Zorn was born in New York in 1953. His parents and brother were avid music fans all; from an early age he was exposed to jazz, classical music, doo wop, country, and rock & roll. In addition, being a child of the '50s he was exposed to the music of television via its various program themes and especially cartoon music, which influenced him early on, and continues to. Zorn's musical education began in adolescence, studying guitar and flute. He was exposed to European and American vanguard classical music in adolescence and was affected deeply by it. He also reportedly played bass in a surf band in his teens. He studied composition at Webster College in St. Louis, where he was exposed to the music of free jazz, and claims he picked up the alto saxophone after hearing Anthony Braxton's seminal recording For Alto in 1969. Zorn's early influences and experiments in integrating free jazz, improvisation, 20th century classical, and cartoon music can be heard on the album First Recordings 1973, released by Tzadik in 1995.
Zorn dropped out of college, moved to Manhattan, and began hanging out with other improvisers and jazz musicians. He also began composing in earnest, but with his requisite sense of humor. His early compositions and recordings were all "game pieces" named after, well, games. They include Baseball and Lacrosse (1976); Dominoes, Curling, and Golf (1977); Cricket and Fencing (1978), and Pool and Archery (1979). His most enduring and influential game piece, Cobra (1984), was issued in 1987 on the Hat Hut imprint; subsequent recordings of the work were released in 1992, 1994, and 2002, and it has been performed many times. These works were complete with cards, hand signs, cues, and strategies, and could employ the use of many musicians. His smaller group works are documented on Locus Solus (1983). He issued two completely solo albums of pieces for duck calls in The Classic Guide to Strategy. Most of these were issued on his own Parachute imprint.
The first larger public acclaim for Zorn's work occurred when he signed with the Warner Bros. Nonesuch imprint in 1984, and released The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone. He later issued two similar tribute recordings, Spillane (in tribute to the crime author) and Spy vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman, where he performed Coleman's works in thrashing hardcore punk style (most pieces lasted only a minute or two) in a quintet with Tim Berne playing the other alto, drummers Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher, and bassist Mark Dresser. The album was praised by some and raised howls of often vicious criticism, ironically mirroring, of course, the same kind of treatment given Coleman himself when he appeared on the scene in the '50s. Zorn followed this with the self-titled recording by a new band he put together called Naked City, with guitarist Bill Frisell, Baron, bassist Fred Frith, and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz. This band combined everything from punk and jazz to funk and improvisation in a unit that could play beautifully articulated and complex melodies composed by Zorn and let loose with fury and reckless abandon. Only this debut appeared on Nonesuch; four other studio recordings and a live album were issued on a variety of labels in both the United States and Japan until Zorn released them as a box set in the early 21st century. Also during this period, Zorn issued his first compilation of film scores; it was his final effort for Nonesuch. Film Works 1986-1990 was the first installment in a series that numbers almost two-dozen volumes.
During this period, Zorn was releasing albums on various European and Japanese imprints, including Avant and DIW. These include Ganryu Island and his vanguard jazz-metal group Pain Killer with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Mick Harris. Zorn continued releasing records of many stripes in the '90s, including the harrowing Kristallnacht, his first engagement with his Jewish heritage on record that later became part of the Radical Jewish Culture series on Tzadik, a musical and cultural movement Zorn helped to found and steer. It radicalized him and prepared the way for Masada, a jazz quartet modeled after Coleman's original quartet. The band included Zorn's alto, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Baron on drums, and bassist Greg Cohen. The group issued ten limited-edition studio recordings beginning with Alef (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, though they didn't follow consecutively). They also released a handful of live dates from various places on their groundbreaking and widely acclaimed world tour. Zorn's compositions by this time had begun to incorporate Coleman's ideas of melody with Jewish folk music and improvisation.
Zorn established the Tzadik label in New York -- after what he considered to be a disastrous relationship with Warner and Nonesuch -- to control his own destiny as a recording artist, producer, and composer, and has since purchased back all of his masters from Warner/Nonesuch. Tzadik has been the flagship of the Radical Jewish Culture movement, and has also introduced many important composers and musicians, as well as younger talents first arriving on the scene from all over the world. According to legend, no title has ever lost money -- which is saying a lot since there are literally hundreds of releases in its catalog.
Zorn's own releases throughout the '90s and into the 21st century include many hallmarks of his career: his chamber pieces, Bar Kohkba (1996) and The Circle Maker (1998); the first recordings from his Masada Songbook series; a larger work, Aporias: Requia for Piano Orchestra (1999); String Quartets (1999); the fabulous Cartoon SM album (2000), and Madness, Love and Mysticism (2001). Also in 2001, after a steady string of issues of his film scores, Masada recordings, and his more classically oriented works, he surprised listeners again with The Gift, an album that showcased his own love for exotica, influenced by the music of Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Esquivel, among others. The set was played by a group that included all the members of Masada, percussionist Cyro Baptista, Jamie Saft, Ned Rothenberg, Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn, and others. The ninth volume of Zorn's Film Works series was issued in 2001 as well; it was the score for the award-winning film Trembling Before G_D, a documentary about gay Hasidic (Orthodox) Jews.
