John Zorn's Bladerunner: Reggie's, 5/3/2014

Mon May 05 2014

As we sat outside the bar portion of Reggie’s drinking bourbon around 9, the early Bladerunner show got out. We’d been able to hear the muffled deep hum of loud music happening, punctuated by the occasional burst of spastic saxophone when the door would open for a few seconds, but it’s safe to say I was dying of curiosity. My best guess for a frame of reference was Painkiller, John Zorn’s sporadic avant-noise outfit that also featured (features? Do Zorn projects ever really cease to exist?) Bill Laswell on bass. Drummer Dave Lombardo could be considered the wild card; I’m far from a Zorn expert, but the other projects I’m aware of that brought Zorn and Lombardo together didn’t include actually playing together. But if Painkiller was to be the touchstone, Lombardo would obviously be more than capable of providing the backbone. [side note: a HUGE shout-out to the dipshits in Slayer for kicking Dave out so that this could occur] Still, Painkiller’s original drummer left in 1995; if this was going to be more of the same, why invent a new identity? Hmmm…

Saturday night was the U.S. debut of Bladerunner, which had made a handful of appearances in other parts of the world dating back as far as 2000, but no recordings. It was pretty much a mystery. We couldn't resist asking a passerby what he thought of the first show. "Very dubby," he said, "lots of effects on the bass. You'll like it." I'm not sure if the first show was radically different from the second (anyone???), or if that guy just had no idea what dub refers to. I wouldn't have been disappointed if he'd been right, but what actually happened was...

I still experience a shortness of breath when I think about what actually happened. I try to avoid writing about the intangible presence of a performer when describing live music, because a lot of people aren't exactly tuned into that concept, and it's not really an arguable point to make, and the idea is to either convince you to go or not to go the next time this thing comes to your area, if by chance it ever does, or to drop everything and spare no expense in traveling the globe to seek this thing out if you catch wind that it will perform again. The funny thing is I don't even need to mention the astounding subconscious power emanating from John Zorn to make a case, but it was a lot more than mere music blasting out of that saxophone.

But let's pretend that we all exist in a spiritual vacuum and that there's actually nothing tying all of humanity and life itself together, that we're each an island of individual perception and we might as well be figments of each other's imagination.

I was pretty sure going in that this show was going to be based on improvisation, and I was right. I've spent a good part of the past twenty years of my life chasing peak experiences in improvisational music, and let me tell you, they've become increasingly rare. For much of that time, I've been settling. I might not have said that a week ago, but it became very clear to me on Saturday night. There on the Reggie's stage were three middle-aged guys who have performed together in public maybe a dozen times over the past fifteen years, playing as though they've been together since childhood. How do you account for this?

Obviously the biggest thing is commitment to the craft. Time spent playing an instrument. Maybe when you get that good you can just jump in the fire with anybody who's also that good and the results are extraordinary, but I have trouble believing that that's the extent of it. You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned a genre yet. It would be one thing if this were a jazz show or, God forbid, a jamband show, where the participants merely have to attempt to synch up inside a limited scope of funk or rock or whatever and just groove. This music had as many stylistic twists and turns as a Naked City album—so much so that there were a couple of points at which I felt like they were about to go into a Mr. Bungle song—but instead of jarring upheavals, there were grooves, there was a flow that honestly didn't often remind me of any other Zorn project.

For the sake of my own sanity, I'm going to have to assume that there were some basic musical frameworks operating at the core of this improvisational journey. Even so, the heights of intensity that this music reached, and the single-mindedness through which they were reached, were almost unparalleled in my experience. "Uncanny" seems like a pitiful word to describe what was going on. In between brief solo bits, it was as if each new musical idea by one member or another triggered an immediate synchronicity within the trio. The lag time was virtually imperceptible. I've gotten to a point where I often get hypercritical in these situations, where my brain can't help but perceive awkward moments in which musicians are fumbling, trying to link up with each other in a groove, and I have to force myself to let go of that in order to enjoy the music. I realized once the hour-long set was done that I had indeed been on high alert the whole time; I just couldn't find the faults. There were maybe a couple of isolated seconds where a change had momentarily challenged the continuity. For 99% of that hour, it was pure intuition, psychic channeling, unbelievable music.

I guess I've been barking up lots of wrong trees, questing after music that most musicians can't make, but the reality is I can't fly to New York all the time to see John Zorn play; this was my first time. Besides, based on what I've heard (which includes at least a taste of the majority of his umpteen projects), I don't know that any of his other projects would be so incredibly impressive and uplifting to me as this one. The other thing is I have to be thankful for all the shit I've grown accustomed to, lazy music played by lazy musicians, in order to be able to walk into a little metal club in Chicago and have this kind of experience. If everybody was this good, you wouldn't know how good this was, right? There is a part of me that has known for a long time that what I was actually seeking in live music was never happening any more. I wasn't at all expecting it to happen at this show, but it did. Now, rather than lamenting the fact that it could be another twenty years before it happens again, I'm still soaking in gratitude that it happened at all. I can't go back in time and see Miles Davis in 1969, and I've missed out on a lot of shit over my lifetime that I could kick myself for, but Bladerunner made up for it all.

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