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John Zorn and Bill Laswell at The Stone

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John Zorn/Bill Laswell
The Stone
New York, NY
June 25, 2015

Associations between composer John Zorn and bassist Bill Laswell go back at least to the formation of their band Painkiller (with drummer Mick Harris) in 1991, and it was trailing the shadows of that potent abyss that they reconvened for a rare duo performance during a week-long Laswell residency at Zorn's curatorial sound space, The Stone. Both musicians are, of course, towering figures in their respective fields, statuses neither would ever dream of flaunting. Rather, they walked into the venue through the same door we did, played for an hour, then disappeared into the basement without fanfare. This allowed them to maintain their privacy, and us to divorce the music from the trappings of underground celebrity. To be sure, such humility has made their contributions to recorded art all the more enduring and transfused their thick sonic descriptions with continual blood supply of dedication.

From his array of effects pedals, Laswell outlined the first ritual—for that is indeed what his commanding stoicity made it feel like—with distorted overhead cries. Wah-wah figurations morphed into flanged spirals as Zorn screamed through his alto into the multiverse. Although Zorn's reputation as composer and beacon of the avant-garde has only grown with the decades, it was a privilege to hear his formidable skills on the saxophone in such close quarters. He sang as if keening, employing multiphonics as a wizard might incantations. Each tongue-fluttered expectoration was a wormhole into the dark matter flowing from Laswell's atmospheres with the pulse of a supernova. Applied echo effects added through Zorn's microphone constituted neither an enhancement nor an exaggeration of his notecraft, but a manifestation of the yearning that hooked these sages into a current that was beyond them both. At once prayerful and self-defeating, the result was worship at a molecular level. Laswell excavated melodic graves, even as Zorn filled them with things of lifetimes not yet expired.

The performance warrants such colorful words only because the music was vast enough to contain a million more of them. Whether scaling a ladder of light or descending a tunnel of shadow, each enmeshment yielded an offspring of beautiful contradictions. The quieter passages were therefore unsettling, while the explosive ones were dirges for distant coronas.

Given these nearly inarticulable patterns, it was easy to understand why the duo was billed as Nagual Site. The name comes from a seminal 1998 album by Laswell, but also gives insight into the transitional geometries unfolding on this summer night. The word "Nagual" has origins in Mesoamerican folklore and designates a magical person with the ability to change from human to animal and back again. Zorn and Laswell likewise negotiated shifts of corporeal realities through various rhythmic possibilities. Every tap dislodged a stone, which in turn became a mountain, and further a constellation by which to navigate a loop of tireless praise for all things timeworn. And as one of Laswell's genuine lines took shape in marrow-rattling disguise, it reanimated some of that early Painkiller sound, minus the rattling cage, and cleared the fog to reveal that mortal bridge across which we must all someday walk if we are to rightly call ourselves "alive."

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