This summer the whole jazz festival in Lisbon, Portugal, has been turned into a John Zorn special edition.
If you are going to feature one single artist through a whole festival, no one is more suitable than saxophonist and composer John Zorn. He does not only play with a lot of different groups and musicians, but he also writes lots of music for other musicians to play, and he also ventures into other musical spheres like classical music, electronica and rock, which he displayed already during the three first nights of the festival this weekend.
Rock music was featured on the opening Friday night when Zorn played with guitarist Thurston Moore from the band Sonic Youth. Saturday was jazz night when guitarist Mary Halvorson’s quartet played one of Zorn’s compositions, and Zorn himself reunited with his pianoless quartet Masada.
Zorn’s classical works was featured on Sunday when renown singer Barbara Hannigan and pianist Stephen Gosling played a new composition by Zorn, and he himself played an organ concert. All three nights had their own energy and mood.
The music on Friday night was sometimes very energetic and often great fun. Zorn and Moore entered the outdoor amphitheatre stage at the Gulbenkian Museum full force with a sprawling septet including guitarists Mary Halvorson and Matt Hollenberg, bassists Drew Gress and Greg Cohen and drummer Thomas Fujiwara. Instead of all musicians playing at once they played in trios and quartets which changed in personnel from every song to the next.
Zorn started to play in a trio with Moore and drummer Thomas Fujiwara. To match Moore’s high energy playing Zorn played a kind of machine gun attack on his alto saxophone and spat out throbbing and squeaking notes, and Fujiwara sounded more like some heavy metal drummer than his own very sophisticated self.
Mary Halvorson slowed things down with a more pensive trio performance with the two bassists where she still played some of her typical experimental strange delay effects and some free atonal stuff.
Zorn and Fujiwara still seemed high on steroids when they reentered the stage with bassist Greg Cohen and delivered a far out free jazz piece. Then it was time for Moore and Hollenbeck to contrast their two different hard core styles on guitar, with Hollenbeck shaping high screaming notes that sounded like embodiments of desperate sorrow or loneliness.
For the final song they played with the whole septet and Moore brought out his screw driver to deliver his most strange guitar sounds.
Saturday night started with guitarist Mary Halvorson playing with a quartet with guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Thomas Fujiwara. They played one of Zorn’s works from his Book of Angels, which is 300 compositions built on Jewish scales. The music was fast, rhythmic, and joyous, with Halvorson and Okazaki trading intricate phrases back and forth.
For me that concert was the high point of the festival so far, not even Zorn’s reunited Ornette Coleman-flavored quartet Masada could match it. Masada followed Mary Halvorson’s quartet without a break. The band still has the same line up as when it started some 25 years ago. They are Zorn, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron. Especially Zorn and Baron seemed to enjoy themselves and traded sheet music back and forth with each other.
It is not only the absence of a pianist that makes Masada sound like Ornette Coleman’s original quartet with Don Cherry but also the breakneck tempos and the playfulness which they combine with influences from Jewish music.
Classical and electronica night
Sunday was more in a spiritual or classical mood. It started with a screening of a new documentary about Zorn by French film maker Mathieu Amalric.
He followed Zorn around a couple of years ago when he did a similar series of concerts in Paris, France, as he now does in Lisbon. Some of his works were even played at the Louvre.
The documentary both shows Zorn’s obvious joy in creating music but also his attention to detail as he is present at rehearsals of his string quartet and with electric guitarist Marc Ribot.
After the screening it was time for a new song cycle by Zorn based on the Finnish National epos Kalevala. It was performed by opera singer Barbara Hannigan and pianist Stephen Gosling. The piece is solidly planted in the rich tradition of songs by European classical composers who often used well-known poems which they wrote music to, but Zorn’s work is also decidedly modern with Gosling sometimes playing prepared piano. For this performance the festival was moved indoors to the main auditorium at the Gulbenkian Museum.
Zorn and electronica artist Ikue Mori finished the night from the same stage with Zorn playing the mighty sounding organ. The sound of the instrument itself places the performance in the rich European tradition of organ music from Johann Sebastian Bach and further, but Zorn improvise on the organ, and interacts with Ikue Mori who plays things on her laptop that sounds like synthesised sounds of glass and water. So it is to a combination of something old and new.
To go broader
Zorn and Ikue Mori got a standing ovation. The audience at the festival really seem to love Zorn’d multifacated music. As Zorn says in the documentary: ”You can’t play it better than some musicians already has, maybe you can’t go any deeper, but you can go broader”.
There is still much more music to come the following week at the festival with performances from among others guitarists Marc Ribot and Julian Lage, pianists Kris Davis and Craig Taborn and organist John Medeski. The musicians seems to love Zorn as well.