HT Review: John Zorn @ St. Ann’s Warehouse

So a few weeks ago, I heard that Zorn would be conducting two evenings of music, the first would focus on his yet-to-be released album, The Dreamers. The press release compared the CD to The Gift, and, well, I didn’t need to think twice. We were purchasing tickets for an upcoming benefit concert (Speak Up! on the 5th anniversary of the war; all proceeds to benefit United for Peace and Justice and Iraq Veterans Against the War) and I sprung for two for this evening — 2nd row center.

I was familiar with most of his band: Marc Ribot on guitar, Jamie Saft on keyboards, Joey Baron on drums, and Cyro Baptista on percussion. I first know of Ribot through MMW tapes that I had; Saft, I first heard of at a Dylan tribute at Lincoln Center a year and a half ago when he played an instrumental Ballad of a Thin Man; Baron, just through paying attention; and of course Baptista through Trey Anastasio’s band. I was not familiar Trevor Dunn on bass or Kenny Wollesen on vibes (but I would soon know their skills).

My wife Laura and I arrived at St. Ann’s a few minutes before the show started and took our (narrow) seats up at the front. We would have perfect views of Ribot and Zorn, along with Saft. And Laura would be able to watch Cyro play with his toys. The group of characters took the stage a little after eight: Saft in his flowing beard and red hunters cap; Wollesen having this look as though he had just been shocked through his thick glasses; Dunn with this 70s era thin mustache; the shorter Baron and shiny bald head; Cyro looking like Cyro in his Waterwheel Foundation shirt and red glasses; Ribot appearing just slightly crazed with his stubble and leather jacket; and Zorn in his camouflage pants, mismatched socks, and tzitzis. I only offer descriptions because of the disconnect between the rag-tag appearance of the musicians and the amazing music they combined to play under the direction of Zorn’s simple instructions.

Looking back on the concert, and hearing Zorn call out the numbers of the songs to Saft, the band may have played the new album The Dreamers in order. If not in order, they did play every song from the CD. From the opening few bars of Mow Mow, I knew we were in for a special treat. Zorn would count off the beginning of each song by tapping his finger and thumb together (rather than snapping) and would use simple gestures like pointing down or swirling his hands to guide the band. From the start, Ribot’s guitar was so clear, bringing that echo-y surf vibe to Zorn’s compositions. Saft was quite good on the organ and electric piano and was even quite impressive on the baby grand during A Ride on Cottonfair. One of the longest pieces of the night, Anulikwutsayl, was this dark and brooding song that kept circling back to a main theme set up by Ribot. A few of the songs, actually, were structured around a central theme laid down by Ribot which would then lead off on quick explorations, only to return to Ribot. Throughout the set, I was quite impressed with Dunn’s bass playing, especially on electric. As I mentioned above, I am not familiar with his work. He was able to get funky, driving, and stay in the pocket with the help of Baron while those around him added layers of texture.

One of the highlights of the evening was Of Wonder and Certainty, introduced to the crowd as a tribute to Lou Reed. The song starts off quite simply with a melody from Ribot, eventually building to an escalating conclusion that reminded me of the Velvet Underground’s Heroin (I am not sure I would have been led to that interpretation without Zorn’s introduction; one of those examples of bringing meaning to a piece that might not otherwise have been present). While Zorn’s alto was sitting next to him the whole show, he only played once, on a song called Toys. A short number, it just looped through a main theme with various musicians taking solos amidst some light chaos. It was good to hear him play, though. During the last song, Raksasa, there was this interesting interplay between Zorn and Baptista, as Cyro jumped from toy to toy, shaking things, blowing in tubes, rubbing the Cuica. John kept looking over his direction, though, and Cyro would scramble to try something else, only to be instructed to bang on the gong — faster, with more intensity! It was fun to watch from our perch.

Upon the conclusion of their set, and after a few minutes of rousing applause, the band encored with two songs off of The Gift; I believe they were The Quiet Surf and Makahaa. Before exiting the stage, Zorn gathered up the six musicians for a few bows from the edge of the stage, yelling each of their names, almost with a sense of pride.

As is described on the label that came with the CD, Zorn “[again combined] a lifetime of musical passions — world music, movie soundtracks, jazz, minimalism, exotica, funk, surf rock, and more” on The Dreamers. I am not sure I could come up with a better description than that, only to add that maybe the surf rock floated to the top with the unique tone of Ribot’s guitar. As last night proved, Zorn can write music as expansive as his Genius Grant-mind will dream, but it is not completely realized until he gathers up some of the most talented musicians around to actually create the sound that we can hear.

St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn
John Zorn with Cyro Baptista, Joey Baron, Trevor Dunn, Marc Ribot, Jamie Saft, and Kenny Wollesen

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