VICTORIAVILLE, Que. – John Zorn’s music – his audacious, innovative spirit and knack for getting top performers to give it their all–dominated the third day of the Festival de Musique Actuelle in this quiet city 100 miles northeast of Montreal.
How could it not?
Zorn’s brought the cream of his musical family here – 20 in all – for a nine-concert marathon in three separate shows lasting a total of 320 minutes, with two half-hour breaks. The festival is a major showcase of new and experimental music, now it its 32nd year.
Zorn didn’t play a note, but sitting in the wings, smiling and shaking his head in time with the beat, that spirit infused the marathon with a sense of history, the first time these pieces are played outside New York City.
The musicians played brilliantly and with considerable gusto from the 300-piece songbook called bagatelles that Zorn composed over three months– short pieces that could be played by any combination of instruments. The musicians were expected to develop the heads to suit their creative instincts.
Several hundred Zorn freaks sat quietly in chairs that covered the hockey arena floor, seemed enraptured by what they heard, and remained transfixed until the last note sounded at 1:20 a.m.
The first show opened with violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier sounding the most inspired by the atonal legacy of Viennese composer Anton Webern, whose Six Bagatelles for String Quartet sparked Zorn’s compositional zeal. Courvoisier roaming over the keys in Don-Pullen like flourishes as Feldman delivered concentrated and rapid-fire multi-octave bowing.
The math-metal power trio called Trigger – Will Greene (electric guitar), Simon Hanes (electric bass), Aaron Edgcomb (drums) – changed the vibe with their high-energy attack, but as the next group, a quartet led by pianist Kris Davis was about to begin, the only incident of the festival unfolded.
Believing a photographer was breaking the festival’s no recording, no visuals rules. Zorn ordered him to stop filming, and unleashed a short tirade, telling the crowd it was for them, because he insisted on “respect for you, the audience.”
“This is a special, sacred event,” he intoned, insisting that no intermediaries should get between the audience and the performers. “We don’t give a fuck about what the press has to say, we’re here to perform for you,” he proclaimed, adding he was proud that only those in the audience will ever hear what they had to offer.
In all the performances of this music at Zorn’s The Stone, he boasted that not one recording has made it to YouTube.
Some journalists complained privately about not having access to fresh visuals, but Zorn’s action had no effect on the amazing music that soon ensued – pianist Kris Davis, with Mary Halvorson (electric guitar), Drew Gress (bass), and Tyhsawn Sorey (drums) played an intense, free-flowing, melodic and exploratory set that seemed propelled by logic even as it offered the unexpected.
Zorn commented: “They’ve got to do an encore for you because they’re just so fucking good.” The musicians responded with a beautiful piece that featured some brilliant guitar-piano call-and-response.
Julian Lage and Gyan Riley sat side-by- side playing acoustic guitar, one soloing while the other accompanied, or playing off each other. They looked at each other constantly and their communication and coordination were so tight that it could hardly last for more than the 20 or so minutes of their gig.
Another power trio emerged when John Medeski took over on Hammond B-3 organ in an avant rock outing with the brazen electric guitarist David Fiuczynski and drummer Calvin Weston, both relatively new to the Zorn musical family. Medeski seemed to make the organ come alive, almost like an extension of his self. The music sang to us, even as it could be felt viscerally.
It was ‘Round Midnight when the third segment got underway, first with guitarist Halvorson fronting a quartet of Miles Okazaki (electric guitar), bassist Drew Gress and drummer Thomas Fujiwara. By this time the marathon had a numbing effect on listeners – but the last two groups overcame that barrier.
Pianist Uri Cain and Medeski on Hammond B-3 played together like two children with new toys – music that combined heart and mind, passion and skill, a total thrill. For the finale, Zorn emerged from the wings to seat himself cross-legged next to electric guitarist Marc Ribot (as he does with such groups as electric Masada) to direct him and band mates Trevor Dunn (electric bass) and the propulsive Tyshawn Sorey (drums) in a high-energy and at times frenzied attack on bagatelles charts – including choosing which they should play.
It was about 1:20 a.m. when all 20 musicians came on stage for final bows, each getting a handshake from a beaming Zorn.
The marathon overshadowed anything else we heard on Day 3. Still, the Vancouver-based Tony Wilson Sextet deserves praise for an outstanding performance.
Plying music from his excellent A Day’s Life CD (Drip Audio), electric guitarist/composer Wilson delivered stirring musical narratives based on his own harrowing days as a homeless drug abuser on Vancouver’s seamy east side. The music took us to his various experiences, thoughtfully interpreted and delivered passionately by his band that included two outstanding avant players – violinist Jesse Zubot and cellist Peggy Lee. Both deserve much wider recognition.