Notes From Big Ears 2022 pt.2: John Zorn

Big Ears Festival 2022: John Zorn, the Auricular Saboteur.

Here’s Part Two of Jon Andrews path through Big Ears Festival 2022.  Sonic provocateur John Zorn was the featured artist this year and Jon unveils the many different sides to this iconoclastic musician.

John Zorn head Shot

John Zorn Photo: David Garland

Big Ears part 2 – The Expanding Universe of John Zorn

by Jon Andrews 4/8/2022

John Zorn is a modern renaissance man. He is a musician (saxophonist), composer, conductor, provocateur, sonic explorer, and entrepreneur, all at once. Adventuresome musicians have long been drawn to him in NYC to test their mettle. His various compositions can be playful, challenging, beautiful, dissonant, or controversial. He has recorded and performed his music (and of others) since the early ‘90s, with an enthusiastic following, but with little or no attention from mainstream media.

Big Ears Festival 2022 lived up to its name by opening the gates for Zorn and company. In a sense, Zorn brought to Big Ears a festival within a festival, presenting nine events in the course of a four-day weekend. Most of the action occurred in the Bijou Theatre, except for Zorn’s improvised performance at the St. John’s Cathedral hermetic pipe organ. Needless to say, curious listeners and Zorn fans triggered notifications of “reached capacity” from the Big Ears management, especially as the final performances approached.

Zorn introduced the musicians before and after each set, but performed only in three events, his improvised performance on the hermetic pipe organ, and the two-part finale, with the New Masada Quartet and the greatly expanded New Electric Masada, for which Zorn brought an ensemble of 10 players on stage.

John Medeski at Organ

John Medesski

Chaos Magick

Barely controlled chaos prevailed when John Medeski (organ) and Brian Marsella (electric piano), faced off against each other, as they navigated hairpin twists and turns with sudden stops and shifts as dictated by bassist Matt Hollenbeck and percussionist Kenny Grohowski. The dueling keyboard players adeptly adjusted and moved between funk and metal at high speeds while countering each other. The rhythm section set the pace, sometimes with melodies reminiscent of the ‘80s and ‘90s. This was one of the most enjoyable sets of Zorn’s presentations.

Heaven and Earth Magick

For this unusual performance, Zorn wrote out charts for pianist Steve Gosling and percussionist Sae Hashimoto. He then adopted a different approach for percussionist Ches Smith and bassist Jorge Roeder by directing those players to freely improvise. As a result, the music was a partly structured improvisation, contrasting Roeder’s and Gosling’s aggressive speed and force with the ethereal chimes of Hashimoto and Smith. This made for an intriguing hybrid approach.

New Masada Quartet

Zorn picked up the saxophone as he engaged Julian Lage, Jorge Röeder, and Kenny Wollesen, constituting the New Masada Quartet. Reminiscent of Zorn’s early ‘90s game pieces, such as Cobra, Zorn conducted by engaging only in non-verbal communications with the players, such as hand gestures, pointing his sax, running around the stage, and holding printed up signs with instructions. The game began as Zorn played the sax, then pointed to the first man up. As the conductor, Zorn was free to switch to any number of players for long or short a time as he saw fit, and played whenever he liked. It was all improvised and joyous, a party with friends on stage.

New Electric Masada

New Electric Masada filled the stage for the finale. The stage was set up with electric keyboards and electric guitars. As with the New Masada Quartet, Zorn again served as an inexhaustible, high-energy conductor with hilarious antics and serious intentions. Lage, Roeder, and Wollesen returned to the stage and were joined by Bill Frisell, a long-time friend of Zorn, who played similar games in the 1990s. Watching Lage and Frisell play on stage separately or together was a treat in itself with two generations of guitarists on fire. Other additions to the band included a fulsome lineup of John Medeski, Brian Marsella, Ches Smith, Kenny Grohowski, and Trevor Dunn.

That ends our report on Big Ears Festival 2022. The dates for 2023 are already set: March 30-April 2, 2023. Go to bigearsfestival.org for more info.

See Part One of our Big Ears Festival 2022 Round-Up.