John Zorn’s discography is too deep for any one set of reviews. Nonetheless, we have gathered below a handful of reviews of his material and performances that we have written over the last several years.
John Zorn at The Art Institute of Chicago
On September 9, 2018 the Art Institute of Chicago presented performances of musical works by composer John Zorn. Zorn’s unique body of work draws on jazz, rock, punk, metal, classical, klezmer, sacred, mystical, experimental, film, cartoon and improvised music. Zorn is a musical alchemist able to transform this diverse material into something completely new. The program featured six hours of live performances plus documentary screenings. This concert provided listeners a rare opportunity to hear a variety of Zorn’s work expertly performed by many of the musicians that have been part of his universe for decades. John Zorn was also in attendance. He very briefly introduced each of the pieces and the musicians. He also performed in two of the day’s events. For the explorers of John Zorn’s musical universe this was a concert they will remember forever. For new comers and the curious, they were able to sample a very small part of the work of one of the planet’s most prolific and diverse contemporary composers.
The performances were situated in galleries that contained many of the museum’s most iconic art works. This provided an ambiance that allowed the pieces to be a “response” to the art works in the gallery. The day began with the American Brass Quartet greeting visitors as they performed “Pulcinella” on the Grand Staircase of the Art Institute. It was a wonderful performance that echoed through the museum, announcing the beginning of the day’s events. This was followed by an absolutely sublime performance of the “Gnostic Preludes” by the Gnostic Trio – Bill Frisell(guitar), Kenny Wollesen(vibraphone) and Carol Emanuel(harp). Hearing this music so beautifully played in a gallery containing some of the greatest art works of the Impressionist era was pure magic.
At noon it was off to the Dali room to hear members of the JACK quartet – Chris Otto(violin) and Jay Campbell(cello) with Michael Nicolas(cello) in a spectacular virtuosic performance of “Freud”, an intense spiky piece of sharp and sudden contrasts. This was followed by a stunning cello duo performance of “Ouroboros” another of Zorn’s intense virtuoso string works. Following this dramatic intensity was a performance of “Frammenti del Sappho” in the Sculpture Court by the voices of Rachel Calloway, Kirsten Sollek, Sarah Brailey, Eliza Bagg, and Elizabeth Bates. This is an incredibly delicate and beautiful work. The visual setting for this performance was wonderful and the performers were outstanding, but the acoustics didn’t work for me. This is an incredibly powerful piece that when performed in a space with acoustics similar to a church or temple would just wash over you and realign your molecular structure.
Next it was off to the Warhol room for a performance of a jazz inspired work, “Naked Lunch” with Sae Hashimoto(vibraphone), Shanir Blumenkranz(bass) and Ches Smith(drums). It was a very tight, high energy performance. Absolutely wonderful! I heard many people comment that it was their favorite performance of the day. Then it was off to the Joseph Cornell gallery for a solid performance by Erik Friedlander and Michael Nicolas of a series of “Bagatelles” for two cellos. By this point the audience had more than doubled.
At 2:00 John Zorn(saxophone) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) performed an improvisation in response to Jackson Pollock. At this point the size of the audience had greatly exceeded the capacity of the gallery and many listeners including myself had to hear the performance from one of the adjoining galleries. Despite being one room over the duo sounded fantastic and the crowd absolutely loved it. I have to say the crowd absolutely loved everything that was performed at this event. Next it was off to the Picasso Gallery to hear Julian Lage and Gyan Riley perform selections from the “Midsummer Moons”. This music is similar in some ways to the music written for the Gnostic trio in that it’s a very beautiful melodic music. Again, the crowd absolutely exceeded the capacity of the gallery. I along with many others had to listen from one of the adjoining galleries. It was another sublime performance!
At this point there were still four more performances and the documentary screening. Given the growing crowd I made the difficult choice to skip the documentary, the American Brass Quartet performance of “Blue Stratagem”, Michael Nicholas’s performance of “as Above, So Below”, and Chris Otto and Michael Nicholas’s performance of “Zeitgehöft”. This allowed me to get to the gallery where “Hockey”, one of Zorn’s game pieces was to be performed. John Zorn’s game pieces are a series of works for improvisers in which rules and strategies are interactively enacted upon by the improvisers during the performance of the piece. For this performance Zorn said that he chose the “wet” version of “Hockey. John Zorn, Kenny Wollesen and Sae Hashimoto performed the piece on little percussion instruments built and or modified by Kenny Wollesen. It was a spectacular performance that took place in a small dark gallery of contemporary Asian art works.
