John Zorn - Biography

Trying to come up with an easy definition for John Zorn usually leads to misused and abused words like “visionary” or ridiculous terms like “Renaissance Man.” Difficult as it may be to pigeonhole a man who gleefully smashes preconceived notions of what it means to be a musician, composer, record label mogul, musical and cultural anthropologist, and superstar of the avant-garde, there is one word which fans and detractors alike agree neatly sums up the man and his work: uncompromising.


He is a workaholic with nearly 400 records in his discography yet refuses to do interviews. He runs an independent label which acts as an outlet for his own material as well as the work of composers and artists from around the globe, yet he refuses to do any kind of promotion. In a world of shameless self-promotion, Zorn prefers to let the work speak for itself. All this means that while he is recognized (begrudgingly in many cases) as one of the preeminent composers and performers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, very few people have ever heard of him, much less heard his work.


Born on September 2, 1953 in Queens, NY, Zorn took up several instruments before settling on the saxophone. He studied under Oliver Lake at Webster University in St. Louis, MO, but dropped out and moved to Manhattan, where he immersed himself in the downtown music scene.


In 1975, Zorn founded the Theater of Musical Optics, an experimental performance art collaboration with most performances happening in his loft. It was these early experiments with sound that likely laid the foundation for what were to become his first major works—the “game pieces.”


These early works were attempts at combining loosely structured compositional ideas with free improvisation. Usually performed by large ensembles and almost always named after sports (for example Archery and Lacrosse,) each game piece had its own unique set of rules which reflect the title of the piece and act as a guide for the improvisers. Because the pieces are dependent on improvisation, they are different every time they are performed.


By the time he signed a major label deal with Elektra Records in 1985, Zorn had appeared on numerous records as a sideman, including records by jazz artists like George Lewis, Derek Bailey, and Eugene Chadbourne and rock bands The Golden Palominos and Violent Femmes. He even appeared on a record by comedian Joe Piscopo. But it was his debut for Elektra/Nonesuch, The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone, which brought him his first wide acclaim. With more than 40 musicians—a veritable who’s who of players that would turn up on Zorn’s recordings over he coming decades—the set features radical interpretations of Morricone’s music and remains an essential release in a vast catalog. For the 15th anniversary of the recording, six newly-recorded tunes were added, making it the ideal place for the beginner to delve into the daunting discography.


The next two releases for Elektra were also tributes to some of Zorn’s major inspirations. First was Spillane, which contained not only an homage to pulp crime novelist Mickey Spillane, but also a piece called “Forbidden Fruit” for Japanese actor Ishihara Yujuro performed by the Kronos Quartet and turntablist Christian Marclay, and “Two-Lane Highway,” a sort of gift for blues guitarist Albert Collins. Second was Spy Vs. Spy, a ferocious tribute to Ornette Coleman featuring the dual saxophones of Zorn and Tim Berne.


In addition to the major label efforts, he split his time between New York and Japan, building relationships with musicians there and even scoring the music for a Japanese children’s show. He performed with a few different groups paying tribute to hard bop icons like Sonny Clark, Hank Mobley, and Kenny Dorham. He recorded with rock bands Half Japanese and Ambitious Lovers. And he formed the band that would earn him more followers, more detractors, and eventually spur him to start his own record labels.


Naked City unleashed their self-titled album on an unsuspecting world in 1990. With the line-up of Zorn on saxophone, Bill Frisell on guitar, Fred Frith on bass, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, Joey Baron on drums, and Yamatsuka Eye on vocals, the group brought together Zorn’s passions for jazz, hardcore, noise, cartoon music, and surf music. The album could have been an incoherent mess, but the tight compositions, precision musicianship and outrageous sense of humor made it a hit in the college radio market and exposed punk rockers to jazz and jazzers to punk rock. The album’s 26 pieces range from a re-imagining of the “Batman” theme, to a Henry Mancini tune, to blasts of controlled mayhem lasting 10 or 20 seconds featuring the intense and goofy vocalizations of Eye, and solidified Zorn’s place as a serious and compelling musician and composer.


But when it came time for Naked City to release its second album, Elektra refused to issue it with the artwork Zorn wanted, and Zorn refused to compromise. He left the label and took his recordings to Japan where he founded Avant as an imprint of Japanese label DIW. Between the lapse of time between the first and second record and because of the cost and limited availability of Japanese CDs, the next several Naked City releases didn’t sell nearly as well as the first. Whether because of the label situation and a need for cathartic release or because his workaholic inclinations never let him rest, Zorn formed a new band, Painkiller, which focused more intensely on hardcore and noise.


Released on a thrash-metal label and much less accessible than the Naked City albums, Painkiller were not exactly critical darlings. A pared down jazz power trio with Zorn accompanied by Bill Laswell on bass and Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris, their strangeness alienated both hardcore fans and jazz fans, but appealed to those who had come to expect something different every time they purchased an album with Zorn’s name on it.


