John Zorn@60

It ranks among the most astounding turnarounds in American music. John Zorn—erstwhile bad-boy impresario of the downtown New York jazz scene—spent last month touted as a modern master, and Manhattan's pride, by the city's most venerable institutions of high culture: the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, Lincoln Center, Columbia University, and NYU.

The occasion was Zorn's 60th birthday (which fell on Sept. 2), and these vaunted halls and galleries hosted concerts of Zorn playing, or fronting ensembles of favored collaborators playing, his compositions almost every night all month long.

Zorn deserves his newfound place on the pantheon of "maverick" American composers, and in that realm his work dwarfs anyone's for its versatility. Jazz, rock, symphonic, chamber, choral—Zorn is master of all these domains, and some of his most recent music is among his most satisfying.

Early on (late 1970s through early '90s), it was common for critics and profilers to note that Zorn in German means anger. Much of Zorn's music was angry, rebellious; some of it set out to assault the sensibilities. (A friend who attended one of Zorn's early Soho-loft concerts recalls that admission was free, but to be let out cost $3.)

In 1993, Zorn started exploring his Jewish roots, attracted by the creed's outsider status—the appeal of a community joined by its members' outsiderness. He wrote 100 tunes for a book of songs he called Masada. Each tune was written in one of the two "Jewish scales" (a major scale with the 2nd note flat or a minor scale with the 4th note sharp). The first Masada group consisted of Zorn on alto sax, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. (Their first concert was at the Knitting Factory in the East Village, as part of a month-long celebration of Zorn's 40th birthday.)

Masada was one of the three or four signature jazz groups of the decade; their music was riveting, adventurous, but also graceful, swinging and deep in the blues. The quartet recorded 10 studio CDs of 10 songs each, on the Japanese DIW label. Then Zorn formed his own label—Tzadik—which released five double-disc albums of live concerts. He then wrote a few hundred more Masada tunes and formed different ensembles to play them—the Masada String Trio (Cohen on bass, Mark Feldman on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello), the Bar Kokhba Sextet (the trio augmented by Marc Ribot on guitar, Baron on drums and Cyro Baptista on percussion), and more. One of the Zorn@60 concerts this past month was a 4½ hour "Masada marathon," consisting of 11 different bands and two soloists, each playing three Masada compositions. (The soloists were Erik Friedlander on cello and Uri Caine on piano, both—like nearly everyone that night—at peak powers.)

Since the turn of the century, Zorn's music has grown richer, subtler, more complex, and more graceful. One of his recent Tzadik CDs, A Vision in Blakelight, is inspired by the mystical writings of William Blake, and there's a Romantic reverie, a meditative depth, to Zorn's take on Blake that I think the earlier Zorn would have skirted—or perhaps touched on, then maneuvered around—in favor of the poet's grislier dark side. Part of it is the ensemble Zorn has put together: piano, harp, and vibes (played by John Medeski, Carol Emanuel, and Kenny Wolleson), as well as drums, percussion, and bass (Baron, Baptista, and Trevor Dunn). Vibes and harp don't figure much in early Zorn, but they do in a lot of his recent recordings.

Dreamachines, another new album, is inspired by the "cut-up" techniques of Bryon Gysin and William Burroughs, who in the early 1960s literally cut up passages and paragraphs they'd written, then rearranged them in random order—a literature of collage. Zorn has experimented with musical equivalents of this for a long time. But while his earlier renditions have a slash-and-burn vibe, this new one is infused with the melodic lyricism of Masada, and features the same group as the Blake album (minus the harp). I don't mean to draw too sharp a contrast. Zorn's early collages weren't harsh; they were witty, imaginative, sometimes ingenious. And I wouldn't call Dreamachines "mellow"; they're too riveting for that. But even on some of the Masada albums, a gorgeous swaying tune would be followed by a noise-feast. Now Zorn has figured out how to put everything he knows into a single composition. The more closely you listen, the more amazing this stuff is.

Zorn has always been attentive to sound quality, and these albums, engineered by Marc Urselli, is no exception. They sound terrific.

One more note. Don't think that John Zorn has abandoned his avant ways, his native Zorn. Toward the end of the Masada marathon last month, the Electric Masada band took the stage, and for the first time that night, Zorn played his alto sax, beginning with his loft-day squeals and squalls, before settling into a virtuosic blues groove, then putting the horn aside to conduct the band, pointing from one player to another as signals to come in, fade out, join in, go their own way, merge. At one point, a pure sonic energy heaved forth from the stage, I wouldn't know how to describe it, don't know how he pulled it off, Zorn seemed dazzled too, as he turned around to face the audience, holding his arms out, smiling, nodding his head, as if to say, "Can you believe this," and the audience roared in amazement.

torturegarden's picture

Thanks for this nice article on John Zorn. I've been listening to his music for many years and like how his sound has evolved and matured. The fisrt Zorn album I bought was Spillane, on cassette. It was a musical turning point for my 15 year old ears and moved me away from Top 40 into more serious and exciting music. It's hard to believe that he's 60 already. While I havwe trouble keeping up with his frentic release schedule, I hope he continues to put out lots more interesting music for many years to come. 

Fred Kaplan's picture

"Spillane" is a terrific album, and, a few years ago, was reissued on CD along with "Godard," another very nice piece from the same era.

Johan B's picture

Zorn TAP / book of angels, Pat Metheny ... Fantastic music. I am glued to my headphones.