Sunday was the final day of the Big Ears 2022 festival. There were four shows on my list – all Zorn shows. As a bonus, they were all at the same venue, which was a huge relief in itself.
I had turned in early the night before and slept considerably better than the previous couple of nights. But it was going to take more than one good night’s sleep to shake off the exhaustion I was feeling. (And to be fair, sleeping poorly the first two nights probably played a part…)
The catch was that I had to check out of my room at about the same time that I would have liked to have been first waking up. I was dragging, but it went smoothly, and I decided to fiddle-fart some time away at a bookstore before heading towards the venue. Most likely there was interesting Big Ears stuff going on early in the day, but by that point I was frankly uninterested in discovering new music. My ears are big, but by that point I had ears only for Zorn.
From what I gather, John Zorn has a reputation for being, at times, prickly. He’s an NYC native, and lives up to many of the stereotypes. But overall he seems like a really gracious guy. And he’s got an extraordinary gift for working with musicians. He’s developed what could rightly be called a stable of musicians, and he combines them in different configurations to get different results. For example: Chaos Magick, my first show of the day. This is basically Simulacrum plus Brian Marsella (see the tnocs.com review for Day 3). So: drums, guitar, piano, electric keys, AND organ. This was apparently their very first performance! There was definitely plenty of the angular, pummeling shifts of Simulacrum, but also some quieter moments and occasional Exotica flavors.
Zorn unexpectedly came out on stage and conducted the band, just for part of the second song. He has an array of hand signals that he used to lead the players, from spasmic squalls into a shit-kicking Rock groove. The groove lasted for about three measures, then reverted to spasms. The process happened again, and then again, and then Zorn exited the stage, letting the band finish the song on their own. Wild, raw music.
Zorn has a long-standing rule against photos and videos being taken at his performances. If I’m reading it correctly, he feels like doing it detracts from the experience of seeing musicians perform. Signs were posted outside the Big Ears venues, and the ushers would give you a severe frowning if they saw you with your phone out. So, my overly short, inadequate videos of the Zorn shows were taken on the sly – as opposed to my overly short, inadequate videos of the other acts at the festival. Even worse than being called out by the ushers would have been being spotted by Zorn himself, who was usually standing in the wings. But when he was onstage conducting, I figured I was safe. He certainly wasn’t going to be looking out in the audience to see what I was doing at that moment…
The second show was also a 4-piece, but a much different concept. Billed as Heaven And Earth Magick, this ensemble incorporated a Classical element in pianist Stephen Gosling and vibraphonist Sae Hashimoto, whose parts were written out exactly (as is done in the Classical world). The piano and vibraphone were balanced against an improvised, unscripted bass-and-drums rhythm section. Honestly, this was my least favorite of the Zorn shows I saw. I found it a bit too abstract and cerebral – it never really grooved OR rocked. But it was interesting to see Ms. Hashimoto occasionally lean down over the vibraphone and use her mouth to shape certain notes. Odd, and slightly suggestive. She did this sporadically throughout the show, half a dozen times maybe, and as mentioned, she was following the direction of the score. It definitely created a focal point for the audience’s attention. She was very sober and straight-faced about it. I wondered what she thinking in those moments.
The final couple of shows I saw were performances of Zorn’s Masada Songbook. Grasping this requires a bit of context: Masada is a long-term project which began in the mid-90’s with Zorn fronting a 4-piece band – bass, drums, and trumpet along with Zorn’s sax. In short, the original quartet combined Jewish klezmer-type melodies with a poly-tonal, Outside jazz approach. This was great for several years, and he gradually began having other musicians and groupings play their own versions of the songs. Inspired, he wrote a whole new batch of tunes and farmed them out over the next decade or so, releasing volumes as the “Book of Angels”, the second part of the songbook. After 32(!) volumes he closed out the second book and then spent a few years preparing the next chunk, which was revealed in 2019: 11 different acts performing Zorn’s tunes in wildly varying ways.
All together it’s a stunning collection of music, and he spent roughly 25 years doing it. The third book was declared to be the final one, but there was suspicion (and hope) that he wasn’t really done with it. So there was much excitement a year or two ago when it became known that he had taken on a new band, specifically in order to play the old songs! He’s playing the sax again, and this time he’s paired with a guitar player rather than a trumpet player. Even with new players, the New Masada Quartet is strongly reminiscent of the original quartet. Although it’s intended as Jewish in origin, one could think of it as a sort of unhinged Gypsy jazz and be not far off.
Dig a little deeper into Masada lore and one encounters reverent mentions of the Electric Masada band. This stems from a handful of shows performed a couple of decades ago wherein Zorn expanded his concept into an eight-headed beast including guitar, keyboards, percussion, electronics, and a pair of drummers. Obviously this was the maximalist version of the idea. Rightly considered legendary, fans had generally given up hope of its return. But Zorn has very recently surprised everyone by reviving the Electric Masada band.
To call these performances momentous is to understate the case. In addition to John Medeski on organ, the Big Ears performance featured the venerable Bill Frissell as second guitarist. Electric Masada tunes can sometimes build to thundering crescendos, like the soundtrack for an Arabian army on the move.tnocs.com contributing author both grouse
Afterwards, I didn’t take much time to bask in the afterglow. I dragged my overly-stuffed, tender, spongy ears back to the car and began the hour-long drive home. It was one of the rare times that I didn’t feel like having music playing in the car. The next day would be a return to work and the usual routines, but the Big Ears festival had left me fulfilled and completely scratched my new music itch – for a brief time.
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