John Zorn: The Working Man
Think of John Zorn, the American composer, alto saxophonist and conceptualist, as a juggler. Zorn keeps aloft a plethora of radically different projects while also heading up his own label (Tzadik) and acting as artistic director at the Stone, his own cutting-edge performance venue in Manhattan’s East Village. A restlessly creative spirit with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy, Zorn is, at age 55, experiencing unprecedented productivity in a career that dates back to the mid-’70s, when he began experimenting with like-minded improvisers and musical renegades on Manhattan’s Lower East Side who, together, forged an alternative movement that would be identified by critics as the “downtown” scene.
“I feel like things are really flowing now, like I’ve hit kind of a peak and I’m riding it,” confessed Zorn during an interview at the Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, a favorite East Village haunt for artists, thinkers and assorted bohemians. “I’m riding the wave and the wave is taking me further. People have told me that with Virgos, your life is like a crescendo. It begins and it slowly gets better and better and better. What better life to have?”
On a Tuesday morning in early February I met Zorn at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village for a dress rehearsal of “Astronome: A Night at the Opera,” his audacious and powerful new musical/theater collaboration with renowned playwright and avant-garde theater pioneer Richard Foreman. A mind-boggling visual explosion featuring a relentless flood of psychedelic, dreamlike imagery and sacred Jewish symbolism, it is fueled by the unbelievably intense soundtrack of Zorn’s Astronome, performed by his extreme hardcore noise trio Moonchild (Joey Baron on drums, Trevor Dunn on fuzz bass and Mike Patton on wordless banshee-scream vocals). The music is so loud and intense, in fact, that warnings are announced before each performance at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, along with offers of free earplugs for the faint of heart. (The production was filmed for future DVD release which will be available on Zorn’s label Web site, www.tzadik.com).
That Friday night I attended the U.S. premiere of Zorn’s new Masada sextet, an expanded edition of his long-running Masada quartet (Zorn on alto sax, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass, Joey Baron on drums), augmented by outstanding pianist Uri Caine and Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. This group, which combines elements of the classic Ornette Coleman quartet with the Eastern European flavor of traditional klezmer music and Jewish sacred music, is undeniably in the jazz camp, albeit traveling on its own unique tributary off the mainstream. Their invigorating sextet set at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, marked by some stellar individual soloing and an uncanny group-think, represented a new level for this band that Zorn formed 15 years ago. Caine brought aspects of both Cecil Taylor and Bud Powell to the table while Baptista colored the proceedings in typically wacky and intuitive ways, resulting in a decided raising of the bar over all other previous Masada performances.
The following night, Saturday, Zorn debuted new material with his surprisingly accessible group the Dreamers (Kenny Wollesen on vibes, Marc Ribot on guitar, Baron on drums, Dunn on bass, Jamie Saft on organ and piano). While Moonchild may be in the ultra-extreme zone and Masada may come across as challenging to the uninitiated, the music of the Dreamers is relaxed, engaging and downright delightful. A blend of pop, exotica, funk, surf rock, minimalism and world music crafted as little three-minute melodic gems, it is the yin to Masada’s yang.
It’s hard to imagine that the music I witnessed on these three separate occasions over the span of a week was conceived by the same mind. And yet, it’s only the tip of the iceberg for the remarkably prolific Zorn. As the head of Tzadik (since 1995), he also shepherds new bands onto the label, providing them an outlet and nurturing them under the auspices of his Radical Jewish Culture series, Film Music series, New Japanese series, Oracle Series (promoting women in experimental music), Key series (promoting notable avant-garde musicians and projects) and Lunatic Fringe series (promoting music and musicians operating outside of the broad categories offered by other series).
And then there is Zorn’s own incredibly rich, pre-Tzadik legacy: an extensive discography of well over 100 recordings as a composer of string trios and string quartets, film scores, game theory pieces, chamber pieces, classical works and meditations on Jewish mysticism, British occultist Aleister Crowley and pulp-fiction author Mickey Spillane (1987’s Spillane), as well as tributes to figures like Ennio Morricone (1986’s The Big Gundown) and projects as a leader with the bands Naked City, Painkiller and Spy vs. Spy (which performed hardcore renditions of Ornette Coleman compositions).
Some of Zorn’s jazziest playing on record can be heard on such recordings as 1986’s Voodoo by the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, 1988’s News for Lulu and 1992’s More News for Lulu (featuring interpretations of tunes by Kenny Dorham, Sonny Clark, Freddie Redd and Hank Mobley), as well as recordings with the great early ’60s Blue Note organist Big John Patton. He also makes a cameo appearance alongside his all-time alto sax hero Lee Konitz on the 1995 set The Colossal Saxophone Sessions, playing a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Devil’s Island.”