The final performance of the day was in the Kandinsky Room. The JACK Quartet performed “The Unseen”. At this point the biggest crowds had dispersed but the Kandinsky room and its semi-adjoining gallery were filled to hear the days final piece. “The Unseen” is a delicate string quartet filled with shimmering harmonics that rise up from out of the silence, eventually disappearing. It was a great a great way to end the day. The crowd really showed their appreciation for the JACK’s, John Zorn, all of the musicians that performed during this event and to the Art Institute of Chicago for programming such a rare and incredible musical event.
For me this was one of the best musical events I have ever attended.
Chris De Chiara
John Zorn and Simulacrum at Reggie’s Rock Club in Chicago, August 11, 2018
John Zorn does not visit Chicago all that often, but last night was his first of two appearances within a month. Zorn was joined by his organ-driven technical metal band Simulacrum for 90 minutes of intensity at Reggie’s Rock Club in the South Loop. Prior to the show, there was some uncertainty as to whether Zorn would actually perform, and if so for how long. In the past, he has relegated himself to the role of composer and watched from backstage as others perform his works, maybe joining in for a few minutes of improvisation at most.
But at 9pm sharp, Zorn walked onto the stage alone, dressed in his usual camo pants with beat-up sax in hand, and broke into a rapid-fire wailing. After some banter with the crowd and the people running the venue’s sound about buzzing from the monitors, he continued through a solo set full of angularities and extended techniques. Then, calling Simulacrum drummer Kenny Grohowski out, the two performed a joint improvisation in the same style for several minutes. The band’s organist, John Medeski, then joined in. This seemed to trigger Zorn to switch to a more melodic and plaintive approach. After about 25 minutes from the start of the show, Simulacrum’s final member, guitarist Matt Hollenberg hit the stage. This was Zorn’s cue to leave, and the trio took over for the remaining 70 minutes.
Simulacrum plays Zorn’s compositions and arrangements, though this might not be apparent at first. The group certainly hit all the high points that a progressive metal or math rock outfit might focus on – heavy riffing, pounding rhythms, and rapid-fire leads. But as you peel the Simulacrum onion, differences emerge. The most apparent is the non-traditional use of organ instead of bass guitar. Medeski covered both basslines and swirling leads, not to mention sweeping chords. Placed higher in the mix live than on recordings, his contributions were more apparent. He and Hollenberg often doubled up on melodies but complemented each other as well. Grohowski was an octopus behind the drum kit, his casual bearing belying a near-overwhelming intensity. His non-stop action encompassed virtually every spare second with a break, fill, or muscular double-bass work.
But hidden within Simulacrum’s overpowering presence is Zorn’s distinctive writing. After the audience was flattened by a Medeski / Grohowski rhythm, Hollenberg would peel off a Middle-Eastern tinged melody that would fit into Zorn’s Masada or Book of Angels oeuvre. The group stuck mostly to the material on their self-titled first release from 2015, but included two or three tracks from their latter five albums.
After a brief encore, Zorn joined the trio for a bow to solid appreciation from the crown of about 120. As alluded to above, Zorn announced that he will be returning to Chicago for six hours of performances at the MCA on September 9, featuring 12 different ensembles that pair his varied compositions with paintings.
John Zorn – The Garden of Earthly Delights (2017; Tzadik)
Time flies. Two years ago I wrote a review of John Zorn‘s Simulacrum, the first release of his organ-based heavy metal trio consisting of John Medeski (Medeski, Martin, and Wood) on said organ, Kenny Grohowski (Abraxas) on drums, and Matt Hollenberg (Cleric) on guitar. And just last month their sixth album came out.
