Sunday, May 3, 2015

John Zorn: Voices in the Wilderness

Last night was an event a quarter century in the waiting--the opportunity to see John Zorn and Bill Laswell live.  Saturday was a marathon for Zorn, who had a series of performances at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during the day and then an evening of concerts at U.C.L.A.'s Royce Hall.  The latter featured Zorn compositions performed by Abraxas, Secret Chiefs 3 and Bladerunner.

The first group was led by bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and included a duo of dueling lead guitarists and a blisteringly fast drummer while Blumenkranz held down the bottom with his bass and the Gnawa instrument, the gimbri, on a couple of pieces.  The band generated huge amounts of fast, loud and virtuosic energy, broken up on occasion by slower, quieter passage, and were well-received.

Secret Chiefs 3 is led by guitarist Trey Spruance, formerly of Mr. Bungle and Faith No More, who led an sextet with a keyboardist, bassist, drummer, second guitarist and violin and, while the volume and speed were usually milder than that of Abraxas, the musicianship was remarkable and there was still plenty of powerful playing.  This group got more of a response, possibly because there were a number of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle fans in the audience.

Then came the headlining Bladerunner, with Zorn on alto, Laswell on bass and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo.  Given that Zorn and Laswell's Pain Killer is a well-known project, mainly with ex-Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris, comparisons were obvious for those familiar with that earlier group.  Lombardo, however, is a supremely-talented drummer, who could not only provide sheer energy, volume and force, but has the technical facility and agility to give a more complex percussive backing for both Zorn and Laswell.  The bassist employed several types of playing on his instrument using a bank of effects pedals and his techniques were familiar to those who know his work.  Laswell and Lombardo provided a huge bottom that rattled seats and bodies for Zorn to explore the full tonal range of his instrument.

And that he did!  At 61, Zorn shows no sign of slowing down as a composer and performer.  He wailed, screamed, honked and blew with tremendous power and employed his circular breathing techniques to display his staying power.  There were times, however, when the music slowed down, Lombardo relied on complex cymbal work and Laswell simpler bass lines and Zorn played more melodically and showed fantastic control and coloration.

Maybe there'll be a live recording coming from this "Triple Threat," as it was known, because it would be great to have a document of this stunning concert from three amazing ensembles.

Meantime, over the last few days, while working out in the home gym and doing yardwork, this listener had the pleasure to revisit Zorn's masterpiece, Voices in the Wilderness, a 2003 double-disc release on the composer's non-profit label, Tzadik.  This staggering recording features two-dozen pieces from the Masada songbook and represented the second of five releases commemorating the tenth anniversary of the project which marked Zorn's rediscovery of his Jewish heritage.

Each of the pieces was arranged by friends and musicians of the composer and the stylistic range, instrumentation and approaches in arranging are really something to behold.  Moreover, the performances by the many musicians are just remarkable.

Blumenkranz's group, Pharoah's Daughter, pianist Uri Caine's trio, the trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood, altoist Peter Apfelbaum, pianist Anthony Coleman, tenor player Larry Ochs, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, clarinetist Chris Speed, vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg, bass clarinetist Marty Ehrlich, guitarist Eyal Maoz (who was fantastic with Abraxas last night), laptop electronics player Ikue Mori, vocalist Mike Patton, percussionist William Winant, guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist Jamie Saft and drummer Kenny Wollesen are among the dozens of musicians whose work is represented on this standout album.

Zorn had not played in Los Angeles since 1990, the year this blogger got into his music, and Laswell has not often appeared in this area over the years either, so last night was a "bucket list" type of evening, with the added pleasure of hearing the high caliber of performers in Abraxas and Secret Chiefs 3.

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