Saturday, July 03, 2010

Brave new jazz

Last night, we took in a show at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal: John Zorn with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. Arguably, Lou Reed is the most recognized name in this trio, but it's actually the other two whose music I'm more familiar with.

Laurie Anderson holds a special place in my musical development. It was a thrill for my teenage-self to realize playing violin (which I did) didn't restrict you to Vivaldi. I saw her in concert back around 1989, and that was a "performance."

As for John Zorn, saxophone god, I stumbled upon the first of his Masada albums in 1994 (it was playing in the record store; I asked what it was, bought it on the spot), and I continue to regard it as my desert-island pick. We saw his Acoustic Masada at the festival a few years ago, and it was one of the most spectacular concerts, of any musical genre, I've ever seen, in terms of intensity and vitality.

Lou Reed? I don't know much about Lou Reed. Walk on the Wild Side. Sweet Jane. That thing in the Wim Wenders movie.

What to expect from this show? I didn't expect Zorn to be playing Velvet Underground tunes, Anderson to interpret Masada, or Reed to be singing Home of the Brave. (I admit I was a bit nervous, actually, having heard about Anderson and Reed's recent gig in Australia that was audible only to dogs.) I jokingly tweeted that this combination was something akin to, in lit terms, interleaving the pages of Julio Cortázar, William S Burroughs, and Nelson Algren. I think I'm not far off. It's a brave new animal I heard, growling its way into existence. (I learned after the fact that it was all improv.)

Preshow press conference with Anderson and Reed: This is really interesting, actually — I just listened to it — wrt Anderson's relationship to technology and approach to art in general. She talks about what you hear, as a violinist, happening right next to your ear, the grinding, the overtones and harmonics, how the synths are a way to bring that to the whole audience, to lay bare the machinery of the music. (But, no, Lou, there was no rock and roll.)

Reed contributed, I think, very little to the show, and compared with the others on stage, he seemed not invested in the music, not fully present. (He's also old, and not very mobile.)

Musically, Reed laid down a floor of sound, a kind of throbbing static, a loud white noise, over which Anderson and Zorn stomped and frolicked. Four guitars were onstage — he switched between a couple of them and put a few notes on sustain, but there was very little discernible guitar playing. For one piece his attention was entirely on the reddish panel in front of him — some kind of equalizer? synthesizer? sound board? but I couldn't see any knobs, keys, levers. It looked like he was operating it like a touch pad.

Two pieces in came the booing, "Play some music!"; Zorn suggested to those audience members who don't like to "get the fuck outta here." Allegedly, many people did.

[I couldn't help thinking that this was the perfect soundtrack to my current read (China Miéville's Kraken) — the squelch and roar of the end of the world through which strains this near-angelic tinkling, like delicate glass.]

It felt like being at the centre of a wet sponge — there's a heaviness, but with all these porous spaces teasing you through a labyrinth toward light and air.

Anderson and Zorn traded off between (some semblance of) rhythm and melody. Cacaphony at times, but ordered — Anderson kept time with her feet, Zorn slapped is sax.

I couldn't tell you what kind of violin Anderson was playing, how it differs from the traditional instrument (apart from being electric). What struck me, though, is that despite her musical evolution and reputation for avant-gardism, her playing was decidedly more traditional than ever; that is, although there were instances of her sliding her hand over the fingerboard from the left, and that sound when you play on the wrong side of the bridge, the execution of this improv was fully grounded in basic, traditional bowing and fingering techniques. And this to me was a nice surprise — to hear the strains of something almost Vivaldi-like issuing up through something completely modern. This music isn't just new, it comes out of what came before.

Zorn is delightful. He plays (and I credit this description to J-F) like a kid who just got a new toy, determined to squeeze every ounce of life out of it, run it through its paces, try to break it. The man's a genius.

The main criticism levelled in the review in the local newspaper (in which they get the photo caption wrong) is that the show was short, barely over an hour.

I choose to believe this was not in response to the hostile reception. What Zorn does is extremely physically demanding. (Can anyone play saxophone for more than an hour? Can anyone play saxophone the way John Zorn does for more than an hour?) The Masada show of a few years ago was of similar length. Simply, the show had reached its (physical, but no doubt also emotional) limit.

I don't feel equipped to describe music, let alone jazz. I don't know jazz beyond knowing what I like. This was undeniably experimental. Was it music? I think so. Was it art? Definitely. Not for everyone, but I'd do it again.

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