John Zorn & Electric Masada
Le Ciminiere Amphitheatre, Catania, Italy
June 30, 2004

Spring had just started blooming when I got the news of the imminent arrival of one of the most prestigious (a long time ago one would have felt compelled to add: "and controversial") names of modern avant-garde: John Zorn, this time with his septet called Electric Masada. I immediately decided to add this concert to those I had already decided to attend, by David Byrne and Elvis Costello. These last two took place in a medium-sized (about 1800) theatre, while Zorn played in a amphitheatre that was a sensibly tinier (about 1200) but more convenient place, given the time of the year. For all the concerts, a reasonable starting time (9:30), the possibility to book seats, nice seating arrangements, a good P.A. (which in the Zorn show was practically perfect), tickets that weren't expensive. The result? All sold out.

It really looked strange to me seeing all these people queue to see one of the (former?) enfant terrible of modern music. An outcome I could not have anticipated at the time of his "game pieces" such as Lacrosse, nor at the time when - his Ganryu Island (1985) album (which saw Zorn duetting with Michihiro Sato's shamisen) having just been released - the (tiny) phenomenon called The Big Gundown was just around the corner. The more "intellectual" portion of the USA press had immediately fallen in love with those improvisations "structured and manipulated by a set of 'rules'" - just check what was later written (July 1986) by Peter Watrous in his Cobra (1987) liner notes: "There's no musical notation in the piece, no time durations, no old-fashioned nothing. Zorn's role as composer would be analogous to the inventor of baseball, if there was one." Which for an American citizen is a big compliment. (Watrous was later to "discover" the M-Base collective in the pages of the Village Voice.) Readers will forgive me for a little detour about a tasty anecdote as told by Francis Davis in his writing from January 1991 called "'Zorn' For 'Anger'", later included in his Bebop And Nothingness collection (Schirmer Books 1996), and recently in his Jazz And Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (DaCapo 2004): "Last May he gave a three-night retrospective of his "games" pieces - each involving a different group of improvisers - at the Knitting Factory, in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from his apartment. I was in the audience the first night, sitting behind two musicians awaiting their turn to go onstage. "Which piece is this?" one asked the other during Zorn's Rugby. "I don't know. Don't they all sound alike?" the second musician replied."

His recording contract with Elektra Nonesuch did the rest (I remember seeing Zorn with different-colored socks in the pages of Vogue magazine). (Hope the reader will forgive me for being nostalgic about those days when to scare a journalist at least a mini-Major was needed.) Zorn went to play the role of "discoverer of trendy things" (be it Carl Stalling, trash-metal or S/M movies Made In Japan), a role that had already been played by Brian Eno and that later - to the benefit of a much diminished audience - would be played by Thurston Moore.

Though on the surface the consensus appeared unanimous, analysis proved to be elusive and kinda difficult. Just consider what was written about The Big Gundown (a record that was given four stars and a crown, their symbol of excellence) by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD, Fourth Edition: "(...) and Zorn himself has adduced the example of George Martin and The Beatles, or the earlier works of another enormous, alphabetically and stylistically late-coming influence, Frank Zappa. Like Zappa, Zorn appears to trash the very musics he seems to be setting up as icons." But are we really sure?

An interesting perspective was offered by Otto Luening - who had turned 90 the previous year - in the interview by Mark Dery (with David Soldier) which appeared in Keyboard magazine, January 1991 under the title "Something Old, Something New: An Interview With Otto Luening". Luening had undergone the classic Blindfold Test (i.e., where one doesn't know the identity of what he listens to). A propos of Tre Nel 5000, a piece by John Zorn from The Big Gundown, he said: "An untrained listener who hadn't listened to much might listen to this and think it was a very exciting thing." And later: "It's a daily newspaper, reconstituted as music... If that's what the composer wants to project, well, then, he's succeeded. It's not exactly what I would do myself, because I get that sort of information from television; I don't need it in music."

The fact that Luening's opinion sounds quite a bit unusual is the best proof that the music by John Zorn has received a big amount of kudos, with few peers if one talks about "the avant-garde" - obviously with the exception of those who accused him of not even playing "music". I want to stress the fact that I consider Zorn as a person of uncommon talent when it comes to composing and organizing, even if his instrumental timbre on the saxophone appears to be more suited to his more experimental excursions than to his homage to the be-bop tradition which I bet is dear to his heart (check the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet album called Voodoo, released in 1986), but almost the same could be said about Anthony Braxton. And even if it's true that - and here I don't mean that he appears to be guilty of a cold-blooded desire to provoke - the purpose of his homage to Ornette Coleman in Spy Vs. Spy (1989) appeared to disturb the audience "just like Coleman had done" - but that had been done by accident, not on purpose! (An important difference, right?)

Zorn's methodology had struck a chord with quite a few critics of the alternative establishment of the USA, who had been raised on milk and remote controls. A lot funnier was the situation in Italy, where postmodernism as an aesthetical thrill and a trend of which the unavoidable practical consequences were not yet clear, had been embraced by fringe characters who saw themselves as being "on the left" (let's be clear: those who regard postmodernism as a "fact" cannot say about themselves that they "are" on the left). It's really apparent that John Zorn was subjected to a double standard, since he was given the benefit of the doubt about iconographic apparatuses that could be defined to be at least ambiguous about sex, death and violence, and about concepts such as " Jewish heritage". The many line-ups and his enormous discography - from Naked City to soundtracks, from acoustic to electric Masada - brought the situation to a sterile and artistically dry cul-de-sac: i.e., a minority cult.

All these are topics that the vast majority of those who attended the concert were not aware of. People were left satisfied by percussive crescendos, lively electric piano solos, sax overtones, a laptop and its sometimes spacey effects, hand directions meaning "we mean business but we're also having fun", klezmer melodies, echoes of the 60s, arias from "Radio Tunisia", a sonic intensity that came and went... (Some comments? "Beautiful, beautiful", "really beautiful", "beautiful", "they're good", and so on.) And an encore.

All this on a "feel" level. Which is definitely not the only one that's possible. I'll say that the aspect of the show that really rubbed me the wrong ways was its offering the trappings of something "cool and daring", while the music was extremely predictable - not too different from the music that one can listen to in places that are not even "trendy". While nowadays the habit of skipping from one track to another has taken away all value of being new and fresh from Zorn's "fast cuts" (which in this occasion were particularly slow, if clearly executed). Even if sometimes a bit more restraint would have been preferable, the best performance was by drummers/percussionist Kenny Wollesen, Joey Baron and Cyro Baptista. On bass, Trevor Dunn was reliable and versatile, but his playing touch was a bit dirty. Ikue Mori was on laptop. The strangest performance was that by Marc Ribot, who I had previously caught live with different line-ups, getting a much different impression of his guitar playing, which on this occasion was predictable in the rock moments, boring in the cool moments, hesitant always. We know Zorn and his reed work. Playing a Fender and an expander which made the Fender sound as if played through a ring modulator, Jamie Saft was hardly audible in most "tutti" moments, but played a good solo; unfortunately, during the set he played it two more times, almost verbatim.

A few days later, a friend of mine told me: "I had fun. In cases like this the secret is not to ask from a concert what it cannot give you." Right.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | July 6, 2004