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.

 

 

Zorn 2013 – Lemma, Mysteries and Dreamachines

One of my favorite things about being a freelance writer and working from my home office (aside from spending half my day in pajamas or a bathrobe and being able to take the time to properly enjoy my wife’s delicious coffee) is that I get to play the music I love all day long.  It helps me relax and focus on my writing by completely eliminating any trace of boredom that might understandably arise from spending 8 hours in front of the PC screen in a room all by myself.

One day a few weeks ago as I was searching Youtube for any gigs I could find from Jazz in Marciac I came across this little gem. I loved this show so much that I’ve been playing it every single day since and I think it’s one of the best concerts you will find online.

Anyway, that made me curious to check out what has been going on with Zorn in 2013. I decided to just focus on his “solo records” due to the roughly 17497 collaborations[i] he’s been featured on this year alone.

So what do we have solo-wise? Well, so far this year (and keep in mind, the year is not over) we have three records: Lemma,Mysteries and Dreamachines, all released on Zorn’s own Tzadik label.

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Let’s start off with Lemma, released in February and featuring three enormously talented violinists: David Fulmer, Pauline Kim and Chris Otto. The record starts off with “Apophthegms 1 through 12” a suite of 12 miniatures for 2 violins  to be enjoyed first and foremost for the virtuosity of musicians Fulmer and Otto. Naturally, since this is an avant-garde composition one should not approach it expecting what I like to call “conventional musicality” as these tracks abound in scraping noises and downright dissonant changes of pace, serving as sort of a barrier between Zorn’s art and the audience.  That means you are either instantly turned off and desperately run away to play some Mozart in order to cleanse your ears or you open yourself up to Zorn’s work with no prejudice and complete trust in this brilliant composer. If you decide to go with the second option, you will be surprised at how quickly you’ll be able to adapt and focus on the virtuosity of these violinists. I’ve had a similar experience with David S. Ware’s Saturnian: Solo Saxophones a few years ago, where, after a few minutes of getting almost annoyed with the structurally chaotic music I found myself gradually adapting to the point where I could “pay attention to that man behind the curtain”. After that I found it as soothing as any lullaby. That is not to say that Lemma is without fault, but I will get to that. The “Apophthegms” are followed by “Passagen” an intense and beautifully aggressive piece for solo violin delivered by Pauline Kim which is also the most open and extrovert, almost vulnerable composition on the record and thus, in my opinion, the highlight. The album follows with “Ceremonial Music” 1 through 4, starring David Fullmer, at times emotional and harmonic, at times harsh and raw and very dramatic at the end, abounding in repetition that made me think of Michael Gallasso’s Scenes. Zorn’s whole record (especially “Ceremonial Music”) carries much of Gallasso’s tension and anxiety but fails to match it in depth and density just as it displays the inventiveness found in Iva Bittova’s record (that I wrote about last time) but does not completely equal its distinctive character. Still, a brilliant avant-garde work the highlight of which is the impeccable performance of the musicians.

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In April, Zorn teamed up again with Bill Frisell, Carol Emanuel and Kenny Wollesen to deliver The Mysteries a continuation of their 2012 collaboration Gnostic Preludes. The mystically minimalist Mysteries (see what I did there!?!) which features Frisell on guitar, Emanuel on harp and Wollesen on vibraphone is by far the softest, most melodic of the three records, and a perfect fit for Bill Frisell who really gets to do his thing on this album. The nine songs on the record seem designed for mediation, the very contemplative tone is kept throughout the record though the songs are by no means interchangeable (like purposefully designed Buddha Bar or Chill Out records or whatever the hell they’re called). Each of these songs has its distinctive personality though there is also a common thread that runs through this record making it a very solid body of work. “Sacred Oracle” starts off the album with a lovely two-minute long intro that has Emanuel provide a fertile ground from which Frisell’s guitar then gently blooms, after which Frisell takes over the melody allowing Wollesen’s vibes and bells to softly ascend, like the sun rising over the Mediterranean (this record is bringing out my poetic side). But all kidding aside this is an excellent opening track and those who have followed my blog know that I have a soft spot for a good structure. “Hymn of the Naassenes” is next and provides the general ambiance that will define  the record, with Frissell’s melancholy guitar taking the lead. On “Dance of Sappho” the musicians get to have a little fun with the tone and pacing, though never losing the air of ancient mystery that characterizes the whole album, while “The Bachannalia” returns to a more low-key, somber mood. In every song something stands out, whether it’s the beautiful melody in “Consolamentum”, the “storytelling” in “Ode to the Cathars”, the interplay and perfect timing in “Apollo” or the tension in “Yaldabaoth”. At 11 minutes long, “The Nymphs” closes off the album in powerful fashion mixing together everything that stood out in the rest of the tracks and providing a brilliantly thought-out closure which, in my opinion, is almost as important as a powerful beginning. For the careful and sensitive listener, meaning someone who has a well-developed musical attention-span and doesn’t merely expect explosions of instant gratification, The Mysteries is a veritable gem, well-worth taking the time needed to immerse oneself in this minimalist yet immensely complex work.

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The aforementioned explosion of instant gratification takes place in Dreamachines, my favorite record of the trio, as the opening track “Psychic Conspirator” wastes no time throwing avant-garde awesomeness at the listener. The track sounds like someone took the sheet of a Nik Bärtsch song, put  it in the paper-shredder, then mixed-up all the little pieces and glued-them together dada-style before handing this post-apocalyptic partitur to the band. Speaking of the band you can’t help but marvel at their mastery as they deliver this very intense and difficult arrangement. But one would not expect nothing less from the likes of John Medeski (piano), Trevor Dunn (bass), Joey Baron (drums) and, again, Kenny Wollesen (vibraphone).

“Git-le-Coeur” is at the other end of the Zorn-spectrum, more laid-back but sprinkled, at times, with short rapid sequences. Baron’s drums are highlighted nicely throughout the song (if you pay attention). The third track, “The Conqueror Worm” matches the first in intensity but with a more conventional Jazz approach and is exactly the sound that comes to my mind when I think of a John Zorn recording. It’s also one of my favorite tracks on the record if only for the incredible sense of pacing and timing that is usually the norm on a John Zorn composition.  The rest of the tracks keep this repetitive tone and structure, with occasional “zornian epileptic fits” that get to really test the skill of the musicians (and they all pass with flying colors). All the tracks are excellent but highlights include “The Dream Machine”, my personal favorite and especially a highlight for pianist Medeski whose show-stealing virtuosity is nothing short of magical, “Note Virus” for its pure madness and “1001 nights in Marrakech” for its hypnotic rhythm. Like I said though, these songs are the cream of the crop in an already excellent record.

With this trio of really powerful works Zorn has once again demonstrated not only his imagination and versatility as a composer but also his work-ethic and his talent in choosing and linking together musicians with great chemistry. Undoubtedly, Zorn is one of the greatest musical minds of his generation.


[i] Citation needed