Simulacrum | Reggie’s Rock Club | 11 August
This show was only my second time seeing John Zorn perform. I find it’s best not to think about all the opportunities that I missed over the years. I’ve never even been to New York City, and obviously he’s not likely to show up in a pissant state like Wisconsin, but he’s played plenty of shows within reach that I just didn’t know about. For most of my Zorn fandom, I’ve thought of him more as a composer and mastermind for a zillion projects; I suppose it wasn’t until I saw him perform with Bladerunner in May of 2014 that reality hit. He’s one of those performers—his lips touch the saxophone and the air in the room instantly turns colors and you can feel the atoms of your body fighting against the very idea of physical form. He’s a commander of energy and his body parts operate according to the spells cast by his spirit, and the rest of the room is nothing but sentient puppets. All these years, what was I thinking.
I came to Zorn through Mr. Bungle, a band whose debut album he produced in 1991. The roots and branches of the Bungle family have been knotted up with the cult of Zorn ever since, and to be honest, that vast network of musicians has come to dominate my world more than any other musical clique, and I could almost live the rest of my life happily without ever venturing out of it again if I had to. (The only problem is that nobody from Phish has ever played with Zorn, as far as I know. Grant me one extra degree of separation, though, and I’m definitely good.) So much of my favorite music of the past three decades or so can be traced directly back to Zorn’s innovations; I can’t imagine how dull the American musical landscape would be if he hadn’t come along.
I was sort of under the impression that he rarely ventured out of New York, though, except for various festivals on the west coast and in other countries. You can imagine my dismay when I found out that in April of 2013, he had held a 60th birthday celebration in the freaking Twin Cities. John Medeski, Marc Ribot, Cyro Baptista, yeesh. Why doesn’t anybody tell me about these things?? I don’t even remember how I found out about the Bladerunner show, at Reggie’s Rock Club of all places, but believe me when I tell you that I have absolutely never seen a better concert in my life. To this day I can feel the reverberations of that night in my bones; it changed me. While I can lament missed opportunities, at least my life of live music hasn’t been entirely wasted.
I wish I could say that I vowed to never miss another nearby Zorn performance, but that would be a lie; I’ve already missed at least one Chicago opportunity this year alone. It seems Zorn has taken a liking to the city recently; he still doesn’t really tour, but two trips to the Midwest in the same year? I caught the first one, although going in, I wasn’t sure what I was in for. The headlining band was Simulacrum, a jazz-metal hybrid project that has thus far released six albums over the past three years that I’m aware of—it’s difficult to keep up with even your favorite Tzadik label ensembles once they get rolling. It consists of Medeski on keys, Matt Hollenberg of Cleric on guitar, and the incomparable Kenny Grohowski on drums. When I heard their first album I immediately hoped (and doubted) that they’d tour; it’s a perfect blend of the trademark Zorn math-jazz compositional style with the Hollenberg’s metal edge, wrapped up in the dizzying improvisational skronk that these three instrumental maestros bring to all of their projects. Finally, here they were, coming to, where else, Reggie’s. Zorn was listed on the bill as a special guest; I hardly dared to hope that he’d actually be playing, probably just sort of MCing or conducting or something.
At showtime, Zorn walked out alone and just started wailing. There it was, that same feeling of my subatomic particles being obliterated. A part of me wants to say that without any other musicians to worry about, he was able to let fly even more, but I don’t think that’s accurate; with Bladerunner, his trust and confidence in his collaborators was complete and justified, and I never got any sense that he was holding back at all. In fact, at least one of the pieces he played wasn’t a complete improvisation; it reminded me a lot of Secret Chiefs 3’s “Brazen Serpent”, albeit only barely clinging to its structure. There are certain rhythmic patterns and thematic tendencies running through the Zorn catalog and the work of many of his disciples that you come to get a subconscious feeling for over time, so even though most of what Zorn was playing was spontaneous, there were absolutely trace confines of an actual song. This was the second piece that he played, for which he brought out Grohowski. For his third tune, Medeski joined in, and then…that was it.
This is not to denigrate Simulacrum in any way. Hollenberg emerged, Zorn left the stage, and the band played a terrific set of genre-bending, dynamic music. It’s just that once you’ve had a taste of the master, there’s going to be something missing from the rest of the proceedings if he’s not up there. I was witnessing three incredible players playing Zorn’s music, but any time there’d be a lull or a pause, all I could do was hope that Zorn would rejoin them. Couldn’t he at least do an encore with ‘em? It wasn’t to be. Hey, I hadn’t seen Medeski live in over five years; it was an absolute treat to see him wizarding away up there again, especially in a relatively intimate setting instead of across a field. Any chance at all I get to see Grohowski play is a thrill; I honestly paid closest attention to him for most of the set, as is tradition. Aside from, y’know, Dave Lombardo, I’m not sure there’s a better drummer out there right now. Hollenberg, what can I say, I’m not a huge Cleric fan but I can’t think of anyone besides Trey Spruance who puts Zorn’s aesthetic to metal better. Brilliant show all around, but the highlight by a mile was the three-song set by the “opening act”.