John Zorn Biography

2 September 1953, New York City, New York, USA. Zorn trained in classical composition, initial inspirations being the American composer-inventors Charles Ives, John Cage and Harry Partch. He developed an interest in jazz when he attended a concert given by trumpeter Jacques Coursil, who was teaching him French at the time. His later jazz idols have included Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre and Roscoe Mitchell. Since 1974 he has been active on New York’s Lower East Side, a leading representative of the ‘downtown’ avant garde, applying ‘game theory’ to structure-free improvisation, a parallel technique to Butch Morris’ ‘conduction’. Zorn’s keen study of bebop and his razor-sharp alto saxophone technique gained him respect from the jazz players: in 1977 he and guitarist Eugene Chadbourne were included in an 11-piece ensemble playing Frank Lowe’s compositions (Lowe & Behold). A record collector, Zorn was inspired by Derek Bailey’s Incus releases, and in 1983 recorded Yankees with him and trombonist George Lewis. The same year he wrote some music for Hal Willner’s tribute to Thelonious Monk, That’s The Way I Feel Now. In 1985 he contributed to Willner’s Kurt Weill album Lost In The Stars and made a commercial breakthrough with The Big Gundown, which interpreted Ennio Morricone’s themes by deploying all kinds of unlikely musicians (including ‘Big’ John Patton and Toots Thielemans). News For Lulu (1987), with Lewis and Bill Frisell, presented classic hard bop tunes from the 60s with Zorn’s customary steely elegance: it was his second bebop venture, following Voodoo by the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet (Zorn, Wayne Horvitz, Ray Drummond, Bobby Previte).

Declaring that hardcore rock music had the same intensity as 60s free jazz, Zorn championed Nottingham, England’s Napalm Death and recorded hardcore versions of Ornette Coleman’s tunes on the provocative Spy Vs Spy (1989). Naked City (Frisell - guitar, Horvitz - keyboards, Fred Frith - bass, Joey Baron - drums) became his vehicle for skipping between sleaze-jazz, surf rock and hardcore: they made an impressive debut for Elektra Records in 1990, and continued to record challenging work throughout the 90s (with Boredoms’ vocalist Yamatsuka Eye recruited as a full-time member). In 1991 Zorn formed Pain Killer with bass player/producer Bill Laswell and Mick Harris (the drummer from Napalm Death) and released The Guts Of A Virgin on Earache Records, the Nottingham hardcore label. In the mid-90s Zorn inaugurated Masada to explore his fascination with Jewish history and music. The core line-up features Zorn, Dave Douglas (trumpet), Greg Cohen (bass) and Joey Baron (drums). Zorn’s genre transgression seems set to become the common sense of creative music. He also runs his own Tzadik record label.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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