In 2006, Zorn received a MacArthur Fellowship grant (a five-year grant of $500,000 to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future”). And in 2007 he was the recipient of Columbia University’s William Schuman Award, an honor given “to recognize the lifetime achievement of an American composer whose works have been widely performed and generally acknowledged to be of lasting significance.” He was more than deserving on both counts.
Zorn has also edited a series of books titled Arcana: Musicians on Music, which contain essays by various colleagues including Derek Bailey, George Lewis, Bill Laswell, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, Nels Cline, Fred Frith, Wayne Horvitz, Marty Ehrlich, Vijay Iyer, Elliott Sharp and dozens more. The fourth Arcana book is due out this spring, as is a new recording by the Dreamers, their third on Tzadik.
Notoriously leery of interviews, Zorn nevertheless granted this sit-down and subsequent photo shoot for JazzTimes. He was unusually forthcoming and positively bubbling over in anticipation of the opening of “Astronome: A Night at the Opera,” which, as of our interview, was scheduled to run through April 5.
I spoke with Zorn a few days after his gig with the Dreamers at the Abrons Art Center.
JazzTimes: Your output over the past 30 years is staggering.
Well, I’ve been busy. I guess it’s really hard to stay current with what I do because I put out like five, eight, 10 CDs a year. Most people who try to write about what I do just don’t have any sense of the scope and the range. And even if they were given a pile of 25 CDs or something, a lot of them just aren’t equipped to deal with something that’s as far-ranging as the Crowley String Quartet performing “Necronomicon” on the Magick CD and then to what you saw with Richard Foreman, the Astronome project, really heavy rock, to jazz-based music with people like Dave Douglas and Joey Baron, to the film scores to the Dreamers and on and on. There’s a lot of different music and unless you’re open to all that and acquainted with it in the first place, it’s just going to go in one ear and out the other.
JazzTimes: I read somewhere that this is all the result of what you call “an incredibly short attention span.”
Well, that’s just some 1980s hype where Nonesuch Records was attempting to sell me as some kind of postmodern phenomenon. It’s their job to sell product, and in order to sell product they need to market you in a certain way. But I don’t think that that is a very intelligent analysis of why someone likes a lot of different kinds of music. It’s not a matter of having a short attention span, it’s a matter of living in today’s world and being a curious, creative, open-minded, intelligent individual who appreciates greatness for its own sake without putting it into any kind of academic or cultural box.
JazzTimes: And what you bring to it is this incredibly intense focus, which is a rare commodity these days.
That’s who I am. For instance, I just got off the phone with the census bureau and they asked me how many hours do I work in a week. And my answer, basically, was I work 24 hours a day. Even when I’m sleeping I’m working. I’m talking with you, I’m working. I get up first thing in the morning, the computer goes on, I’m answering e-mails. I go out to lunch, I have a discussion with someone, it’s about music, it’s about art. I go to a museum. Even in the cab I’m on the phone doing business. I’m always working. My life is making work. That’s why I’m here. People are surprised that it’s possible to get as much work done as I do. It’s very simple. I choose to work. I don’t go on a vacation. I’m not interested in that.
JazzTimes: I found it very revealing the other day when we were sharing a cab ride and I made some reference to Seinfeld.
Right. I’ve never even seen it.
JazzTimes: And I remember thinking when I said that, “He probably doesn’t even have a TV.”
Right. Well, this is actually not so difficult to understand. The world is filled with distractions, and we understand why it’s good for the government, especially in an administration like Bush’s, to bamboozle people and keep them distracted from getting together and saying, “Wait a minute! What is going on here?!” I choose not to be distracted. I figured out, I guess sometime in the past 20 or 30 years, exactly what it was that was very distracting about our society and what was stopping me from making work. And I managed in a very simple way to cut that out. I’m not sticking my head in the sand; I’m just eliminating anything that gets in the way of making work. That means a lot of sacrificing, even to the extent of, you know, having a family. You have kids, you have to devote half your life to your children to be a correct parent. I can’t do that. I am devoted to my work. So my children are the compositions, the records, the performances. And my family? That’s the musical community. And that’s why it’s not an unusual thing for me to create the Stone or create Tzadik. That’s what a father would do to put clothes on the back of their children or make sure they get to a good school or protect them if they’re being bullied.
I’m here to help the community that nurtured me. And that’s why no TV; that’s why I don’t read magazines or newspapers. I focus on the art that I’m doing. That’s my gift for the world; that’s why I’m on the planet. I’m not a hard-liner and I understand how difficult it is to survive in this world, but at the same time I think the reason I created Tzadik, the reason that the Stone had to happen, the reason that these Arcana books are coming out, the reason that I continue to create work to the extent that I do, is because I created my own avenue.
JazzTimes: I got the impression from seeing the Dreamers the other night that you’re a guitar maven in a certain way because you seemed to take such great delight in some of Marc Ribot’s slashing guitar solos.
