Saxophonist John Zorn’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink music jumps from style to style the way a television picture does when a deranged channel surfer has the remote control. Zorn views all musical styles as equal, and he thinks nothing of segueing from a quick-paced workout of an Ornette Coleman jazz tune to a pastiche of country and western riffs. “I’m making music by including everything that I’ve listened to,” he explained in Rolling Stone. He further commented in the Detroit Metro Times, “All this music is on equal grounds and there’s no high art and low art. Pop music has musicians creating lasting works of art and also schlock… and the same thing in the classical world.”
What unifies Zorn’s work—his compositions range from evocative sound collages, to game pieces with rules for improvisation, to forays into bebop—is his interest in creating transitory situations that convey his various moods and philosophies. He combines, for example, the cerebral cool of modern jazz with the punk attitude of heavy metal. According to the Metro Times, Zorn tests his listeners to find out which people “like to run away” from his wide-open improvisatory situations, and “which are very docile,” and “who tries very hard to get more control and power.”
As a youngster Zorn was exposed to a diverse catalog of music. His mother, a professor of education, liked classical music and world ethnic recordings; his father, a hairdresser, listened to jazz, country and French chansons. Zorn’s older brother was responsible for bringing doo wop and 1950s rock and roll into the house. Zorn grew up playing the piano. As a teenager, he developed a taste for modern composers. Fascinated by Stravinsky, Webern, Ives, Varese—as well as experimenters like Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel—he also took an interest in rock and, according to the Atlantic, “was listening to the Doors and playing bass in a surf band.”
Zorn also became an avid fan of film music, especially of scores by Carl Stalling, who composed for Warner Bros, cartoons. Zorn points to film composition as the model for his own work. “A film composer has to know … many styles … in order to complement the images,” he remarked in the Atlantic in 1991 “In that sense … I think the great film composers are the precursors of what my generation is doing today.”
In the early 1970s Zorn attended Webster College in St. Louis, Missouri, where he encountered the avant-garde jazz of musicians associated with the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians
For the Record …
Born in 1954 in New York, NY; father was a hairdresser, mother was a professor of education. Education: Attended Webster College, St. Louis, MO, 1971-73.
Played around improvisational jazz scene in New York City’s East Village, including at the Public Theater, the Kitchen, and the Ontological/Hysterical Theater, late 1970s; recorded “game” series of compositions, late 1970s-early 1980s; formed band with Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frisell, and Fred Frith to record The Big Gundown, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1987; band evolved into Naked City; Brooklyn Philharmonic performed Zorn’s For Your Eyes Only at New Music America festival, 1989; curator of New Jewish Culture Festival, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Avant, JFK Airport, Cargo Bldg. 80, Room 2A, Jamaica, NY 11430.
and St. Louis’s Black Artists Group. Oliver Lake of the Black Artists Group taught at Webster and introduced Zorn to the music of Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Leo Smith, and others.
Influenced by Mitchell and Braxton, Zorn began to play the saxophone and introduce improvisation into his own works. By the mid-to late 1970s he was writing pieces in which improvisation was guided by a set of rules rather than a conventional score. His aim, he pointed out in the Nation, was to encourage musicians to make “the most possible decisions in the smallest amount of time, so that everything is jam-packed together and the music changes incredibly fast.”
Zorn sought out new relationships among musicians and searched for fresh sounds. He practiced saxophone eight or more hours a day and experimented with duck calls, which he sometimes played under water. Many audiences were less than enchanted. In 1980 he complained to Down Beat that he was “tired of reading reviews where all they talk about is how I sound like a herd of elephants or whatever.”
In the mid-1980s Zorn embarked on a series of sound collages that he made in the studio with a group of improvisatory musicians from New York City. These pieces “codified his quick cut improvisational approach,” according to the New York Times, and in them Zorn introduced a programmatic element: telling stories through music. In the 1985 piece Godard, for example, Zorn clearly imitates the quick, cutting style of the celebrated French film director of the same name. The following year he rearranged the music of Italian film composer Ennio Morricone for The Big Gundown and was lauded by the Atlantic for creating a “perfect salute to [Morricone].” Perhaps the most successful of Zorn’s sound collages, though, was 1987’s Spillane, in which he “successfully evoked the testosterone-and-bile ethos” of pulp novelist Mickey Spillane, according to the Atlantic.
