New York composer, improviser, alto saxophonist, and organist John Zorn has been taking his entire repertoire on tour in recent times, colonizing venues and festivals, immersing audiences in his variegated musical strategies. Soon after this four-day takeover in Hamburg, he headed for Big Ears in Knoxville, and in July he’s the Artist in Residence at Moldejazz on the west coast of Norway. Most of Zorn’s many writing obsessions are covered, including prompted improvisation, string quartet pieces, jazz complexity, folkish rock, fried rock, and various manifestations of vocal work.
Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie opened in 2017, its massive construction budget producing a suitably impressive edifice, towering over the docklands, and built up from a 1963 brick warehouse. Its glassy topping has the concert halls up high, with slowly chugging walkways transporting its visitors, but the building also houses a hotel, restaurants, and even permanent living quarters. The Elbphilharmonie’s halls and rooms emanate acoustic excellence and visual individuality. Mostly, the curiously Gaudí-esque organic interior of curlicues and knobbles played a dual role, aesthetics perched between sound and vision. As with Symphony Hall in Birmingham, England, for instance, the Elbphilharmonie acoustics are also sympathetic to the sounds of rock and jazz, with physical fine-tuning possible to accommodate drum kits and electric guitars. The very spacious surroundings in the entrance hall, outside the restaurants, and in the multi-floor bar areas are kept to a clean white brightness, almost sterile in nature, but the interior of the actual concert halls turned to a sweeping asymmetry, writhing with organic detail. Curving stairways led up and around, with elevators never going all the way up or down, instead requiring a mid-journey shift to another shaft. Geography was still being absorbed on the fourth day.
The Elbphilharmonie operates an ongoing “Reflektor” series, inviting artists to present a weekend of works, with previous residents including Anoushka Shankar, Laurie Anderson, Nils Frahm, Max Richter, and Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM Records. Zorn is almost certainly the artist who has presented the greatest mass of facets during a Reflektor weekend. He had already presented a day-long marathon of his Bagatelles soon after the Elbphilharmonie opened.
Heaven And Earth Magick is a quartet of Stephen Gosling (piano), Sae Hashimoto (vibraphone), Jorge Roeder (bass), and Ches Smith (drums). They played at noon on the third day, setting a vaulting standard that was tough to top throughout the rest of the program. Zorn writes scored material for Gosling and Hashimoto, then encourages Roeder and Smith to improvise, his idea being to extend beyond the old 1950s concept of third stream music. Ultimately, it sounded closer to a particularly wired form of free improvisation, as Gosling and Hashimoto played as if they were being spontaneously inspired. Zorn appears to have retired his old practice of sitting in front of his performers, conducting his compositions, and now contents himself with sitting cross-legged onstage, to the shadowed side, behind the rear light-box. He’s “merely” a highly active listener, perhaps knowing that his conduits have now become extremely familiar with his music. Hashimoto seemed to be new to most folks in the audience, including your scribe, but she’s a guaranteed rising star of the vibes, performing with an exact passion, spilling out convoluted patterns with the power of chance, even though in reality she’s strictly governed. It turns out that Hashimoto has recently joined the new music ensemble Yarn/Wire. Meanwhile, Smith erupted repeatedly, his sheer attacking extremity of volume and presence indicating what seemed like a pent-up frustration that had bubbled up during the last two years or more. Zorn’s pieces were cut on the sharp blade between jazz and classical modernism, reeling with dynamism, tense with unpredictability, coiled then exploding.
The weekend’s most thrilling performance happened by chance. Keyboardist John Medeski and guitarist Matt Hollenberg both became ill, so the sets by Simulacrum and Chaos Magick had to be cancelled. Instead, Zorn led a version of his classic 1984 Cobra game-piece, improvised via a highly-involved cross-lattice of signals between himself and the selected performers. The players were Bill Frisell, Brian Marsella, Roeder, Trevor Dunn, Hashimoto, Ikue Mori, Kenny Wollesen, Smith, Cyro Baptista, and Jay Campbell (cellist in JACK Quartet). The stylistic slicing of this Cobra manifestation highlighted the defining characteristic of Zorn’s early work, with a particular ascension of Latin bebop as a featured, recurring style, pianist Marsella at the vanguard. Like an eager, ecstatic child, Marsella reveled in the immense crackling transmission of energies between the participants, the dangling danger of chance. One of the most frequent requesters to wear the red headband of soloing permission (one of the game's rules involves the prompter giving permission for an enthusiastic performer to temporarily take control), Marsella had an overflowing amount of aggressively hammered salsa-oid climaxing to communicate. Smith retained the same level of power from his noon performance, here in the early evening of that same Saturday. Frisell shot fuzz forth, refreshingly harking back to his more serrated 1980s days with Naked City. Zorn pointed to pairings, or even bigger multiples, as three-drummer excess cut to a dappling Frisell, with cello serenity courtesy of Campbell. Musicians rarely work at such dazzling speed, reacting to sudden switches, clusterings, solo outbursts, or texture-spreading interludes. This Cobra represented the most extremely exciting music heard in several years, distilled into the absolute vivid essence of tension, relief, joy, clashing, careening, and cutting-up.
The weekend’s climactic set was provided by the New Electric Masada, an expanded version that had Zorn leading on alto saxophone, joined by Frisell and Julian Lage (guitars), Marsella (Fender Rhodes electric piano), Mori (electronics), Dunn (bass), Wollesen, Baptista, and Joey Baron (drums/percussion). The outlook was almost jam-band orientated, grooving with fluidity, sparking with guitar solos between Frisell and the increasingly diverse Lage, the latter tending to choogle out in a Creedence Clearwater Revival manner. Frisell also cranked up the smolder, but his style was more individual, rooted in funk improvisation but still featuring atonal distortion. The three-drummer crew bonded together in an almost endless workout of cross-patterned meshing. Marsella returned to a free flail, this time amplified into the cosmic zone, as Frisell strafed to emphasize Dunn’s racing bass line. One number sounded so close to being Ornette Coleman’s “Happy House” that surely it was a reading of that very tune. New Electric Masada is also a home for Zorn in retro-exotica tropical mode, with cycling guitar and twinkling Rhodes, Dunn pacing purposefully, Zorn soloing relaxedly. The final number was a heavy driver, Baptista offering big-gong deep-shimmer, while the doom-guitars churned.
Throughout almost all of this extended weekend, Zorn remained in an outgoing, satisfied, beaming state, with just one or two visible moments of frustration with his players. He praised the Elbphilharmonie acoustics, and he was ecstatic following JACK Quartet’s two-concert Complete String Quartets presentation. Zorn was grateful and excited that he could so thoroughly inhabit such a prestigious concert hall here in Hamburg, but he was perhaps disregarding his ability to do so in NYC, implying that he was only invited to present such works in small downtown settings of an informal nature.
Ultimately, most of the utterly outstanding performances over these four days involved Zorn actually being part of the ensembles, with the various Masadas, as well as his key game-master presence during Cobra. The set by Heaven And Earth Magick was the only one to transcend to a similar extent. Zorn’s organ set was a highly engaging environmental drone-ambiance exploration, complete with pulsing light show, triggered by his keys, and glowing from behind the Gaudí-esque pipe-forest.
Some of Zorn’s compositions within the more formal classical realm were surprisingly mellow, tonal and traditional, with the string quartets and Gosling’s solo piano recital being the most nervy. Gosling initially adopted a Stockhausen-Xenakis stance, but a third section held a shock of lyrical calmness, although soon returning to heavy bass strikes and sharp treble shivers.
Frisell, Lage, and Gyan Riley played acoustic guitars, as if gathered for a west coast hippy fireside happening, seeking a group style by shedding their individual quirks, even sounding like a joint John Williams toward the end. The three ended up taking different roads, passing waves of mini-solos between themselves, strings struck with increasing passion, as Riley bent his expressively, ofttimes with a trembling vibrato. On several occasions during Reflektor, Zorn’s Middle Eastern hues moved closer to Andalucia.
Zorn’s strange encounter with country-folk Americana featured Petra Haden as lead singer, but wouldn’t have been remotely recognizable as part of his songbook if presented as a blindfolded listen. For an artist so devoted to extreme innovation and dangerous strategies, your scribe has to observe that Zorn’s most powerfully stunning sounds emerge from the red zone of his early decades, rife with collaged slicing and dicing, tense with sudden surprise, and rattling with spit-showering alto solo-bursting of high-acceleration complexity. This didn’t prevent us from being salved by the glowing tranquility of his Gnostic Trio, with harpist Carol Emanuel, Frisell, and Wollesen. This was also the set where Zorn was at his most relaxed and wise-cracking, introducing the performance with the compacted japery of a hybrid Groucho Marx-Woody Allen stand-up entity.