Well, I’ve worked with some amazing guitar players in my time: Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay, Bob Quine, Derek Bailey, Henry Kaiser, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot. Right there is kind of like a history of experimental guitar in the 20th century. Those are great names; these are really amazing players. And I’ve always had a very close relationship with guitar players.
JazzTimes: Did you ever have a personal connection to guitar? Did you ever play the instrument yourself?
Yeah, I used to play it when I was a kid, sure. We all played guitar. I played bass in a surf band. I learned Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys tunes on guitar. I was really into surf rock when I was like 10 years old. So sure, I played guitar, bass and all like that. And in a way, the guitar is what the violin was in the 18th-19th century. It is the voice of the people; it’s a very important instrument. If you’re going to be a composer today you have to understand not just what the guitar can do but what the electric guitar can do, because that is one of the new instruments of the 20th century, along with the drum set and the electric organ and the saxophone, and now, the turntable. These are new instruments and you need to include them in your language. It’s here, it’s available.
If Mozart were alive today, believe me, he’d be incorporating all those instruments and writing for them. And he would also be listening to all this different music that is around. It’s not an unusual thing for a creative person to be interested in creativity. People who grew up at the time that I did, in the ’60s, we loved all different musics. We loved rock, we loved jazz, we loved classical, we loved world music. We had a hunger for anything new. We’d make little mix tapes on cassette that had all these different styles of music. That was like a very special thing. We’d play them at parties. Now, that’s normal, that’s the iPod shuffle. Everybody listens that way now. So in that sense, we have really succeeded. It’s like our generation, our kind of impetus of loving all these different things, that is kind of the new way to listen to music.
JazzTimes: It’s true.
And one thing that I have to say, which is interesting on kind of a socio-cultural level of how this music has been misunderstood-understood, marginalized-glorified, this is a new music. There is a music that is kind of post-’60s and that music is a very pluralistic music, a music that incorporates and accepts all these different influences. These people that we’re talking about, whether it’s Fred Frith, Marc Ribot, Wayne Horvitz or Uri Caine, these are people that love all kinds of music and listen to all kinds of music. And they had access to all kinds of music and created something with that, with all their loves. And it’s a new music. Maybe Uri’s a little more in the jazz camp coming out of Philly with his background, maybe Fred Frith is a little more in the rock-folk camp. Everybody has different roots in different places. Ultimately, I thought of myself as more of a classical musician who then got involved with different kinds of players.
But the music is not jazz music, it’s not classical music, it’s not rock music. It’s a new kind of music that was loved by people like yourself and other writers who were on that scene in the late ’70s-early ‘80s. You loved this music, you were stimulated by it, it said something to you because it came from your experience. But where can you write about this music that you love? What are the outlets? The only outlets were jazz magazines. Even though it didn’t belong in that tradition or in that format, it was the only format that there was. So I feel like that created a deep misunderstanding in what this music is. People started judging this new music with the standards of jazz, with the definitions of what jazz is and isn’t, because stories about it appeared in jazz magazines. And now I’ll do a gig at the Marciac Jazz Festival and I’ll get offstage and Wynton Marsalis will say, “That’s not jazz.” And I’ll say, “You’re right! But this is the only gig I’ve got, man. Give me another festival and I’ll play there.”
JazzTimes: Well, he couldn’t possibly have said that about Masada.
Actually, he said it about electric Masada, which, admittedly, is pretty out there. It has elements of [my game piece] “Cobra” in it, it has elements of my conduction kind of stuff. Plus, Ribot and Saft really take it to a little more of a rock area, and there are always some structural elements of classical in there. Some people want to try and define it and say it’s related to Third Stream.
JazzTimes: What you’ve created with Tzadik is a label identity that is like ECM or Blue Note, Prestige, Windham Hill, where if there were any record stores left, Tzadik would have its own bin.
Well, that’s a thought. And a lot of record stores do have a Tzadik bin, which is kind of one way to do it. We have almost 450 records on our label already and there has not been one dedicated article or feature in any United States magazine or newspaper on this label. Is that incredible? And of course the answer is simple: We don’t send review copies out, we don’t play the game, we don’t kiss ass, we don’t put ads in newspapers or magazines, and if we don’t scratch their back they’re not going to scratch ours.
JazzTimes: And yet you have cultivated this pretty sizable audience around this label.
Some of our records sell 40-50,000 copies. And it’s a worldwide audience. Of course, some sell 500 copies. But it’s structured in such a way that the ones that sell help the ones that don’t sell. So we manage to stay afloat in kind of a socialist paradigm.
JazzTimes: Bruce Lundvall has the same scenario happening at Blue Note, where the successful million-sellers like Norah Jones help the more esoteric projects.
