John Zorn to Play Manhattan's Village Vanguard

Last year, composer and musician John Zorn marked his 60th birthday with an international celebration that began in Glasgow, Scotland and ended with a sprawling four-night festival at Australia’s Adelaide Festival.
In New York City alone, more than a dozen events spanned four months and much of Manhattan. If these were grand statements, they also made for intimate experiences. There was Zorn in July 2103, during the Lincoln Center Festival, after an a capella vocal-quintet performance of his “The Holy Visions,” sitting down at Alice Tully Hall’s magnificent pipe organ to play “The Hermetic Organ, Office No. 8”, stirring up a glorious din with childlike glee. Two months later, he wept softly on curator Limor Tomer’s shoulder as he and audience members walked from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur—where a trio of guitar, vibraphone and harp had played his “Gnostic Preludes”—to the gallery of Assyrian art, where cellist Erik Friedlander was to perform music drawn from Zorn’s immense body of Masada compositions, all part of a full-day Zorn marathon.
Zorn @ 60,” as that outpouring was dubbed, celebrated the depth, range and ambition of Zorn’s work, and it underscored the point that although his music early on helped establish an attitude and perhaps even a brand known as “downtown,” it has never fit such a limiting aesthetic and has long been at home everywhere along Manhattan’s cultural landscape, from Lower East Side clubs to uptown citadels of culture.
And yet I hadn’t realized that Zorn, whose own customary instrument is an alto saxophone, has never played one Manhattan musical shrine—the Village Vanguard jazz club—despite the fact that much of Zorn’s music extends quite clearly from jazz tradition and that his Masada Quartet, with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, ranks as one of modern jazz’s most stirring small ensembles.
Zorn’s Masada Quartet will play two sets at the Vanguard on Saturday, September 6, as part a six-night engagement showcasing the second and third books of his voluminous Masada repertoire, as performed by a dozen different bands. John Zorn’s Masada—Angels at the Vanguard.” (According to the club, Zorn will sit in on 10:30 sets Wednesday through Sunday nights; a full schedule can be found here, or below.)
The booking shouldn’t come as a surprise. Henry Threadgill’s Zooid played the Vanguard this summer. Marc Ribot’s recent CD, “Live at the Vanguard” (Pi), with a trio including bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Chad Taylor, was recorded at the club during a six-night 2012 gig. Each group was a great fit for the acoustically charmed Vanguard space, while extending well beyond sound of mainstream jazz.
“Lorraine had wanted John here for quite some time,” said Deborah Gordon, referring to her mother, who owns and runs the storied jazz club. “And I get the sense that John felt that now was the right moment.”
The booking came about serendipitously, she said. Violinist Eyvind Kang was performing at the club in a band led by guitarist Bill Frisell. On his way out one evening, Kang told Deborah Gordon that he was rushing off to play in a Masada Marathon Zorn was putting on at Manhattan’s Town Hall.
“Tell John that little Debbie Gordon says hello,” she told Kang. (She and Zorn knew each other from their days as high schoolers at Manhattan’s United Nations International School.)
“The next day, I got an email from him,” Gordon said. “He came down to the club and we talked. It was all in the timing.”
Zorn’s massive Masada project began 20 years ago as simply “an attempt to write new tunes that I could play,” he told me during an interview. In that sense, it is akin to any jazz bandleader’s book—rich with concise musical statements that establish a signature while inviting open-ended improvisation. Yet Masada is also Zorn’s “personal answer to what new Jewish music is,” he said. As such, it extends a theme that has informed much of Zorn’s work, including his orchestral pieces and the CDs on his independent label, Tzadik.
Taken as a whole, Zorn’s Masada project has made profound suggestions about both Jewish identity and musical possibility. Book One gave rise to a new and potent chapter in Zorn’s career, and to the formation of several groups including the quartet, and the wonderful Masada String Trio (violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, and bassist Greg Cohen; Friday, Sept. 5 at 8:30 at the Vanguard). Book Two spawned 20 recordings by 20 musicians and bands, including last year’s wonderful (and, to me, surprising) “Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Vol. 20,” (Nonesuch/Tzadik). Book Three: The Book Beriah,” the final installment, brought Zorn’s total number of Masada compositions to 613 (the number of mitzvot, or commandments, contained in the Jewish Torah). Zorn presented that third book in a marathon “shuffle” concert at Town Hall, featuring 20 different bands and more than 50 musicians from wildly divergent backgrounds. (Zorn recently hinted to me that there will likely be one more Masada piece, on a grand scale (some believe in a 614th commandment).
The Vanguard engagement will focus on music from Masada books Two and Three, presented in formats ranging from solo (Erik Friedlander; Thursday, Sept. 4 at 8:30) and duet (Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier; Tuesday, Sept. 2 at 8:30) to an octet led by percussionist Roberto Rodriguez (Sunday, Sept. 7 at 8:30), and ranging widely in stylistic inclination: the group Zion 80 (Thursday, Sept. 4 at 10:30) bills itself as “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach meets Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.”
Whether overdue or just in time, Zorn’s engagement at the Village Vanguard, a jazz club rich with history, holds all sorts of promise: How will his Angels commune with all those ghosts?
JOHN ZORN’S MASADA—ANGELS AT THE VANGUARD: A special week long festival of 12 bands from John Zorn’s Book of Angels series performing music from Masada Books Two and Three.
—–Tues September 02, 2014
8:30 – Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier-MALPHAS
Mark Feldman (violin) Sylvie Courvoisier (piano)
10:30 – Eyvind Kang Ensemble
Eyvind Kang (viola) Mark Feldman (violin) Doug Weiselman (clarinets) Erik Friedlander (cello) Hidayat Honari (tar, guitar) Shahzad Ismaily (bass) Ches Smith (percussion)
—–Wed September 03, 2014
8:30 – Jamie Saft Trio
Jamie Saft (piano) Greg Cohen (bass) Kenny Wollesen (drums)
10:30 – Uri Caine Trio
Uri Caine (piano) Greg Cohen (bass) Joey Baron (drums)
—–Thu September 04, 2014
8:30 – Erik Friedlander Solo (cello)
10:30 – ZION 80 plays Masada
Aram Bajakian (guitar) Matt Darriau (alto sax) Yoshie Fruchter (guitar) Jon Madof (guitar) Frank London (trumpet) Greg Wall (tenor sax) Yonadav Halevy (drums) Zach Mayer (baritone sax) Marlon Sobol (congas, percussion) Brian Marsella (keyboards) Shanir Blumenkranz (bass)
—–Fri September 05, 2014
8 30 – Masada String Trio
Mark Feldman (violin) Erik Friedlander (cello) Greg Cohen (bass)
10:30 – Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits
Cyro Baptista (percussion) Tim Keiper (drums) Shanir Blumenkranz (bass, oud) Brian Marsella (keyboards)
—–Sat September 06, 2014
John Zorn (sax) Dave Douglas (trumpet) Greg Cohen (bass) Joey Baron (drums)
John Zorn (sax) Dave Douglas (trumpet) Greg Cohen (bass) Joey Baron (drums)
—Sun September 07, 2014
8:30 – Roberto Rodriguez and Octeto Masada
Carmen Staff (piano) Uri Sharli (accodion) Eddy Khaimovich (bass) Ivan Barenboim (clarinet) Meg Okura (violin) Igor Arias (congas) Rafi Makiel (trombone) Itai Kriss (flute) Roberto Rodriguez (percussion)
10:30 – Uri Gurvich Quartet
Uri Gurvich (sax) Peter Slavov (bass) Francisco Mela (drums) Leo Genovese (piano)
Here is his official portrait by Scott Irvine. Logo from Digipack.

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