Sunday, April 7, 2013

A day with John Zorn: The Walker celebrates his 60th with conversation and music

When: Saturday, April 6 • Where: Walker Art CenterWho: John Zorn; 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

John Zorn likes to sleep at home. He doesn’t like critics. He likes to work. He doesn’t like it when people use the word “irony” about his work. (“They’ve been doing that for decades, and that’s f------ b---s---!”) He likes the idea of turning 60, which he will on September 2.

He doesn’t like taking questions from audience members, but he does enjoy talking with Philip Bither, the Walker Art Center’s senior performing arts curator and a longtime Zorn supporter and friend.

When Zorn decided to celebrate his 60th with a series of events, Bither was the first person he called. Bither said, “Sure, how about a week’s worth?” Zorn said (because he likes to sleep at home), “Let’s do it all in one day.” The Walker called it "John Zorn @ 60" and the “Zorn-a-thon.” 

The day began at 3 p.m. in the Walker Cinema, moved to the McGuire Theater for performances at 4, 7, and 10 (each featuring music from a different time in Zorn’s career), and ended shortly before 1 a.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral across the street. It was an exhilarating, exhausting 10 hours (with breaks) during which we were given glimpses into Zorn’s life, music, nuclear energy, prickly personality, unbelievable prolificacy, and blast-furnace creative mind.

I write “glimpses into his music” because even though the day included nine distinct performances, we are talking about someone who has been preternaturally prolific over several decades and shows no sign of slowing down. In the last three years, Zorn released 36 albums of his own work; hundreds more preceded those. (Has anyone compiled a complete Zorn discography?) He has his own record label (Tzadik), a jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village (Stone), and his own publishing house (Hips Road/Tzadik), through which he has published a series of books called “Arcana: Musicians on Music.”

Philip Bither (l) and Zorn. Photo by Bryan Aaker.
Zorn famously (or infamously) doesn’t like giving interviews. He once told a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, “I don’t think we have too much to talk about. Let me call you back, OK?” When he called back, he commanded, “Don’t ask questions. Just listen.”

Britt Robson, who previewed the Zorn-a-thon for the Strib, got good quotes from Bither, cellist Erik Friedlander (one of the musicians Zorn brought with him), and Tim Sparks (a guitarist who lives in Minnesota and has recorded on Tzadik), but not a peep from Zorn.

So when I learned the day would begin with a public conversation between Zorn and Bither, I brought my notebook and scribbled furiously.
Zorn on turning 60: “You don’t have any more doubts. Everything is clear … The only thing wrong with being 60 is if you really want to be 20.”
On composing: “Music is people, not just sounds. I write for people … A composer’s job is to imagine music and give it to musicians who will be inspired by it … What is music? It’s f------ love.”
On drugs: “I have never touched drugs in my whole life. I have never had a cup of coffee, never had a cigarette. But I can always tell which member of the band is holding. I have a talent for that.”
On record collecting (in response to a question from the audience): “I’m not a record collector. I’m an avid music maniac. I have about 15 thousand LPs, 12 thousand CDs, DVDs, books, art … I live in a library. I didn’t have a kitchen for 15 years, but I didn’t have cockroaches, either."
On his work environment: “I’m surrounded by art and books and music. I work at the same children’s desk I’ve had since I was a child – it’s an original Stickley – in a rocking chair … Before I go in that room, I wash my hands.”
On distractions: “Three things are necessary: 1. keep focused, 2. use rituals of purity, 3. avoid distractions. I have no TV, radio, or magazines. I f------ work. That’s what I’m here for.”
On creativity: “Creativity is mystical, spiritual, ineffable. Something you can’t really define … You feel one with something very big … I believe you can call the angels, but you have to be in a certain state of purity.”
On critics: “They’re all a--holes! All the reviews are bad! Twenty years ago, I’d read a bad review and be destroyed. Now I laugh.”
The Zorn/Bither conversation was the ideal way to start the day Even though art is supposed to stand on its own and you shouldn't have to know anything about the artist to engage and respond (yadda-yadda, yawn), I found it very helpful. Zorn's words illuminated his music, and they reminded me throughout the day that everything I was hearing came from the mind of a slight, hyperactive, somewhat unkempt man wearing a black T-shirt and camo pants.

The music was all over the place. Organized chronologically, much of it was retrospective without sounding dated, and the musicians – all top players and Zorn regulars, most of whom he has worked with for years – approached each note as if it were brand-new. Zorn conducted most pieces from the stage (sometimes standing, sometimes sitting cross-legged on the floor), and I’ve rarely seen musicians pay closer attention or play with greater alacrity or joy. Often, Zorn responded to a particular passage or selection with a thumbs-up or a high-five.