He continues to do what he believes in and it works in the marketplace. I was never a believer in applying for grants. I don’t like to put my hand out to somebody and say, “Please help me.” I just went and did what I did and I managed to survive in the marketplace. I understand how some people can’t do that and need the grant process, but I find the grant process itself is so demeaning. Immediately, it’s like you’re asking daddy for a handout, you’re being judged by people who have no right to judge you, and if you do get the grant it’s usually half the money you asked for two years too late. By that time, you’re already onto something else.
I’ve seen artists on Tzadik who tried to get grant proposals through to make a more ambitious record, and I’ve seen new records get completely derailed for five years. In one case, I said to an artist, “Look, I’ll give you a little extra money. Let’s find a way to do it just on our own.” And he said, “No, I want to do it right, I want this extra money. Let me wait.” And I said, “Well, what if you don’t get the grant?” Five years later we’re still waiting. And the fact is, he’s already on to another thing.
JazzTimes: What is the average budget for the records you do on Tzadik?
At first it was just always $5,000; now we’ve gotten a little more flexible with it. Now if someone breaks even on their first record we’ll give them $6,000. If they break even on their second record we’ll give them maybe $7,500. If they break even on their third record, we’ll up the ante a little bit. But if their first album doesn’t break even we either reduce the budget or say, “Let’s wait until this one sells more and then we’ll do a second record.” But we try to be very economical in the way we work because we can’t afford not to. The music we’re making is meant for the world; it’s meant for everybody to enjoy. But I’ve learned that some projects that I do, like the Dreamers, will do very well. We’ll sell 20-30 thousand copies of that because it’s popular music that people can really enjoy. But if I’m going to do an esoteric project about Aleister Crowley with the “Necronomicon” string quartet or something that’s really more challenging, which I’m compelled to do and these artists are compelled to do and the world needs, I’m not so naive as to think that that’s going to sell 30,000 copies. With a younger unknown artist, something esoteric like that will sell 500 or 1,000. With me, maybe it’ll sell 5,000, but it’s not going to sell 30,000. And that doesn’t break my heart anymore because ultimately this music is for the few. It’s meant for everybody, I want everybody to love it and enjoy it as much as I do, but I can see that that’s just not possible.
JazzTimes: So business is good with Tzadik?
As the music industry crumbles before our eyes and major companies are now going belly-up and people aren’t buying CDs, Tzadik is standing like a fucking oak! We have very modest sales, we break even every year ... maybe make a little, lose a little, but we basically break even every year. So we’re still standing here and sales are pretty consistent. We did really well this past year. People that believe in this music purchase this music.
JazzTimes: Let’s talk about the Dreamers. I was delightfully surprised by this group. Where is this charming music coming from?
Well, it comes from my love for music that does delight and charm. I am a big fan of Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, the pioneers of exotica. I’ve been a fan of that music since I was young. It was part of my upbringing; it’s there. You can hear elements of it here and there in my music over time. You hear it in Bar Kokhba; even in things like Godard and Spillane there are moments that sound like that. This Dreamers project, I think, was bringing together all of these beautiful musics that I love, from world music to surf music to exotica music to different kinds of funk and blues. I put all of these things together and created something that, for me, was meant to charm and delight.
JazzTimes: And you did it within these three-minute little gems of melody.
Yeah, little instrumental gems. You and I grew up at a time when there were instrumental hits. Henry Mancini, Jack Nitzsche, Miklós Rózsa—they did film scores but they also had hits that were played on the radio. But the concept of the instrumental hit has almost completely disappeared because greedy record executives understand that vocal music is going to sell five times or 10 times more than instrumental music. That’s just the way it is.
JazzTimes: I think the Beatles phenomenon made people in the industry go a bit crazy. They saw the money that could be made with vocal groups.
It did indeed. And I don’t know whether the Beatles themselves are responsible for the disappearance of instrumental music. I wouldn’t put it that way. Because at that time, “The ‘In’ Crowd” was an enormous instrumental hit for Ramsey Lewis, Max Steiner’s “Theme From a Summer Place” was enormous. There were tons of great instrumental hits back then. Maurice Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago was a hit, “Telstar” by the surf band the Tornados was an enormous hit in 1962.
JazzTimes: Al Hirt, Duane Eddy and Herb Alpert all had instrumental hits in the early ’60s.
Yeah! This was music that was backed by record companies, promoted by record companies, who were just trying to make some money. And they managed to make money with that music. And were fine with it. Now they’re just not gonna waste their time with it when they can make so much more money with a vocal performance. So instrumental music doesn’t have the same impact on our culture that it used to, and I’m sorry about that. It still has an impact on me, though. I devote my life to instrumental music and the Dreamers is just another form of instrumental music.
JazzTimes: You mentioned Martin Denny and some others as having an impact on you growing up. What about Burt Bacharach?
Of course! Most of what he did was vocal but harmonically he was way advanced, and also in terms of time signatures, he was always experimenting. And he had a few instrumental pieces that were absolutely wonderful that I love. Sure, Bacharach is absolutely an influence. There are so many influences in the Dreamers. And again, each piece is kind of a unique little thing, its own little world.
