Downtown jazz isn’t always played at a downtown venue, but every so often—as is the case when someone as synonymous with the scene as John Zorn orchestrates a confluence of underground luminaries—that geographically specific but harmonically nebulous term crystallizes around a night of sonic mayhem that defines and even alters it, right in the neighborhood where it was born.
And so, over two nights this week at the Abrons Art Center, Zorn—an indefatigable iconoclast who, after a three-decade career, has solidified a reputation as the bard of downtown jazz—will conduct a series of 10 bands, five per night, in a Masada marathon featuring such renegades as rhythmic innovator Cyro Baptista, genre-straddling keyboardist Uri Caine, new-wave klezmer clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and the phantasmagorical fervor of the Masada String Trio. “The downtown scene is in a healthier place than it has ever been . . . more musicians, more bands, more venues, a bigger audience,” Zorn notes in an e-mail message, taking a rare break from a recording project.
The program will consist entirely of selections from Zorn’s Book of Angels, a visceral cycle of 316 compositions written during three months at the end of 2004 in a prophetic fever dream. Consistent with his open-source creed, it’s an endlessly interpretive work in the vein of his Radical Jewish Culture series, and has already spawned 13 albums, with at least four more scheduled for 2010. Zorn’s music is a far-reaching decoupage of the postmodern order, an omnivorous melding of somber Jewish liturgy and pulsing heavy-metal shrieks and shrills into a fractured whole—an oft-rocky marriage of Brechtian proportions.
“As I neared the age of 40, the idea of roots, belonging, and identity became more important to me,” Zorn says. “Alienation in Japan, the death of my father, and conversations with friends drew me closer to embracing my Jewish heritage. The realization that jazz had developed from Dixieland to free jazz in a mere span of 50 years made me wonder about the same development in Jewish music.”
Zorn epitomizes prolific—he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2006, has appeared on more than 400 albums as a leader or a sideman, manages his groundbreaking Tzadik record label, and runs Alphabet City jazz haunt the Stone, a not-for-profit safe haven for experimentation untethered to the mainstream. He has also edited the ongoing Arcana: Musicians on Music book series and played with everyone from a string of legendary journeymen guitarists (including Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Fred Frith) to Lou Reed, to experimental trumpeter Dave Douglas, to avant-garde theater maven Richard Foreman.
What’s more, he has accomplished most of these feats without ever straying far from his East Village home base. “Deciding to spend a year in NYC with no traveling has led me to one of the most creative periods in my life,” Zorn says. In the past four months alone, he has recorded six albums and written the music for three others. He initially planned 12 Tzadik releases for 2010, one per month, but tends to underestimate his own frenetic output, as “it looks like it will be more like 15.”
With such a prodigious oeuvre behind him and an inexhaustible, almost hyperthyroid energy fueling his work, it’s clear that even at 56, the eternally youthful Zorn still lays claim to the title of enfant terrible and shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m actually speeding up!” he insists. “Work, work, then more work—the concept of a weekend does not exist. Every day is a work day . . . every day is a holiday . . . because I love the doing.”
John Zorn’s Masada Marathon takes places February 17 and 18 at the Abrons Art Center