Portugal’s Jazz em Agosto Fest Showcases Zorn’s Versatility
The visual montage “John Zorn Cycle: Treatment for a Film in Fifteen Scenes” may not have been John Zorn on stage, but it served as a useful backdrop to the celebrated saxophonist and composer’s August performances in Lisbon, Portugal. Zorn’s 1981 work collating-collaging with films by Henry Mills, Joey Izzo, Gobolux and Lewis Klahr was part of the “John Zorn @ 60” series of events that took place at this year’s 30th anniversary edition of Lisbon’s Jazz em Agosto festival, held Aug. 2–11. The four films, viewable over two days, mirrored the music. You could almost feel Zorn’s mystical control seeping into this scattering of clips, fragments and whatnot, invoking his past but also reminding us of his alternate passion for film. Fleeting images of celebrities, historical mid-century moments, classic cars and various urban landscapes skipped along with Zorn’s free-associative music-making to the point of destroying any semblances of narrative coherence.
On the festival’s opening night, the first of Zorn’s three concert performances, billed as “The Dreamers,” found him stage right in Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Foundation’s elegant Open Air Amphitheatre, directing in his unique “conduction” style. The material, extending from his Music Romance Series concept plucked from the 2001 album The Gift, was boisterous yet playful, not quite so menacing, the contours lyrical. The band—guitarist Marc Ribot, Jamie Saft on keyboards, electric bassist Trevor Dunn, Kenny Wolleson on vibraphone, Joey Baron on drums and percussionist Cyro Baptista—played the music in a way that contrasted with subsequent nights, when the intensity seemed to have the band willfully tied up in knots. The evening showcased the most personal and dynamic playing from Ribot, seated just to Zorn’s right, his grey muff of hair a strange, folksy complement to his prolific, renegade surf-style rock guitar. (Read DownBeat’s review of Pharoah Sanders and review of other artists who performed at this year’s Jazz em Agosto.)
The dynamism expressed the following night with “Essential Cinema” was free but also focused, mannered in a manic sense. Playing off four more films, Zorn took his troupe through a variety of filmic moments with music that suggested virtual soundtracks. The films, each with a different theme, were projected above and behind as the shadowed band’s almost claustrophobic tightness hounded screenings from Maya Deren, Joseph Cornell, Harry Smith and Wallace Berman. Ikue Mori’s electronics added color to one piece. It all came to a resounding climax—preceded by moments of relative calm and melodic enchantment—with a kind of mind-blowing wizardry: Zorn directing everyone like puppets on the end of a string, his hand, finger and arm movements generated ear-splitting crescendos that defied logic and musical convention. Quick-cut images danced with the music’s ear-splitting mix of avant jazz, rock and corn.
The third night with “Electric Masada” suggested a combination of the first two nights, and was the most satisfying. With Wolleson and Baron dual-drumming, the grooves were firmly established. The soloing—apart from Zorn’s characteristic saxophone squeals, honks and singsongy lines—tilted more toward Saft’s funky if ineffectual keyboards. It was early electric Miles, a dash or two of some dizzy Ornette Coleman, the music more clearly derived from Zorn’s Jewish roots. With Mori on for all of this show, her presence both quiet and disquieting, Zorn took full advantage of mainstream and avant touches. Dunn’s deft groovemaking was also featured, a glue of sorts; Baptista’s varied percussion, especially his work on hand drums, lending an earthiness to a music that was always on the verge of careening off the edge.
To read more of DownBeat’s summer concert reviews, click here.
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