JazzTimes: I thought I may have also heard some MJQ and Dave Brubeck influences in there too.
Yeah, Ramsey Lewis and Booker T & the MGs, the Meters. These were all amazing instrumental bands. You can hear some of that influence in there as well. So you know, the Dreamers is a charming project of beautiful music. And it’s been very successful. It’s a kind of very beautiful world that I hadn’t dealt with before, but elements of “Cobra” or Electric Masada are still in there.
JazzTimes: The sound of the Dreamers is engaging rather than challenging, like Masada.
You don’t always have to challenge the audience. Sometimes you want to challenge the musicians to keep them engaged in what you’re doing. And that’s something that’s always been at the forefront of my modus operandi. I don’t just write music, I write music for musicians to play. I want them to be psyched about what they play. I want them to be engaged, because if they’re bored, the audience is going to be bored. I want them to be on the edge, to be surprised, to be delighted. I want to have fun up there. Ultimately, it’s all about love—if we love each other and we love what we’re doing, some of that love is going to go into the audience.
JazzTimes: You have already released several volumes of Masada CDs since 1994, but you’ve really taken it to another level with this new sextet edition of the group.
I think you’re right. I think that the concert you saw the other night was one of the best concerts we’ve ever done. It’s like the old joke with the Masada quartet: “What was our best gig? It’s the next one.” Because it was always getting better. But I felt like we kind of hit a plateau a little bit with it in 2007 and I said, “Well, maybe the quartet is really done. Maybe we’ve accomplished what we can accomplish. Maybe it’s time to put this to bed.” And then I was asked by the Marciac Jazz Festival to put together a slightly larger group. They asked me what if I added a couple of people to Masada and I said, “I can’t add anybody to the quartet. The quartet is the quartet, that’s what we do.” But then I thought, “Well, if I was going to add someone I would probably ask Uri and Cyro.” So we tried it at Marciac and it was unbelievable. We didn’t even have any rehearsal time. I just passed the charts out and said, “OK, just watch me because I’ll be conducting. Let’s just do it.” And it was one of those magical clicks on the bandstand that sometimes happens. So yeah, this band is taking off again. After 15 years of doing this music, we can still find new things.
JazzTimes: And certainly Wynton can identify this new Masada sextet music as jazz.
Absolutely. With Uri’s presence, that is clear. It’s the most jazz-sounding thing I’ve ever done.
JazzTimes: And that connection to Ornette’s quartet, which comes in and out.
It’s in and out. Maybe it’s not there as much as it used to be. I think there’s as much Miles in the approach with Dave and Uri and in the way the group kind of breaks down to a single solo piano once in a while, or trio sections within the context of the group before coming back together. There’s always a lot of surprise there. So, yeah, it is definitely stronger in the jazz tradition with Uri in the band. And I think Uri and Dave have a really strong hookup. They’ve worked on a lot of projects together and Uri has also played in Dave’s quintet, so there’s some magic formula going on there. And then you add Cyro Baptista to the mix, crazy Cyro with all his sounds. I’ve been working with Cyro for 27 years and he never fails to surprise me from night to night.
JazzTimes: I remember you guys doing a duet at your former club the Saint back in 1981.
There you go! Yeah, man. And this is another thing that I think is important to mention is the longevity of these relationships that I’ve had with musicians. When I find someone to work with, we continue to work together because we believe in the same things and we love doing what we do. If Bill Frisell were still living in New York, I’d be working with him still. But he moved out to the West Coast and it’s just too hard to get together. So it’s been Cyro since ’81, Joey Baron since ’84, Dave Douglas since ’94, Uri more recently, and then you’ve got Ribot, Greg Cohen, Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander, Trevor Dunn, Mike Patton … these are all people that I continue to work with. It’s a tight community; it’s a real community. It’s a community the way we see the bebop community was in the ’50s or the existentialist community was in Paris or the abstract expressionists in the ’40s in New York, which was a community of people that got together, that talked about art, that were inspired by each other and that created a very strong artistic statement that had impact on the society. We’re doing the same thing. We’re living in the same area, we’re meeting all the time outside of musical situations, we’re talking, we’re communicating.
This is a real scene in the best definition of that word. It’s creative, it’s inspiring, there’s less competition and more encouragement. Marc Ribot is delighted when I do well. I’m delighted when he does well when he does a project. It’s good for everybody. When Ribot’s onstage, I want him to play his best. I’m not trying to throw banana peels under him to slip so that I can smoke him onstage. That’s not the point. We’re all focused on music and we all want each other to sound as good as we possibly can sound. And when I get people in my projects, I feel like they sound the best that they can sound. They’re killing! And that’s what I want, that’s what I encourage. And that’s what the compositions are meant to do.
