Z is for Zorn

“It’s sorta like jazz, but it’s really hard to explain.”

As I was taking a leak after the show, I heard someone outside the bathroom use the above words in a futile attempt to describe the brilliance he had just witnessed from John Zorn’s Celebration Of Light – Bar Kokhba at the Abrons Arts Center. Admittedly, talking about music is like dancing about architecture, and when you encounter a performance this incredible, there are no words that can do justice to such an ingenious work of art. Nevertheless, I’m going to do my best to recount what I experienced last night.

I’m relatively late to the John Zorn party. People I know and respect have raved about him for years, and while I have appreciated the few tracks I’ve heard, I’ve also known that he has a predilection for noisy free jazz, which is not always my cup of tea. That being said, after years of hype from this guy, I decided to suck it up and catch the final performance of the acoustic Masada Quartet at Lincoln Center last March. I was simply riveted by what I saw, particularly the diverse and engaging skills of Joey Baron. Afterwards, I theorized “this Zorn guy is pretty good.”

The Abrons Arts Center is located in the middle of nowhere in a weird, isolated, desolate section of Manhattan near the Lower East Side and Chinatown that resembles the Land That Time Forgot. The building has a couple of different theaters, and this particular one was perfect with stellar acoustics and sightlines, holding only 200 people. Two days ago, the venue was only half sold, but there must have been a mad rush of last-second patrons because by 8:05, there were no seats to be had, and people were parking their asses in the aisles. I grabbed a perfect spot, dead center in the small balcony, which gave the ideal vantage point to observe Zorn interacting with his band of merry men.

Oh, yes. The band.

Four major reasons why I had a hunch this show would kick ass were: guitarist Marc Ribot, percussionist Cyro Baptista, drummer Joey Baron, and bassist Greg Cohen. I was unfamiliar with cellist Eric Friedlander and violinist Mark Feldman, but their names would soon be written into the hallowed “Never Miss These People Live” scroll, which resides in my cerebrum.

My adviser, Dr. Wheelwright, had informed me that this music would be nothing like the wild sonic explorations of the Masada Quartet, as the evening was billed as the “world premiere of new compositions from Zorn’s Book of Angels (Masada Book Two).” Little did I know that this work would produce so much positive energy that it felt downright medicinal. I had read some cockamamie description of this music that included so many different genres that it just sounded fake and unrealistic. Truthfully, I had no idea what to expect, but from the first notes, I knew Zorn was about to take us on a wild adventure.

The only legitimate word I can use to describe these compositions is “cinematic,” as Zorn paints these lush, vivid, detailed landscapes and then he sends you flying through them on the back of a magic carpet. Never before have I heard instrumental music so immensely visual, and at times, I felt as if Zorn was saying, “Eat your heart out, Dvorak!” The sounds were gorgeous, smooth, and incredibly accessible, and like the description I had read earlier, the music did indeed draw upon film scores, klezmer, surf rock, classical, jazz, blues, latin, and a host of other now meaningless categories. Musically, you could never say that a song belonged to only one of these genres, as it was always an enthralling, simultaneous amalgamation of three or four or five different types of music that worked beautifully in conjunction with one another. Thematically, there did seem to be a slight undercurrent of the self-deprecating Jewish sense of humor that weaved its way through each work, an effect occasionally emphasized by a laughter-provoking turn from Baron’s Chaplinesque stumbling across his kit or Baptista’s punctuation with a quirky percussive instrument that seemed to ask “Why me?” The images created in my mind were also a lot of fun, as one song had me envisioning a derringer-toting, trenchcoat-wearing Hasidic Jew riding a surfboard in an outtake from the forgotten James Bond film, Goldsteinfinger. Another favorite image appeared in a later song as Vida Guerra crashed an Orthodox wedding and danced the Lambada with the men, who were so mesmerized by her sumptuous curves that they did the forbidden dance and later ate the forbidden fruit: bacon, sweet bacon.

Throughout the entire performance, the audience sat transfixed, rapt with attention on the edge of their seat, eagerly awaiting the thrilling new direction conductor Zorn would lead them on this engrossing journey. Everything was so quiet that you could even hear the musicians whispering between songs. The only bad vibe in the room was created by the tool behind me, who (somewhat understandably) wanted to snap along to the songs. It wasn’t that he was off the beat, it was just that Baron and Baptista were much more talented percussionists than he. However, after 13 seconds of a lacerating, soul-crushing stare, I convinced him to abandon his musical dreams and retreat back to his lonely life as an administrative assistant.

As far as the musicians go, Cohen was rock solid, laying down amazing grooves that fueled every exploration. Baron and Baptista worked brilliantly in tandem with Baron often resorting to mind-bogglingly complex fills as Baptista found the ideal beats to compliment on a bevy of lighthearted instruments that would typically produce grins throughout the hall. Feldman and Friedlander each oozed tremendous emotion from their strings and also showed an impressive virtuosity with their fingerpicking. Ribot was usually the man in charge of making the tunes groovy, bringing that 1960s secret-agent flair to the compositions and creating an enticing air of mystery that lurked around each corner. Technically, he did some amazing things, including one moment when he went on a rapid diminuendo that got so soft that his amp was suddenly inaudible and you could only hear the sound of his pick hitting the strings before quickly rising back up to full volume. Tying all of this together was Zorn, who would conduct as if he were holding a sock puppet on his hand. Each little bite into the air would drill an accent or theme change, and he would sculpt the improvisations by tweaking and massaging the accompanying musicians. He was a wonder to watch, and it was obvious that he and all the guys on stage were enjoying this every bit as much as those of us wearing shit-eatin’ grins in the audience.

Every song seemed to finish on such a warm and happy note, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve attended a seated show that produced such an overwhelming sense of joy in the house. After the final tune, the place erupted into a raucous standing ovation. This was not one of your typical we’re-clapping-because-it’s-our-job-in-this-charade-to-bring-you-back-out-for-the-pre-planned-encore situations. Nay, the audience was demanding an encore. The reaction went from loud to explosive, and no one was leaving until we had another taste from the buffet of good vibes that Zorn was serving. When he brought everyone back out to triumphant applause, Zorn yelled, “a whole set of material learned in one day by these fucking geniuses!” If this was true, and I have no doubt that it was, I’m stunned. The level of virtuosity on this stage was unparalleled, and to think that everyone had just learned these complex charts in one day is just…just…hbfnagvzlwdroaonesdgjnaejnrglaenrgaredmghmzsqplkarejghjaer!*

* – I just searched Roget’s for a half an hour, and I can’t come up with a word for this. “Mindboggling,” “shocking,” or “Earthshaking” are all way too tame.

I bounded out of this theater with much more than a mere spring in my step. Great art often makes you question your own life, but sometimes great art makes you feel lucky to be alive. Last night was definitely a case of the latter, an irony underscored by the fact that I felt years of my life flying away while sitting in Katz’s and recounting the show with Dr. Wheelwright over an artery-cloggingly delicious pastrami sandwich.

Yum.

This video is of this ensemble from a while ago. While it’s nowhere as good as I what I witnessed, it does give you a feel for their sound. Listen to this, and multiply the excellence factor times ten, and you might have some idea of what I experienced on Saturday.

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