One of these two John Zorn gigs cost more to enter than the other. One of them possibly featured a portion of its customers who might just have been hoping that one of its artists would sing and play some non-improvised material. Lou Reed and John Zorn performed in January of 2008 at the latter's Lower East Side venue, The Stone, with a people-capacity of maybe sixty. In that joint, folks knew to expect the unexpected, but the freshly opened Poisson Rouge club in Greenwich Village has an as-yet untested demographic, even though its booking policy is turning out to be almost as adventurous as The Stone's, particularly given its much larger size and very accessible location. So, Reed is in a decidedly improvisational mode (even though his roadie periodically seems to place sheets of paper on a music stand: do these contain musical notation, reminders for effects pedal settings, or incoming emails?), but this state should come as little surprise, as he's been sculpting spontaneous "noise" since the Velvet Underground days. Reed presumably feels more settled as a linear riff-generator, even if these repeated structures might extrude in slow motion, or be disguised as ascending guitar fanfares. He can't escape some kind of rock'n'roll structure, but the resultant drones and swoops are still highly abstract when viewed from outside improvisation's inner sanctum. Zorn takes on the role of active partner, even if only because he's playing faster, stuffing more circular-breath throttling into the space, taking his alto saxophone tone to the highest cutting reaches, and sustaining great caterwauling threads at unending length. Whether pre-meditated or not, the pair end up mimicking Middle Eastern or gypsy drones, even going as far as the Basque Country and Scotland in their search for extended bleating textures. Most of the music is deliberately targeted to sound painful or produce pain, but in a very controlled manner, shaped with precise attention to agony-detail. Earlier, frequent Zorn collaborators Phantom Orchard had taken harp and laptop to the perimeter, but now Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori return for the encore, preceded by vocalist Mike Patton, who divides his stage-time between bassy beatboxing, chimpanzee gabblings and sometimes a highly tuneful sweet keen that lies comfortably on top of the Zorn/Reed wash. This is ultimately Zorn's universe, but Reed is visibly excited by this new area of collaborative activity. Such adventurous searching is becoming an important factor in his musical life, far removed from any settling into a greatest hits complacency.
Two nights later, Zorn has had a haircut, and the band is playing in the round. The Poisson stage possibilities are interestingly varied. The evening's first set is cancelled at extremely short notice, due to what's described as either 'illness' or a severe 'personal situation.' This means that bassman Bill Laswell will no longer appear, and Zorn's rustled up guitarist Marc Ribot as a replacement for the second set. This switch has the result of completely changing the musical landscape. With Laswell, events would have taken a pulsing, trundling dub turn, but with Ribot's guitar in place, the improvisations immediately surge up in a power trio attack of scrabbly, trebly hyperactivity, Milford Graves opting for dense free jazz blurring, with only isolated pools of sensitive pottering. There's a more noticeable rapport between Zorn and Ribot, a result of their ongoing collaborations. They're reacting to each other within a millisecond, constructing twinned howls and fast repeats whilst Graves is circulating his thunder. Ribot has an amazing control over his guitar sound, switching quickly from shaken feedback to near- acoustic Delta blues scrabbles, from Derek Bailey to Jimi Hendrix to Hank Williams. Zorn is forced to react speedily, as Ribot immolates himself. There's going to be two special guests for the price of one, Zorn announces, just before taking a break. Lou Reed's the man, and Ribot's going to remain, setting up the anticipation of a duelling banjos scenario. Yes, the axeman testosterone is soon spurting (as well as Zorn's showering of spittle, shot at massive velocity out of his horn bell, revealed by sickly blue lighting). Reed's better in this setting, which although remaining improvised, ends up being a sharp combination of free jazz and free rock's prime advantages. Reed selects the growling subtone zone that Laswell would have colonised, whilst Ribot tackles the tinnitus end. Reed's deliberately dinosaur-sluggish, death metal slow, as Ribot crams as much screaming detail in as possible. Graves is vocalising, adding an Afro-theatre aspect. Zorn is playing lower-note bursts, slightly obscured in the increasingly competitive mix. The vibration is just right: a mammoth sound of violent tussling, performed with masculine subtlety.
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