Perhaps it was the frustration with the label debacle, maybe it was the relentless touring and recording schedule, or most likely, it’s just the artist maturing. Whatever the cause, Zorn began to turn inward. He had long been interested or even obsessed with foreign cultures. But it wasn’t until now that he began to explore his own Jewish heritage. The fruits of this exploration would lead to his next two projects which produced one of his most personal artistic statements and his most successful working band.


Although he had been composing for nearly two decades, it wasn’t until 1992 that Zorn composed a piece with enough substance to actually evoke a range of emotion. Kristallnacht is a harrowing piece of music that relates the Jewish experience of November 9, 1938—a night of coordinated attacks on Jewish homes and ransacking of Jewish businesses across Germany encouraged by the Nazi regime. 30,000 Jews were rounded up and taken to concentration camps and hundreds of synagogues were burned down. “Kristallnacht” translates literally into “Crystal Night” and was known as such because of all the broken glass left in the street on the following morning. This is reflected in the piece by the passage “Never Again,” which Zorn warns in the liner notes could cause the listener nausea and damage speakers. It is a demanding, challenging work and while his listeners were used to Zorn dealing with extremes in subject matter and sound, Kristallnacht felt particularly personal whereas the violence of Naked City and Painkiller felt more comedic and detached. It remains a major compositional achievement and allayed any remaining doubts that Zorn was as adept at composing as he was at playing.


Around the same time, Zorn formed Masada, his most straight-ahead jazz-oriented group. Fusing traditional klezmer music onto the template of Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet, the idea was to use traditional klezmer compositional methods and play the tunes in a jazz style. The group featured Zorn on alto sax, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums and were immediately embraced by fans and critics for their remarkable interplay and incredible live shows. The band issued 10 albums on the Japanese label DIW label and toured the world.


Zorn wrote hundreds of tunes for the group, so many that the band itself wasn’t able to record them all. Masada officially called it quits in 2007, but the music lives on in other projects like the Masada String Trio, the Bar Kohkba Sextet, Electric Masada and several recordings by friends of Zorn who continue to find inspiration in the Masada songbooks.


As if that weren’t enough, it was during this fervent time in the early ‘90s that Zorn started another label, Tzadik. Named for the Hebrew word meaning “righteous one,” the label acted as a repository for Zorn’s early work and a place of artistic freedom where he could put out anything he wanted. Tzadik grew quickly and Zorn split the label into several imprints under the Tzadik umbrella. Radical Jewish Culture is an avenue for expression of Jewish music, including but not limited to klezmer. The Composer Series is dedicated to modern classical composition. The Archival Series has released much of Zorn’s older work, most of which had previously been difficult to find or had gone unreleased as well as a series of live Masada recordings. New Japan goes spelunking into the Japanese underground for weird and wild sounds. Film Music is exactly what it says, and here you can find the music for the dozens of films Zorn has scored. The Key Series is for special projects, usually by musicians and includes some of Wadada Leo Smith’s earliest and Derek Bailey’s final recordings. Oracles focuses solely on female experimental performers and composers. The Lunatic Fringe plays hosts to artists who are outsiders even by Zorn’s standards.


Tzadik is obviously a labor of love for Zorn. Not only are the CDs beautifully packaged, but the recording quality is top-notch. It’s a home for artists who may have otherwise gone undocumented. One gets the feeling that Zorn treats the artists with the respect he felt he never received during his stint on a major label.


All of the above barely begins to scratch the surface. Entire books could be filled detailing his classical compositions. There are (currently) 19 volumes in his “Filmworks” series alone, and many of those CDs include the soundtracks to multiple films. Then there was his 50th birthday celebration—a series of concerts held every night for the month of September in 2003, with every night seeing different performances and players. He was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant in 2006 and the William Schuman award in 2007. And any biography would be remiss if it did not at least mention the fact that Zorn does as much for others as he does for himself. Whether issuing albums through his label or founding a performance venue (most recently The Stone in New York,) his willingness to put his money where his mouth is is unparalleled in the music world.


For the neophyte, trying to figure out where to start with Zorn is enough to make one reconsider the venture. But for those who jump in and persevere, the rewards are many and long-lasting. The sheer variety of musical experiences to gain from his discography (not to mention the albums by other artists he makes available) guarantees that there is literally something for every taste. Though far too esoteric to ever find himself a household name, John Zorn has already earned himself a place in the pantheon of American composers like John Cage, Charles Ives, Harry Parch, and Henry Cowell. He is in a unique position, with one foot in the 20th Century and the other in the 21st and both eyes looking into the future. He certainly shows no sign of slowing down, which means fans can continue to expect more of the same—which is to say, something daring, something unexpected, something uncompromising.



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