Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


ZORN, John

(b 2 September 1953, NYC) Avant-garde composer of aural works of art compared to the paintings of Jackson Pollock, a chameleon crawling through a paint box, or an elephant trapped in barbed wire, but no description does it justice. Influenced by Stockhausen, Anthony Braxton and Bugs Bunny, some of his work was about filling the soundspace, but sometimes filled it too full. His name means 'anger' in German; he is aggressive and unpredictable, an in-yer-face New Yorker. He plays alto and soprano saxes, clarinet, keyboards, duck calls; has been known to place toy footballs in the bell of the sax or blow the mouthpiece under water; he is a prolific, restless recording artist, forming various groups for different projects. His own early albumss included Locus Solus on Rift (two 12" EPs, four pieces with four different trios); two-disc sets Pool and Archery on Parachute, Cobra '86 on hat Art (two versions, live and studio, of a molecular system for 13 players cued by Zorn, who does not play). He played solo with overdubbing on A Classic Guide To Strategy '87 on Lumina, an earlier solo LP on Lumina already out of print.

Signed to Nonesuch, Zorn's The Big Gundown (premièred '86 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) treated music of film composer Ennio Morricone (b 10 November 1928; scored 300 movies, spaghetti Westerns brought fame), Spy Vs Spy '87 reworked Ornette Coleman in a style inspired by the Mad magazine comic strip, leading to Coleman Tracks '89, Filmworks 1986-90. He played on pianist Wayne Horvitz's Simple Facts on Theatre for Your Mother label; with rock group the Golden Paliminos; with Derek Bailey and George Lewis on Yankees (later on Celluloid), with Bailey and William Parker on Harras on Avant (live at the Knitting Factory); in a duo with drummer David Moss on Full House and in Moss's Dense Band, both on Moers Music. Zorn duetted with percussionist Charles K. Noyes on The World And The Raw People on Zoar, with trombonist Jim Staley on one side of OTB and with reedman Ned Rothenberg on Trespass, both on Lumina; and with Michihiro Sato (playing Japanese classical-style shamisen, a guitar/banjo-like instrument) on Ganryu Island on Yukon. He also contributed tracks to two-disc sets That's The Way I Feel Now '83 (tribute to Thelonious Monk), Lost in The Stars '84 (Kurt Weill), both on A&M.

He played in the group Alterations on Nato, and played hard-edged alto in the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet (Voodoo '87 on Black Saint, with Horvitz, Bobby Previte on drums, Ray Drummond on bass), a tribute to the late pianist. Among perpetrators on various discs are the Kronos Quartet, guitarist Fred Frith, violinist Polly Bradfield, Bill Laswell; he was known to admire Mars Williams (see Hal Russell). Cobra was one of Zorn's most successful albums, yet one that most people won't listen to more than once; News For Lulu '87 also on hat Art was much better, a trio with Bill Frisell and Lewis, reworking tunes by Clark, Freddie Redd, Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham: Richard Williams described it as 'postmodernism at its most constructive, using history to make a new present', finding new things in tunes which were stronger than they seemed to be when created for post-bop blowing sessions. More News For Lulu was recorded live '89.

Zorn has a concept of radical Jewish culture; he formed labels Tzadik and Avant, reissues on Tzadik CDs included First Recordings 1973; Naked City with Frisell, Frith, Horvitz and Joey Baron was on Elektra, with four more CDs by the same band on Avant; there are several volumes of Masada with Baron and others on DIW (klezmer influence with Ornette Coleman's) and two of Zzah on CMG. John Zorn's Cobra, Live At The Knitting Factory '92 on Knitting Factory seems to have been a kind of happening, 'tributes' to varieties of the snake, the wide range of sound including 'obnoxious noise' according to one critic: screaming, a man barking like a dog etc: 'In general, these self-indulgent performances would be much more interesting to see in person than to hear on record.' But the avant-garde sometimes has to fail, or it wouldn't be very avant; and free music very often works better live than on record. Cobra: Tokyo Operations '94 was on Avant; Filmworks II: music for an untitled film by Walter Hill '96 on Tzadik was played by an octet including a turntable scratcher; he produced a compilation two-CD Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach '97 on Tzadik, deconstructing easy-listening pop songs. A 7-CD limited edition The Parachute Years on Tzadik reissued '70s albums with Bill Laswell and others; among many sessions as a sideman Zorn played with organist Big John Patton on DIW. Euclid's Nightmare '97 was a duo with Bobby Previte on Previte's own Depth of Field label.

All this furious activity continued. In June 2013 The New Yorker said that Zorn 'occupies the place in his generation that Leonard Bernstein did in his, that of the ultimate New York composer.' Performaces of his music in the city included all six of his string quartets.