AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: 39th Musique Actuelle Festival – John Zorn and Crew Delight Fans

VICTORIAVILLE, Que. – The final Festival International de Musique Actuelle concerts began Sunday with the creations of two Japanese sound wizards, but for unrivaled enthusiasm and big crowds nothing compared to John Zorn and his musical family later that day.

Using a home-made organ with 11 tubes and synthesizer, Yosuke Fujita and computer sound creator Tetsuo Yamatsuka ranged through a catalogue of soundscapes, from a computer-generated rumble and distant thunder to sounds that resembled crunching and storms. At one point Yamatsuka removed one of the tubes and blew into it, the pacing turned upbeat, and we could almost forget that most of what we heard is the product of technical artifice.

The next show, all acoustic, was easily a highlight among the 19 concerts we heard over four days: Canadian clarinetist François Houle, Brooklyn-based drummer Kate Gentile, and British pianist Alexander Hawkins delivered such a sublime and engaging set of songs that they made the listener erase the lines separating free jazz from what is considered contemporary classical. Solos were developed to enhance and deepen each piece and they just kept getting better. Communication among trio members was at the highest level – a dazzling performance!

Festival staff offered earplugs for the next show, a Noise outing with the French duo of electric guitarist Nina Garcia and Arnaud Rivière on electroacoustics. It was truly a visceral experience: apart from what we were hearing, from a wall of sound to a canvass of growls, we could feel the music vibrating through our bodies.

Introducing the first of the evening shows, John Zorn embraced Michel Levasseur, who is stepping down as general manager and artistic director, thanking him for his work at the festival, now in its 39th edition, and a full house at the city’s downtown cultural center rose and applauded enthusiastically. The search is on for a replacement.

The first evening concert was a double-header of Zorn’s New Music for Trios, the first segment being the pieces in the Tzadik album Suite for Piano with Brian Marsella (piano), Jorge Roeder (bass), and Ches Smith (drums). They played ten pieces in an hour, ballads and up-tempo tunes, as much a showcase for Zorn’s beautiful compositions as for Marsella’s pianistic prowess and romantic touch. Problems with his monitor, which took a while to resolve, interrupted the emotional connection and creative concentration of the concert’s first half, but they were eventually corrected. This concert was another highlight.

The shorter second segment featured the music that Zorn composed for the more electric, rock-oriented sound of John Medeski (organ), Matt Hollenberg (electric guitar), and Kenny Grohowski (drums). There is no doubting Medeski’s fluidity and improvisational prowess at the organ, Hollenberg’s fiery and enthusiastic guitar work, and Grohowski’s propulsive drive, but their set didn’t have as strong an impact as the acoustic trio that came before them.

The icing on the proverbial cake came with Zorn’s New Masada Quartet, which raised the roofbeams when it comes to communication and shared musical pleasure among the musicians and with the most enthusiastic audience and biggest crowd of this festival. We were simply mesmerized.

Zorn on alto sax, bassist Jorge Roeder, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and electric guitarist Julian Lage played from the Masada songbook, both new and old, on this 30th anniversary of the first Masada series. All the tunes are based on Jewish scales that resemble Klezmer and traditional synagogue music, delivered in various contemporary styles that include free jazz.

The music is infectious and is characterized by a relative simplicity of structure compared to some of the more complex compositions heard in avant jazz.

I have never seen Zorn happier than he was playing this music with these musicians Sunday night. Apart from his signature style on the sax, he also showed why he is so successful as a prolific composer and in directing the musicians in real time, as he did with hand motions to give him more of this or more of that, when to come in during improv segments, and when to shift from one mode to another. After each song, he was beaming, even embracing his crew for delivering the goods. The love poured out for all to see and hear.

It was a great way to close the last festival under Michel Levasseur and see how someone like Zorn and his virtuosic band members can draw and delight relatively large crowds — even when associated with the adventurist world of musique actuelle.

Irwin Block

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