John Zorn with trumpeter Dave Douglas and bassist Greg Cohen in his reunited Masada band. Photo: Jazz Desk.

Zorn backwards and forward

John Zorn is such a productive composer that most of the concerts at the Lisbon Jazz Festival/John Zorn Special Edition last week were performances of new music, which is nice.

It was also nice when the festival gave room to some of the old compositions which probably is new to many of his new listeners.

Zorn’s solo guitar pieces ”The Book of Heads” was not performed live but screened. Film maker Stephen Taylor made a film in 2015 of guitarist James Moore playing those pieces of music from 1976-78.

They are both captivating and often very funny at the same time. They have Moore playing electric and acoustic guitars with balloons, a bow, a plastic ring, and at one time stomping on balloons while playing the guitar. One of the pieces is simply Moore clipping off a string and then restring another. It has some of the same ideas as John Cage had explored in the 1960s. If one of the inventions or characteristics of Cage’s was the prepared piano, then the prepared guitar must be Zorn’s.

Lots of guitar

James Moore was also present at the festival to play some of Zorn’s Game Pieces with the Dither quartet which is a quartet of four electric guitarists. These four guitarists are able to produce every possible sound imaginable on their instruments, like sirens or motors. They started with two trio pieces called ”Hockey” and ”Fencing” where the idea seemed to be to either pass around a theme or blocking it.

The Dither electric guitar quartet performed some of Zorn’s Game Pieces. James Moore at the far right has also performed Zorn’s Book of Heads. Photo: Jazz Desk.
The Dither electric guitar quartet performed some of Zorn’s Game Pieces. James Moore at the far right has also performed Zorn’s Book of Heads. Photo: Jazz Desk.

They ended with the quartet piece ”Curling” where they seemed determined to play as undependable themes as possible from each other. At one time I heard one of the guitarists plucking the familiar theme to Stings old 1980s hit ”Every Breath You Take” which not was around yet when Zorn wrote his game pieces in the late 1970s. These early experimental pieces by Zorn are very entertaining and humorous.

Most of the other music at the festival was brand new and Zorn still seems to prefer having a lot of his music played by guitarists. Some of the most interesting around was present at the festival. Or how about Marc Ribot, Mary Halvorson, and Thurston Moore?

Saxophonist and composer John Zorn sure like guitarists. Here he plays with Thurston Moore, Mary Halvorson and Matt Hollenberg at Lisbon Jazz Festival. Drew Gress and Greg Cohen plays bass and Thomas Fujiwara drums. Photo: Jazz Desk.
Saxophonist and composer John Zorn sure like guitarists. Here he plays with Thurston Moore, Mary Halvorson and Matt Hollenberg at Lisbon Jazz Festival. Drew Gress and Greg Cohen plays bass and Thomas Fujiwara drums. Photo: Jazz Desk.

Gyan Riley who played in Dither quartet was back another day in a duo with Julian Lage who has established himself as one of the new stars of his instrument. They started to play Zorn’s ”Midsummer Moon” which is inspired by the plays of Shakespeare and baroque music. It is almost to pretty for my taste with the two guitarist exchanging exquisite phrases back and forth.

Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. Photo: Jazz Desk.
Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. Photo: Jazz Desk.

I liked it much better when they turned to the still unrecorded new book of compositions by Zorn called the Bagatelles which are much more rhythmic and quirky with unsuspected twists and turns.

They ended the concert with pieces from yet another book of music by Zorn called ”The Book of Beri’ah” which will soon be released on a new box and which has Lage and Riley playing as a duo on one of the discs. This music is based on Jewish scales and sounds slightly oriental.

The Bagatelles

Zorn’s new compositions called Bagatelles were the ones most featured during the festival. What is most clear about them is that they are open to every kind of interpretation and that it is more the musicians playing them who decides how they will sound rather than the composer. Zorn had the Bagatelles played by everyone from todays most talked about jazz musicians to more unknown artists like the hardcore power trio Trigger which gave one of the more radical performances of the Bagatelles. They played very fast and energetic with some of the same energy as punk music once had.

