Trying to keep tabs on the uniquely prolific and ever-morphing force of culture that is John Zorn can be difficult. This is especially true in the live context, and even harder if one has no easy or regular access to his go-to performance lab, The Stone in New York City.
But one spot in North America has become famous for Zorn sightings. It’s in Quebec, Canada, at the left-of-center musical hang that is FIMAV (Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville). In 2013, Zorn asserted his prominent presence at this respected and now 32-year-old celebration of the avant-garde when his birthday-themed “Zorn @ 60” program consumed an entire day of the four-day festival. (Its 12-hour spread capped off with Zorn himself improvising on the pipe organ in the local cathedral at midnight—a magical, memorable moment in Victoriaville history.)
This May, Zorn was back in Victoriaville in full, multiple-act regalia, presenting a compact festival-within-the-festival dedicated to his fresh outpouring of new music under the deceptively casual title, “Bagatelles.”
No, Zorn has not gone neo-Baroque: “Bagatelles” is a vast body of 300 short, intense pieces—in Victoriaville, he joked, “I numbered them because I can’t think of 300 titles”—composed in a productive three-month flurry about a year ago. Only recently were they ushered into a performance-ready state.
Victoriaville’s repurposed hockey rink venue, the Colisée Desjardins, hosted this first expansive performance of the “Bagatelles” outside of New York, as handfuls of the short works were delivered and interpreted by 10 separate and disparate groupings.
The May 21 program opened with the potent and sympatico acoustic duo of pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman. It ended four hours later with the power trio Asmodeus, which featured electric guitarist Marc Ribot and a rugged rhythm section of Trevor Dunn (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) slashing their way through complex, scattershot melodies. Zorn himself conducted the group through veering musical strains with on-the-spot gestures.
On May 22, Zorn’s feverish Saturday night opus was one of the clear highlights of a strong and varied FIMAV program, which otherwise achieved a notably effective, eclectic poise.
From a purer and more dogmatically improvised niche, trombonist/conceptualist George Lewis dazzled with his percussion-enriched “Impromptus” project, fortified by a refined degree of nuance and subtlety, while Musica Elettronica Viva (Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum) celebrated its 50th anniversary as pioneering kingpins of the improvising impulse.
Also a highlight among this year’s 20-show roster were the Swiss duo of wizardly vocalist Andreas Schaerer and sinewy drummer Lucas Niggli, as well as the French electronic musician Bérangère Maximin, who crafted satisfying, painterly soundscapes, armed with the by-now “traditionalist” setup of laptop and mixer.
Meanwhile, in Zornville, the willful diversity of musicians inducted into the event—an altogether impressive gathering of players—gave form and vivid manifestation to the composer’s latest body of work. With their fragments of dissonance, jagged melodic turns and metric obstacle courses, the “Bagatelles” pieces are innately challenging, demanding from the musicians an alertness of being and a strong sense of improviser’s free will. At FIMAV, these attributes were most boldly realized by the great (and still somehow underrated) pianist Craig Taborn, whose 20-minute solo set was riveting, top to bottom.
Out of the chamber musical milieu of Courvoisier/Feldman, the fervent young electric guitar-led trio Trigger (playing for the first time on a “major stage,” the avuncular Zorn informed us) upped the energy, edge and volume, making a visceral sound at once pummeling, punky and progressive—at times reminiscent of Zorn’s old headbanger band, Naked City.
Next up, back on mostly acoustic turf, was the nimble, luminous and risk-taking Kris Davis, a Canadian-born and New York-based pianist worth keeping an ear on. She was joined by drummer Sorey, bassist Drew Gress and guitarist Mary Halvorson, whose engaging “Jim-Hall gone left-ish” style turned up later in a two-guitar quartet under her own name. It featured Miles Okazaki on guitar, Gress on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums.
Zorn’s seemingly advancing interest in guitar culture also extended to an intriguing duo with Gyan Riley (son of minimalist composer Terry Riley) on nylon-stringed guitar and, on the steel strings, Julian Lage, who has been making dramatic incursions into more “outside” zones in jazz after previously establishing himself in more mainstream circles. The duo worked small wonders, maneuvering between seamless chordal dialog and Derek Bailey-esque abstractionism.
Also in the evening’s mix were the oddball and gonzo metal organ-trio format of the John Medeski Trio, with G. Calvin Weston on drums and David Fiuczynski on electric guitar. Later, Medeski reprised his role as organist in a captivating duo with pianist Uri Caine.
Overall, this year’s Zorn-fest found the composer more in fighting, challenging form, a departure from the mellower and soft-contoured repertoire of his “Zorn @ 60” marathon. The verdict, from this Quebecois town/epicenter of maverick music-making: Zorn has regained his edge.