Review: Zorn’s sax improvisation little more than noise

Tuesday, April 3, 2012
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— Many consider composer/alto saxophonist John Zorn a seminal figure on the contemporary music scene.

But what he produced — it’s hard to say he simply plays — before a capacity crowd Tuesday night at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center was even more unfathomable than the music of Fausto Romitelli, which the Talea Ensemble played Saturday night at EMPAC.

At least with Romitelli’s pieces, a listener can discern a mind at work. There’s organization, some development of the sounds he puts on the page.

But Zorn was doing free-form improvisation. And the sounds he produced were more a catalogue of effects: squeals, high-pitched wails, moans, sobs, kissing sounds, screeches, plunking keys.

He uses flutter tonguing, distorts the sounds by overblowing or clamping on the reed or mouthpiece, changes the amplification of the vibrato wave and does circular breathing, which prolongs his ability to play. It’s as if he got bored one day playing music on the sax and decided to figure out what kind of effects he could produce.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, saxophonist Ornette Coleman was doing something similar, but he put his language into a jazz context. It was hard to find any context for what Zorn was doing.

The only mood or atmosphere that Zorn created was one of angst, discontent and an edgy unease. Considering that 50 percent of the crowd was under 25, maybe this is the sort of thing that appeals or they understand.

In all actuality, you could take hearing only two pieces, each of which was 20 minutes long. The only difference between the two was that Zorn played more actual pitches in the second improvisation.

The first “piece” played one tone that sounded like a foghorn; everything else was effects and distortion of sounds. In the second, he played slow, lugubrious-sounding tones or quickly moving sprays amid the other stuff.

It’s obvious he knows how to play the horn, because his fingers were doing what they were supposed to. But where’s the skill in all this? Zorn just started with one effect and went on from there.

According to hall staff, Zorn’s discs are the same sort of thing. That he obviously has a coterie of fans is great for him, but this reviewer isn’t one of them.

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April 4, 2012
6:57 a.m.
nadajooksing says...

I thought Zorn was astounding. And the friend who came along with me, who was brand new to this side of Zorn's work, said he found it inspirational.

In any case, I've seen Zorn many times, but this was easily one of his most personal and passionate performances. And, yes, there actually was structure. Each piece had two or three themes that were returned to, and the 4th improv was actually built around a traditional ethnic standard.

April 4, 2012
8:16 a.m.
rswanker says...

I also thought it was great, and did not believe it was simply "angst." Of course, I knew what to expect.

Agreeing with above commenter, the 4th piece -closest thing to a "normal sax solo- did an excellent job of providing a more familiar place for listeners to grab hold of after the "high experimentalism" of the previous pieces.

Also, I disagree with the assessment that most of the attendees were under 25. In fact, I remember not being surprised that it was an older crowd. But I know that as I get older it gets harder to judge people's age (especially younger people), so perhaps our reviewer is the same way.

April 4, 2012
9:33 a.m.
rswanker says...

I should correct my comment to say that the crowd was fairly diverse, not necessarily older.

April 4, 2012
2:50 p.m.
nadajooksing says...

Yes, "angst" was not what I experienced either. More like "exuberance" and "delight". In fact, I woke up this morning with a huge smile on my face that 5 hours at my job couldn't erase! KUDOS to EMPAC to living up to their name and continuing to bring truly experimental art to the Capital region. I have not been so impressed with a local theater since Proctors brought the German group Faust to our area.

April 4, 2012
5:35 p.m.
RalphB says...

Maybe the classical critic isn't the best person to review a jazz concert.

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