This time around they are joined by Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3) on bass for all tracks, as well as New-York-based experimentalist Sara Serpa on occasional vocals. The addition of these individuals, along with the contributions of Medeski, help shift the overall sound of The Garden of Earthly Delights away from the all-out technical metal / math rock attack of Grohowski and Hollenberg into a direction reflecting more jazz, blues, and atmospherics. Case in point, Dunn provides wandering bass lines while Hollenberg takes it down a notch and offers a handful of undistorted melodies. Medeski uses organ chording and slow themes to accentuate this approach. Serpa’s wordless vocals are used minimally, mainly on the final track. Once again, Zorn serves as composer, and does not perform.
But there remains a tension to this release – a push and pull between two sides of Zorn. On one hand, you have his “extreme” outlook, characterized in the past by his Painkiller releases. On the other, you have his more recent guitar trio work with Bill Frisell. These styles are not so much combined or mashed together, but integrated into a comprehensive whole. Overriding all of this is another type of tension – a sense of foreboding and unease. The addition of Dunn holding down the low end allows Medeski, Grohowski, and Hollenberg to produce near-ambient layers on top of one another.
There is a lot to like here if you are a fan of any of the aforementioned musicians. Perhaps the heavier parts please these ears the most, but even the slower sections contain labyrinthine exposes of Zorn’s idiosyncratic compositional approach as played by his veteran collaborators. Needless to say, there are plenty of ideas in The Garden of Earthly Delights, and multiple listens will be necessary to unravel its complexity.
Mary Halvorson Quartet – Paimon: The Book Of Angels Volume 32 (2017; Tzadik)
John Zorn’s Book of Angels consists of 300 pieces and has been released on 32 albums over the last 12 years. This offering is supposed to be the final of the series, featuring the last 10 unrecorded compositions. Aside from its status as a conclusion of sorts, Paimon is also of note for Zorn’s choice of performers: guitarist Mary Halvorson with her longtime collaborator Tomas Fujiwara on drums, veteran Drew Gress on bass, and another well-respected guitarist, Miles Okazaki.
The juxtaposition of Zorn’s klezmer-based circular melodies and Middle-Eastern twang with Halvorson’s note bending is the highlight of the album. Zorn’s writing develops the main themes of each piece, but Halvorson and the group work within these loose confines, not afraid to step out from time to time. In particular, Halvorson and Okazaki engage in an interplay, whether doubling one another’s lines, trading off lead and rhythm roles, or ripping through contrapuntal motifs. They focus on acoustic and un-distorted electric gear, given the album a lightness that belies its dense structure. Gress and Fujiwara both contribute in their well-established and understated manners. Fujiwara, in particular, fits in so well that he is easy to ignore, though once you pay close attention to his playing, you will realize how much he carries the album’s twisted rhythms.
Paimon covers a breadth of space while maintaining a consistent feel and approach. It is neither truly klezmer nor jazz. While steeped in traditional styles, it is not a conservative album. Halvorson and company tease going outside, but never approach actual free improvisation. The album is an exercise in the familiar and the strange, and for that reason alone it is more than worth your time.
John Zorn – Sacred Visions (2016; Tzadik)
There is something appealing about medieval music, even if one does not buy into the religiosity typically referenced therein. On Sacred Visions, the legendary saxophonist and composer John Zorn offers two pieces that are modern takes on the ancient.
The Holy Visions opens the album with five-voice, all-female contrapuntal choral music based on the life of Hildegard von Bingen. Subdivided into nearly a dozen sections over its 23 minutes, the track features both minimalistic themes, as well as the more chaotic breaks that Zorn is known for. Thus, this is not traditional church music in any sense, despite exhibiting a beatific feel at times. The vocals are not in English (Latin perhaps?) which adds to the mystical feel. At its best moments, The Holy Visions layers the voices in unusual arrangements and staggered lines that exceed the sum of their parts.
The Remedy of Fortune is a 15-minute string quartet inspired by 12th-century troubadour Guillaume de Machaut. Performed by the illustrious JACK Quartet, this piece exercises plucking and sawing, interspersed with flourishes and crescendos. A few medieval-sounding themes are quickly presented, then discarded. Despite Zorn’s basis of the piece, this is modern classical music. Discordant and disconnected, The Remedy of Fortune moves in unpredictable directions, exercising the full registers of the instruments. Often, the violins provide high-pitched atmospherics that are juxtaposed with uptempo runs from the viola and cello.