Zorn, for whom “wildly eclectic” seems a wimpy descriptor, can write all kinds of music, from far-out avant-garde to classical chamber music, klezmer, punk, rock, film music, and whatever else he fancies. Rather than ease his audience into the day, he began with a program called “Game Pieces.” For “The Book of Heads” (1978), soloist Marc Ribot stomped balloons and attacked his guitar strings with various implements including knives and ball-point pens. “Hockey” (1978) was a series of improvisations performed by cellist Erik Friedlander, percussionist Kenny Wollesen hitting objects on a table, and Zorn blowing on duck calls. Squeaks, blats, bonks, quacks, and strings. (This was one of the few times during the day when Zorn played an instrument. Mostly, he led. Late in the third program, someone called out “Where’s your sax, John?” and Zorn shot back “At home, m-----f-----!”) “Cobra” (1984) was a radical big band of 11 musicians playing vibes, guitars, Hammond B3, cello, drums, congas, keyboards, computer, violin, and bullhorn, improvising from cue cards held high by Zorn. (Each card had a handle on the back made from duct tape.)

The Masada Trio. Photo by Bryan Aaker.
Program II, “Masada,” began with Friedlander solo in selections from Zorn’s “Volac: Book of Angels, Vol. 8” (2007). Friedlander played his instrument (a gorgeous black Luis and Clark carbon-fiber cello) like a traditional cello, like an acoustic bass, like a guitar. The Masada String Trio – Friedlander, violinist Mark Feldman, and bassist Greg Cohen, formed in 2003 to tackle Zorn’s extensive Masada songbook, his redefinition of Jewish music – performed richly melodic pieces comprised of themes and improvisations. The Bar Kokhba sextet, which dates from the mid-1990s, added Cyro Baptista on percussion, Ribot on guitar, and Joey Baron on drums for more Masada music. Later that day, many people said this concert was their favorite.

The encore. Photo by Bryan Aaker.
Program III, “New Projects” brought Friedlander, Feldman, Cohen, Baron, and Wollesen back to the stage, plus John Medeski on piano, for selections from “Nova Express” (2011), in which classical meets Masada, and “The Concealed” (2012), which Zorn calls “21st century mystical music.”

When the crowd rose to its feet and wouldn’t let him go, he went offstage, returned carrying his saxophone, and played one of his “Filmworks” pieces with Cohen and Wollesen, a blistering, screaming encore that lasted several minutes.

(Thanks to those who wrote and told me the name of the film, Wallace Berman's "Aleph." Among them was Philip Bither, who adds: "Berman was an American experimental/Beat assemblage artist; he apparently worked on 'Aleph' for 10 years [/56-66]. I understand it was his only film. It has been described as his 'meditation on life, death, mysticism, politics, and pop culture. Zorn's Aleph Trio [Zorn, Wollesen, Cohen] was named after this 8-minute film, which Zorn obviously loves ... Interesting how many ties there are between Zorn's and Berman's interests [jazz, poetry, Jewish mysticism, radical interdisciplinary mixes of art forms, etc. -- apparently Berman also designed several Charlie Parker album jackets!")

Originally, the three programs were the plan for the day, but Zorn likes playing the organ (he released “The Hermetic Organ” in 2012), and there’s a very good one nearby, recently rebuilt, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. He wanted to give a late-night solo concert.
Zorn on playing the organ: “The organ is the voice of God. When I’m playing, I feel I’m improvising with an orchestra … It was my first instrument. I played it as a kid. I loved the organ music in Lon Chaney monster movies. I wanted an organ, but my parents wouldn’t get me one … It’s a wind instrument, not so far from the saxophone.”
St. Mark's. Photo by John Whiting.
It was the perfect finale. The Cathedral hummed and vibrated. I almost expected cracks to appear in the stone columns, or dust to filter from the cathedral’s vaulted ceilings. Massive block chords and lovely melodies, chimes, drones, and what sounded like the thrum of giant machinery (wait, a pipe organ is giant machinery) kept the audience of hundreds enthralled. (347, according to Bither.) Many of Zorn’s chords included notes that had probably never met in that space before last night. It was dramatic, deeply spiritual and thrilling. Let’s start a movement. More improvised music in churches! Be free, big organs!

When I returned home, I found an email from saxophonist George Cartwright, who attended part of the Zorn-a-thon and has known Zorn for decades. “I first saw him and [Eugene] Chadbourne and Polly Bradfield at the Five Front Gallery across from the Public Theater," Cartwright wrote. "Fifth floor walk-up. One big room. [The music was] very clear and committed and burned space in my brain for it to float around in for years. Kind of like seeing the color red for the first time.”

The whole party. Photo by Bryan Aaker.

Cohen, Wollesen, Zorn. Photo by John Whiting.


  1. I wasn't there but the encore thing could have been 'GoGoGo' from 'Filmworks XV11: Notes on Marie Menken'.

  2. The encore was the Aleph Trio for the film Aleph by Wallace Berman.

  3. Yep, Aleph set to the cut-up film by Wallace Berman. Great review! I added one here: I was super stoked to have made it out to MN for the weekend. :)

  4. Great summary of the day. You came here from Oregon? I get that. I agree -- Joey's smile was incandescent. But all of the musicians looked as if they were having a wonderful time.


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