Thurston Moore/John Zorn Duo
St. Mark’s Church
Friday, May 4
Better than: Bumming about MCA alone.
Free improvisation always has religious overtones—the major free-jazzers of the ’60s acknowledged this with album titles like Ascension and Spiritual Unity—so there is hardly a better space to experience it in than a church. On Friday night at St. Mark’s, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore and saxophone-wielding downtown overlord John Zorn gathered congregants from rock and jazz circles to help them talk with the spirits. Outside in the East Village, NYU students and kids from New Jersey prowled the streets for a hookup; inside the more than two-century-old church, we testified.
Friday wasn’t the first meeting between Zorn and Moore—a tense YouTube video shows them jamming late last year, and both men appear on Jad Fair’s 1988 cover of Daniel Johnston’s “King Kong”—but the pair do not collaborate often, so it’s an event anytime they get it together. And when it’s time to unite, Moore—a godfather of indie rock—and Zorn—a founder of the so-called “downtown scene”—come prepared. Zorn has lent his volcanic alto sax to rockers like Blind Idiot God, Napalm Death, Half Japanese, and the Violent Femmes; Moore has rolled with improv titans like Evan Parker and Cecil Taylor, and his “Top Ten from the Free Jazz Underground” article from issue two of the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine remains a deep statement. Both musicians helm their own scenes, but neither is a stranger to the other’s world.
Preceded by a few brief poetry readings—the night was a benefit for the Poetry Project—the duo began in a meditative mood. Zorn, standing, blew lonesome whistles into the side of his left leg while Moore, seated with his guitar in his lap, sawed at his axe with a ruler. As Moore’s ghostly, nails-on-a-chalkboard harmonies wafted through the room, Zorn grew melodic, refusing to walk hand-in-hand. When Moore dragged a pen underneath the strings on the neck of his guitar while simultaneously stomping on a distortion pedal, Zorn peeled off majestic, Trane-like lines, aiming to cut through Moore’s sheets of pound with amazing grace. Eight minutes in, Moore strummed for the first time; Zorn screeched, and hit a low, foghorn note. The head of Moore’s guitar wound up on top of his Fender amp, and next to his own head, and Zorn played the blues, and conjured a foreboding siren from his horn. Then Moore stopped. Zorn let out one last howl, announcing the end of the first piece.
A shockingly short second piece followed, with Zorn whinnying and Moore preparing his six-string with a drumstick. And after some coaxing from the audience, a third and final piece emerged, with Zorn slap-tonguing and making kissing noises. Moore stuck the ruler underneath his guitar strings this time, and tapped on one end of the neck while strumming on the other. A drone-y, Eastern vibe escaped from Moore’s instrument, and the effect was subtle; the volume on Moore’s amp was so low you could hear the guitar strings themselves. And then, abruptly, it was all over. The big cross-cultural exchange had run a mere twenty minutes. “Man, that was a mouthful,” Zorn had said before the set started, presumably in response to a bloated bio the night’s host had read about him. Maybe he was right; maybe it’s best to leave a sense of mystery to things.
Critical bias: Seeing Zorn for the first time in 2005 was a game changer for me.
Overheard: “Brad Farberman—if that’s your real name,” said the ticket taker.
Random notebook dump: Live music is so much better when it’s not at a club.