Zorn & Collaborators Hold Court in Engaging Vanguard Residency

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John Zorn

(Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

With Deborah Gordon now assuming more of the day-to-day duties at the Village Vanguard while her mother—the club’s longtime matriarch and NEA Jazz Master for jazz advocacy Lorraine Gordon—settles into semi-retirement, it was only a matter of time before John Zorn was booked into that hallowed subterranean space in the heart of Greenwich Village.

After all, Deborah and Zorn were classmates back in the day at the United Nations International School on the Upper East Side. Zorn made his debut at the Vanguard in early September 2014 with a week of performances from his Book Of Angels, a subset from his sprawling Book Of Masada (which contains 500 compositions). He returned in February 2015 for a week that featured new bands, new musicians and new compositions, including an exhilarating set by Electric Masada and an astonishing trio set by Zorn, fellow alto saxophonist Steve Coleman and drummer Milford Graves.

For his third residency at the Village Vanguard, a week-long engagement from Aug. 9 Aug. 14, Zorn showcased new music from his Book Of Bagatelles, a collection of 300 short pieces composed from March to May of 2015, which he premiered over six months (July 2015 to February 2016) in a weekly Sunday matinee series at his Lower East Side club, The Stone.

While the pieces from the Book Of Masada tend to be lyrical and songful in nature—inspired, as they were, by traditional Jewish music—the Book of Bagatelles is more of an exercise in Anton Webern-style atonality. The 15 wildly divergent ensembles that were showcased over the course of six days (including a couple of early 7 p.m. sets and one rare Sunday matinee performance) put their own unique interpretations on Zorn’s Bagatelles music, which is strictly composed and characterized by extremely intricate heads but also leaves plenty of room for improvisational twists and motivic development by the individual players.

The evening of Aug. 9 kicked off in dynamic fashion with a series of duos by pianist Uri Caine and Hammond B-3 organist John Medeski, who were later joined by the young tenor sax titan Jon Irabagon. Caine, a powerful player with a commanding left hand and a Philly post-bop pedigree, melded beautifully with the celebrated funkateer and sonic explorer from Medeski Martin & Wood (and recently of Zorn’s explosive organ trio Simulacrum).

With Medeski alternately comping percussively, laying down grooving bass lines and sailing over the top on speedy Jimmy Smith-inspired runs, Caine grounded the proceedings with heavy ostinato figures and the occasional bits of stride technique. The two superb listeners and master improvisers easily traded roles and engaged in conversational exchanges while freely extrapolating in the open sections.

While Caine summoned up thunderous McCoy Tyner-esque stabs in his left hand on the heightened, driving pieces, he settled into uncommon delicacy on one darkly beautiful incantation that made dramatic use of space. (None of these Bagatelles pieces have been titled by Zorn, but are instead numbered 1 to 300, and none of this material has been previously recorded for his Tzadik label).

Irabagon joined the two keyboardists for six songs, cutting the exacting unison lines with remarkable precision while blowing with bold-toned authority on the shifting undercurrent created by both multifaceted keyboardists.

The late set Aug. 9 had the band Asmodeus (Marc Ribot on guitar, Trevor Dunn on electric bass, Tyshawn Sorey on drums with Zorn conducting) filling the 123-seat club with a throbbing intensity that probably hasn’t been felt in the hallowed room since the original Tony Williams Lifetime played there in early May 1969.

As Sorey pummeled his kit with an awesome combination of Billy Cobham-esque technique and Buddy Miles-style backbeat, Dunn raged with rumbling-fuzz bass lines. All the while, Ribot wailed and skronked in the Sonny Sharrock zone. The avant-garde maestro Zorn, seated next to Ribot, kept listeners and players on the edge of their seats with his sudden gestures and jump-cut cues. (Zorn later reported that one patron was moshing in the hallway near the kitchen throughout the entire set … quite possibly a first for the Vanguard.)

Aug. 10 revealed a surprise in the superb set by pianist Brian Marsella, a relative newcomer in the Zorn universe. Accompanied by Dunn on upright bass and longtime Zorn sideman Kenny Wolleson on drums, the classically trained Marsella displayed dizzying technique while imbuing pieces with an authentic soul-jazz feeling.

Playing on a far more intimate dynamic than Asmodeus, this highly interactive ensemble at times emulated the Cedar Walton Trio (a mainstay at the Vanguard for decades), particularly on the open-ended swing passages, while also expertly navigating Zorn’s taut, atonal heads. The longstanding Dunn-Wolleson rhythm tandem was especially locked in throughout this stellar set, providing Marsella with a firm but flexible foundation required of this Bagatelles music.

Following their organic, flowing set, Zorn addressed the audience: “It’s a pleasure for any composer to hear his music played with such passion by such excellent musicians.” For an encore, Marsella returned to the stage for a meditative solo piece, “Gurdjieff,” named for the early 20th-century Russian mystic-author-composer who also had considerable influence on pianist-composer Keith Jarrett.

The late set Aug. 11 was a showcase of intimate acoustic guitar duets by Gyan Riley (son of the godfather of minimalism, Terry Riley) and virtuoso Julian Lage. Riley’s nylon-stringed instrument and Lage’s steel-stringed guitar blended beautifully on the challenging unisons of the Bagatelles pieces that they chose. (Each artist/band got to look through the entire batch of 300 Bagatelles and make their choices, and there were only a few rare overlaps all week.)

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