker!” Irreverent and hilarious. Even though he was lying (he brought out his alto sax for the final piece).
Nova Express and The Concealed songs were played by Joey Baron on drums, show-stealer Kenny Wollesen on vibes, Erik Friedlander on cello, Mark Feldman on violin, Greg Cohen on upright bass, and John Medeski on piano. These are two of Zorn’s better albums in the recent three years’ output (of ~36 albums!!!!). Partly classical takes on Masada tunes (Nova Express), and partly mystical (The Concealed).
As mentioned, the only time John Zorn brought out his sax was for the visual installation piece Aleph – set to Wallace Bergman’s short cut-up film of the same name. Iit was a ripping, avant-garde piece in the dark, backlit by the film, with Zorn wailing on sax, Kenny Wollesen moving off of vibes on to the drums, and Greg Cohen on bass. Stellar!
John Zorn’s The Hermetic Organ (midnight) @ St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral
A special free midnight performance of John Zorn’s The Hermetic Organ was across the street after the final third program of Zorn @ 60. Most of the crowd piled over to St. Mark’s Cathedral to watch the contrasting and turgid organ piece. I stayed for about half of the 30+ minute set and then slowly started my 2 mile, midnight walk back to my hotel – content at the day’s musical gifts.
A brilliant, music-packed day! If you want to check out some videos of what went down, the French Zorn website le zornographe has linked to some performances posted from the Walker Art Center “Zorn @ 60” fest on YouTube:
Bar Kokhba Sextet “Sother”
The Appropriate Linkage:
- John Zorn’s label Tzadik Records
- Tzadik Record’s Social Media Links (see below)
- My Other Related Reviews~
- Zorn’s Masada, Ikue Mori and other shows (New York – Mar 2007)
- Zorn’s Moonchild Trio (Seattle – Nov 2007)
- Medeski Martin & Wood (Eugene – Nov 2008)
- Erik Friedlander’s Block Ice & Propane (Portland – Sept 2009)
- Medeski Martin & Wood (Eugene – Feb 2010)
- Erik Friedlander plays Zorn’s Volac (Eugene – Jan 2011)
- Walker Art Center’s Site / Facebook / Twitter
Next show for me… Soul’d Out Festival’s Charlie Hunter with Booker T. Jones & Carlton Jackson (first time as a trio) @ Dante’s (Portland 4/14)..