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.

 

 

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Ceramic Dog’s Your Turn – unkempt and unrestrained

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I did not pick out this week’s record specifically because it’s so radically different from last week’s, it just happened this way and I’m glad it did.

It’s interesting to compare the two guitar-driven works. They are on opposite ends of the musical spectrum just like the two respective guitar-players, both brilliant for different reasons, have powerfully contrasting styles and an antithetical approach to songwriting.  One  is a technique-driven virtuoso with an almost scientific approach to songwriting and melody and the other is an avant-garde, experienced session-master with a vast and diverse repertoire, who takes melody, throws it in a meat-grinder, then sets it on fire, puts it in a hammerlock and hits it with a bull-wrench.

I’ve written about Marc Ribot before and I think he’s one of the most entertaining musicians of the modern era. He’s also very much an acquired taste no matter which one of his many projects you check out.  With works that range in scope, sound and delivery (not to mention decibels), Marc Ribot, one of the most versatile guitarists and songwriters in the world, seems to be having the most fun on his Ceramic Dog records. At least that’s how the music comes off to the listener.

The sound is unkempt and unrestrained, a liberating experience for both band and audience as the three musicians spend little time worrying about the norms and conventions of modern music.

The aforementioned band consists of Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Ches Smith on drums, both powerful players and impeccable technicians and, of course, Marc Ribot on guitar and sometimes vocals. The variety of sounds is amazing for a band that consists of only three musicians.

The trio’s 2008 debut record Party Intellectuals was a ton of fun and it’s a work that still manages to sound fresh. Now, five years later, Your Turn  proves a worthy successor; a more consistent but also more conventional record that documents the three musicians’ growth as a band.

In my review of Party Intellectuals I said the record had “multiple-personality disorder”, meaning that the styles and sound of the songs contrasted powerfully which gave it its diversified sound but also its not-always-consistent quality. It was definitely a roller-coaster-ride but it felt like it lacked a common thread.

Your Turn, on the other hand, manages to take a page out of Tom Wait’s book and offer variety while maintaining a distinct character throughout. It’s less experimental-noise and more hard rock which I think brings it closer to what Marc Ribot had in mind for Ceramic Dog in the first place. This consistency in its structure also makes it a tad more accessible as some of Marc’s avant-garde work (and I’m thinking primarily of his Rootless Cosmopolitans and Shrek phase) at times proved too hard to digest even for the most stubborn connoisseur.

The album starts off with “Lies My Body Told Me” a somewhat low-key track (at least for this record) that offers great interplay between Marc’s guitar and his vocals. Speaking of that, the record is fairly evenly divided between instrumental tracks and vocal songs.  Marc is aware of his pretty much pedestrian voice and he makes brilliant use of it by intentionally employing it as burlesque instrument of sarcasm through which the message is delivered all the more raw and convincing. Some of the vocal tunes carry a powerful punch, like the clever and cranky “Masters of the Internet” which follows the technically impeccable but otherwise unremarkable title track. “Masters” is a brilliant, straight-forward song that lashes out against music pirating but can be applied to any art-form in the Internet age. Against a (sort of) Arabian theme Marc yells:

We have a new business model, We’ll blow you for a nickel

And if you like our CD we’ll blow you for free and if you don’t you can bite our heads off

As a freelance writer I personally feel a special connection to this particular track. I can’t help but get chills down my spine when I hear “our labor has no value/content is our name”. I believe this single line is the most pertinent commentary I’ve ever come across on what I call the “contentization” of art (but you can just go ahead and call it the “content craze”, it has a much better ring to it)

This being The Music and Myth, I also have a little story:

I’ve recently conducted an in-depth interview  with Al Di Meola and what resulted is probably the most extensive article I’ve written for this website. It features my recount of the struggle of getting the 30 minute sit-down, a review of the concert as well as the interview in its entirety. A reader told me she thought the article was absolutely great, that  “you can see it is well documented, and written with great passion” but that it is “too long to read when you don’t have much time but are dying of curiosity”.

Her well-meaning feedback which completely missed the contradiction, painted a great picture of a society that craves quality and information but cannot stomach anything beyond readily-available light-on-content distractions and free entertainment. “Masters of the Internet” sums this up brilliantly. I also have to commend the excellent percussion on this song.

The record continues with the instrumental track “Ritual Slaughter”, another vehicle for the band to show off their amazing skill and intuitive timing, after which “Avanti Popolo”, an interlude that would have seemed out of place on any other record (but not on this one) leads us to  “Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Round” (or what Marc calls the Affordable Health Care Act song). I’m not an American so I don’t feel I have the right to comment on the context but I can make the statement that I feel this song delivers its message very efficiently.

Speaking of delivering messages efficiently, the prime example is the record’s flagship track “Bread and Roses”. Inspired by the eponymous poem by James Oppenheim, the song adapts the lyrics to fit its dynamic and explosive structure:

As we go marching, marching / through the beauty of the day

A thousand kitchens darkened/ A thousand mill lofts gray

Are touched with all the radiance/ a sudden sun discloses

Yeah, it is bread we fight for/ Bread and Roses

Powerful lyrics and passionate vocals, coupled with the angry energy of the instrument and the flawless timing of the musicians make this one of the most well-crafted songs I’ve heard in a long time. Also Marc’s “industrial” guitar solo is truly something magnificent, my favorite since his emotional guitar work on “La Vida es un Sueno” from his first Cubanos Postizos record.

For “Prayer” Marc goes back to his roots as a Rootless Cosmopolitan (I can never pass up the opportunity to make a bad pun) as the band gets to go crazy with what I’ve already affectionately called “seizure music”, once again displaying masterful cohesion in an instrumental tour-de-force. They follow it up with the laid-back, bluesy and surprisingly catchy “Mr. Pants goes to Hollywood” and the mock-nostalgic “The Kid is Back” before taking a crack at Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5”. I’ve always been a fan of Marc’s cover songs, he adds his entertaining and eccentric spin on them ( see “The Wind cries Mary” or “Dame Un Cachito Pa Huele”); again, he does not disappoint.

The record closes off with the funny, if somewhat juvenile,  “We are the Professionals” in which the band parody the sound of the Beastie Boys followed by “Special Snowflake”, a quick instrumental mish-mash to close the curtains on another great album.

I generally have nothing but praise for what Marc Ribot brings to the music industry, whatever form his projects may take. I find his entire body of work fascinating but I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Ceramic Dog.

In the company of the musically like-minded Shahzad Ismaily and Ches Smith, Ribot seems to be at his most comfortable. The band  takes the elements that make Ribot’s various projects great and combines them to produce the distinctive sound of Ceramic Dog.  Their sophomore release is a commentary on the multi-faceted music industry but also it is simply one wild ride.