The results of Zorn's 50th birthday celebration (which occurred in 2003) were released in 2004, capturing a month-long series of live concerts for Tzadik releases. Many of these are indispensable; they include Masada Guitars, Masada String Trio: 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 1, the debut of Electric Masada (an intermittent group that includes Zorn, guitarist Marc Ribot, Saft, Baptista, Ikue Mori, drummers Baron and Kenny Wollesen, and Dunn), a proper Masada quartet reunion, and many others.
Since that time, Zorn has won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" (2006) and has released recordings of his own works along three different themes -- with some exceptions, of course. The first two involve the continuation of the Film Works documentation project and getting his "occult" works -- influenced and inspired by mystics and often controversial historical figures and dominated most of all by the inspiration of Aleister Crowley -- on tape and released. The occult works are documented most importantly by three recordings: 2006's Moonchild and Astronome, with a band comprised of vocalist Patton, Baron, and Dunn; and 2007's Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, with Mori and Zorn added to the trio. The third area of concentration, and perhaps most important, is the documentation of his second book of Masada compositions entitled Book of Angels. Since 2005 over ten volumes of this series have been recorded by a variety of artists. They include recordings by Saft (Astaroth); the Masada String Trio (Azazel); Koby Israelite (Orobas); the Bar Kohkba Sextet (Lucifer), and Medeski, Martin Wood (Zaebos).
In 2008, Zorn released The Dreamers, a beautiful follow-up to The Gift recorded by a small group that included Ribot, Saft, Baron, Dunn, and Baptista with help from Wollesen on vibes. Zorn performs a bit on it as well. The recording combines his deep appreciation for film noir and exploitation movie soundtracks, surf music, incidental commercial music, and library records, among other things. He also issued another recording for his Moonchild ensemble entitled The Crucible, but it differed from earlier offerings for the unit in that its compositions were informed by the improvisations of the original Masada group. Zorn played alto with vocals by Patton, drums by Baron, and bass by Dunn, with Ribot helping out on the hinge piece "9x9." This was followed by the stellar sequel O'o in 2009 with the same band. Femina also appeared in 2009. The album is a four-part composition and a tribute of sorts to women in the arts, returning to the card-file method of Zorn's early middle period of composition and featuring an all-female sextet, including pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, violinist Jennifer Choi, and Mori on her trademark laptop. In 2010, Zorn continued to explore the feminine and its place in mysticism and myth with The Goddess: Music for the Ancient of Days, another chapter of his In Search of the Miraculous series of compositions. As a working strategy, it combines minimalism and the card-file system that makes for quick changes in dynamic and texture. The performers of this work are his ever-expanding Alhambra Ensemble, featuring soloists Carol Emanuel on harp and guitarist Marc Ribot.
Zorn also used the card file system in his tribute to William Burroughs, entitled Interzone, with key members of his extensive working crew including Baptista, Dunn, John Medeski, Mori, Ribot, and Wollesen. Zorn played alto on the date. Also in 2010, the Dreamers ensemble reassembled to record Ipos: The Book of Angels, Vol. 14. It was quickly followed by Baal: The Book of Angels, Vol. 15, performed by the Ben Goldberg Quartet, and Haborym: The Book of Angels, Vol. 16, by the Masada String Trio. The composer also released another chapter in his growing body of compositions informed by esoteric spiritual practices and ritual magic, with the elliptically lyric In Search of the Miraculous, with an ensemble that included electric bassist Shanir, Rob Burger on piano and organ, acoustic bassist Greg Cohen, Ben Perowsky on drums, and Wollesen on vibes. Zorn kicked off 2011 with the release of Caym: The Book of Angels, Vol. 17, recorded by Baptista's Banquet of the Spirits, and Nova Express, the companion volume to Interzone, issued under his own name and featuring the quartet of Medeski, Wollesen, Baron, and Dunn.
Zorn added to his body of mystical compositions with a classically influenced composition work entitled At the Gates of Paradise, also featuring the quartet heard on Nova Express. It included elements of minimalism, modal jazz, and a nod to Vince Guaraldi, all encompassed in Zorn's own trademark sense of lyric harmony. The album is the perfect bookend to In Search of the Miraculous. Zorn kicked off 2012 with the release of Mount Analogue, a long-form file card piece inspired by George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. In the studio, Zorn conducted Cyro Baptista's Banquet of the Spirits group with Wollesen on vibes. In March, he formed a chamber group of harpist Carol Emmanuel, Frisell, and Wollesen to record The Gnostic Preludes: Music of Splendor. He also created an original score for a Polish stage production of Nosferatu. The recorded version, featuring Zorn on saxophone, bassist Bill Laswell, keyboardist Rob Burger, and percussionist Kevin Norton, was released in May of 2012, along with the sixth installment in the Moonchild project entitled Templars: In Sacred Blood, featuring Patton, Baron, Dunn, and Medeski.
