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

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.