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'This is not entertainment': John Zorn, all over Big Ears

John Zorn in performance in New York.
Jonathan Chimene
/
WBGO
John Zorn in performance in New York.

Content warning: This episode contains explicit language.

Trick question: how do you chronicle the creative plenitude of John Zorn? It's a fool's errand, considering his body of work, which at least resists categorization if not the very limits of description. Still, there's copious insight, and no small amount of pleasure, to be gained from a flash immersion in Zorn's sonic world — an irresistible opportunity that surfaced at the 2022 Big Ears Festival, where he shared his uncompromising vision in eight distinct musical settings.

"This is not entertainment," Zorn declared during an onstage interview at the festival, emphatic as ever in his artistic intentions. But make no mistake: the capacity crowds at Big Ears were enthralled as well as challenged by the array of sounds he put forth. They ranged from a solo piano recital, performed by classical virtuoso Stephen Gosling, to the hybrid chamber-improv ensemble Heaven and Earth Magick (with Gosling churning in the mix).

Zorn was a galvanic presence even in the wings — during concerts by Simulacrum, a sort of death-metal organ group; the Brian Marsella Trio, with its grooving piano; and Songs For Petra, featuring Petra Haden's vocals and Jesse Harris' lyrics and acoustic guitar. Elsewhere, the composer took on a visible role, conducting jump-cut cues for Chaos Magick or wielding his alto saxophone in the New Masada Quartet and, during a thrilling finale, New Electric Masada.

Amazingly, we'll hear music from all of the above in this episode of Jazz Night in America, along with testimonials from guitarists Julian Lage and Bill Frisell, Big Ears founder Ashley Capps — and of course Zorn himself, who turns 70 this year, a veritable icon with the undying fire of an iconoclast. He'll be back at Big Ears this coming spring, for a 70th birthday celebration featuring many of these same fearless musicians and a handful of others.

"All my compositions are platforms to enable creativity," says Zorn. "That's the bottom line." Jazz Night is proud to capture some of that creative energy, with full knowledge that the task, like Zorn's larger mission, will always be unfinished.


Musicians:

New Masada Quartet

John Zorn, alto saxophone; Julian Lage, guitar; Jorge Roeder, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums

Songs for Petra

Petra Haden, vocals; Jesse Harris, acoustic guitar; Julian Lage, electric guitar; Jorge Roeder, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums

Brian Marsella Trio

Brian Marsella, piano; Trevor Dunn, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums

Simulacrum

Matt Hollenberg, guitar; John Medeski, organ; Kenny Grohowski, drums

Stephen Gosling

Stephen Gosling, piano

Chaos Magick

Matt Hollenberg, guitar; Brian Marsella, Fender rhodes; John Medeski, organ; Kenny Grohowski, drums

Heaven and Earth Magick

Sae Hashimoto, vibraphone; Stephen Gosling, piano; Jorge Roeder, bass; Ches Smith, drums

Electric Masada

John Zorn, alto saxophone; Bill Frisell, guitar; Julian Lage, guitar; John Medeski, organ; Brian Marsella, piano; Trevor Dunn, bass; Kenny Grohowski, drums; Ches Smith, drums

Set List:

(All music composed John Zorn unless noted)

  1. "Tharsis"

  1. "Kafiristan" (John Zorn, Jesse Harris)

  1. "The High Priestess"

  1. "Danse Macabre"

  1. "The Turner Etudes, VIII"

  1. "Egregore"

  1. "Casting the Runes"

  1. "Hath-Arob"


Credits:

Writer: Nate Chinen; Producers: Alex Ariff, Nate Chinen, Trevor Smith; Editor: Trevor Smith; Mixing; Ron Scalzo, Katie Simon; Host: Christian McBride; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Vice President of Visuals and Strategy at NPR Music: Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.

Live music recording: Matt Cowen, Matt Honkonen; Live music mixing and final music mix: Marc Urselli.

Huge thanks to the Big Ears team: Executive and Artistic Director Ashley Capps and Managing Producer Mary Ho.

Shout out to the Bijou Theater crew in Knoxville — production manager Mischa Goldman and Executive Director Courtney Bergmeier.
Copyright 2023 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

Trevor joined the WBGO Development Department in April of 2017 and currently handles grant writing and institutional giving initiatives as the Coordinator of Corporate and Foundation Relations.