Zorn & Collaborators Hold Court in Engaging Vanguard Residency


John Zorn

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

The duo’s conversational exchanges, marked by intense eye contact, were near telepathic. At times, Riley delivered flamenco flourishes in his solo sections, while Lage generated uncanny momentum with his incredibly precise string-skipping technique and difficult arpeggiating on some rather knotty repetitive motifs.

At times sounding like an atonal scaled-down version of Robert Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists and at other times reflecting all the sparks of the Paco de Lucia-John McLaughlin duets from 1980s (documented on the recently-released Eagle Eye CD/DVD package Live At Montreux 1987), this dynamic duo lit up the Vanguard stage with passion, grace and fire.

The night of Aug. 12 featured the improvising husband-wife duo of pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman. Two magnificent players who breathe together as one, Courvoisier alternately played percussively inside the piano and prepared the instrument with devices to give her an odd timbral effect while Feldman soloed with jaw-dropping facility. Like Caine, Courvoisier possesses an uncommonly strong left hand, and she put it to good use throughout this set, summoning up aggressive accents while running Cecil Taylor-esque right-hand lines and also matching Feldman stride for stride on the atonal unison heads.

A force of nature with daring improvisational instincts, Courvoisier attacked Zorn’s challenging music with conviction, hammering atonal ostinatos with authority and slamming the keys with a forearm when the music called for it. She provided the fuel for this dazzling set of duos while Feldman soared like the world-class virtuoso he is. They were joined on some Bagatelles tunes by violinist Chris Otto, a founding member of The Jack Quartet, a contemporary classical string ensemble that has been on the New York scene since 2007. Otto synced up nicely with Feldman on the chops-busting heads to conclude this invigorating set.

The night of Aug. 12 concluded with the experimental trumpeter Peter Evans, a stalwart member of the New York improvising scene since 2003. He led a special-edition quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Irabagon, bassist John Hébert and drummer Sorey, who once again proved to be a potent force on the kit, though at a less bone-crunching dynamic than he had displayed on Aug. 9 with Asmodeus.

The tight unisons between Evans and Irabagon on Zorn’s intricate melodies were executed with forceful precision, spurred on by Sorey’s polyrhythmic thunder. And bassist Hébert, who would return to the Vanguard two weeks later in a much more subdued setting with the Fred Hersch Trio, played like a man possessed while ferociously bowing and plucking his upright. (As Zorn later noted of Hébert’s transformative playing style, “These tunes inspire and liberate.”)

The late-night set on Aug. 13 by the Jim Black Guitar Quartet, featuring Keisuke Matsuno and Jonathan Goldberger on electric axes and Simon Jermyn on electric bass, was an eye-opening rush of adrenalized skronking that had me alternately wondering if they were the greatest fusion band on earth, the greatest No Wave band on earth or the greatest speed-metal band on earth.

With Goldberger occasionally bowing his guitar, à la vintage Jimmy Page, Matsuno summoned hellacious tones in his edgy, effects-laden solos while Black, alternately slamming and swinging and bowing his cymbals for eerie overtones, shaped the flow of music with his power-precision drumming. While Goldberger is more the legato shredder with fluid whammy bar articulation, Matsuno is an aggressive machine-gun picker with fractured phrasing whose manic, over-the-top energy elevated the proceedings. Their two distinctive styles complimented each other well in this no-holds-barred set, while their intense jump-cut aesthetic recalled Naked City, Zorn’s all-star band from the late ’80s.

This richly rewarding week at the Vanguard concluded with the Mary Halvorson Quartet featuring second guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Halvorson, a fearless and fresh improviser, experimented with her signature digital-delay effects and volume-pedal swells on a dreamy, dissonant ballad before digging into a bit of pointillism with her guitar partner on Zorn’s exacting atonal lines.

A lone lyrical ballad of the set recalling Ornette Coleman’s gentle “Kathelin Gray” was the precious gem of this performance. Then it was back to Halvorson’s own brand of skronking with distortion pedal set on stun as drummer Fujiwara (a member of the cooperative trio Thumbscrew with Halvorson and bassist Michael Formanek) fueled her search with a surging double-time pulse on the kit.

All of this exhilarating music presented at the Vanguard—15 hour-long sets in six days—was merely the tip of the iceberg of the entire Book Of Bagatelles. It would seem that between that book of tunes, his massive Book Of Masada and his multitude other works, Zorn is creeping up on Duke Ellington as the most prolific American composer in jazz.

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