A canvas of chaos – John Zorn’s Bagatelles live at Porgy & Bess, Vienna

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In January 2012 I accidentally fell off my bed and landed on the lower part of my spine. The impact jolted my brain and I had a seizure. I was taken to the ER and was eventually hooked up to an EEG device to monitor my brain’s electrical activity. Though the technician carrying out the procedure did not have the authority to set a diagnosis, she just couldn’t refrain from giving me her personal opinion: “It’s epilepsy.”

It absolutely wasn’t epilepsy. I haven’t had a seizure before or since. It was merely a very unfortunate accident coupled with what seems to be an all-around peculiar brain.

The neurologist who studied the results concluded that I’m fine. It’s just that my brain activity is slightly unusual – something she called “being a bit cuckoo”. She would be in a unique position to know since she also happens to be my mother-in-law.

This little story from 2012 will be relevant towards the end of the article but, for now, let’s focus on 2016.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally came across a Facebook post promoting a John Zorn marathon at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival. The prolific composer would be presenting his new opus, the Book of Bagatelles.

This project for live performance consists of three hundred short, atonal, improv-minded compositions meant for what Zorn often calls his “community” – a legion of long-time collaborators and young prodigies that excite the fiercely selective musician.

The lineup for the Sarajevo marathon was incredible, with eleven acts slated to perform for roughly twenty-five minutes each. Among them were such legendary projects as the Masada Quartet, the Nova (Express) Quartet and Asmodeus, but also exciting new bands and collaborations like the hard rock trio Trigger and the acoustic guitar duo of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. That’s about eighty percent of my bucket list gigs in one single show, including people like John Medeski, Craig Taborn, Trevor Dunn, Joey Baron and freakin’ Marc Ribot.

Unfortunately, the show was scheduled on a Friday evening and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to Sarajevo in time.

Desperately, I started looking at Zorn’s other tour dates only to discover that he was taking his Bagatelles Marathon to Vienna the very next day for a weekend-long show at the legendary Porgy & Bess. It seemed only fitting to hold an event of such magnitude at the distinguished venue located right in the heart of the European capital of music. One six hour drive later, I found myself staring at the familiar picture of my favorite songwriter as the queue was slowly moving forward towards what would become one of the defining musical experiences of my life.

When John Zorn hit the stage, he seemed delighted by the enthusiastic reception he received from the knowledgeable Porgy & Bess audience, who were asked not to photograph or record the performance.

The Bagatelles are designed for a concert experience. It’s an openly constructed, freely evolving manifestation of music which would lose its mystique and its very raison d’etre in a recording of any form.

“This music is meant for you,” the avant-garde mastermind explained. “It will never exist in the same form again.”

He went on to add that taping the show would not only diminish the audience’s intimate relationship with this music but also influence the musicians’ performance. “Musicians play differently when they know they’re being filmed,” Zorn confessed. To their credit, the audience respectfully complied.

This argument for a personal relationship with the music predicted a raw, intimate exhibition. What followed was perhaps one of the most spectacularly dynamic and narratively diverse performances an aficionado of serious music can experience today.

The evening started with the Masada Quartet, fronted by Zorn himself on alto saxophone and Dave Douglas on trumpet and backed by the incredible duo of Greg Cohen and Joey Baron on bass and drums respectively. It took me a while to fully comprehend that I’m actually getting to hear  this legendary project live.

Wasting no time with formalities, the band went full throttle from the first note. Instead of inviting the listener to join them on their musical journey, the veterans opted instead to grab the audience by the throat and hurl them straight into a loud, dissonant soundscape of schizophrenic intensity and boundless complexity. There was less klezmer and more free jazz than in other Masada gigs, with the Bagatelles feeling less like a series of melodic anchor points for improvisation and more like a canvas of chaos on which the inventive musicians sometimes deviated from action painting to coordinate their brushes for brief glimpses of expressionism. It was an improv enthusiast’s dream and, in my opinion, the perfect choice for an opening act because it already raised the bar for the upcoming bands.

At this point, I have to take a moment to commend Greg Cohen’s impeccable playing. If the bass has a tendency to be underrated on Masada records, somewhat obscured by the boisterous brass and Joey Baron’s frantic drums, in the live performance I couldn’t look (or listen) away from Cohen’s dexterous delivery.

Next off was the acoustic tandem of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. On the flyer, they were promoted as a “delicate guitar duo that sets the standard for what the bagatelles is all about” and even when Zorn was introducing them you could tell he was extremely excited about this collaboration.

I was too, partly because I was dying to see how these bagatelles would translate to this particular arrangement but mostly because when something gets John Zorn this amped, you know you are in for an exceptional time.