In August 2012, Zorn issued Rimbaud, a series of four classical compositions that were all named for works by the 19th century French Symbolist poet. Later that year, he issued The Concealed, a further recording of mystical works played by the Nova Express quartet augmented by Mark Feldman and Erik Friedlander. Zorn reconvened Emmanuel, Frisell, and Wollesen in late 2012 to work on The Mysteries, which was released in March 2013. Dreamachines, the chamber work follow-up to Nova Express, was issued in July, performed by the same ensemble that appeared on the previous offering. The year 2013 also saw the release of , a collaborative album of sax/guitar improvisations with fellow N.Y.C. fringe dweller Thurston Moore. In late 2013, Zorn recorded a collaborative set with veteran free jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and avant-garde trombonist George Lewis; the album, Sonic Rivers, was released by Tzadik in 2014, as were two more volumes in the Book of Angels series -- Alastor: The Book of Angels, Vol. 21 was performed by Eyvind Kang, Adramelech: The Book of Angels, Vol. 22 was cut by Zion 80, and Aguares: The Book of Angels, Vol. 23 by Roberto Rodriguez. Zorn also issued a steady series of theme-based projects. More classical oriented works included Fragmentations, Prayers Interjections for orchestra, and The Alchemist, a series of chamber pieces for string quartet and vocal trio. The jazz trio of drummer Tyshawn Sorey, pianist Stephen Gosling, and bassist Greg Cohen recorded In the Hall of Mirrors, while On Leaves of Grass, a tribute to Walt Whitman, was recorded by Dunn, Medeski, Wollesen, and Baron. These titles accounted for roughly half of Zorn's recorded work that year.
He led off 2015 with the Gomory: The Book of Angels, Vol 25, recorded by the vocal quintet Mycale, which consisted of Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Malika Zarra, Sara Serpa, and Sofia Rei (they took their name from Mycale: The Book of Angels, Vol. 13, issued five years before). Another vocal album was the diverse The Song Project that featured the composer in writing partnerships with Patton, Jesse Harris, and Rei (who also sang on the record), backed by a quintet that combined members of the Moonchild and Dreamers bands. Amon: The Book of Angels, Vol. 24 was cut by Klezmerson, and the Dreamers released Pellucidar: A Dreamers Fantabula, written especially for them. The composer also released a rare collaboration in Forro Zinho: Forro in the Dark Plays Zorn with the Brazilian jazz-funk group.
The first half of 2016 began with The Painted Bird, with the noisy avant-rock group that combined members of Nova Express and Moonchild bands. It was followed by Madrigals (For Six Female Voices). While the Nova Express Quintet performed his Andras: The Book of Angels, Vol. 28, a jazz trio (bassist Christian McBride, pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Sorey) recorded the jazz-centric Flaga: The Book of Angels, Vol. 27. Zorn issued a fourth volume of his Hermetic organ recitals in the spring. and in June, he wrote The Mockingbird for his Gnostic Trio (Emmanuel, Frisell, and Wollesen). There Is No Firmament, a collection of compositions from 2013-2016, arrived in 2017 as did Garth Knox the Saltarello Trio with Leonard: The Book of Angels, Vol. 30 and the Brian Marsella Trio's Buer: The Book of Angels, Vol. 31. In 2018, Zorn returned to playing saxophone on In a Convex Mirror with drummer Ches Smith and electronicist Ikue Mori, and started a Pledge Music campaign to release The Book Beri'ah, a various-artists box set collection of the final 92 previously unrecorded compositions in the Book of Angels series. 2019 saw the releases of Nove Cantici Per Francesco D'Assisi, a suite inspired by the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and performed by Julian Lage, Gyan Riley, and Bill Frisell, and Hermetic Organ, Vol. 7: St. John the Divine.
Zorn kicked off 2020 with a release in Tzadik's Archival series, Beyond Good and Evil - Simulacrum Live. The trio of John Medeski, Kenny Grohowski, and Matt Hollenberg performed material he had composed for them between 2015 and 2017. In February, Virtue, a moody second volume from the Frisell, Riley, Lage trio appeared. In June, another Archival Series volume, Baphomet, featured a single 40-minute piece that criss-crossed classical, jazz, noise, heavy metal, and funk. It was performed by Simulacrum in the studio but was inexplicably credited to the individual musicians. The Archival Series produced Les Maudits in July. Comprised of three different chamber pieces recorded by a wide variety of players, its three compostions included "Ubu," a 20-minute return to the file-card studio techniques of the '80s, and uncharacteristically featured the composer on saxophone, organ, piano, and percussion.
In August, Zorn teamed with songwriter Jesse Harris on Songs for Petra. The pair wrote 13 direct, intimate, and arresting songs specifically for Petra Haden, who was accompanied by Harris, Lage, and Wollesen. He finished the year with The Turner Etudes, an epic suite of short pieces for solo piano inspired by the later sketches of the great English painter J.M.W. Turner. Subtitled Images and Impressions for Piano, it offered a variety of styles and forms including études, preludes, nocturnes, and impromptus performed by Stephen Gosling. In January of 2021, Zorn released Gnosis: The Inner Light. Composed as a tribute to Ennio Morricone who passed in July of 2020, the set included lush, intimate, painstakingly recorded short works played by longtime collaborators Frisell, Emmanuel, Wollesen, and Medeski. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
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