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John Zorn: Not All About Jazz

Elliott Simon By

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I don't think in terms of time. I think in terms of good art and bad art' I try to create work that is timeless; that will speak to people who are interested in referencing truth and beauty. —John Zorn
Over a 30-year period, John Zorn has produced a compendium of original work that while daunting in scope and complexity is equally enticing for its musical and cultural sensibility. As a musician, composer and producer, he has expanded the way we think about art, cultural identity and the artificial boundaries that exist among musical genres. John Zorn is not all about jazz or any other genre for that matter. He is likewise not, as some would say, about their destruction. In fact, he displays a keener sense and understanding of musical style than most. As a result of this understanding, he is not only able to test musical limits with his sax, pen and CD label "Tzadik," but to also array and combine disparate and at times very traditional styles into something new. At his most influential, he easily copes with the long-standing musical dialectic between innovation and tradition to impart a new vision.

As both artist and composer, John Zorn is passionate about his creative efforts and his expectations are high for himself. "The only expectation I have for myself is to try and do something new and different on the highest level that I can do. I don't always expect that I can do it, but I try as hard as I can." In celebration of his 50th birthday, the Lower East Side musical venue "tonic" will devote all of September's 30 nights to presentations of John Zorn's work. The complete program is expectedly eclectic in its breadth and showcases a musical sensitivity that should delight and intrigue those who attend. While the month long celebration concentrates on highlighting work completed within the last 10 years, several pre-1993 "golden oldies" as well as the world premiere of two new compositional pieces round out the program.

Each specific day of the week has been earmarked for a particular purpose. Mondays consist of performance sets that feature Zorn on sax and highlight improvisational interactions. A host of familiar Zorn cohorts will participate; their presence speaks to his ability to bring together influential artists who have begun their careers at various points during the last 50 years. John however, does not think of his music as owing allegiance to any particular cultural time period "I don't think in terms of time. I think in terms of good art and bad art' I try to create work that is timeless; that will speak to people who are interested in referencing truth and beauty." Experimental Vocalist Mike Patton and drum machinist Ikue Mori join Zorn on September 1st to kick off these improvisational sessions and inaugurate the birthday celebration. The following Monday features a solo Zorn set and also teams him with seminal percussionist Milford Graves. Subsequent Mondays include electric guitarist Fred Frith, vocalist Yamatsuka Eye, percussionist Susie Ibarra, and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. The final Monday has Zorn joining with distinctive sound shaping British guitarist Derek Bailey and then expanding to a trio with the addition of Ikue Mori.

Tuesdays feature compositional works and include a presentation of 1993's "Kristallnacht," Zorn's powerful reflection on the Jewish experience before during and after the Holocaust. It has become a landmark composition and marks the beginning of "Radical Jewish Culture"; a culture that has begun to fill a void partly left by a cessation in the evolution of secular Eastern European Jewish Music. Tuesdays will also play host to a night of guitar music with "The Book of Heads," a compilation of 35 etudes written for Eugene Chadbourne and performed by guitarist Marc Ribot. That same evening, Marc will be joined by surprise special guests to perform arrangements of pieces from the "Masada songbook"; 200+ compositions written for "Masada," Zorn's band with trumpeter Dave Douglas, drummer Joey Baron and bassist Greg Cohen. Other nights include "Duras:Duchamp," tributes to writer Marguerite Duras and artist Marcel Duchamp; and selections from Zorn's multiple film scores.

Each of September's four Wednesdays will provide a midweek repast by highlighting a different game piece. Game pieces force the musical participants to abide by a series of rules. A prompter acts as manager and modifier by using hand signals and/or flashcards to clue and direct the action. An upturned thumb may mean a particular sound or coloration. A certain card flashed may mean something more complex. The result can be unexpected for all involved including the musicians and listeners. This approach to the improvisatory action imparts an underlying semi-structure that may not be evident to the listener, as in most cases they are unaware of the rules. Rules can be simple or quite complex. For example, one of "Hockey's" rules limits the number of sounds an improviser is allowed to play, while in "Cobra" there are situations that allow exemption from the rules for a certain number of beats. A key to the presentation of these pieces is the adaptability and the skill of the musicians involved. In addition to series opener "Cobra," which has been the most performed game piece, "Hockey," "Lacrosse," "Rugby," "Bezique," "Xu Feng," "Fencing" and "Locus Solus" are also scheduled.

The weekends start on Thursday, and for 3 nights each week the " tonic" will play host to the bands. The opening Thursday set features a hit of the recent Visions Festival, the "Masada String Trio". As featured on the Tzadik CD, The Circle Maker, cellist Erik Friedlander, violinist Mark Feldman, and bassist Greg Cohen perform precise interpretations of pieces from the Masada songbook with John Zorn conducting. Emblematic of the entire program's variety, the mosh pit inducing sounds of the trio, "Painkiller," pick up the first Friday and Saturday night sets. This incarnation includes Zorn on sax, bassist Bill Laswell and newest member Hamid Drake on drums and percussion. The following weekend opens with "The Gift," an inquiry into mellow moods; sit back relax and enjoy. "Bar Kochba," or Masada Chamber Ensembles, holds forth the next two nights and features many of the Masada project musicians presenting elegantly arranged versions of pieces from their songbook. "Masada" and "Electric Masada" close out the final two weekends and are slated for two full 3-night performances unto themselves. "Electric Masada" is a recent venture composed of Zorn, Marc Ribot, "New Klezmer Trio" drummer Kenny Wollensen, Cyro Baptista's intriguing percussion, Jamie Saft's keyboard/synth stylings and Trevor Dunn's bass; it as its name implies, the electric version of "Masada".

Sundays are devoted to concert works and showcase the most overtly classical music of the month. During this time "Sortilege" and "Neconomicon" will world premiere. "The Complete String Quartets," that include an interpretation of the sacred Jewish melody "Kol Nidre" and "Memento Mori" dedicated to Ikue, begin these presentations. The following Sunday, the three chamber pieces that comprise the Tzadik CD Love, Madness and Mysticism; "Le M'mo," "Untitled" and "Amour Fou" will be performed. These are written for piano and violin, solo cello and piano trio respectively. "Chimeras," a chamber work in 12 movements and "Goetia: Incantations for Violin" round out the Sunday programs. With a month as diverse as this, John Zorn is most assuredly not all about jazz; it would be much more accurate to say he is all about music.

For more information, visit http://www.tzadik.com or http://www.tonicnyc.com .

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