The big throwdown

John Zorn finds a home for his wide musical range at Yoshi's SF

For someone notoriously press-shy, composer and band leader John Zorn is really a friendly, chatty mensch. The modern-music icon brings five of his working bands to Yoshi's next week for a remarkable residency showing off the breadth and depth of his musical interests — and he didn't mind at all talking about it.

"I've been doing these kind of residencies for the past couple of years in Europe because I got pretty tired of shlepping around on airplanes, as you could well imagine," Zorn said from his home in New York City.

Touring schedules dictating performances in 12 cities over 14 days had Zorn's body rebelling, so he decided, instead of bringing one band to many places, he would bring many bands to one place and only take two planes to do it.

"I present a wide variety of my passions to the audience, and right now that's where my commitment is," Zorn explained. "For people to know not just one aspect of what I do, but many aspects."

The alto saxophonist has often been labeled a jazz artist, but the tag has never truly fit. "It's completely erroneous. Jazz is one of many musics I've referenced and studied and paid tribute to." Though his musical influences include jazz artists as varied as avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman and bluesy hard-bopping pianist Sonny Clark, Zorn's Jewish heritage has had a strong impact on his work as well.

More than anything, though, a defiant, unencumbered personal aesthetic defines the composer — a quality cultivated amid the community of kindred musicians who grew up in New York City's Knitting Factory scene, playing new genre-less music. Both composed and improvised, his music is sourced and referenced through world culture and structural devices alternately meticulous and random. "It's music that falls in the gaps," he said. "It's exciting that it's been misunderstood, but it's frustrating."

Once an aspiring filmmaker, Zorn relates most to experiences that are both aural and visual. "There has always been a connection to what I hear and what I see — between film and music," he said. It's not surprising that Zorn's most essential record, The Big Gundown (Nonesuch, 1986), comprises music by Ennio Morricone written for films by Sergio Leone and Gillo Pontecorvo. "There's always a dramatic narrative in the work that I try to do — a kind of extra, musical layer that is very important in all my music."

For his five nights at Yoshi's, Zorn brings his definitive original Masada quartet with bassist Greg Cohen, drummer Joey Barron, and trumpeter Dave Douglas, along with two offshoots of that ensemble, the Masada String Trio and the electric Masada ensemble. His Bar Kokhba group, which he calls a "Sephardic surf band," and his group the Dreamers, which includes keyboards and electronics, also perform. The stunning array of musicians in those lineups include guitarist Marc Ribot, violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, and percussionist Cyro Baptista.


Tues/10–March 14, 8 and 10 p.m.; March 15, 7 and 9 p.m., $20–$50

Yoshi's SF

1330 Fillmore, SF

(415) 655-5600

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