I was familiar with Julian Lage from his work with Gary Burton and Jorge Roeder, so I already knew the depth of this young man’s talent. I was happy to discover that Gyan Riley matched him in skill and elegance.

Needless to say, their set was spectacular, a veritable celebration of timing and instinct as the expertly handled instruments succeeded in capturing the mysterious, almost metaphysical nature of these compositions. The touching chemistry shared by the young musicians translated into a moment that was wild, yet delicate. Judging by the audience’s reaction it was also the highlight of the evening. Zorn himself did not miss an opportunity to praise their work afterwards.

The third act was the Nova Quarter (of Nova Express fame), an all-star ensemble built around vibraphone wildman Kenny Wollesen, with John Medeski on piano, Trevor Dunn on bass and, once again, Joey Baron on drums. The most conventionally melodious (read: least discordant) of the projects, Wollesen and co. delivered a pensive and graceful set and perhaps the most cohesive interplay of the evening.

They were followed by violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, who’d worked with Zorn in duo form on Masada Recital and Malphas: Book of Angels Volume 3, and whose personal eccentricities on their respective instruments sounded like a perfect fit for Zorn’s idiosyncratic vision.

The result was a dark and spectral meditation on the traditional musicality of piano/violin duets which, in my opinion, brought out the best in these bagatelles. From Feldman’s wailing banshee moments to Courvoisier’s downright abusive treatment of her instrument, this performance was a delight from start to finish. It was the one I was looking forward to the most and, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire evening.

The show was supposed to end with the proverbial bang courtesy of the hard rock meltdown of Will Greene (guitar), Simon Hanes (bass) and Aaaron Edgcomb (drums) – collectively known as Trigger. However, Zorn urged us to stick around for a special guest appearance by Craig Taborn afterwards. I’m a big fan of Taborn’s playing, so I was extremely excited. He’d been on the Sarajevo roster, but wasn’t promoted for Vienna.

Before the  remarkable pianist could take the stage, it was time for the three “young twenty-something punks” to do their thing.

After a couple of minutes of technical difficulties, during which Zorn assured us that these kids can “play the shit out of their instruments”, the trio exploded into a powerful, loud, electric and electrifying performance which was highly reminiscent of Ceramic Dog (to my great satisfaction) .Clearly, Will Greene has been hanging out with Marc Ribot, and all three musicians seemed positively honored to share the stage with such legendary artists.

At first, the jazz crowd didn’t seem to know what to make of this relentlessly turbulent brand of bagatelles, but, by the end of the gig, almost everyone seemed charmed by the “young punks”. For their part, the trio never looked out of place, delivering their music with poise and – to be candid – with giant fucking balls. That didn’t come as a surprise since no one in their right mind would doubt Zorn’s instinct for picking musicians.

The show concluded with Craig Taborn’s solo performance, which he delivered with typical convulsive intensity. It was a suitably memorable finale to an evening that contained so much music it would take weeks for its broadness of scope to be fully processed. Which brings me back to my personal story from the beginning of the article.

I don’t know if this electrical particularity in my brain has anything to do with my restless nature, my ongoing battle with depression, the fact that I don’t sleep particularly well and can’t quite stay focused on a single activity or with the fact that I have a hard time winding down at the end of the day. Whatever the reason, I find it very difficult to rest, particularly to stop a torrent of disorderly thoughts from perpetually inundating the repository of my lucidity. That’s about as eloquently as I can put it and I write books for a living.

Rarely is my mind so engaged that it doesn’t seem to want to compete in an exhausting race against itself. Even when listening to music, my favorite activity along with writing and drinking wine, I find it hard to stay focused. Conventional musicality, with its repetitions, predictable patterns and harmonical spoon-feeding leaves ample room for distraction. That’s why I’ve been drawn to the coarse vocals and grotesque imagery of Tom Waits’s work and, later on, to the complexity and syncopation of jazz. That’s also why I’m drawn to John Zorn.

To me, the Bagatelles Marathon was the quintessential John Zorn experience: loud, aggressive, unpredictable, capricious and unrepentant. It was one of the rare moments when my mind was entirely engaged, so completely hung up on every note and elated by its inability to predict the erratic movements of this music that it left no room for distractions. This is as close to meditation as my cognitive construction will ever allow me to get.

Unfortunately, personal commitments forced me to return home the next day, thus missing part two of this unique musical experience, consisting of the John Medeski Trio, Erik Friedlander/ Jay Campbell Duo, Uri Caine Trio, Ikue Mori and Asmodeus.

Nevertheless, the amount and diversity of music I got to hear in one concert left me with a year’s worth of musical aesthetics to ponder and an evening’s worth of  inner peace.