JazzTimes: You know who you sound like now? Joe Zawinul. He would say the same thing, man. He’d always say, “My band, I put this band together for these guys to be killers!”
That’s right. And there’s a lot of other people that don’t think that way. The band is about them. They’re the leader, it’s all about them; they don’t want anyone to sound better than them. So they keep them under wraps, they push them down, they don’t give them solo space. They don’t let them express themselves. You need to have a certain rein on people so that the compositional integrity is kept intact. You know, there’s a frame around a composition and there are things that belong in the frame and things that don’t. And it’s the bandleader-composer’s job to make sure that everything fits. But the most important thing is to keep that balance, where everything belongs but the players are injecting themselves into the work and doing their best. Duke Ellington was a perfect example of that.
JazzTimes: And Frank Zappa.
Yes, though Zappa in the earlier years. Then it got a little different for him. He got more and more into control. For me, in his later years, his best record is Jazz From Hell, where it’s all done on a Synclavier.
JazzTimes: Yeah, I think his comment at the time was, “At last, I’ve found my perfect band.”
There you go! It’s him playing everything. Well, I don’t think that way. Because the lesson I learned from Zappa was that you treat your band members like royalty. You give them as much money as you can afford to give them on the road, the best situations in the hotels, treat them to meals, thank them for their work, appreciate their creativity and just thank your lucky stars that they’re in your band working with you.
JazzTimes: I’ve read that Ellington loved his band and always treated his musicians well.
I think that’s really one of the secrets of making great music that is not unique to the 20th century. I think Mozart understood that, I think Bach understood that. I think that great composers were performers and understood what it was like being in a band. And they wrote for players who could get onstage and feel excited about what they were doing because they just looked fucking great doing it. No one wants to look like a fool onstage; you want to look good. You want to play music that makes you look good, and I think composers understand that too. And the ones that have a sense of the performer side of it are the best composers, the ones that came up in a band. Ellington never stood in front of a band waving his arms; he was playing piano, he was part of the group. When Steve Reich came up, he was always playing percussion in his group and still does in a lot of cases. Phil Glass too. They understood what it was to be a performer, and that made their compositions so much more deep. That’s something I never wanted to lose.
JazzTimes: And here you are about to turn around another Dreamers project in just a few months.
It’s very easy to do. You just do it. I’ve been lucky but I’ve always thought pragmatically. When I was starting out 35 years ago, I worked with the few people that I knew—Polly Bradfield and Eugene Chadbourne. Then [trumpeter] Toshinori Kondo came along, Tom Cora came along, Fred Frith came along ... all these people slowly began entering the picture. And as we got to be friends, then I kind of expanded my ambitions or my vision. But I never dreamed of doing an opera on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, you know? I’m not someone who wants to write something and then have it sit around for 30 years. I want to write for the people I know, I want to make something that’s possible, that can be made. So I worked with whatever I had at hand. And I made it work. And at first it was the game theory pieces (1980’s Pool, 1982’s Archery), because I was surrounded by improvisers. Then I got to know people like Bill Frisell and Joey Baron, who could do anything. So then I created music like Spillane or Naked City for musicians who could do anything. Then I got to know Fred Sherry and a bunch of classical musicians and I started writing more classical stuff. I think the job of a composer is not just to write music but to write it for musicians who can get onstage and present it to an audience in the best possible situation. Following it through is part of a composer’s responsibility, to see that that child is nurtured in a proper way and is presented to the world in the best possible light. You know, you educate the child as well as you can so that they can go out prepared to deal with this cruel and pernicious world we have. Same thing when you create a piece of music. I don’t really believe in the idea that you just write it and then you put it on the shelf, the way Charles Ives did. I write it for people I know, I get the best people to do it, I find the best possible venue, we rehearse it the best possible way and then we present it to people in as pure a way as possible. And now I feel like what needs to be added to that equation is also a kind of education of the audience. I think it’s important to speak about the music, to make it understood or possible for it to be better understood. Which is why I started these Arcana books, this series of books that have musicians writing about music. There’s four volumes of those already.
JazzTimes: In the tradition of Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones?
And so many other people who collected writings and put them out there for people to help get an insight into how an artist or how a musician thinks about their work, their life, their relationship to the world. Because I think there’s way too large a gap between the world and the artist. I feel like we live in parallel universes and there’s really very few instances where a bridge is created to cross that divide. But I feel like that’s the writer’s job, in a sense, to create that bridge so that there can be understanding. But it’s a difficult world for writers now. Where can you place a piece? Who will give you enough space to do something really intelligent and insightful? You have to churn out these small little pieces on a deadline. You don’t have time to really do the research or speak to the artist or do the thinking through.
And even if you do, what they want, what sells best, is a hatchet job. It’s rare that I’ll read an insightful introduction to someone’s work that steers the younger audience toward something that they may be curious about that really may change their life around.
