John Zorn: Pick Your Poison

Yoshi’s SF is hosting another John Zorn residency — only three nights compared with last year’s five, but still a trove of great music waiting to happen.

There’s a Zorn mailing list, in existence since the ’90s, where folks recently debated Zorn’s move into more melodic forms — i.e. normal-sounding music. He’s always done some of that, whether through soundtrack work, Masada, or even Naked City (“Inside Straight,” from their first album? Killer.) But some of his stuff lately has gotten nice — really nice — like the sugary jazz goodness of The Dreamers, the band I saw last year.

But his improvisations remain biting, chopping, and out-there. A trio with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed alienated a Montreal Jazz Festival audience, as has been widely documented. (And it’s sad to see the ignorant comments on Spinner about the show.)  To most of us, that’s good news.

For this weekend’s shows, you have no excuse — not only am I telling you what’s up, but so is the Mercury News.

Still, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect for every one of the shows. Here are my guesses. Note that on every night, each show is a separate paid admission.

Thurs., Aug. 26, 8:00 p.m. — Duo with Terry Riley.  Riley’s music is Hindustani influnced (check out that link), he wrote “In C,” and his piano playing is full of complex polyrhythms that my ears can’t catch. Even so, on the In Lisbon CD that I own, Riley comes across as quite jazzy — in a tangled, multilayered way. This might not be as noise-driven as some would think.

Thurs., Aug. 26, 10:00 p.m. — Trio with Mike Patton and Fred Frith.  Yeahhhh… that one’s gonna be noisy.

Fri., Aug. 27, 8:00 p.m. Alhambra Love Songs, performed by Rob Burger (piano), Trevor Dunn (bass), and Kenny Wolleson (drums).  Zorn isn’t performing. All three are former Bay Area residents, appropriately playing songs devoted to the Bay Area. I haven’t heard the album, but reviews — like this one from Route 66 SL, describe it as nice piano jazz.

Fri., Aug. 28, 10:00 p.m. — Aleph Trio, performing a soundtrack to a Wallace Berman movie, played by Zorn with Dunn and Wolleson. Normally, I’d expect another melodic set, but Berman’s film, a personal project compiled over more than 10 years and not officially released, sounds like grounds for something edgier. Go back to that Merc article for a more apt description. This sounds like a good one for jaded Zorn fans who’d like to be surprised.

Sat., Aug. 29, 8:00 p.m. — Zorn and ROVA. Great free improvisation. ROVA are all longtime Zorn friends, and they share his love of developing new improvisational structures and rules — game pieces and graphic scores being part of ROVA’s playbook. I’m expecting game pieces here — lots of hand gestures, lots of extended improv. Should be fantastic.

Sat., Aug. 29, 10:00 p.m. — Cobra. This is Zorn’s most famous game piece, a directed free improvisation where a conductor uses hand signals and preprinted signs to direct a large group. But within the group, members can break off into guerilla tribes, starting their own things or deliberately messing with the group structure. Cobra recordings exist, but you really have to see it live. There’s a lot of action to watch, and the results can be downright funny.  Instructions given to the players can include a command to remember what they’re doing, so they can be told to reprise it later — or a command for everybody, in order, to play/screech/scream one note. The 15-member band is ridiculously stacked. This is the most likely show to sell out, if it hasn’t already. It’s also the most expensive, at $35.