Zorn at 70 hosts a short but thrilling set of four premieres

Fri Sep 15, 2023 at 12:52 pm
John Zorn marked his 70th birthday with a concert of four premieres Thursday night at Roulette.

One of the major musical events going on in New York City this year is the celebration of John Zorn’s 70th birthday (September 2). There were also extensive Zorn birthday celebrations a decade ago; the difference in 2023 is that along with his age, there’s more focus on his composing in the Western classical tradition. Zorn has been a superstar of the avant-garde across several genres of music, along with being a blistering improviser when he picks up his alto saxophone.

The latest birthday party was Thursday night at Roulette, where Zorn himself hosted a concert of four chamber music premieres. The composer always has the most talented musicians available, no surprise as his writing is full of the kind of energy and virtuosic technique that is a fun and rewarding challenge for great musicians. Thursday that meant the likes of violinist Jennifer Choi, trumpeters Peter Evans and Sam Jones, and the fabulous Junction Trio of violinist Steven Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell, and pianist Conrad Tao. This was a tidy 50 or so minutes, but no one felt short-changed; Zorn’s music is dense with ideas and activity, and via the thrilling playing from the musicians, everything was as clear and compelling as could be.

The high-level playing was in one respect proof of the relationship between composer and musicians. From the stage Zorn mentioned that Tao and Jackiw were “new to the fold,” but that they were now signed up for life. He also introduced the players and the pieces—there were no printed programs but his succinct, chatty introductions, like he was talking to friends, were better than words on a page. 

Zorn brought up Evans and Jones to open with a trumpet duo, Circe. This was a short piece with the mood of a fanfare, and also lots of piping high notes, which Evans played with fantastic control. The two trumpets snaked around each other, playing lines that were like quick echoes of each other, then coming together in unison.

The Junction Trio played Philosophical Investigations, which Zorn described as maybe being more about philosophy than music. Perhaps, but it was full of terrific music. Seemingly following Wittgenstein, there were strings of aphoristic phrases, the feeling of three voices eager to share ideas at once, and somehow keeping it all coherent while speaking simultaneously. The ongoing conversations settled into several repeated sections: one with frenetic string playing and broad-leaping intervals on the keyboard; another with a gentle, major key repose; the third with a Schumann-esque lyricism.

The playing was superb. The music demanded high energy, technical precision, control and the ability to be something like a fully loaded, churning cement mixer that can also stop and switch course in a nanosecond. Junction delivered all this in one of the finer Zorn chamber works one has heard.

Choi’s playing was equally fine in Partita for the Firebird, which Zorn explained was inspired by the violinist getting her hands on a Stradivarius, and, of course, The Firebird. Choi played with a big, grainy sound, and hit all the technical challenges, but this work proved a relative disappointment in terms of the rest of the program. The music was well-crafted, working through baroque rhythms and arpeggiations (and bits of The Firebird). But it was surprisingly well-mannered, like an etude, and without that last measure of gleeful wildness that makes Zorn the artist he is.

There was a ton of that, thankfully, in the finale, I Am Your Labyrinth, for the Junction Trio with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ches Smith. 

This was a compendium of Zorn’s musical ideas. He is one of the great gestalt composers, bringing together his personal excitement for life and the wonders of both high and popular culture: the crazy action of Looney Toons cartoons and Godard’s jump cuts; punk and thrash metal; music inspired by Jewish mysticism; Nietzsche; everything. There were touches of his earlier music, like his cinematic masterpiece Spillane, luminous bands like The Dreamers, and the intense somatic quality of his Masada quartets, as the music kept coming in explosions of activity followed by delightful pauses and quick turns.

Joseph C. Phillips Jr. leads his Numinous ensemble in his So Far Behind Now Because of Then and music by George Brandon, Anthony Branker, Bob Goldberg, and Steven Swartz, 8 p.m. Sunday at Roullete. roulette.org

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