The musical career of John Zorn has been akin to pouring a gallon’s worth of creativity into a quart’s worth of time.
Zorn has been called a genius, a pillar, a force of nature and a prodigy. His tastes are omnivorous, his output prodigious, his influence on experimental modern music is pervasive. And in this year of his 60th birthday, his curiosity and artistry remain inexhaustible.
Not surprisingly, he is a quintessential figure in the history of Walker Art Center, which will celebrate “Zorn @ 60” with an array of events beginning Saturday afternoon and extending into the wee hours Sunday. Naturally, Zorn himself will control the action every step of the way.
“We are proud of supporting the evolution of certain artists like Merce Cunningham and Bill T. Jones who are willing to ignore boundaries and be controversial at the center of culture, and John is certainly in that realm,” said Walker curator Philip Bither.
Back in the mid-’80s when Bither was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he staged a performance of Zorn’s “The Big Gundown,” a wild and woolly reworking of movie themes from Italian composer Ennio Morricone that elevated Zorn’s profile as an innovator.
Zorn has agreed to be in what Bither refers to as “rare conversational mode” when the two sit down for a 45-minute talk at 3 p.m. Saturday, free to the public, to initiate the Zorn marathon.
Driven and ‘incredibly curious’
As his 60th birthday approaches in September, Zorn shows no inclination to slow down. He continues to run his own record label (Tzadik) while operating an experimental-music club in New York (the Stone).
“John is just a great role model for all the work he puts in,” said cellist Erik Friedlander, who is among the featured players Saturday. “He is so driven and so focused. He is always trying to think of a better way to do things and he doesn’t get stuck in any ruts.”
Minnesota guitarist Tim Sparks recorded for the Tzadik label after Zorn enjoyed the demos Sparks sent him. “Because John knows what he is doing, he can always be in the moment,” said Sparks. “The best piece of advice he gave me was to be as eclectic as possible in my attitude about music. I have this ‘multi-culti’ background in jazz and classical and all this ethnic, world stuff and the blues, and he encouraged me to use all of that vocabulary.”
Indeed, “all of that vocabulary” is probably as good a description as any for Zorn’s music-making.
“He is just incredibly curious,” Friedlander said. “Others won’t spend as much time following up on that curiosity, the way he tries to assimilate and then create something new out of an influence. But he just really, really loves music.”
Mapping out a marathon
Zorn fronts about a dozen working bands and has an enormous back catalog. He and Bither honed Saturday’s program down to three lengthy gigs, comprising six bands, in roughly chronological order.
The 4 p.m. show will revolve around “Game Pieces,” his groundbreaking compositions from the 1970s in which specific rules, flash cards and snatches of scripted and improvised passages create a dizzying and ferocious swirl of styles and textures. Frequent cohort Marc Ribot will begin the show with a solo guitar version of “Books of Heads,” followed by renditions of two especially popular and adventuresome “games,” “Hockey” (1978) and Zorn’s most frequently performed piece, “Cobra” (1984).
The 7 p.m. program will showcase Masada, a wide-ranging mélange of avant-garde jazz, klezmer music and the blues that Zorn has called “radical Jewish music.” In recent years he has been writing and rearranging this music for chamber ensembles. This show will open with Friedlander playing solo cello, followed by sets from the Masada String Trio and Bar Kokhba, which adds violinist Mark Feldman and organist John Medeski to the mix.
The final group concert, at 10 p.m., will feature more recent projects. “Nova Express” (2011), inspired by the prose of William Burroughs, has the instrumentation of the Modern Jazz Quartet, with vibes and piano, but in Zorn’s hands it becomes chamber jazz that gleefully rides on and off the rails. “The Concealed” (2012) is from Zorn’s recent series of mystically themed pieces and combines the quartet from “Nova Express” with Friedlander and Feldman.
As planning for this marathon was winding down, Bither said, Zorn remarked that he had recently become excited by music for organ and wondered if he could play a solo organ concert at midnight. Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, right across the street from the Walker, was willing to host such an event, and so “The Hermetic Organ” — a free concert open to the public — will cap the night.