John Zorn – The Painted Bird (2016; Tzadik)
The Painted Bird is the fourth album in John Zorn‘s collaboration with organist John Medeski, drummer Kenny Grohowski, and guitarist Matt Hollenberg. Often referred to as Simulacrum, the trio provides a technical-metal take on Zorn’s compositions. Here, Zorn mixes things up with the inclusion of Ches Smith on congas and voudou drums, as well as Kenny Wollesen on vibes. The result is not the pure heaviness of the trio’s debut – instead, the tracks as a whole split the difference between that and something more reminiscent of Zorn’s Book of Angels series.
Wolleson, in particular, adds color to the forceful elements provided by Grohowski and Hollenberg. For example, the three combine to create a heavy blues feel on the slow-paced opener, Snakeskin. On the other hand, Medeski takes a leading role on the faster Plague, while the vibes mostly accompany relentless guitar riffs. Another standout track, Comet, features speed-picking and Zorn’s trademark angular lines. The result is a sense of urgency and discordance throughout, but this comes across as being intentional and highly-composed. Night is reminiscent of the trio’s first album, with Wolleson providing an opening theme, which is joined by the requisite metallic riffing. Wolleson and Smith combine for a busy interlude over this. But for the most part, Smith’s contributions are muted and difficult to pick out, especially when appearing alongside Grohowski’s hyperactive drumming. Missal, the final track, is an example of Zorn’s Masada themes wending their way into his other works. Nonetheless, the undistorted guitar themes with a Middle-Eastern flare are a welcome foil to the barely-constrained aggression on the rest of the album.
Ranging from three to eight minutes, the offerings on The Painted Bird are likely to please those who enjoyed the Simulacrum album. While a handful of metal cliches remain, they are tempered by the expansion of the lineup into a quintet. Nonetheless, even with the inclusion of a few conventional elements, there has never been a metal album that takes this particular musical direction as a whole.
Festival de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, May 21, 2016 – Zorn Marathon
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.
John Zorn – The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons (2015, Tzadik)
This is the second release from John Zorn‘s organ-based metal trio Simulacrum. Featuring core members John Medeski on organ, Kenny Grohowski on drums, and Matt Hollenberg on guitar, the group is joined by Trevor Dunn on bass and Marc Ribot on guitar. With the expanded lineup, the overall feel of this album is more full and dense, at least in the textural sense, than the group’s debut.
Particularly, while the self-titled Simulacrum release was essentially very well-done technical metal with organ, this album leans more in something more of a hard rock direction. Zorn’s compositions still move at frenetic speed, shifting rapidly from theme to theme, but Ribot’s playing adds a bluesy element in contrast to Hollenberg’s more straight up speed riffing. Together, they combine for dual guitar leads, as well as prickly lines and discordance that would not be out of context on a King Crimson recording.
Ribot’s influence also seems to bring the group downtempo from time to time, focusing on atmospherics rather than an all-out sonic assault. It is in these moments that Medeski also shines, contributing thick chords and swirling themes. Dunn makes notable contributions, especially on Sorcerer, which moves in a thrash / speed metal direction. If anything, Grohowski’s role is downplayed, perhaps due to the drums being deemphasized in the mix. Nonetheless, he remains busy in the background.
The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons ends with two longer tracks, each exhibiting the aforementioned atmospherics in a controlled-improvisation setting. This is new ground for Simulacrum, and emphasizes the significance of Ribot’s contributions and how Zorn may have crafted these pieces for Ribot’s presence.
John Zorn – Simulacrum (2015; Tzadik)
John Zorn’s legacy as a major force of modern creative music is set in stone at this point. But one factor that continues to set him apart is the remarkable breadth found in his compositions and recordings. From classical to free jazz, to middle-eastern music to controlled-improvisation, to soundtracks and more, Zorn has nearly done it all. He has recorded in these styles on many different occasions with a variety of co-conspirators. Therefore, Simulacrum, featuring an aggressive organ trio, should surprise no one, despite being unlike much of his previous material.
