Live review: John Zorn Triple Threat at Royce Hall, May 2.


Jewish Scripture and Jewish history are packed with stories of the little guy beating up the big guy: Moses thwarts the Egyptians, Joshua crumbles Jericho, Saul's son Jonathan whips a mess o' Philistines, David conks Goliath, the Maccabees harass the Greek occupiers, a reconstituted Israel wins the 1967 Six-Day War. The prodigious multigenre composer John Zorn has named groups after Masada (site of a heroic Jewish holdout against the Romans) and Simon Bar Kochba (leader of a later anti-Roman revolt); his record label is Tzadik (the Jewish prototype of the righteous man); he has made records commemorating Kristallnacht and angels/demons.

So "Triple Threat & the Hermetic Organ," the title of the Royce Hall evening concluding a full day of Zorn presentations in Los Angeles, carried a connotation beyond run, pass and kick. We can't help perceiving Zorn as a threat to the status quo and a champion of artistic integrity, and even as his comical camo combat pants flagged a sense of humor about his mission, his music, as usual, rang like a sword of confrontation. He believes in the transformative power of faith, commitment and skill.

Also noise, cf. the horns at the battle of Jericho. Zorn introduced the first of several hypervibrational heavy-metal inflections via Abraxas, a demonic quartet that performed his Near Eastern-derived compositions with balls-out distortion. Shaggy Shanir Blumenkranz switched between electric bass and guimbri (North African bass), even plucking with his mouth at one point, Hendrix-style. Guitarists Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz belied their sartorial nerdishness with virtuosic shredding; many a metal band could learn a lesson from the distinct tones each chose. In the midst of much contrapuntal playing, shaded by influences ranging from Sergio Leone (the lone-gunfighter tzadik aesthetic) to Neil Young and amphetaminized Quicksilver, drummer Kenny Grohohowski maintained a driving momentum that pushed the group forward. A hora accelerando made for an appropriate and satisfying death-dance conclusion.

Playing selections from the hundreds of Masada tunes Zorn has written, the sextet Secret Chiefs 3 expressed a sometimes more sentimental side of the composer's personality (exemplified by Eyvind Kang, whose violin wept with melancholy when he wasn't bunny-hopping in his track suit) and a broader palette (spacy keyboard arpeggios from Matt Lebofsky). Although the guitars (Trey Spruance and Jason Schimmel) once again formed the core, we couldn't keep our eyes off skinny drummer Ches Smith, whose flexible slamming truly rocked the floorboards. Judging from the applause and post-show conversations, most listeners connected strongly with the Chiefs' coloristic buzzsaw klezmer. By now we could hear how wedding music and sad folklore could accommodate defiance.

Zorn named his trio with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Dave Lombardo Bladerunner, another tribute to a weapon-wielding fictional/filmic renegade on a revelatory mission. An improvising group in the '60s tradition of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, Bladerunner nevertheless tapped a different range of models: Zorn the passionate free-jazz saxophone shrieker; hulking, black-draped Laswell the grooving, earth-rooted but electro-expanded fusionist; Slayer founder Lombardo the pummeling metal exploder. The rage, rhythmic embrace and power-crazed alienation mixed well thanks to the trio's obvious mutual respect, and even if the incessant aggression sustained too long for some of us, it ended the Triple Threat segment with a decisive exclamation point.

Deb enjoyed most of the show but accused the hardly macho Zorn of propagating a "boy thing." Me, I figure if you're really tuned in to the Zorn insurrection he'll energize you, and if you're not he'll exhaust you. Many of us suffered some depletion, but I hope that didn't make us his foes (who're bound to fall, y'all).

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Read Mark Swed's perception of the whole day's proceedings in L.A. Times here.

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