Trigger gave one of the most energetic performances of John Zorn’s The Bagatelles. With bassist Simon Hanes, drummer Aaron Edgcomb and guitarist Will Greene. Notice the sheet music. Photo: Jazz Desk.
Trigger gave one of the most energetic performances of John Zorn’s The Bagatelles. With bassist Simon Hanes, drummer Aaron Edgcomb and guitarist Will Greene. Notice the sheet music. Photo: Jazz Desk.

When pianist Craig Taborn on the other hand played the Bagatelles as solo piano pieces he had them sound like they were typical pieces of the kind that the late Cecil Taylor used to play when he performed solo. They had still strong rhythmic elements but sounded more abstract with no obvious melodies or harmonies and with lots of dissonances. One of the pieces with a minimalistic repetitious theme was reminiscent of the things Taborn write and plays on his own, and one piece with a slight gospel feel even had him sounding like Keith Jarrett for a short while.

Craig Taborn plays a solo performance of the Bagatelles. Photo: Jazz Desk.
Craig Taborn plays a solo performance of the Bagatelles. Photo: Jazz Desk.

Taborn performed the same night as pianist Brian Marsala’s trio with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Wollesen. They had the Bagatelles sound more like pieces in the tradition of bop pianist Thelonious Monk or latin jazz pianist Chuco Waldes. The difference was not only the steady rhythms but also more obvious melodies and harmonies, but they to played one freer piece, if you can call it that when it is composed music. Maybe I should call it a more expressive piece with a less obvious structure.

The Brian Marsella trio with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Photo: Jazz Desk.
The Brian Marsella trio with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Photo: Jazz Desk.

A great festival

There were also other of Zorn’s books of compositions performed at the festival. The folk rock-like band The Secret Chiefs with two guitarists, a violinist, a keyboardist, a bassist, and two drummers who also altered on percussion played a set of what sounded like Zorn’s music based on Jewish scales which has a nice oriental feel to them. The Secret Chiefs made the music sound like something that a musician like Bob Dylan could have played.

The Secret Chiefs plays the music of John Zorn. Photo: Jazz Desk.
The Secret Chiefs plays the music of John Zorn. Photo: Jazz Desk.

Guitarist Julian Lage also made a second appearance with the quartet Insurrection which couples him with rock guitarist Matt Hollenberg, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Grohowski. They played a really good set where Lage’s and Hollenberg’s contrasting styles really worked well together.

Bassist Trevor Dunn did not only play a third melodic line next to them but also hooked up with drummer Grohowski to play some really funky or solid rhythms. Dunn is one of the musicians who played in a lot of bands during the whole festival, showing his full capacity both with the acoustic and the electric bass. He has it all including an experimental side where he brings out a screwdriver to play his bass.

Insurrection with guitarists Julian Lage and Matt Hollenberg, drummer Kenny Grohowski and bassist Trevor Dunn. Photo: Jazz Desk.
Insurrection with guitarists Julian Lage and Matt Hollenberg, drummer Kenny Grohowski and bassist Trevor Dunn. Photo: Jazz Desk.

The music Insurrection played was really arranged but when Hollenberg accidentally broke one of his guitar strings mid-perfomance, and had to string another drummer Grohowski saved the night by playing a spontaneous drum solo which drew a lot of applauds. For those of us who just had seen the filmed performance of Zorn’s ”Book of Heads” it was impossible not to think of the piece which consisted of clipping a guitar string and to restring the instrument. These things still happens when Zorn’s music is performed but now by chance not as a calculated effect.

Where are the horn players?

All in all it was one of the most entertaining and well-organized festivals I have been to. Two or three concerts a day is as much as you can take, more than that and it is like overeating. The beautiful Guldbenkian museum in central Lisbon with its several stages including the outdoor amphitheatre and beautiful peaceful garden is a perfect place for a festival. While you are there you should also take time to see one of the most beautiful art collections in Europe.

The only thing I missed were some more horn players. Except for Zorn himself playing saxophone the first and second night of the festival and trumpeter Dave Douglas playing trumpet with him in the reunited Masada there were no other horn players, and I would like to hear som horn players interpret Zorn’s music.

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