John Zorn conducts bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Kenny Grohowsk and guitarist Marc Ribot who performs Zorn’s Bagatelles.

The art of Zorn

Have you ever seen a composer conduct his work for power trio? If not, that is just because you have not been to a concert with guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Grohowski when they play Bagatelles written by John Zorn who also conducts the trio.

The contrast between the wild untamed post-Hendrix expression of the trio and the highly organized forms which Zorn hand signaled to them made me laugh out loud because it was so mind gobbling and good. To top it all Trevor Dunn started to play his bass with a plastic bottle and a screwdriver.

”More drums!” John Zorn conducts bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Kenny Grohowsk and guitarist Marc Ribot who performs Zorn’s Bagatelles.
”More drums!” John Zorn conducts bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Kenny Grohowsk and guitarist Marc Ribot who performs Zorn’s Bagatelles. Photo: Jazz Desk

The concert was part of the ambitious jazz festival in Lisbon, Portugal, which this year is turned into a John Zorn Special edition which presents the music by saxophonist and composer John Zorn with several concerts every day for a full ten days.

A book of Bagatelles

It began with a blast last weekend with performances by Zorn himself, rock star Thurston Moore and opera singer Barbara Hannigan. The following four days were not quite as diverse in musical genres. In stead it mostly focused on several small groups playing Zorn’s music.

The power trio with Marc Ribot is called Asmodeus and they played a new book of compositions by Zorn called Bagatelles. Composers of classical music has written bagatelles for centuries. The term simply means short instrumental piece. One of the most famous examples is ”Fur Elise” by Ludwig van Beethoven, but mostly they have no names and are just numbered, a fact which John Zorn poked fun at by describing his own bagatelles as the ”infamous” 223 and so on. I am not perfectly sure about the number to the infamous one.

These new compositions was played by a lot of small groups which played over the next days with stars of jazz like Mary Halvarson, Craig Taborn, Kris Davis and John Medeski. The idea of Zorn’s Bagatelles seems to be that they can be played by various settings.

Too much guitar

One of them was Nova Quartet which has Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone, John Medeski on piano, Trevor Dunn on bass and Joey Baron on drums. Of course it is impossible to use that instrumentation without recalling the intimate swing and interplay by The Modern Jazz Quartet, but Nova played in an entirely other way with Medeski and Wollesen playing strong almost rock-like rhythms and sometimes pastel color harmonies which could have been used by The Beach Boys. They to played Zorn’s Bagatelles but of course made them sound completely different.

The Nova quartet with John Medeski, Trevor Dunn, Joey Baron and Kenny Wollesen plays John Zorn’s Bagatelles.
The Nova quartet with John Medeski, Trevor Dunn, Joey Baron and Kenny Wollesen plays John Zorn’s Bagatelles. Photo: Jazz Desk.

The organ trio Simulacrum had Tuesday night to themselves. They are organist John Medeski, guitarist Matt Hollenberg and drummer Kenny Grohowski. The instrumentation is a jazz organ trio but the language they play are much more hard rock than jazz. I could understand the intention but I did not appreciate the result as it more often than not became predictable and therefore ultimately boring.

Medeski was back next night with a new trio with guitarist Dave Fiuczynski and drummer Calvin Weston to play more of the Bagatelles which again sounded altogether different. Unfortunately whoever who did the sound on that concert destroyed it. Fiuczynski’s guitar was cranked up so high in the mix that it not only drowned Medeski’s organ, but also Weston’s drums. The effect became parodic in a number where Fiuczynski played a funky rhythm guitar in disco Chic style and it was almost the only thing you could hear. It had been nice to hear something of what Medeski and Weston did. At least it looked interesting.

Dave Fiuczynski, Calvin Weston and John Medeski playing music by John Zorn.
Dave Fiuczynski, Calvin Weston and John Medeski playing music by John Zorn. Photo: Jazz Desk.

Stars of the piano

The interplay became much more interesting when pianist Kris Davis and her quartet with guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen entered the stage.

Drew Gress, Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson and Kenny Wollesen plays John Zorn’s Bagatelles. Photo: Jazz Desk.
Drew Gress, Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson and Kenny Wollesen plays John Zorn’s Bagatelles. Photo: Jazz Desk.

Both Davis and Halvorson are among the most interesting on their respective instrument today and it showed as they delivered one of the most interesting performances of the Bagatelles. Davis brought clarity, focus and nuance to the performance of the pieces while Halvorson was her own unique self using delays and echoes and stuff to her guitar lines. They interacted beautifully with each other and the rhythm section. The pieces they played ranged from the minimalistic repetitious to the very free, and some of them sounded beautiful.

Drew Gress, Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson and Kenny Wollesen plays John Zorn’s Bagatelles. Photo: Jazz Desk.
Drew Gress, Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson and Kenny Wollesen plays John Zorn’s Bagatelles. Photo: Jazz Desk.

Another one of todays most interesting pianists joined the festival on thursday night. Craig Taborn has played everything from highly experimental music to funky electric fusion. He to will play some of Zorn’s Bagatelles at the festival but he started to play a completely improvised set together with Ikue Mori on laptop and Jim Black on drums. Together they are called The Highsmith Trio.

Craig Taborn, Jim Black and Ikue Mori are The Highsmith Trio. Photo: Jazz Desk.
Craig Taborn, Jim Black and Ikue Mori are The Highsmith Trio. Photo: Jazz Desk.

They did not play any riffs or other patterns which gave the music unity. In stead they played fragmented searching phrases and if Black at some point started to play a steady rhythm it was not long before he abandoned it. Mori uses warped synthetic sounds like those that you can find in 1970s science fiction movies and somehow she got it working in this context. The best thing I can say about this performance is that it had me listening closely to all three of the musicians and to their joint effort which captivated me for the full hour it lasted.

Ambition and vision

Another free improvised performance at the festival was that of Robert Dick. He played a solo concert but as he said he did not feel lonely on stage as he played his man-sized contrabass flute which looks something like a bass saxophone with a flute headjoint.

Robert Dick plays his flute. Photo: Jazz Desk.
Robert Dick plays his flute. Photo: Jazz Desk.

He used a lot of vocalisation and tapping of the keys of the flute for effect. If you have heard Rahsaan Kirk you get the picture of how Dick plays the flute. I found his concert most captivating as well.

There is still much more to come for the last weekend of this prestigious festival presenting the music of John Zorn but if it were to end right now it still would have presented a lot more challenging and diverse music than most other festivals, and I guess that is what the art of John Zorn is all about. He sure has a lot of ambition and also a vision of how his music should be presented, and diversity seems to be on top of that list.

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