May 2009 By Evan Haga
Come on, admit it: When you saw this month’s JazzTimes in your mailbox or on the newsstand, you were surprised—maybe even shocked. In this issue, we’re proud to offer extensive coverage of iconoclast John Zorn. Not only did Bill Milkowski secure a candid, no-holds-barred interview—is there any other kind with Zorn?—but Nick Ruechel shot brand new portraits, one of which made the cover.
Zorn is undoubtedly one of the most prolific, original and important figures in American music today. Like his forebears in the loft era, he understands the avant-garde is defined not by a specific stylistic paradigm, but by an ability to avoid such boundaries. One of the most “out” things about him is how bewitchingly “in” he can get. Listen to the apocalyptic, metallic ooze of Naked City’s Leng Tch’e, then the sun-kissed surf melody “Mow Mow” by his Dreamers outfit, then his righteously grooving Masada quartet—a Zorn collection is a survey of musics new and old, with smack-in-the-face surprises at every turn.
As eventful as this piece is, however, it’s not entirely unprecedented. Longtime JT readers might remember Zorn’s lengthy interview in the March 2000 issue, a polemical cover story he (unknowingly) shared with Wynton Marsalis. Then, as now, contradictions abound: Zorn generally distrusts interviewers, but he’s often a remarkable conversationalist; he resents commerce but is himself an entrepreneur with enough business savvy to sustain a record label specializing in underground music.
In the older interview, also conducted by Milkowski, Zorn seems especially dour, perhaps even paranoid, regarding the influence of corporations and the manner in which major labels trivialize experimental music. Milkowski offers the possibility that getting one’s music produced and sold could be a more proletarian affair through the Internet and a not-yet ubiquitous audio format known as “MP3,” but Zorn isn’t convinced.
Says Zorn: “[D]o you think these large corporations are going to let that happen? … I mean, I would love to think that in 500 years everybody’s gonna have their own Web site.”
Although his timeline is a few years off, Zorn’s concerns are perceptive, even if they aren’t all that prescient. He’s speaking a decade ago, in an odd epoch for the Internet and technology-dependent culture in general. Much of the public only knew the ’net as a series of buzzwords and Wall Street blunders.
The truth is that the Internet has forced businesses of all sizes, especially media- and entertainment-oriented ones, to reinvent themselves in order to survive. JazzTimes recently made strides toward that survival with its re-launch of JazzTimes.com. In the spirit of the online age, we’re giving it all away: You can search through archival materials—columns, reviews, features, photos—stretching back to the early 1990s. There are also myriad opportunities for readers to contribute their own jazz writing, event listings and more. It’s a beautifully designed site and we’ll be frequently adding exclusive features, the first of which is this month’s John Zorn interview, unedited and unfettered by magazine space constraints.
Originally published in May 2009