In each of Zorn’s collage pieces, he was able to orchestrate remarkably abrupt shifts; his band would often stop on a dime then continue in a completely different style. “That’s my whole trip in a nutshell, those really fast changes,” he summed up in Down Beat in 1984. On Zorn’s recordings, these changes sound as if they were created with the help of studio technology. But the artist is able to replicate his stops and starts in concert, accomplishing his musical feats via what Down Beat described as his “meticulous systems for organizing blocks of sound.”
Two other factors are also important in executing Zorn’s improvisatory changes. The first is the quality of the musicians with whom he works—the list of his collaborators reads like a Hall of Fame for the avant-garde. The second factor is the type of open communication Zorn encourages among his musicians. He observed in Down Beat, “There’s a lot of eye contact and talking and direct communications among musicians in my pieces.”
Zorn has always recognized the importance of his collaborators. He himself first came to public attention in the late 1970s playing with experimental rockabilly guitarist Eugene Chadbourne. Since the mid-1980s Zorn has been making music with keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and guitarists Bill Frisell and Fred Frith. In the late 1980s this group, along with drummer Joey Baron and singer Yamtatsuke Eye, eventually coalesced into the band Naked City. The Detroit Metro Times praised Naked City’s music as “wild and adventuresome,” while Rolling Stone found the group’s self-titled debut album “Zorn’s most user-friendly recording to date.”
A man as hyperkinetic as Zorn could not be limited to one project, however. In 1987 he recorded a trio session with guitarist Frisell and trombonist George Lewis. The resulting album, News for Lulu, took an unconventional approach to bebop and caused some critics to question Zorn’s musicianship. In 1989 he formed the band Spy vs. Spy and played the compositions of Ornette Coleman at what Down Beat called “insane” tempos. Critic Francis Davis of Atlantic complained that Spy vs. Spy ground “Coleman’s music down into a feelingless, monochromatic din.”
By the early 1990s, Zorn, who has revealed a fascination with Japan, was developing an audience in the country. In 1992 the Japanese Jazz label DIW released several of his solo albums and gave him his own label, Avant. He released More News For Lulu, another collection of bebop covers and in 1993 curated the Radical New Jewish Culture Festival at New York City’s avant-garde Knitting Factory. That same year, the Knitting Factory presented a month-long celebration of Zorn’s work.
Two more Naked City albums were released in 1994: Absinthe, which Down Beat called “not-quite-ambient nervous moon music,” and Radio, whose “catalog of sounds and styles,” was, according to Down Beat, a brilliant “mishmash of Mahavishnu mixes with imploding surf music, strained and strait cartoonish ditties, bent country and western riffs, and (of course) vocal and saxophonic screams.” Showing no signs of settling on a particular musical genre, in 1995 Zorn released Masada, which, as a Rolling Stone reviewer noted, “finds the unlikely common ground between Jewish folk melodies and the open-ended improvisational ploys of Ornette Coleman.”
The Big Gundown (John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone), Elektra/Nonesuch, 1987.
Spillane, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1987.
Cobra, Hat Hut, 1987.
News for Lulu, Hat Hut, 1988.
Spy vs. Spy, Elektra/Musician, 1989.
Naked City, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990.
More News for Lulu: Live in Paris and Basil, 1989, Hat Hut, 1992.
Filmworks: 1986-90, Electra/Nonesuch, 1992.
Masada, DIW, 1995.
(With Derek Bailey and George Lewis) Yankees, Celluloid.
With Naked City; on Avant Records
Atlantic, January 1991.
Down Beat, February 1984; December 1985; April 1988; September 1990; May 1992; May 1994.
Metro Times (Detroit), November 25, 1992; December 7, 1992; February 23, 1994.
Musician, January/February 1995.
Nation, January 30, 1988.
New York Times, September 3, 1993; September 16, 1993.
Pulse!, September 1992.
Rolling Stone, May 17, 1990; June 29, 1995.
Spin, July 1994.
Genre: Avant-Garde Contemporary Composition, Jazz, Punk
Best-selling album since 1990: The Circle Maker (1998)
It is reductive and inaccurate to describe John Zorn as a jazz musician, although one of his major musical activities since 1992 has been improvising on alto saxophone with hard-swinging combos such as the quartet Masada, for which he has written more than 200 songs loosely based on traditional Jewish motifs and scales. Zorn also has recorded albums of music by such jazz figures as Ornette Coleman and Sonny Clark, and worked with indisputable jazzers including organist Big John Patton, drummer Milford Graves, and bassist William Parker.
