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Zorn in Oz: Masada Marathon

Arts & Culture

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New York–centric composer/musician and genre-boundary destroyer John Zorn’s Australian premiere concerts are an epic inclusion in the Adelaide Festival this year.

For his 60th birthday, he was invited to play in Australia for the first time, exclusively in Adelaide, with 40 or so of his favourite musical pals from the downtown NY music scene in the most complete staging ever of his broad-ranging works.

It doesn’t rain, then there’s a deluge.

This four-hour concert incorporated 12 different projects, all featuring material from Zorn’s Masada Songbook, a series of around 500 melodies in the Jewish composition tradition. Among his guests were Trevor Dunn, from Mr Bungle (co-founded with Mike Patton of Faith No More / Fantomas); Ikue Mori from supreme New York No Wave deconstructionists DNA, and Marc Ribot, who notably played guitar on Tom Waits’ Real Gone album.

Zorn began the evening on sax, playing with the Masada Quartet. They struck up an exuberant melody, then began to improvise. One could say that the target of this army of New Yorkers was the destructive, bar-bending heights of their solo improvisations. They work through the melody with grace and elegance… then just explode when their solo peaks.

Zorn knows how to hang back and let the trumpet player blow, then step in and obliterate with a searing cauldron of sounds on his sax. He seems like a Bohemian surgeon, so precise when he wants to be, free and hell-bent at a moment’s notice. I can almost see images bursting forth like hieroglyphic subtitles; a one-man ark with ducks, geese, brass elephants and fire-wolves water-sliding out of his saxophone and scattering up into the rafters.

Malphas are second up, with Mark Feldman on violin and Uri Caine on piano. Even a sombre chamber duo piece is bristling with the Zorn energy and wild lift-off improvisation spots.

The acts in this show varied considerably without breaking the cohesion of Zorn’s overall musical direction, making a four-hour marathon really engaging all the way through. There always seemed to be someone screaming out from the crowd in a manner reminiscent of the ejaculated hallelujahs of a gospel congregation.

The show swept from a capella vocals (Mycale), Arabic Sintir and exploding IED guitars (Abraxas), and intimate solos Erik Friedlander and Uri Caine, to the methamphetamine twang of Marc Ribot’s guitar in The Dreamers and Bar Kokhba.

My favourite act of the night was the Masada String Trio. Zorn intensively conducted the players, kneeling before them like an occult magician in a magic circle, conjuring strings as if by will alone. His shamanic hand movements were so sharply connected to the players’ strikes and strokes as he incited them to inferno and melodic invocation like an ADHD Lord of Salem.

The final moment of the show, played by The Electric Masada, was a spacey jazz crescendo that ended up as a thrashing hard-core riff. And there was a golden scene where Zorn conducted with one hand and played bugged-out sax notes with the other.

Mr Zorn is a hardworking street-wise sonic shepherd.

Masada Marathon is part of a series of John Zorn concerts at the Festival Theatre during the Adelaide Festival. The others are Classical Marathon (conductor David Fulmer), March 12; Triplebill: (Bladerunner, Essential Cinema and Cobra), March 13, and Zorn @ 60, March 14.

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Click here for InDaily’s stories and reviews from the 2014 Adelaide Festival, including WOMADelaide and Adelaide Writers’ Week.

 

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