John Zorn’s Simulacrum Live at Johnny Brenda’s.

John Zorn's Simulacrum Shreds.

Simulacrum, with organist John Medeski, guitarist Matt Hollenberg and drummer Kenny Grohowski exploded into the intimate space of Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. In a show produced by Ars Nova Workshop, Simulacrum tore down the walls playing the music of John Zorn.Simulacrum-Wide-600 John Zorn is the notorious avant-garde composer whose music ranges across a wide swath of the avant-garde embracing classical, Hebrew, folk, jazz, noise and more. After years on the avant-garde fringes, he blew up with his 1985 album of cut-up, pre-sampling strategies, The Big Gundown and hasn’t looked back since. He’s a brilliant saxophonist but spends most of his time churning out compositions that are often played by other people in his avant-posse. Last year, guitarist Pat Metheny recorded an album of Zorn’s  work called Tap: The Book of Angels Volume 20.

Simulacrum-Medeski-600The Simulacrum band has put out three albums playing the music of Zorn on the composer’s Tzadik label.  He definitely taps his progressive rock side for these propulsive, staccato compositions that leap from furious stop-start exchanges to extended solos over driving vamps. Echoes of Keith Emmerson and The Nice, Phil Manzanera’s Quiet Sun and King Crimson abound in this electric maelstrom. For jazz fans, references would include The Mahavishnu Orchestra and especially Tony William’s Lifetime. It is definitely not your father’s organ trio. It isn’t even Joey DeFrancesco’s organ trio.

Despite all those references, John Zorn’s imprint is obvious. The renowned and eclectic composer and saxophonist doesn’t play with the trio. On their three albums, he’s credited with composing and conducting. But he was nowhere to be found on Wednesday night, leaving the performance of his work to the trio.

Simulacrum-HollenbergBest known as the organist with Medeski, Martin & Wood, John Medeski assailed his Hammond B-3 organ. Even though they say this music is through-composed, he had to be improvising some of those furious solos which ranged from minimalist fugues to arms across the keyboard clusters, but mostly, furious, stabbing and swirling melodies in a molten cascade.

Matt Hollenberg can usually be found in an avant-garde death metal band called Cleric (not to be confused with the electronic band Cleric). Relatively speaking, he’s more restrained with Simulacrum, if restrained includes shredding solos, obstacle course melodies, screaming sustain and Metallica power chords. He tangled adeptly with drummer Kenny Grohowski who had a bigger-than-life drum sound and a precision attack. He launches “Dance of Death” with a modified Bo Diddley beat that sounds like the storm troopers marching in while Medeski plays a turbulent solo redolent of early Keith Emmerson.

Simulacrum traverses a landscape that might seem dystopian if it wasn’t so much fun. Their sonic palette is distorted and serrated, while their pyrotechnic interplay is like being inside a quantum state gone mad. Relationships coalesce one moment, spinning spirals around heavy metal chords or stabbing organ riffs, but then start oscillating in mad orbits, threatening to break loose from gravities well. They certainly sent the audience skyward.

~John Diliberto


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