The recording features John Medeski (Medeski, Martin, and Wood) on organ, Kenny Grohowski (Abraxas) on drums, and Matt Hollenberg (Cleric) on guitar. Zorn does not actually play, but is credited with composition and arrangements. Of the three instrumentalists, Hollenberg is well known in the heavy metal community, Grohowski to a lesser extent, and Medeski of course is a frequent Zorn collaborator and an established experimenter. Despite the trio’s varied background, Simulacrum arguably focuses on progressive metal (e.g., Fates Warning, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, The Dillinger Escape Plan), 90’s technical metal (e.g., Watchtower, Spastic Ink, Cynic, Atheist) and math rock with heavy riffing, busy double-bass drumming, and angular lines. In particular, if Medeski were replaced by a bassist, Simulacrum would be familiar territory.
But, the heavy organ adds a unique feel, and one not necessarily reminiscent of the pioneering hard-rock work of Deep Purple‘s Jon Lord. Instead, Medeski brings a unique jazz and blues inflection to the mix. While Hollenberg’s guitar often takes the lead, Medeski occasionally takes over, building tense, swirling themes. Grohowski mostly avoids blast-beats, and instead relies on punctuated drumming with rapid fills. As a result, even though the 43 minutes of Simulacrum covers a variety metal tropes, albeit with organ-based atmospherics, the ultimate outcome is a fresh sound.
In true Zorn “if it is worth doing once, it is worth doing a few more times” style, this release is apparently one of at least three written for the trio, with a second already recorded. It will be interesting to hear what these collaborators can do with another 80-plus minutes of this format.
ICE John Zorn Retrospective in Chicago (October 26, 2013)
Saturday night, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) performed six John Zorn Compositions at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. ICE has garnered acclaim throughout the U.S. and Europe by taking a refreshing modernist approach in their choice of pieces. This return to their hometown featured four Chicago premieres, as well as one world premiere. While Zorn is well known for haphazardly mashing genres at will, the evening’s works were all examples of his spiky avant-garde classical style.
The evening began with The Steppenwolf, a rather non-descript clarinet solo, and rapidly moved into Occams Razor, a piano and cello duo. On the latter, Zorn’s schizophrenic compositional approach was first displayed, which continued throughout most of the rest of the works. He seems to alternate between rapid, chaotic motifs and slower interludes. Often, these elements appear to have little connection with each other, except perhaps in Zorn’s mind.
The Tempest came next, featuring clarinet, ICE leader Claire Chase on flute, and New York all-purpose jazz drummer Tyshawn Sorey on percussion. It shouldn’t be surprising that Zorn’s writing is well suited to Sorey’s improv leanings, as Mr. Sorey played aggressively on the kit when called to, and also provided atmosphere with a pair of large bass drums.
A string trio, Walpurgisnacht, followed, largely in a similar style to that of Occams Razor. However, if you closed your eyes, you could envision this piece being the background music for a demented Tom and Jerry cartoon, with plucked cello strings for tiptoeing and contrapuntal blasts for chase scenes.
After Canon to Stravinsky, a short piece written by Zorn at the age of 19 upon Stravinsky’s death, all ICE members walked out to set up for the world premiere of Baudelaires. An interpretation of the works of the French poet of the same name, it included a movement referring to Baudelaire’s writings on opiates. Fitting to the mind-bending themes of the evening, no doubt. While it was hinted that Mr. Zorn was in attendance, the audience didn’t know for sure until he walked out on stage, looking a couple of decades younger than his 60 years. He thanked ICE profusely before they broke into this conducted piece, the highlight of the evening.
After ICE left the stage, Zorn came out again, with sax in hand, accompanied by Sorey. He referred to what they were about to play as “Some east coast shit,” and duo proceeded to rip through a few minutes of free improv. What could be a more appropriate encore?
At some point in the last few years, Mr. Zorn has made the transition from New York bad boy to elder statesman of the avant-garde. While followed by academics for quite a while, this year has seen world-wide celebrations of his music. More prolific than ever, he is at, or is still yet to reach, his compositional peak.