Saturday, February 14, 2015

New York, instrument: John Zorn at the Village Vanguard

John Zorn is at the Village Vanguard through Sunday. Last night I caught a pair of sets I've been looking forward to since the series was announced: the duo of Zorn and Milford Graves, augmented by special guest Steve Coleman, and the trio of Marc Ribot, Trevor Dunn and Tyshawn Sorey, playing material from the Asmodeus and Valentine's Day albums, with Zorn on live conduction.

Check out the samples from Asmodeus above, and you'll have an excellent idea of what the latter set sounded like. (G. Calvin Weston plays on that album, while Sorey is on Valentine's Day, but interestingly, the most compelling pieces from last night's set—such as the Sharrock-via-Hendrix stomper "Mufgar"—were from the former.) I have relatively little to say about this set, honestly, mainly because it was so much goddamn fun. The entire club—me and two of my best friends, those at all the tables visible around us and, crucially, the musicians onstage and especially Zorn—were beaming en masse, reveling in the vaguely transgressive thrill we were sharing. Ribot, Dunn and Sorey, who are, when they want to be, three of the straight-up nastiest musicians on the planet, simply, gloriously just kicking out the jams in a sort of acid-rock-meets-prog-punk-meets-screaming-cathartic-blues mode, and on the stage of the Village freakin' Vanguard, no less. Zorn offered plenty of on-the-fly instruction, orchestrating impromptu drop-outs and unison accents, stoking the flames of each musician in turn, but mainly what he offered was a platform for something this awesome to go down.

Zorn's core principle, as I understand it, can be reduced to some variant on "Music is community" or "Music is people." His greatest gift, in my eyes, is the way he locates the best musicians on the planet (which usually means in New York)—not just the chopsiest virtuosos, but the ones who shred with passion, fire and abandon, slams them together in dream-team assemblages, provides them with just enough compositional fuel that they can attain lift-off and simply gets out of the way. Yes, he was stageside last night, calling pieces and conducting, but mostly, he was sitting there grinning his ass off and rocking the fuck out, just like everyone else in the club. The thrills of primal, bashing jazz-rock, occasionally coming off the rails and zooming along in freeform tumult. It was such a basic concept, but the depth of heart and musical resources of the three musicians involved made it profound. Yes, Ribot, Dunn and Sorey were, in a certain sense, just jamming on some skeletal themes, but they poured so much love and aggression into the endeavor, returning the gift Zorn had given them by assembling them in the first place and giving them this material to work with. This was a high-order act of brain-frying. Someone should book this trio at a big rock club—would love to hear them that much louder.

There was noise and riot in the first set, as well, but that performance vibrated on a whole different wavelength, and I think that had a lot to do with the presence of Steve Coleman. Zorn and Graves have been working together as a duo for a long time, and they have a pretty well-established sound as a band of two. (Compare their first documented meeting, from 2003, with their 2013 Metropolitan Museum performance -- a trio with Jackson Pollock, in a sense.) Meditation, yes, but mixed in with plenty of catharsis in the classic free-jazz sense, with Graves providing the weather-event rumble and Zorn the jagged stabs of aural lightning. To my ears, the meditative element won out during last night's set. Zorn played his share of his patented aggro sandpaper, but he doled it out thoughtfully. For me, this set was about a special kind of unity, the two horns meshing in a snaking, interlocking dervish display, as Graves conjured rhythm, his patented primal shimmy, out of the earth.

The set had a nice arc to it. As I remember, the pieces went like this: full trio, Zorn/Graves duo, Coleman/Graves duo, brief Zorn/Coleman duo, full trio. Hearing the Coleman/Graves duo really drove home the contrast between the two horn players. Whereas Zorn's home base in these sorts of settings is an eruptive mode, Coleman seemed to hear in Graves's pulsations an invitation to control rather than release, an encouragement to find ecstasy in discipline, to craft and sustain a coherent soloistic line. When the three played together, the latter impulse often won out. Zorn and Coleman were two horns looking for one voice, darting, overlapping and at certain moments fusing, so that it was hard to tell their alto sounds apart. Both working admirably hard to, in some profound way, agree on the current they were following—striving for utmost harmony in every sense. To my ears, Graves was, this time around, homing in on the dance. It's always an element of his performance, but here, it seemed like the root of the whole endeavor. (Maybe it had something to do with the fact that before the show, he got stuck in traffic driving his drums from Jamaica, Queens to the Village—"You want to talk about avant-garde?" he said to the audience, playfully. "That was avant-garde"—and needed to counteract vehicular frustration with pure body-moving joy.)

At times, as during the Coleman duo, Graves would assume a more upright posture, with his back against the metal folding chair that he always uses as a drum throne, and fixate on simple right-hand motions that aimed for what my friend Will (an extraordinary drummer whose playing effortlessly connects the dots between Ed Blackwell and Clyde Stubblefield) referred to as the sweet spot of the floor tom, that zone that every drummer knows, where you strike and draw sound out of the three core elements of the instrument all at once: skin (the head), metal (the rim) and, through the percussive act, wood (the body). Milford Graves is the absolute unparalleled master of locating these sweet spots on his kit and using them to make the rhythm sing like a three-dimensional choir, pouring forth impossibly funky pulsations, not quite "in time" but always related to a certain groove imperative.

It made you want to dance and sing, and so the altos did. You heard the core strains of what these three players do—the Jewish music in Zorn's blood, the bebop in Coleman's, the Afro-Cuban root of the Graves endeavor—all swirled together in a kind of blurry oneness, a single stream, not barreling forth, but sort of riding a current. And while Graves was clearly the one directing that current—not just with the single-hand free funk described above, but with his full-kit massage/barrage, including moments where he held two sticks in the right hand so as to grab both the floor tom and a bongo nearby—no one was in charge here. At its best moments, this was a set that felt like a group submission, a burying of ego in the service of flow. You can talk it about it other ways, but to me, it sounded nakedly spiritual—a beautiful contrast to the heat and bombast of set two.

So music is community, music is people. And I'd add that music is event, the simple act of willing things to happen. I've had my reservations about John Zorn's work in the past, some published on this blog, but I've felt them melting away in recent years, from the 2013 Met takeover on. The bottom line is that, as the Met event demonstrated, and as the two sets I saw last night reaffirmed, this guy is an expert at making impossibly cool stuff happen. Free jazz and contemporary classical music at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Dirty punk fusion at the Village Vanguard? Yes, please. In a very real sense, John Zorn's instrument at this point in his career is New York City itself—its musical geniuses, its hallowed institutions. He's assembling world-class artists in any number of styles and presenting them in the way they ought to be presented: as cultural treasures, via events where you celebrate the artists, the spaces, the inimitable New York–iness of it all. These Zorn gatherings are, increasingly, real events, not just shows. He's changing the fabric of how we engage with art in NYC, and he has been for a long time, and that's a serious feat. (And not just through events he's directly involved in; his LES venue, The Stone, presents live music six nights a week.) And on a more immediate level, he's facilitating a very specific kind of fun—quintessentially abrasive perhaps, but also so inclusive. Anyone, not just a "free-jazz fan" or a "Zorn fan" could've checked out those sets last night and understood that something joyous and special was going on. Community, communication, communion—basic acts of bringing artists together and inviting audiences to join in. It's a profound cultural project, and based on last night's magic, boy, is it ever working.

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