Zorn-dedicated festival ends in a shower of joy
Photo credit: Gulbenkian Musica_Petra Cvelbar
LISBON – With a mix of the new and the older, the ten-day Jazz em Agusto festival of avant and improvised music came to a close Sunday night.
It was a well-crafted celebration of the impact and continuing influence of the New-York based composer and multi-instrumentalist, with performances that included Zorn in three of the concerts, the others played by musicians who are part of his growing musical family, who appreciate his music invites improvisational development.
The early show Sunday night featured the pristine music of the Julian Lage and Gyan Riley guitar duo who played pieces they recorded in Midsummer Moons (Tzadik), the beautiful guitar music inspired by Shakespearean lunar imagery. Who would think that Zorn, with his image as an enfant terrible of convention-defying music, would come up with such idyllic music that reflects the order and symmetry of the European Medieval period? But there it was, with the two accomplished and highly motivated players playing in such well-managed tandem, in conversation, and in support of each other’s explorations. The standing-room crowd was enthralled, and apart from one baby’s initial cries, there was a magical quality to the way the music was played, and received. After half a dozen pieces, they switched the more complex harmonies, rhythms, and dynamics of Zorn’s Bagatelles series of 300 short pieces, and their pathways to spontaneous improvisation. In one of them, Lage seemed to impart an almost human quality to his guitar. At times it seemed to be talking to its audience. Having seen this duo playing Bagatelles in Victoriaville, QC. in 2016, I can say they’ve developed a remarkable synergy that makes them sound bigger and broader, with incredibly tight communication.
The icing on this musical cake was the late-night performance from the Masada songbook by the seven-member Secret Chiefs 3. They closed the festival with music from the same iconic series that Zorn on alto sax performed on July 28 with Dave Douglas (trumpet), Joey Baron (drums), and Greg Cohen (bass). This Masada, led by guitarist Trey Spruance, was an ear-opener with its fresh and sometimes explosive approach propelled by its two superb drummers, Kenny Grohowski and the energetic Ches Smith, who added percussive variety on vibraphone and by hand drumming. With Shanir Blumenkrantz on electric bass, the rhythm section provided a powerful dynamic framework to the Sephardic, Middle Eastern, and Klezmer melodies that are inherent to this music. It is a testimony to Zorn’s successful role in giving new life to these traditions. Along with keyboardist Matt Lebofsky, the lead melodist in laying out these lines was Eyvind Kang, playing soulfully on an amplified acoustic violin. It was a joyous and swinging ride, and in a country where the Inquisition took a fearful toll, a historic occasion to witness a capacity crowd wildly cheering Zorn’s creativity.