Friday, April 01, 2011

Figureheads, up close and consecutive: John Zorn and Wynton Marsalis

Two nights in a row, two evening-length performances by figureheads, not just of jazz but of The Culture. On Wednesday, I caught John Zorn's Masada Marathon at NYC Opera, a bonus track to his participation in the ongoing Monodramas presentation there; last night, just a few blocks south, I heard Wynton Marsalis present both a quintet and a septet at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Faced with such a seemingly stark duality, one is tempted to make grand pronouncements, to write a sweeping, op-ed type of thing, to choose a side. Better to talk specifics and let the conclusions flow as they may. Bottom line: I saw two very ambitious shows by two very hard-working musicians. There were pros and cons to both. There were clear points of parallel and divergence. Following are some observations, perhaps sprinkled with the occasional conclusion.

Zorn had his huge coterie with him, diversely skilled virtuosos from the community known as downtown, players who live at the intersection between Chops and Grit—in other words, pretty much exactly where you want to reside. Drummer Ches Smith, guitarist Marc Ribot (dear God—he was so loud and so mercilessly badass, wielding twang like a weapon), cellist Erik Friedlander (whose solo set was one of the night's triumphs), pianists Uri Caine, Jamie Saft (keyboard too) and Sylvie Courvoisier. These are the kind of players you would trust in pretty much any context.

It was a little frustrating, then, to hear them deployed for roughly four hours in the service of Zorn's Book of Angels oeuvre (a subset of his ongoing Masada endeavor), which seems to me like a willfully monotonous body of work. The story goes that Zorn wrote 316 pieces "in a flash of creativity during three months in late 2004." Hearing the music, it seems like "flash of productivity" would be more accurate. By Zorn's own admission, made during a mike break late in the Marathon, these compositions are skimpy by design, meant as improvisational fodder for his super-talented friends. So in practice, it's not that surprising that they can start to seem oppressive: dancing, klezmer-meets-exotica melodies, most laid over a sly bass vamp, with the occasional unison riff in five or seven. Zorn's decision to hammer on this aesthetic for a long period (both in real time—by my count, he's issued 17 Book of Angels records, spotlighting various ensembles, many of which played Wednesday's Marathon—and over the course of the concert) baffles me somewhat. During the event, I kept wondering: Why convene so many edgy masters, many of whom are great composers in their own right, and then straitjacket them within a fairly narrow soundworld? (Maybe a better approach would've been to let each band present a bit of its own music alongside their Zorn interpretations.) It's possible that the thought is to draw attention to the players precisely because of the samey-ness/mundane-ness of the material: "Watch these improvisational superheroes turn my humble lead into marvelous gold," or something like that.

Again, there was some fantastic playing. I loved the sultry, gently surreal spy-movie vibe of the Dreamers, as well as solo turns by Caine and Friedlander that were shocking in their command of dynamics and emotional contour. And the Electric Masada finale (with guest Mike Patton) was great, pyrotechnic fun. I left, though, really feeling the Marathon aspect of the whole thing—so saturated with that patented Masada vibe that I couldn't imagine wanting to see any of these bands again anytime soon. (To be fair, though, I did spend a good portion of yesterday spinning Book of Angels discs—the Marc Ribot/Trevor Dunn/G. Calvin Weston trio record Asmodeus is a monster and highly recommended for even the Masada-averse—so maybe this stuff is more infectious than I thought.) I remember feeling the exact same way when I heard various Masada projects at Symphony Space in June of 2000.

A Wynton Marsalis show at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall is oppressive in its own, totally obvious ways of course. The "Jazz, America's classical music" trappings are thick and somewhat cloying—"Welcome to the House of Swing," said Marsalis as he stepped onstage in a natty suit—and there's an aggressive upscaleness to the whole experience that's illustrated concisely in the high ticket prices. But you know all of this already. You've probably already bitched about it without ever actually experiencing it, as—I'm somewhat ashamed to admit—I have. As with John Zorn, it's easy to think you "get" Wynton Marsalis. There's so much baggage, so much zeal both for and against these men, that you forget that they're simply musicians and composers. They're also showmen, of course, and community builders, and one-man scenes. But you can, in fact, go see them play music and just let that be the thing and not worry too much about the meaning of it all.

That is the experience I had at the Wynton show. Last night, he presented first his quintet, then his septet, separated by an intermission. This wasn't just a couple sets of jazz; this was a luxurious concert experience, and I mean luxurious there not in the cheesy, "America's classical music" sense, but in the sense that the music itself was rich and deeply satisfying. The quintet, built around the beyond-sturdy bass of Carlos Henriquez, was great, a showcase for the many faces of Marsalis's writing, from daredevil Latin jazz (I wish I could remember the name of this one tune they played that featured a frantically snaking line played by Marsalis and saxist Walter Blanding) to straightforward ballad poetry. In the latter vein, one piece was a sax-less quartet, and I swear, everyone should have the experience of hearing Wynton Marsalis play an unadorned ballad in Rose Hall. For a few minutes, the whole "luxury" angle made perfect sense; plush opulence was all you could think of, and it wasn't a base opulence but an entirely wholesome one. You felt spoiled.