I would say it came about in a very natural and organic way. It just kind of happened.
JazzTimes: Similar to your encounter on the street in the East Village with Richard Foreman, which led to Astronome: A Night at the Opera?
Same thing. I’ve known Richard since 1974 when I first went to his theater and just flipped over what he was doing there. A friend of mine was in the play and they’d let me into rehearsals, so I’d watch his procedure. I stayed at his theater during the day so I could practice the sax, and I answered the phone for him and took reservations, I took tickets at the door. So I’ve paid my dues with Richard Foreman. He’s one of my heroes, one of my mentors. And I’ve known him for 35 years but I never thought about collaboration until way, way after I met him ... 30 years or more later. We met on the street one day and he said, “Why don’t you write me an opera?” And I said, “Well, maybe I will.” And whenever I’d see him for the next year or so he’d say, “Hey Zorn, where’s my opera?” And I finally was convinced, “He really wants it! I’m gonna write it for him. And it’s gonna be amazing, it’s got to be. I can’t go to him and give him something that’s weak. He’s my hero.” So with Lou Reed...my connection to him goes way back. I was at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable events at the Dom on 8th Street back in 1967 when I was like 13, 14 years old, and I saw Velvet Underground there. So Lou was one of my heroes for a long, long time.
JazzTimes: So you had a chance encounter with him on the street?
Yes, that’s exactly true. What happened was we got to know of each other a little bit, I think, because of (producer) Hal Wilner. Hal included me on his Kurt Weill record (1985’s Lost in the Stars) and Lou loved my piece on it (“Der Kleine Leutnant des Lieben Gottes“). And Hal came to me and said, “Lou heard it and he said, ‘Wow, that track was amazing. It’s like turning the pages of a book...each page is something new.’ And I thought, “That’s a really beautiful way of saying what’s going on in that arrangement.” Because I was doing my block style thing on that piece with the radical jump-cuts. So there was some kind of connection there. But then I’m not gonna call him out of nowhere ... "Wow, he likes my stuff. I’m gonna go send him a package.” You just don’t do that, you know? But then in 1992 I asked him to perform at the first Radical Jewish Cultural Festival in Munich. I called him out of nowhere because he kind of knew who I was at that point and I said, “Lou, I want you to do a set at this Jewish festival. Would you do it?” I think I might’ve even had Hal do it because I was shy. And Lou said, “Yes, I’ll be there.” So he performed at this Jewish festival I put together with Ribot and a bunch of other players. And it was amazing. Laurie Anderson was playing at the same festival, and I had known Laurie for years, going back to the old Kitchen days. And at the airport we were all there together and I said, “Lou, I want you to meet Laurie Anderson.” So I introduced them, actually. Then they became real tight. They’re married now, it’s the love affair of a lifetime. They’re so incredible together. So there’s another kind of little connection. Anyway, in the early part off 2007 I was coming out of the St. Mark’s bookshop, I saw Lou across the street and I said, “Lou! How are you, man? It’s great to see you in the East Village. You look great!” And he just got a big smile on his face and we just started talking. We talked about Michael Dorf’s upcoming 20th Anniversary Knitting Factory concert at Town Hall and I said, “Are you gonna do that?” And he said, “Yeah, actually.” Lou said he would donate profits to The Stone, so I thought maybe it would be cool. And I thought, “Well, if he’s donating profits to The Stone, that’s a great enterprise. So I’ll do it too. Then he said, “Maybe we should do something together?” And I said, “Yeah, you could even just read poetry or something and I’ll just play behind you.” And he said, “There’ a real tradition to that. That would be sweet.” What eventually happened on stage was I sat in with his band. And it was not even planned. It was, “Well, we didn’t rehearse anything, we really shouldn’t do it. If you want to play with me you’re welcome.” And right before he went on he sent someone over... "Hey John, come over to the dressing room with Lou.” And Lou said, “Why don’t you just play on one of the pieces. It’s in D minor.” So I played and ... boom. We clicked and he loved it. That’s where it started. I sat in with him again at the Highline Ballroom, which was great. I was supposed to play two songs, I went to the soundcheck, I ended up playing almost a whole set. Then we did a duo improvised concert (January 10, 2008) as a benefit at The Stone and he invited Laurie to sit in with us. And then bit by bit it happened very slowly and very organically. So you could say our relationship started back in 1966 when I saw the Velvet Underground play at the Dom. And it just took 40 years to get to the point where it is now. When the time was right, it happened.
JazzTimes: Have you and Lou recorded together yet?
