Zorn Triple Bill
John Zorn (and fifteen friends) @ Festival Theatre
7:30pm, Thu 13 Mar 2014
Music, eh? It’s a funny thing, what with “taste” and all that. My own musical preferences have wandered all over the musical map, and are currently mired in a resurgence of interest in pop… but, while I was at Uni, I was really into heavier stuff.
In particular, I was a massive fan of Faith No More. And by “massive”, I mean “let’s take the day off lectures to hang around at the airport holding a massive banner waiting for them to arrive” type of thing. Yes, I was an airport groupie kinda guy. And, given that my interest in FNM kicked off with The Real Thing, my fandom directed me to check out vocalist Mike Patton’s other band, Mr. Bungle.
Mr. Bungle’s first major-label release was completely unlike anything I’d ever heard before: musically, it was like an insanely bright DayGlo jigsaw puzzle, and the album featured impeccable production. The sonic construction intrigued me, and I started looking into the producer of that album: someone named John Zorn.
I soon discovered that this Zorn character had released a few (read: squillion) albums of his own, so I tentatively got Greg at Uni Records to order one in, knowing nothing about its content. That first Zorn album was his band Naked City‘s debut album, and… it was amazing. More Naked City followed, along with the improvisational Locus Solus, the eerie Elegy, and one of his other band projects, the brutal Painkiller. Sure, that collection wasn’t something you’d leave in the CD player for weeks – or even days – at a time, but I had a massive amount of respect for the musical invention contained therein… especially when I discovered that Naked City’s work was actually composed.
Clearly, John Zorn was a mad genius… and that is how the Zorn’s name became implanted in my brain.
And then, as I’ve mentioned before, on the third of September last year Festival Artistic Director David Sefton had an on-stage chat with Katrina Sedgwick; as part of their “conversation,” two of the headline acts for the 2014 Festival were announced. The first was Roman Tragedies, which had me excited… the other announcement, though, literally made me squeal with excitement.
Yes, I squealed. Like a plump pig being tickled whilst rolling in mud, I squealed very, very audibly. David briefly turned to see what the noise had been. Festival Chief Executive Karen Bryant, sitting in the front row directly in front of me, turned to give me a glare… and a grin. After the formal announcements, I roamed the room, shaking the hand of anyone on the Board with excitement; “You happy with that?” one of my usual Festival bigwig friends asked. My response was ever-so-enthusiastic and profane:
Let’s just say that yes, I was pretty damn happy.
But then the reality of The Shortlist set in, and I became aware that seeing all four evenings of Zorn’s expedition would severely impact other shows; hindsight is certainly twenty-twenty, and I know now that I wouldn’t have really missed much by committing to a non-stop Zorn-fest. But the one performance I was not going to miss – and the one performance that I was urging everyone to go and see – was this one: Zorn Triple Bill.
And after hearing murmurs about the quality of the first two nights of Zornapalooza, I was giddy with excitement… and, having reached out to one of my Uni friends that I’d not seen in years to share the experience, I found myself in a prime position in Festival Theatre. We were set.
The Zorn Triple Bill was so named for the three distinctly different pieces to be performed, each of which had a particular bit of interest to me. The opening piece was Bladerunner, a trio featuring Zorn on sax, the mighty Bill Laswell on bass, and the even mightier Dave Lombardo on drums. To see Laswell perform was a treat in itself (I recommend listening to the Laswell-centric Sacred Dub podcasts for some of his work), almost appearing serenely pious as he underpinned Lombardo’s thrashing and Zorn’s squealing & squawking. The opening pieces were like a punch in the face, fast and powerful, but when Mike Patton appeared to apply guttural roars liberally over the top – playfully engaging with Zorn as he did so – Bladerunner was taken to a whole new level.
Fast, vicious, and brutal. Oh man, that absolutely delivered. I could have gone home more-than-happy at that point.
After a short interval, a ten-piece ensemble was constructed for a series of scores accompanying three short cinematic pieces, projected behind the ensemble whilst they played. Whilst Zorn played alto and conducted the group, the additional attraction here was to see Marc Ribot and (especially) Ikue Mori. Both proved to be quite understated in their stage presence – understandable, really, given they were sharing the stage with Zorn – and Mori, in particular, was so far from what I was expecting that I was taken aback a little.
Unfortunately, even with (or because of?) the visual accompaniment, I found it really difficult to get into the Essential Cinema part of the performance; the pieces were slower, more contemplative, and – whilst they seemed to fit the movies well – didn’t really connect on any level… other than the fact that I was watching these amazing performers.
But that was okay. I was still overjoyed. And the thing I most wanted to see – the headliner of the Triple Bill – was yet to come.
Ever since my early forays into Zorn and Patton, there had been one thing that had always piqued my interest: a musical “game” called Cobra. I’d seen a performance of Cobra at the Wheatsheaf some years back (and this might be it!), and it had left me more-than-curious… to see a Zorn-conducted performance was something that I Would Not Miss. This was the reason I had urged everyone to go to this performance.
And you know what? It delivered.
Zorn “conducted” his ensemble – featuring Patton, Ribot, Mori, Trevor Dunn, and many others – using a collection of cards and gestures, with the showing of a card eliciting delight from the performers. Keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Joey Baron, in particular, often broke into broad grins at the sight of the next cue, and the ensemble in general just showed so much joy… it really did seem as if this group absolutely revelled in the game of Cobra.
But the surprising thing, for me, was how genuinely exciting Cobra was as an audience member. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat, eyes scanning the stage to see how performers responded to the cards, or trying to see what the cards actually were. Another unexpected delight was the discovery that the performers would madly gesture suggestions to Zorn (often whilst frantically playing, or by the application of headwear); Baron would often throw back his head in despair when his requests were denied, but – mere seconds later – would be grinning like a loon as a result of the conducted changes.
The musical output? Well, it was almost immaterial – Cobra is a musical spectator sport – but it varied in pace and intensity, never really settling into any one groove… it really did appear to shift tone on Zorn’s whim. But it was the type of stuff that left me energised and alive… and on my feet.
Despite the relative emotional distance from the Essential Cinema pieces, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Triple Bill was worthy of a standing ovation… especially after that stunning performance of Cobra. I cannot remember a single musical performance that delivered more excitement, more engagement, and generated more joy – both onstage and off. Absolutely exhilarating.