If the quintet set was merely very good, the septet set was dazzling. I'm not sure that I've seen a more straightforwardly enjoyable presentation of music in the past few years—in the sense that I wished everyone I knew was there with me, from my discerning-jazz-connoisseur friends (one was with me, fortunately) to my largely jazz-oblivious family and jazz-appreciating-but-on-a-case-by-case-basis fiancĂ©e. Marsalis's septet clearly works on an Ellington model—you hear that right away in the plunger-muted brass and the shrewdly deployed soloists and rich themes. But from all the knocks against Marsalis, which you may have swallowed and even parroted without really knowing the deal, you think his work is going to be MERELY traditional, MERELY retro. This was an entire set of original music, and while it did feel "classic" in some sense, it was far more stimulating than the average set of straight-ahead, head-solos-head jazz you'd hear nightly in many local clubs. Each solo felt like an event, not a chore or a mere inevitability, because it had been properly set up by the compositional material around it. Trombonist Vincent Gardner, subbing for an on-tour Wycliffe Gordon, was a particular marvel, wielding the plunger in a way that can seem old-fashioned when you hear it on your scratchy vintage recordings but that feels totally vital up close. And the two saxophonists—Wessell Anderson and Victor Goines—sounded devastating dueting on the lovers' suite "'D' in the Key of 'F.'" All of these pieces radiated with the classic jazz push-and-pull: soloist vs. ensemble. The context kept changing, not in a rapid-fire way, but in a way that kept you engaged. At all times, there was a reason to keep paying attention, and not just to hear what hotshot lick would flow out next. I left feeling energized rather than exhausted, as I had after the Zorn affair.

I really don't want to make any grand pronouncements about the experience of seeing these two figures in their respective elements over consecutive nights, though it's hard, since they both seem to stand for so much jazz-world baggage. Googling their names, I found this piece: "There are currently two dominant schools in New York City’s jazz scene. Wynton Marsalis leads the Lincoln Center’s traditionalist school while John Zorn is the cover-boy for Downtown’s avant-garde movement." Conclusion: "Who would you rather follow? I lean towards Zorn since I partially agree with what one of my high profile teachers told me: 'Marsalis has set jazz back 100 years.'" Well, I guess that settles it!

In terms of the actual experience of checking out these shows, though, micro-observations abound. You can't help but be struck by the similarities between Zorn and Marsalis onstage: For one, both soak up as much attention when they're not playing as when they are, through their hyperbolic goading of their colleagues' improvisations. You can't help but feel that Zorn could learn something from Marsalis in terms of composition: focusing on writing a select amount of patient, deep, wholesome pieces rather than dashing off hundreds of stylistically constrained sketches. On the other hand, you can't help but feel that Marsalis could learn something from Zorn re: how to exist in the world of art: opening one's self to as many connections as possible (I think of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, favored collaborators of late) and wielding one's influence as benevolently and expansively as possible. What I mean there is that while Zorn did admittedly confine his collaborators to the Masada oeuvre during this particular Marathon, for much of the year, he's practically a benefactor to not just these players, but a ton of other avant-garde-minded geniuses trying to find their way in the NYC scene. If he didn't play music at all, but simply ran the Tzadik label and the Stone club, he'd be a local and international hero. "Play my music on certain nights," he seems to say. "But every other night, do your own thing, and I'll support the hell out of you." Marsalis, on the other hand, seems to cloister his players up at Jazz at Lincoln Center. You don't see them really standing on their own two feet, outside of that context; when you hear their names, you think of Wynton. The same is not true of Zorn buddies like Marc Ribot. They may return to the hive when called, but they spend much of their working lives outside of it.

So maybe what I'm saying overall if you're speaking strictly on the "Who would I rather spend a lengthy evening listening to?" topic, Marsalis had the clear edge. But if you look outward re: "Whose musical empire is the saner, fairer, more benevolent and culturally nourishing one?" you have to hand it to Zorn. These figures are not in competition, of course, and as outspoken as each one is, I honestly don't think either one wants to stand for anything in particular aside from his own unique endeavors. They stand for things (uptown/downtown, tradition/iconoclasm) only because they've been extremely successful at those things, and thus they're convenient shorthand symbols. It's nice, though, to cut through the hype and the preconception and the rhetoric and just sit there in the theater and say, "What have you got for me?" I'm glad I live in a city where that's easily done.

P.S. My friend Joe, who also attended both concerts, makes a smart observation re: the Zorn show, i.e., that no one there was enjoying the music as much as he was. However hammy or hucksterish he can seem at times (to me, that is), his kid-in-a-candy-store glee is indeed endearing. You get a similar feeling from Wynton.


Paul Shapiro said...

Interesting pairing Hank, thanks for the picture...

evan patrick said...

Dude, meant to comment on this earlier. It's nice to read a clear-headed critique of this totally played-out musical division. Having been indoctrinated by the "out" or "downtown" school of jazz in college, it took awhile for me to realize both camps have their own limiting set of tropes. And after years of hearing virtuosic "downtown" players blow over banal vamps, I'd probably enjoy the more conservative yet thoughtfully arranged Lincoln Center players do their thing. Putting aside the financial inbalance (which is a legitimate gripe for the "downtown" players), folks on both ends need to move past the rhetoric of outdated critical and compositional concepts and just start listening for quality.