We did a benefit CD for The Stone (Issue Three on Tzadik), which was a recording of a live gig. And I also asked him to put guitar on a piece of mine on the Music for Children record. It’s kind of a wind machine drone piece and he loved it. He’s the master of feedback and drones, so I had him do that. He was just going to play on the climax, the last five minutes of a 20-minute piece. But he said, “I want to play on the whole thing. I love it. I’m so inspired. Let’s do it.” We recorded at his house ... boom! It was done. And then the Song of Songs thing also happened. I was doing a project setting the Biblical “Song of Songs” from the Old Testament, the “Shir Ha-Shirim,” to music. I created a vocal backdrop with five female voices singing and I wanted two people reading the text from the “Song of Songs” (the allegorical representation of the relationship of God and Israel as husband and wife). And I wanted two lovers to recite this so I asked Lou and Laurie. I said, “You know what? You two are the perfect lovers to read the “Song of Songs” in this piece. And they said, “We would love it.” So we did it down at the Abrons Art Center, the place you saw us play a couple of nights ago. We did that last February, 2008. They loved it. We took it to Italy. You know stuff just kind of happens. It’s not any kind of weird machination, it’s just all very organic and it’s growing at a very slow way. And it feels right. I don’t want to take advantage of anybody and I certainly don’t want them to feel taken advantage of. So these are going to be things that happen, you know, when the time is right. And they’ll be little special events in themselves.
JazzTimes: And you continue to nurture all these different relationships over time.
Lou and I, you know...it seems like we text message back and forth or speak almost every week now. We go to lunch when we can. I’ve been to his house many times to experience what his world is, and he has an amazing world and great people working with him and for him. It’s a whole organization how he has it worked, and it’s very inspiring. Because you know, I basically do everything myself. But through him I’m learning that it is possible to find people that can really help. Like Kazunori (Sugiyama) is someone who really helps out with Tzadik. Without Kazunori there wouldn’t be a Tzadik. So yeah, the thing with Lou...it just happened very slowly and it feels good.
The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone (Nonesuch/Icon, 1986)
Zorn’s major label debut elevated him beyond East Village cult status. This intriguing concept album—radical interpretations of themes by Italian film composer Ennio Morricone—included a battery of guitarists in Derek Bailey, Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Robert Quine, Jody Harris, Vernon Reid and Marc Ribot as well as special guests like Big John Patton and harmonica ace Toots Thielemans.
Voodoo (Black Saint, 1986)
This swinging tribute to the quintessential bebop pianist caught a lot of doubters and scoffers by surprise. A potent quartet project featuring Wayne Horvitz on piano, Bobby Previte on drums and Ray Drummond on bass, it offered a rare first glimpse at Zorn as a “legit” alto burner.
Spillane (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1987)
Using his “blocks of sound” method, Zorn concocts a gritty narrative tribute to pulp detective fiction writer Mickey Spillane that incorporates touches of jazz, blues, country and hardcore/thrash. Special guests include blues guitarist Albert Collins on “Two Lane Highway,” Bill Frisell, Robert Quine, Bobby Previte, Big John Patton, Ronald Shannon Jackson, John Lurie and the Kronos Quartet.
Spy Vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Elektra/Musician, 1989)
Explosive hardcore/thrash renditions of 17 familiar Ornette tunes performed (in some cases under two minutes) by Zorn with fellow alto saxophonist Tim Berne, bassist Mark Dresser and the two-drummer tandem of Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher.
Naked City (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990)
Zorn’s radical jump-cut aesthetic was employed with perfection by an exacting yet remarkably flexible quintet featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, Fred Frith on bass and Joey Baron on drums. Startling juxtapositions of surf punk, hardcore/thrash, speed metal, lounge jazz and abstractions on movie themes.
Kristallnacht (Tzadik, 1995)
Zorn’s profoundly moving, if somber and occasionally disturbing, meditation on “the Night of Broken Glass,” a coordinated attack on Jews throughout the German Reich that occurred on Nov. 9, 1938. Features trumpeter Frank London, violinist Mark Feldman, guitarist Marc Ribot, keyboardist Anthony Coleman and bassist Mark Dresser.
Masada: Live in Sevilla 2000 (Tzadik, 2000)
One of the most dazzling documents of Zorn’s longstanding klezmer-meets-Ornette quartet with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron.
The Gift (Tzadik, 2001)
Zorn surprised everyone with this delightful detour from Masada and some of his more extreme musical outings. A tribute to the popular instrumental music of his youth, including exotica pioneers Martin Denny and Lex Baxter, this highly accessible project pointed the way to even more eclectic instrumental pop offerings like 2008’s The Dreamers and this year’s O’o.
Masada String Trio: 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 1 (Tzadik, 2004)
Zorn conducts violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander and bassist Greg Cohen through a program of his Jewish-flavored music at Tonic on the occasion of his 50th birthday celebration.
Astronome (Tzadik, 2006)
Ultra-intense power trio of electric bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Joey Baron and banshee-scream vocalist Rob Patton performs extreme hardcore/thrash tunes that go a step or two beyond Zorn’s Painkiller on the intensity meter. Violent, shocking and beautiful.
Originally published in May 2009