Avant-garde composer and saxophonist John Zorn has been the object of ecstatic praise and furious outrage, much like his iconoclastic forebears Igor Stravinsky and Ornette Coleman. With his omnivorous approach to music — drawing on everything from classical, free jazz, and film soundtracks to lounge exotica, experimental noise, and hardcore punk — the New Yorker embraces a radical aesthetic that renders listener indifference nearly impossible.
The musician remains dedicated to preserving the brain-blistering intensity that made his 1990 debut in Naked City a modern landmark. His upcoming San Francisco residency at Yoshi's will showcase a full spectrum of sound, however, that should surprise jazz traditionalists and Zorn dilettantes alike.
Zorn has recorded a staggering amount of material over his career. Since the early 1990s, though, he's been primarily focused on expanding the scope of Jewish music through his Masada songbook. "The project for Masada was to create something positive in the Jewish tradition," he explains. "Something that takes the idea of Jewish music into the 21st century."
The first Book of Masada, initially conceived as a body of 100 songs written over the course of a year, gradually expanded in scope to over 200 tunes. The Masada Quartet — featuring Zorn with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron — recorded the songs over 10 albums, spotlighting a melodic collision of traditional Sephardic scales and free-jazz ferocity.
In 2003, Zorn celebrated the songbook's 10th anniversary with a personal challenge: to write "100 tunes in a month instead of a year." Three hundred songs later, the composer had completed a second Masada songbook, which provided the material for a kaleidoscopic string of albums under the Book of Angels banner.
Through his Tzadik imprint, Zorn has expanded on the Masada legacy, personally selecting the musicians who will record sets of his new compositions. Artists contributing to the remarkable series include longtime Zorn guitarist Marc Ribot and the Masada String Trio; avant-jam outfit Medeski, Martin & Wood; and former Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance's band, Secret Chiefs 3.
Secret Chiefs 3 kicks off Zorn's residency at Yoshi's next week with music from the group's Tzadik album Xaphan: Book of Angels Volume 9. The record illustrates just how far into orbit creative players can soar using Zorn's music as a launching pad. Xaphan showcases a dizzying mix of cinematic orchestrations (with shades of Lalo Schifrin's menacing Dirty Harry soundtrack), Spruance's corrosive fuzz guitar, and Middle Eastern percussion and strings.
The residency shifts between this type of fiery dissonance and the gentler side of the Zorn oeuvre: The composer conducts the Masada String Trio (March 11) and leads a rare performance by the explosive Masada Quartet (March 12) before exploring the seductive gypsy klezmer of the Bar Kokhba Sextet (March 13) and luminous, vibraphone-fueled jazz exotica with the Dreamers (March 14).
To experience the paint-peeling mayhem Zorn unleashed earlier in his career, head straight for the closing night performances by Electric Masada (March 15). Ribot's howling guitar and the insistent thicket of drummers (Baron and Kenny Wolleson and percussionist Cyro Baptista) help lift Zorn's often frenetic alto to new heights. The octet touches on elements of Naked City and the composer's experiments in structured live improvisation. It unspools dense, apocalyptic grooves that at times sound like the bastard children of King Crimson and Herbie Hancock's experimental group Mwandishi. ("I just put together a band that I thought was really wild," Zorn says.) Music fans shouldn't miss this opportunity to trek through the wilderness of a modern maestro's fertile imagination.