By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Maverick NYC saxophonist and composer John Zorn returns to San Francisco this weekend for two shows with fellow downtown scene fixture, prolific bassist and producer Bill Laswell.
Zorn made a rare Bay Area appearance last spring, joining longtime collaborator and SF music great Mike Patton for a volcanic concert on the Chapel stage. This pairing will spotlight the talents of two iconic musicians who have been working together onstage and in the studio in the decades since they first emerged as powerhouse talents on the downtown NYC improv/”No Wave” scene in the early 1980s.
An important avant-garde composer and saxophonist who first broke out in the mid-1970s in New York, 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.
As part of the same heady New York scene, Laswell actually rose to critical acclaim and more mainstream commercial success far earlier than Zorn, though his approach was no less unorthodox. First gaining professional experience playing bass in funk bands around Detroit and Ann Arbor, Laswell was equally intrigued by the outlandish onstage performances of local stalwarts the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges and Funkadelic as he was with the boundary-pushing jazz experiments of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and electric-era Miles Davis.
He relocated to New York in the late ’70s and immersed himself in the city’s fruitful downtown “no wave” scene, founding the band Material with fellow future producers Michael Beinhorn (who later worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hole, Soundgarden and many other alternative-rock bands) on keyboards and Fred Maher (who produced Lou Reed, Matthew Sweet) on drums. In addition to backing longtime Gong leader Daevid Allen as New York Gong, the group began recording its own original experimental jazz/industrial funk material with such guests as guitarists Frith and Sonny Sharrock appearing on their 1981 full-length Memory Serves.
Laswell and Beinhorn had a major commercial breakthrough with their production and collaboration on Herbie Hancock’s 1983 album Future Shock and the huge hit “Rockit.” Bridging their experience with jazz players and artists on the emerging hip-hop scene like scratch DJ DST, Laswell and Beinhorn helped create an influential post-modern landmark and introduce hip-hop to the mainstream.
The Material production team also brought together Afrika Bambaataa and former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon for the post-punk/hip-hop anthem “World Destruction” before Beinhorn split off for his own production career. On his own, Laswell would help albums by a diverse array of artists including a follow-up to Future Shock with Hancock (Sound-System in 1984) and efforts by Lydon’s Public Image Ltd., punk godfathers the Ramones and Iggy Pop, hard rock stalwarts Mötorhead, Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie and Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger. He also founded the first of several heavy all-star jazz/punk improvisational groups in 1986 with Last Exit, featuring Sharrock, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann.
But Laswell’s creative output reached new heights when supporter and Island Records head Chris Blackwell backed him to start his own label, Axiom Records. Given major financial backing, Laswell was able to issue an impressive stream of recordings that ranged from his own genre-smashing projects Material and Praxis as well as a slew of dub and ambient collections to global sounds tracked in Africa and the Middle East (including a set from the Master Musicians of Jajouka) to new work from established artists like Sharrock, saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, the Last Poets and members of Parliament Funkadelic. Laswell would later participate in a pair of controversial remix projects, reworking the music of reggae icon Bob Marley and the electric jazz of his avowed influence Miles Davis.
Laswell’s prodigious number of releases through Axiom nearly matched 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 and Painkiller — the improv/grindcore collaboration with Laswell and former Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris — 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 increased 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.
Zorn has also entered into new projects with Laswell including the noise power trio Bladerunner with legendary metal/experimental drummer Dave Lombardo (though Frith has played some festival appearances with the band), the similarly themed Buck Tonic Jam with Japanese drummer Tatsuya Nakamura and a spoken word album with Jewish mystic David Chaim Smith. The pair has also performed cathartic duo shows at the Stone, most recently in 2015 as part of a week-long Laswell residency at the venue.
These two nights at the Chapel will mark the historic first-ever duo appearances by the two groundbreaking musicians in San Francisco and are part of a series of concerts at the Mission District spot that will help raise funds for a variety of organizations working to reunite families split up by the zero-tolerance immigration policies of the Trump administration.
John Zorn and Bill Laswell
Friday-Saturday, July 13-14, 8 p.m. $60-$65