[2014126] Zorn@60

[2014126] Zorn@60

John Zorn (and at least twenty-one friends) @ Festival Theatre

7:30pm, Fri 14 Mar 2014

And so it came to this: the reason for John Zorn’s presence in this Festival. A celebration of music in honour of his sixtieth birthday (which actually fell six months earlier); a series of musical explorations assembled by the birthday boy himself. To say that Zorn@60 was a genre-bending spectacle completely understates the breadth of its sources; everything from ambient to classical, pop to jazz to metal, was covered.

And it all felt so very, very consistent within the framework that Zorn set up.

The opening act, the Zorn-conducted Song Project, featured Mike Patton, Sofia Rei, and Jesse Harris on vocals… but the opening piece was a rendition of Batman – which just happened to be the first ever Naked City track I ever heard, way back in 1992. It was a complete surprise to hear that as an opener, but it made me feel completely at home; and whilst I wasn’t that enamoured with Harris’ vocal stylings, Rei’s smooth latin-influenced voice was a source of sheer delight, and the band (featuring, amongst others, the wonderful Joey Baron / Trevor Dunn rhythm section, as well as Marc Ribot on guitar) covered territory from thrashy punk to cool pop. A note-perfect Osaka Bondage was icing on the cake.

An interval preceded a trio of stripped-back performances: Illuminations provided some smoother free-jazz pieces, with Dunn on bass, Kenny Wollesen on percussion, and Stephen Gosling on keys; the intensity of the performance was noticeably decreased from the opening bracket, but in its place came subtlety and nuance. This trend was further highlighted by The Holy Visions, a five-voice all-female a cappella group whose occasionally breathy moments evoked thoughts of chamber music. Then came a string quartet from the Elision Ensemble (who had featured in the Classical Marathon that I had also missed) performing The Alchemist: a challenging piece for this listener, featuring all the discordance of Naked City’s work with none of the underpinning action. Once I got into the groove of it (or lack thereof), though, it became another invigorating experience.

Another interval allowed time for the Moonchild project to set up: Patton providing vocals over Baron, Dunn, and John Medeski’s driving score. Another brilliant example in variations of intensity, individual songs would range from creeping ascensions to violent outbursts to peaceful interludes; Patton worked both as a singer and an instrument, crooning and growling and spitting as needed.

The Dreamers, with Ribot joining the Baron / Dunn pairing with percussionist Cyro Baptista, Wollesen, and Jamie Saft on keys, were a fair bit punchier than their moniker suggested; but there were also moments of sparseness tinged with middle-eastern notes that intrigued. But then came the closing act, a return of Electric Masada; as the group assembled onstage (with Zorn taking up position as conductor), someone in the front couple of rows yelled out “must be time for more saxophone!” – to which Zorn turned to him, grinned, and raised a solitary middle finger. His alto did make an appearance in that blistering final set (with a callback to the audience member), in a vicious aural assault that genuinely amazed me… this is what I missed on the opening night of Zornapalooza? I suspect that regret will only intensify as I age, but I will revel in the Electric Masada memories that I do have… which include an incredulous Cyro Baptista shaking odd foam concoctions and fisting a drum for percussive effects.

Festival Artistic Director David Sefton proudly tells the story of how he lured Zorn to Adelaide… fulfilling the promise to “do it right,” a massive ensemble of musicians accompanied the composer out to our sleepy Festival town, often for only short stints onstage (Dave Lombardo’s appearance for the opener of the Triple Bill springs to mind). But you get the feeling that, far from this being product of rock-star excess or hubris, Zorn needed these people – these contemporaries – to be here, and he honoured every instance of their work with pre- and post-performance introductions.

Zorn@60 was, quite frankly, fucking magnificent. Lights dropped at 7:30pm; they came up for the last time at 12:15am. Nearly every minute in between (except for the intervals, and even then the observations and conversations were scintillating entities unto themselves) belongs in a highlights reel somewhere. Simply astonishing musicianship by musicians that appeared to be incredibly happy performing their art, all brought together by a musical luminary who is unlikely to be equalled (in my ear). As excited as I was when Zorn’s participation in this Festival was announced, the reality far exceeded the expectation; my only was regret was that I didn’t catch the opening Masada Marathon performance.

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