By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Faith No More/Mr. Bungle singer and man of a thousand voices Mike Patton takes the stage at the Chapel this Sunday for a sold-out night of music with longtime collaborator, maverick NYC saxophonist and composer John Zorn.
The pairing will spotlight the talents of two iconic musicians who have been working together onstage and in the studio since Mr. Bungle asked Zorn to produce their 1991 debut for Warner Brothers. While Patton came to fame as the frontman for established SF alternative rock band Faith No More in 1989, he had already been singing with his Eureka-based group Mr. Bungle for four years, exploring an evolving schizophrenic mix of influences that included death metal, ska, funk, soundtrack music and avant-garde jazz.
With Patton providing his warped lyrics and charismatic delivery, Faith No More scored a massive hit with The Real Thing fueled largely by the MTV hit “Epic” that matched the singer’s rapped vocals to a soaring chorus and headbanging metal riff. The success of the album led to a record deal for Mr. Bungle, who recorded their experimental funk-metal debut with NYC punk-jazz maverick Zorn producing.
An important avant-garde composer and saxophonist on the downtown NYC scene since first breaking out in the mid-1970s, John Zorn has been the object of both ecstatic praise and furious outrage, much like his forebears Igor Stravinsky and Ornette Coleman. Taking an omnivorous approach to music that draws on everything from classical, free jazz, and film soundtracks to lounge exotica, experimental noise and hardcore punk, the native New Yorker embraces a radical aesthetic that makes listener indifference nearly impossible.
Influenced by radical jazz composer Anthony Braxton, Zorn studied music under experimental saxophonist (and future member of the World Saxophone Quartet) Oliver Lake in St. Louis before eventually returning to his hometown of New York City in the early ’70s. Immersing himself in the underground downtown art scene, the saxophonist developed his howling, abrasive playing style while exploring structured improvisation with a series of what he called “game pieces” that required players to adhere to strict rules and cues. Recordings of those game pieces (usually named after actual sports) along with some other improvisations issued on cassette by fringe guitarist Eugene Chadbourne were the first albums produced by Zorn.
He would come to wider recognition in the mid-1980s with albums he released on the modern classical and minimalist focused Nonesuch Records label. His tribute to Italian film composer Ennio Morricone The Big Gundown that featured Zorn’s radical reworking of classic spaghetti western and crime movie themes in 1986 and Spy vs. Spy, his hardcore punk set of Ornette Coleman songs three years later, further established the musician as one of the most important figures in experimental music.
His acclaimed all-star punk-jazz group Naked City featuring such virtuoso players as Bill Frisell on guitar, former member of British experimental rockers Henry Cow Fred Frith on bass, keyboard player Wayne Horvitz and explosive drummer Joey Baron. The band’s self-titled 1990 debut mixed Zorn’s volcanic original songs (some featuring screamed vocals by Yamatsuka Eye of Japanese avant-punk band Boredoms) with deconstructed takes on movie themes by Henry Mancini, John Barry and Morricone that frantically spliced moods and genres together. Patton would join Naked City onstage at the Wien Jazz Festival in Austria in 1991, the first of what would be a long, fruitful list of collaborations with Zorn that included studio recordings with that band and the saxophonist’s grindcore experiment Painkiller.
In the meantime, Patton helped Faith No More move down an increasingly unorthodox and genre-busting path on subsequent hit efforts Angel Dust and King For a Day…Fool For a Lifetime, even as he and Bungle ranged into far weirder territory on their critically acclaimed second album, Disco Volante. While both FNM and Mr. Bungle split by the end of the ’90s, the singer maintained a busy schedule with a number of projects that included a pair of solo releases on Zorn’s Tzadik imprint.
Patton would expand on his already impressive vocal range, incorporating an arsenal of effect pedals and other tools as he crooned and screamed with his avant-metal all-star group Fantômas featuring Melvins guitarist Buzz Osbourne, Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn and with the more traditional noise-punk outfit Tomahawk with Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Dennison. But as prolific as the singer became, his output couldn’t match the constant stream of recordings produced by Zorn from the mid-1990s forward. In addition to a string of albums featuring his chamber and orchestral music in the wake of Naked City’s dissolution in 1993, the composer launched his Masada project aimed at exploring and expanding the Jewish musical tradition into the 21st century.
He formed his acoustic Masada quartet with Baron, longtime Tom Waits bassist Greg Cohen and acclaimed trumpet player Dave Douglas, recording a torrent of studio albums and touring the world to present his modern jazz exploration of Sephardic scales and rhythms. The Masada songbook would grow through the decade as Zorn churned out compositions and recorded them with a myriad of bands including the Bar Kokhba Sextet, the Masada String Trio and others. A second Masada songbook would be tracked by an even wider range of collaborators on a series of CDs covering over 30 volumes. This period of ramped-up productivity would coincide with Zorn founding not-for-profit, artist-focused experimental performance space the Stone in New York City, a venue that Zorn continues to work with as artistic director.
In the 2000s, Patton branched out into other creative projects like his downtempo/lounge acts Peeping Tom and Lovage and his adventure into orchestral Italian pop, Mondo Cane in addition to a growing body of work on film soundtracks (Crank: High Voltage, The Place Beyond the Pines) and video games. Patton would continue his work with Zorn as part of the Moonchild Trio with Baron and Bungle/Fantomas bassist Dunn — who had become a regular member of Zorn’s stable of players. The Trio would be expanded on some recordings and live dates to include Zorn, virtuoso guitarist Marc Ribot and keyboard players Jamie Saft and John Medeski.
Even after reuniting with FNM for several international tours playing festivals leading up to the band’s celebrated first album in almost two decades (Sol Invictus in 2015), more recently Patton maintained his hectic schedule with two new groups — the industrial/hip hop trio Nevermen with TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adibempe and rapper doseone and the incendiary hardcore metal crew Dead Cross with Lombardo behind the drum kit. Patton has regularly explored improvisation with unusual partners, including an album and tour with scratch DJ trio X-ecutioners and a U.S. jaunt with renowned beatboxer Rahzel.
Last month, the singer teamed with Bay Area turntable assassin DJ Qbert for two sold-out shows at the Chapel that found the pair veering all over the map stylistically, performing fractured versions of Peeping Tom songs and a weird cover of “Heaven On Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar in addition to loose-limbed, beat-driven improvisation. Whether Patton and Zorn will be delving into their deep respective songbooks or performing entirely spontaneous new music at this Sunday’s sold-out summit of experimental music greats at the Chapel is anyone’s guess.
Mike Patton and John Zorn
Sunday, March 25, 8 p.m. $48-$55 (sold out)