Sonic adventurer John Zorn takes on Girard College’s massive pipe organ at Ars Nova’s New Paths Festival

Photo by Alex Lewis
Photo by Alex Lewis

It’s rare in performance for an instrument to take the spotlight over the player. But that was almost what happened on Saturday night at John Zorn’s solo organ performance – part of the Ars Nova Workshop’s New Paths Festival – in the Girard College Chapel. The evening was in equal parts a celebration of the college’s grand Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ and a concise exploration of Zorn’s broad musical language.

Simply walking into the venue set the tone for the concert. “Chapel” is far too quaint a word to describe the massive space, which features dark marble floors and huge stone columns that line the walls. Looking up from your tiny place in the endless pews, you notice the building is wedge-shaped and the ceiling is very far away – it must be 100 feet above the ground. And that’s where the organ pipes are installed, above you behind gold-leafed latticing.  The combined affect of the Greek-influenced architecture, the enormous room, and then, eventually, the thunderous volume of the organ is breathtaking. But it also makes you feel small.

The spacious Girard College Chapel with John Zorn onstage | photo by Alex Lewis

Even the great John Zorn – the prolific, shape-shifting downtown NYC musician – was nearly invisible throughout the performance. From the pews, all you could see was a small dot of a head peaking out from the choir area in the front of the room.  But sights were beside the point once the music started.

Zorn played continuously for a little less than an hour. The arc and movements of his improvisation were easy to follow. The performance began with the sound of distant church bells and these popped up throughout the evening, acting as both a thematic anchor and a structuring element. The bells eventually gave way to a low billowing drone that slowly evolved into a biting clustered fortissimo. It sounded like Zorn was pushing air through every single pipe on the organ. You could feel the seats in the balcony rumbling.

The performance felt more and more autobiographical as it unfolded. Zorn, with each movement, seemed to put another one of his compositional interests on the table: free jazz, Classical lyricism and counterpoint, film noir, heavy drone all made appearances. And underlying it all was a deep personal spirituality. The potency of Zorn’s performance combined with the sheer power of the Chapel’s organ made for a mesmerizing experience.

It felt like being part of something ancient.  For ages, people have sat in large rooms listening to musical masters play huge pipe organs. J.S. Bach is probably the most famous organ virtuoso, but the instrument dates all the way back to Ancient Greece where they were played for the gladiators.

After Zorn’s performance was over, the audience rushed the stage to see the keyboard and take in the view of the chapel from the front.  From beginning to end, the evening was awe-inspiring in the oldest sense.


A twisted take on smooth jazz and big bands with Mostly Other People Do the Killing

Photo by Michael Hoefner
Photo by Michael Hoefner

An irreverent attitude towards jazz orthodoxy has always been central to the sound of Mostly Other People Do the Killing. But on its most recent recordings, the puckishly eclectic quartet has trained its focus on more specific, neglected areas of the music’s history. Last year’s Slippery Rock played with the tropes and sounds of smooth jazz for a set of music that was far from smooth. Now, with Red Hot, the band looks much further back to the less reviled but equally sidelined inspiration of traditional jazz bands of the 1920s.

“Most contemporary, common practice jazz draws on a pretty small window of stuff,” says MOPDTK bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliott. “The vast majority of stuff out there is some variation on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers circa 1960, where you’ve got written material at the beginning and the end and a series of solos in the middle. I’ve never really liked stuff like that. A lot of vocabulary from both smooth jazz and early jazz has been omitted from canonized modern jazz because it doesn’t conform to what everybody has settled on as being the way you play jazz.”

However MOPDTK approaches playing jazz, “conform” would hardly be a word that comes to mind. Formed in 2003, the band consists of Elliott, trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, and drummer Kevin Shea. Each member comes to the group with a stunning array of interests, from classic to avant-garde jazz and into punk and indie rock, free improvisation, and beyond. They combine to form something that’s both inventive and off-the-wall, looked on with suspicion in some circles due to their sense of humor but impossible to dismiss because of their virtuosic musicianship.

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