Five days of Zorn

Considering John Zorn's accomplishments, the festival's namesake has every right to be picky.

john zorn 88 (photo credit: )
john zorn 88
(photo credit: )
Avant-garde jazz mogul John Zorn has performed in Israel many times over the years, including a landmark 1994 Jerusalem show with his Masada Quartet which yielded an acclaimed double album. But the last time he was scheduled to play was at the 2003 Israel Festival, when plans for a multi-cultural version of his improvisational exercise "Cobra" unraveled due to regional tensions. Along with some of the Arab performers who were on the bill, Zorn was a no-show, but Cobra mesmerized audiences at the Jerusalem Theater nonetheless. Preferring his music to make the statements, the prolific and experimental Zorn is notorious for ditching interviews and for his unwillingness to compromise when it comes to his numerous and varied collaborations. In preparing for this week's five-day John Zorn Festival, taking place at venues in Tel Aviv as well as the capitol, co-organizer Ilan Volkov has gone to great lengths to ensure that the proceedings are in line with the vision of any high art purist. "He really wants to come, and he's excited that we've taken seriously the idea of the festival and not just another gig," says Volkov, co-founder of Tel Aviv's Levontin 7 venue and principal conductor for the BBC's Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Excited to return home to Israel to attend the festival, Volkov is currently in the US, where he's gearing up for four appearances conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. Considering the variety, quality and artistic integrity of John Zorn's accomplishments, the festival's namesake has every right to be picky. The 54-year-old arranger, producer, composer and saxophonist has appeared on hundreds of recorded works of freeform jazz, experimental contemporary orchestral, post-klezmer, hardcore punk and everywhere in between. Zorn has written and recorded music for numerous film soundtracks and has fronted several noteworthy bands, including Naked City, the Bar Kohkba Sextet, Moonchild and Masada. The latter serves as Zorn's primary public outlet for expressions of his Jewish identity. In 1995, Zorn founded the Tzadik record label, a platform for non-commercial sounds emanating from like-minded figures, with series of releases including Radical Jewish Culture, New Japan, Oracles, Composers and Lunatic Fringe. More recently, Zorn founded The Stone, his own bare-bones, bar-free Manhattan concert venue which pays 100% of ticket sales to its performers. Rather than employing regular booking personnel, The Stone keeps things fresh by working with monthly guest curators, many of whom are among the artists flying in for this week's concert series. Another high profile performer at the festival is Mike Patton, the singer who has fronted alternative bands like Faith No More, Lovage, Mr. Bungle, Tomahawk and The Dillinger Escape Plan. A versatile vocalist, Patton is known to scat, croon, bark, rap and beatbox. The Zorn festival is one of many Israel appearances over the years for Patton, who staged an electronic music show this past summer at Levontin 7. The remaining American imports represent a who's who of the Tzadik inner circle, many of whom have been active in alternative, jazz and world music outside the Zorn community, collaborating with some of the top names in music. Bassist Greg Cohen, for example, has played with Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, while guitarist Marc Ribot has worked with Allen Ginsberg and Robert Plant and has collaborated extensively with Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista has recently performed with David Byrne, Yo-Yo Ma, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Trey Anastasio, Sting and Herbie Hancock, and his own Beat the Donkey ensemble has recorded on Tzadik. Drummer Kenny Wollesen is the founder of the renowned New Klezmer Trio, while trumpeter Dave Douglas, director of New York's annual Festival of New Trumpet Music, has just completed a major tour with his San Francisco Jazz Collective. The roster of contributing performers is scheduled to hit four stages in seven combinations, with few established ensembles involved. "The idea is to show all of the sides of John Zorn's work," explains Volkov, who helped select the four young Israeli musicians who make up the Mitrim Quartet for the kickoff performance this Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. at Jerusalem's Beit Avi Chai. Zorn's recent compositions have mostly been for string quartet. He'll be introducing many of his works, including a Kol Nidrei-themed piece. Zorn's neo-classical output, notes Volkov, "has to do with his way of being influenced by everything, from cartoon music to Stravinsky, but with a very clear individual, original voice." Next is an exploration of Zorn's film music, scheduled appropriately to take place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque this Sunday at 9 p.m., with musicians playing below an active projection screen. Zorn's motion picture-inspired works include his major label debut, 1986's The Big Gundown, in which he riffed on Ennio Morricone material, and the same year's Godard, an abstract tribute to the eponymous French director's jump cut technique. More recently, Zorn scored the soundtracks for Trembling Before God, the controversial 2001 documentary about the juncture of homosexuality and Orthodox Jewish identity. Zorn's most famous body of work, Masada, rears its head the following night at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium at 8 p.m. Returning to Israel for the first time in 10 years, an acoustic Masada performance will be followed by the Israeli debut of Moonchild, a Zorn-conceived dark post-rock concept trio comprised of Patton, drummer Joey Baron and bassist Trevor Dunn. On Tuesday, "Cobra" comes to the Barby in Tel Aviv at 9 p.m. Facilitated by Zorn, signaling to the festival's entire roster of players using a specialized deck of cards, "Cobra" is an exercise in improvisation. Zorn has commented that "at its worst, it can become psychodrama," but "at its best, it's like magic." The festival culminates Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. at the Barby, with a double-bill of Electric Masada and The Dreamers, the latter being Zorn's fairy tale-themed concept piece that premiered just last month in New York. For more information on the John Zorn Festival and to order tickets, visit