Though Zorn draws from jazz, he goes beyond it, taking it further than it has generally been defined, and operates completely outside it. As a composing improviser, he is a prolific creator of unusually structured, improvisational "game" pieces in which musicians play by rules dictating the duration of their contributions and the specific instrumental makeup of episodes within the pieces, employing their personal vocabularies to fill in the blanks rather than playing notes preordained in scores.
Zorn also writes through-composed (completely notated) works for orchestras and chamber ensembles, some of which have been used as soundtracks for independent films. He radically reconceives music by composers such as Ennio Morricone, Serge Gainsborough, Carl Stalling, and Burt Bacharach. He encourages works by a circle including guitarists/composers Elliott Sharp and Marc Ribot, pianists/composers Anthony Coleman and Wayne Horvitz, and dramatizing vocalist Shelly Hirsch, and curates music performances at New York venues including the Knitting Factory and Tonic. Zorn promotes "radical Jewish culture," producing albums by artists who address that banner, and releases other provocative albums by musicians from Europe and Japan as well as New York's edgy Lower East Side, financed by his own commissions and fees.
Zorn had childhood lessons in piano, flute, guitar, and composition (from age ten), but he is essentially self-taught. He has turned himself into an extraordinarily broad musicologist by delving deeply into twentieth-century popular, folk, and concert genres, including doo-wop, music for cartoons, surf-rock, field recordings from preindustrial societies, and compositions by iconoclasts including Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Harry Partch, John Cage, and Mauricio Kagel (his predecessor as a games composer). Attending Webster College in St. Louis, Missouri, Zorn was introduced to the avant-garde jazz collectives Black Artists Group and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians by alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, one of his teachers, and took up saxophone at age twenty.
In 1974, after eighteen months of traveling on the U.S. West Coast staging solo saxophone concerts, Zorn returned to New York City and began collaborating with a coterie of renegade musicians in small, often informal venues. Although this circle was steeped in jazz and classical traditions, its members addressed conventional materials with shattering energy and deconstructionist approaches. Zorn developed solo concerts using his instruments disassembled, with duck calls, whistles, and other odd noisemakers. He recorded Lacrosse (1978), his first game piece, on his Parachute label, and followed it with others in the idiom, culminating in Cobra (1991), which in 1995 was performed once a month by various casts of players at the jazz locale, the Knitting Factory, a venue catering to new and experimental musics.
Since the 1980s Zorn has recorded in an impressive array of contexts, including solo (The Classic Guide to Strategy, 1985), in improvisational trios (News for Lulu) and quintets (Naked City), and in ensembles performing his pieces comprising separate fragments of music written on file cards, shuffled for a given rendition's sequence (Godard/Spillane, 1988). On annual sojourns to Japan, he helped spark punk rock and free improvisation scenes. Much of his music is characterized by quick juxtapositions of dynamically and timbrally diverse sounds, fracturing linear processes and typical narrative arcs. He has also explored sonic densities, extremely concise and expanded durations, musical comedy, and violence. Since the late 1990s he has embarked on a campaign to recover ownership of all his recordings, repurchasing his rights to masters first released by the Elektra and Nonesuch labels.
In 1992 Zorn was invited to stage an evening-length presentation at a weeklong international festival of innovators in Munich, Germany. After a series of sets by New York bands comprised overwhelmingly of Jewish musicians, Zorn performed "Krystallnacht," named after the Nazi hooligan rampage that initiated open warfare on Jews in Germany in 1938. The concert hall's lights were turned off and its doors locked for the duration of the piece, which included the taped sounds of cattle cars rolling on railroad tracks.
This event marked the initiation of Zorn's "radical Jewish culture" movement, which has resulted in more than 300 recordings by Jewish and non-Jewish musicians considering religious and ethnic topics from a variety of viewpoints. It is no slight to Zorn's own vast catalog of original compositions and recorded improvisations to suggest that his support of other peoples' music on his own label Tzadik ("charity" or "good works" in Hebrew) is his most significant contribution to music since 1990.
