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Zorn in the USA: My Top Three John Zorn Moments

Saxophonist and composer John Zorn was found dead last night in his Manhattan apartment, a victim of his own success. Zorn rode into town on a white horse, his yarmulke flapping in the breeze. He didn’t know why he came back. He didn’t know how he’d gotten roped into another war with desperadoes. The day was hot. A gun was in his hand.

Joshua Cohen, from Last Man Standing, reviewing John Brackett’s John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression (2008)

Yes, he’s alive. Is John Zorn the hardest avant-squawker in the ruggedly bookish tradition of revolutionary downtown geek-skronk, or just last night’s reason for a three-alarm headache? There’s no easy answer. Last weekend, most of us enjoyed Zorn’s live collaboration at Yoshi’s San Francisco with the Bay Area’s Rova Saxophone Quartet, whose fellow travelers (especially Larry Ochs) seemed Zorny as hell the whole evening. Zorn isn’t for everyone, and others wished for earplugs. I could rave about the saxophonist’s marriage of hermeneutics and harmolodics, his duck-like squawk while dipping his reed in a water glass, or his contribution to the sales figures for camouflage pants. But since that would probably put even me to sleep, I’ll simply count down my favorite John Zorn moments. And I bet he just hates lists.

Knitting Factory Diplomacy

Zorn abruptly stopped a May 1997 performance at New York’s Knitting Factory to hurl an epithet (“you up there…shut the f*** up”) at audience members who were talking loudly and seemingly ignoring the performance. The culprits turned out to be Vaclav Havel and Madeleine Albright, who were attending the performance as the guests of Lou Reed (Havel’s pal from his days as a playwright and music writer) and Laurie Anderson. Well, so much for the Velvet Revolution. But any resentment toward Lou and Laurie must have been temporary, since this year he performed live with them. And just to be consistent, Zorn hurled the very same epithet at Canadians suffering from ZAD (Zorn Attention Deficit).

Genius of Love

In a 2007 segment of “Who’s Not Honoring Me Now,” Stephen Colbert went ballistic harping on the Macarthur Foundation’s decision to honor Zorn with one of its lucrative genius grants. Pulling out a top hat and cane, Colbert feigned a tapdance to one of Zorn’s more screeching passages and wondered “where your little genius came up with that toe-tapper.” He also accused Zorn of stealing ideas from his legendary collaboration with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on bass, Hiphopketball: A Jazzebration.

Radical Jewish Dinner Theater

Since John Zorn has collaborated with both Blind Idiot God and Faith No More, it’s pretty obvious that he is a religious man. His journey through Judaism is evident in the solo album Kristallnacht, his work with the boundary-blurring Jewish ensemble Masada,and his efforts to expand the reach of radical Jewish culture with his impressive record label, Tzadik. But hey, anybody can sound like a prophet in a Wikipedia entry. I’m more impressed by his entry in Uncyclopedia, which noted: “Following a screening of Ken Burns’ ten-part series Judaism: What’s Up with That?, Zorn decided to renew his faith in the religion he was coincidentally born into. Despite retaining seemingly conflicting beliefs in Baphomet, witches, and Count Dracula, Zorn insisted on identifying himself explicitly with Radical Jewish Culture, an ancient musical well-spring experiencing a postmodern renaissance among the chosen few, like Madonna.” The same entry lists the two best fake quotes from Zorn:
• “The task of the creative musician today is to create a space for the unblemished, proud celebration of false ethnicity for middle-class nerds.”
• “Me so Zorny.”

John Zorn, “Invitation to a Suicide”

Stephen Colbert on John Zorn

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John Zorn on John Zorn

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