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John Zorn at 70 at Great American Music Hall

John Zorn at 70 at Great American Music Hall

Courtesy Marc Siegler


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Zorn at 70
Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, CA
August 30-September 3, 2023

Day One, August 30, 2023

"Breaking Ground" with John Medeski and Dave Lombardo

Last night, the intergalactic Starship John Zorn descended from New York into San Francisco for a five- night residency at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall to celebrate Zorn's 70th birthday.

Zorn, a legendary avant-garde composer and saxophonist whose Promethean and prolific output of performances and recordings involves endless configurations that span every imaginable musical idiom—jazz and free jazz, classical, film music, minimalism, experimental, hardcore punk, surf music, heavy metal, Jewish musical traditions, including Klezmer—in short, "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once."

He first came to my attention when he led his original Masada group at a live performance in Seattle in 2000. His music and presence gripped me like a backhoe gripping the earth. I instantly became a Zorn fanatic, seeing him at every chance.

He was attired in his characteristic uniform: T-shirt/hoodie, variegated sneakers, camouflage cargo pants, and with the ritual tzitzis tassels hanging from his waist, typical of an observant Jew.

From high priest Zorn's pyrotechnic reed, keyboard octopus John Medeski's mad B-3 organ, and polyrhythmic explosions from incendiary Cuban-born drummer Dave Lombardo a furious bliss ensued. To say that they hit the ground burning is a vast understatement of their force and fire. Beginning at the decibel level of a roaring rocket, they surfed across a montage of compositional artistry and screaming solos, all unified by tight communication and interplay. The audience was spellbound by the tangible multi-sensory assault on eyes, ears, and skin—the ecstatic universe of sensory overload characteristic of Zorn's art and artistry.

His energy level is immense and impossible to imagine. A fine mist emanated in a halo of spray from his relentless alto sax reed as his pretzel body contorted, and his unfathomable embouchures and circular breathing produced otherworldly sounds. Even while fully engaged with his horn, Zorn conducted his bandmates with expert hand and arm gestures that delineated stops, solos, and section shifts throughout the action.

The sold-out audience's cheering standing ovation was well-deserved and occasioned him to do one of his rare encores.

Day Two, August 31, 2023

With Laurie Anderson and Bill Frisell

This second sold-out evening was a trio of three giants. Zorn used his circular breathing to roll out an elongated theme. Anderson immediately dropped in with the oblique musical voice of her self-invented tape bow electric violin, joined by Frisell's blazing, diagonal, and skewed lines that enhanced the absorbing interplay among all three.

This interplay was astounding and reflected Zorn's disciplined alchemy of bringing the transforming power of his and his bandmates' explosive improvisational fire to his sophisticated compositions. Themes morphed into Leitmotifs, ever-changing and shifting. It was as though these musicians had blended into one ever-divergent mind-body-spirit with six arms. Variations flowed naturally into solo sections, with each artist being aware of and locked in synch with the others. Zorn didn't need to conduct this interplay; it perfectly and naturally choreographed itself.

Halfway through the set, Zorn invited ear-and-earth-shaking drummer Dave Lombardo to join the merriment. And what an addition, providing a solid foundation and rocket fuel for the band's outward-bound explorations. Lombardo offered that "Je ne sais quoi" to blast the band and the rest of us out of Earth's orbit.

Alas, after about an hour, it was time for re-entry. The audience's desires had been served, yet they still understandably clamored for more.

Day Three, September 1, 2023

The New Masada Quartet, with Julian Lage, Kenny Wollesen, and Jorge Roeder

Zorn's music routinely takes it to the limit and beyond. This night was no exception. Even as the musicians took the stage, there was a sense of excitement. Masada's only show, at 11:00 p.m., was sold out once again. The exchanges between Zorn and guitarist Lage were incredible. Bassist Roeder's cascading arpeggios, superb tone, and sharp yet lyrical lines provided a solid staging for the band to fly high. Wollesen's drumming added startling, super-charged reports at the right moments, with off-beat syncopations alighting like hummingbirds.

The audience was again transported. John Zorn is a once-in-a-century musical phenomenon. His vast multi-genre abilities have fathered a whole new direction of music. He is more than a musician; he is an artist-shaman and avatar of music's endless possibilities.

Day Five, September 3, 2023

The New Electric Masada

The New Electric Masada was the final show and the culmination of John Zorn's 5-day 70th birthday residency. I had already attended six of the series' fifteen performances, which made me suspect that with this band's stellar personnel, the music would be off-the-hook incredible.

The audience's anticipation reached a fever pitch even before the show began. The sound check was an hour and a half long, and the musicians received a standing ovation as they took the stage. The stage setup was mindfully and artfully arranged. Medeski's organ and its Leslie commanded the left side center rear, with guitarists Julian Lage and Matt Hollenberg in front. Drummer Wollesen sat to the left of the guitars. In the center rear was Trevor Dunn's bass, with drummer Ches Smith to the right and Cyro Baptista's percussion to his left. Brian Marsella's Fender Rhodes was in the rear center of stage right, with Zorn sitting to his forward left. The Japanese electronics whiz Ikue Mori was to the left front of Zorn's location—a beautifully balanced setup.

Zorn, mike-free, roared as he introduced the musicians, after which he led in with a long horn skronk morphing into a soulful vamp that felt like Irish Jig music from Tangiers. The musicians entered the fray upon his pointed directions until it was a ten- piece free-for-all. This set was more structured than anything I had heard all week. The instrumentation provided many unusual combinations and colors and was a joy. All musicians were provided solo space in the four selections, and all delivered. One of the selections drifted in and out of ballad form, but the other three were all screamin' up-tempo monsters-of-the-deep-and-varied kind.

Drawing to a conclusion, Zorn gave warm acknowledgments and hugs to each player. It was thrilling and heartwarming to witness as they made made their departure from the stage

The unifying link in all of this is, of course, Zorn himself. He is a paragon of art and artistry, creative genius, joyful presence, and natural self-assurance. This explains his massive following even in the most edgy genres, such as impromptu free jazz. While performing regularly in New York, he will, on rare occasions, do a stint in San Francisco and even Tokyo. Zorn is a living treasure.

The New Electric Masada

John Zorn; Julian Lage, Matt Hollenberg; Kenny Wollesen, Ches Smith; Cyro Baptista; John Medeski; Brian Marsella; Ikue Mori and Trevor Dunn.

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