John Zorn, Still Looking Ahead

John Zorn, Still Looking Ahead

‘Zorn at 60’ festival tracks part of the ‘radical Jewish culture’ guru’s prolific output.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

As they get older and their style becomes more refined, most great artists strive towards a stripped-down, simplified version of the style that made them famous. Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso all aimed for fewer brushstrokes. B.B. King and Count Basie reduced their solos to telegraphic dimensions, with each note speaking where cascades might have been heard before.

Although his 60th birthday falls on Sept. 2, the downtown music guru John Zorn is really a mid-career artist; it isn’t easy to predict where his music will go, but his rare interviews are becoming models of concision.

Zorn is so musically prolific, his projects so numerous and his ambit so broadly inclusive, he hardly needs to add much verbiage. In a recent exchange of e-mails with The Jewish Week, Zorn was affable but terse, with one word frequently conveying paragraphs. As the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once rebuked an interviewer, “If I could have explained it in words, I wouldn’t have made the film.”

With almost every major arts institution in town recognizing Zorn’s milestone birthday — beginning with a pair of concerts at Lincoln Center on July 18 and 20 — he can let his music do the talking.

The approach of 60, Zorn writes enthusiastically, is a great time. “[I] have never been on such a creative high! The music just flows — there are no more doubts.”

If he’s feeling any effects from aging, he’s not aware of them.

“[I] am writing and recording more now than I have ever done,” Zorn writes. “Age does not stop me from doing what I believe in any more than words do!”

It is almost impossible to image Zorn being more prolific than he has already been. After all, this is a guy who leads or led at least a half-dozen bands, including Masada, Painkiller, Hemophiliac and Naked City; who created the artist-oriented Tzadik label, home of the extraordinarily varied Radical Jewish Culture series, as well as sub-labels for New Japanese music, a composers series highlighting avant-garde 20th- and 21st-century classical music, a series dedicated to women performer/creators, and much more; who founded The Stone, one of the most consistently interesting live music spaces in New York City; and who essentially birthed the notion of a musical “radical Jewish culture,” one that has expanded far beyond his influence to include everyone from jazz radicals like soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist Borah Bergman, and New Klez visionaries like the Cracow Klezmer Band, to tough-minded traditionalists like clarinetist Joel Rubin.

The mere fact that he has gotten jazz giants like Lacy, Bergman and Marty Ehrlich into the studio to make explicitly Jewish recordings says a great deal about Zorn’s influence. When you factor in the number of excellent Jewishly indentified musicians whose audiences have grown thanks to exposure on Zorn’s label and in his various concert series and venues — Hasidic New Wavers Greg Wall and Frank London, Paul Brody, Steven Bernstein, Eyal Maoz, Jon Madof and many more — then Zorn is already a massive figure in Jewish-American culture.

Even if you take him at his word and expect much more to come, Zorn has already had an epochal impact on Jewish cultural institutions in New York and the United States, and the ripples have spread around the globe. That impact is entirely consistent with how he describes his artistic evolution.

“[It has been] a restless inquiry into the nature of existence,” he writes. “Things are growing deeper.”

Deeper? Ask Zorn to describe his Jewish identity and he answers with a single word: “Mystical.”

Not inappropriate for an artist whose early work includes “Honi, the Circle Maker,” about the first-century B.C.E. Jewish scholar, and particularly apt for the pieces being performed on July 18: a pair of compositions for a women’s a cappella choir, “The Holy Visions,” and a solo organ improvisation by Zorn himself. The choral pieces draw on the most ardently ecstatic of Jewish texts, “Shir Ha-Shirim/the Song of Songs,” and the writings of the most visionary of Christian medieval mystics, Hildegarde of Bingen. The organ piece is entitled “The Hermetic Organ.”

Deeper and mystical indeed.

What does he look for in an artist he asks to make a recording for Tzadik or to curate a month at The Stone?

“Honesty, imagination, craft, commitment,” he answers.

Is the extended 60th birthday celebration a moment for him to pause and look back?

Zorn replies, “As a student of history, research is a large part of my creative life — not to slavishly recreate it — but to develop a personal language of tactics and strategies to draw upon during the creative process.”

That sounds like the thinking of a man who is already on to the next project and future birthdays. n

“Zorn at 60,” a celebration of the work of John Zorn, will take place throughout the fall, with events at many different venues. The first two of these will be held at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center. On Thursday, July 18, at 8 p.m., the Lincoln Center Festival will host performances of “The Holy Visions” and “The Hermetic Organ.” On Saturday, July 20, at 8 p.m., the Festival will present a performance of all six of Zorn’s string quartets (a first), played by the JACK Quartet, the Alchemy Quartet and Brooklyn Rider. For information of the rest of the birthday programs, go to

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