On Sunday, in a rare Philly appearance, John Zorn wore his usual: red-and-gray camouflage pants, bright yellow T-shirt. Dangling from his waist were tzitzit, prayer tassels, an accoutrement of Orthodox Judaism worn by one of the least orthodox musicians of our day.
The small Hebrew lettering on his black hooded sweatshirt read "Abracadabra."
Fronting a tight seven-piece band, Zorn barely picked up his alto saxophone. Instead he sat stage left and did some unobtrusive conducting: here a chordal splash from Kenny Wollesen's vibraphone, there an assertive flourish from percussionist Cyro Baptista, keyboardist Jamie Saft, or guitarist Marc Ribot.
Though it had its edgier moments, this was Zorn's gentle side - concise instrumental songs from a forthcoming album called
, with nuggets of singable melody and references that ranged from lounge-pop exotica to jazz to rock. Trevor Dunn, playing mostly electric bass, locked in with drummer Joey Baron and got the rhythmic atmosphere exactly right.
It was 2 p.m., and Zorn's "Out There" showcase, presented by International House and Ars Nova Workshop, was just getting started.
After intermission the same players, in different combinations, performed Zorn's live scores to short experimental films by Joseph Cornell, Marie Menken, Harry Smith and Maya Deren.
Cellist Erik Friedlander joined for Deren's "Ritual in Transfigured Time." Ikue Mori, on laptop electronics, provided sonic abstraction and trancelike percussion for Smith's "Oz: The Tin Woodsman's Dream."
Zorn, blowing alto at last, teamed with Dunn and Baron for Menken's "Go! Go! Go!", a riveting, hyperspeed montage of New York's streets and harbor. The music was acoustic free jazz, full scream, no mercy.
That sort of aural attack, or "skronk," might be said to epitomize New York's downtown scene, which Zorn, now in his 50s, has energized and dominated for nearly three decades. But as this day-into-night show established, there's never been one Zorn sound.
The evening program was devoted to Zorn's Masada, an ever-evolving set of compositions and ensemble formats, Jewish in inspiration, unstoppably eclectic in approach.
There were three manifestations of the Masada concept here: first an acoustic piano trio set by Saft, Dunn and Wollesen, the closest the whole event came to mainstream jazz. Friedlander followed with an exquisite solo cello recital, alternating between bow and pizzicato, producing sorrowful legato cries and sinuous, lutelike polyphony.
Finally, the eight-piece Electric Masada, with both Wollesen and Baron on drums, careened from psychedelic groove-rock to outright heavy metal, from ethereal out-of-tempo musings to improvisation in an almost Latin vein. More than once, the pinpoint focus of Dunn's electric bass kept the rhythms from toppling.
Zorn played plenty of volcanic alto during this set, but he also conducted and cued, hands frenzied, delighting in controlled chaos. Abracadabra.