Naked City (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990); More News for Lulu (Hat Hut, 1992); Masada: Alef (DIW/Disk Union, 1994); Kristallnacht (Tzadik, 1995); Naked City: Black Box (Tzadik, 1997); The Parachute Years, 1977–1980 (Tzadik, 1997); New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands (Tzadik, 1997); The Circle Maker (Tzadik, 1998); Godard/Spillane (Tzadik, 1999); The String Quartets (Tzadik, 1999); Masada: Live in Jerusalem 1994 (Tzadik, 1999); Cobra (Hatology re-release, 2002); Filmworks XI, 2002, Volume One: Secret Lives (Tzadik, 2002). With Big John Patton: Minor Swing (DIW/Disk Union, 1995).
ZORN, JOHN (1953– ), U.S. saxophonist, bandleader, composer, festival organizer, record label founder and owner. If any single figure can be credited with the revival and reinvention of Jewish-American musical culture in the last decades of the 20th century and first decade of the 21st, it would be the mercurial John Zorn. It may not have been Zorn who coined the term "Radical Jewish Culture" to describe the scintillating musical and theatrical hybrids that emerged in that period, but it was Zorn who shaped the constituent elements that became that reality. Zorn, who was born and raised in New York City, began as an avant-garde composer and alto sax player, influenced by such disparate figures as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ornette Coleman, Ennio Morricone, and Warner Brothers cartoon composer Carl Stallings. His early work is a frequently abstract, almost antiseptic exploration of blocks of sound, focusing on the seams and unlikely swerves and turns between them. He was also fascinated with game theory and frequently applied it to group improvisation with uneven but fascinating results. He worked with a film-noir-influenced band, Naked City; wrote numerous soundtracks for independent films; issued numerous solo albums; and founded the Tzadik record label.
At some point in the late 1980s, Zorn became interested in exploring his Jewish identity, as his label name suggests. Starting with his 1990 album Kristallnacht, he began developing a new band, Masada, whose focus was on a specific set of the prolific composer's original compositions, most of them a flavorful blend of Blue Note hard-bop and Middle Eastern themes. The band's book became the basis not only for countless Masada recordings featuring Zorn's powerful alto but also for numerous spin-offs including a string quartet, an electric band, and a rock-inflected group. What Zorn had been attempting was nothing less than the creation of an entire body of new Jewish music for the new millennium.
To that end, he also encouraged many unlikely musicians from the worlds of avant-garde jazz, post-rock, and performance art to explore their own Jewishness on his record label, involving such luminaries as Steve Lacy, Borah Bergman, and Marty Ehrlich, and his own core of superb musical collaborators, including drummer Joey Baron, cellist Erik Friedlander, and pianists Anthony Coleman and Uri Caine among others. Zorn also promoted this new Jewish culture with a series of festivals, concerts and clubs (Tonic and his own The Stone chiefly) that moved the "downtown" scene gradually into the mainstream. Despite much acclaim and the growing success of his vision of Jewish music, Zorn remained a prickly figure, unwilling to speak to the press and intensely private.
S. Hopkins, "John Zorn Primer," in: The Wire (Feb. 1997), at: www.thewire.co.uk; "John Zorn," in: Music-Web Encyclopaedia of Popular Music, at: www.musicweb.uk.net; S. Maykrantz, "John Zorn, a Biography and Discography," at: www.omnology.com/zorn.
[George Robinson (2nd ed.)]
Zorn, John, innovative American composer and instrumentalist; b. N.Y., Sept. 2,1953. After a brief college “stint” in St. Louis and world travels, he became an active contributor to the downtown music scene in N.Y.; performed with various avant-garde and rock musicians, including pianist Wayne Horvitz, drummer David Moss, and the Kronos Quartet. His The Big Gundown (1986) uses the music of film composer Ennio Morricone (b. 1928) as material to be freely distorted and reworked. His major works include Archery (1981), Cobra (group improvisation; 1986), A Classic Guide to Strategy, Vol. I (solo with tape), News for Lulu for Trio (1987), and Spillane (1988). He also composed Roadrun-ner for Accordion (1986), Cat O’Nine Tails for String Quartet (1988), and, For Your Eyes Only for Orch. (1989; rev. version, N.Y., Oct. 14, 1994), and The Deadman for String Quartet (1990). He plays saxophone, keyboards, duck calls, and other semi-demi-musical instruments in dense, loud aural canvases that have been compared to the works of Jackson Pollock (and also to an elephant trapped in barbed wire).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire