John Zorn @ 60 at the Walker Art Center 4/6/13

John Zorn @ 60 at the Walker Art Center 4/6/13
Photo by Scott Irvine

John Zorn @ 60 Program II: Masada
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Saturday, April 6, 2013

In a black T-shirt and his trademark camouflage pants with traditional hasidic tzitzit hanging down at each side, John Zorn expeditiously commanded the stage for the second of three sold-out performances of his music at the Walker Art Center Saturday. Despite not necessarily knowing what to expect other than some of the instrumentation and performers mentioned in the program, the eager and passionate crowd was treated to some of the best of Mr. Zorn's compositions. "Zorn @ 60" was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Saturday's audiences during this stop in a series of performances around the world designed to celebrate Zorn's 60th birthday and massive career.

After emerging with no microphone and very little introduction, Zorn gave the stage to longtime collaborator and friend, cellist Eric Friedlander. After performing in the afternoon set with a full ensemble, Friedlander, who in the program warmly described Zorn's process of composition and "doing" played a series of solo pieces that provided a contrast to the earlier set's improvised impulses, and set the tone for the rest of the night with a flurry of passionate verses and elongated melodies.

Friedlander gave breadth to Zorn's compositions with stark, often brooding staccatos that not only displayed the intricacies of his own technique but also his wonderful restraint and lyricism that he gave to the melodies. The fluid and sometimes stinging pieces interwove and stirred an emotional pull that foreshadowed the spiritual qualities that would unravel during the rest of the early evening performances.

Friedlander would eventually be joined by violinist Marc Feldman and upright bassist Greg Cohen, and Zorn himself sat cross-legged in front of the Masada Trio to conduct the musicians. With urgency and a richer sound, Zorn cued soloists, pointing and listening to his music brilliantly unfold. While he would direct the trio on which piece to perform, the audience was left guessing. It didn't take away from the performances, but further showed Zorn's neverending and sporadic nature.

Waving his hands toward one musician or another and often two at one time he took command of the trio. All the while, he allowed them to add their own voice to his work, as many of his cues would direct the player to once again improvise. Long bowed melodies and a somewhat venomous attack to his instrument, Feldman sent clouds of powder from his strings illustrating the strength of each piece and movement. With each taking their solos at Zorn's cue, they maintained a rhythm that eventually would join all three performers to quote Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5" to finish the piece. As if to catch their breath, the audience and performers would greet the ending of each work with dead silence. When the standing ovation arrived, Zorn and company would bow in gratitude.

For the most satisfying portion of the early evening set, the group of musicians doubled with drummer Joey Baron, percussionist Cyro Baptista and guitarist Marc Ribot taking the stage giving a fuller sound to some of Zorn's Masada pieces best representing his mid-'90s Bar Kokhba ensembles.

Adding a distinct swing and Latin flavor to the unique harmonies and rhythm, Ribot's unmistakably brilliant soloing and the consistently lush melodies touched at Zorn's consistent exploration of his Jewish roots. Sitting in a chair with a big grin on his face, Zorn would furiously cue each musician to solo, encouraging the group to further elevate each movement with Ribot soaring into a cinematic loveliness.

With more of the pieces taking on a mellower vibe and Spaghetti Western type ambiance, the strings chimed in appropriately providing a landscape for Baron's cymbal washes and Baptista to set a tone with his clay drumming. While Baron would take extended solos and Ribot finished with subtle feedback, the musicians traded nods and smiles as the rapturous music would ultimately peak before it would come to a complete stop making Zorn look quite satisfied with the present embodiment of his music.

While standing together to take a bow, Zorn hugged and congradulated each member of the group, and waved to the audience as they exited the stage to a ravenous applause that like his compositions was full of a limitless energy.

Critic's Bias: Having seen Electric Masada at the Walker in the past and the virtual nature of Zorn's performances and unpredictability I approached his birthday performances with an open mind and heart that would be rewarded many times through the night.

The Crowd: Attentative and appreciative of the random character of John Zorn as a composer and collaborator.

Overheard in the Crowd: "What's with his jazz hands the whole night?! I want to see him play the horn!"

Random Notebook Dump: The third set at the Walker Saturday night was equally rewarding. Full of new work, it encompassed Zorn's style of a more traditional jazz sound with vibrophonist Kenny Wollsesn and pianist John Medeski in many ways often stealing the show. The final jazz trio piece that was accompanied by film when Zorn finally brought out his saxaphone was truly the big payoff for a long evening of many different styles of music. I didn't have it in me to follow the audience and Zorn to the nearby church for his solo organ performance, a mistake I will likely forever regret.

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