How to assess the achievement of John Zorn, the composer, improviser, saxophonist, bandleader, and musical force of nature who turned 70 earlier this month?
It’s a daunting task, so singular has his career been. When he emerged from the downtown New York music scene in the late 1970s and ′80s, he drew attention for his omnivorous taste and jump-cut music that slashed through wildly disparate genres. For some, he was the avatar of an entirely new species of new music: “As Important As Anyone In His Generation,” raved the headline of a 1988 New York Times article. Others dismissed him as a postmodern provocateur.
In retrospect, that early notoriety seems like a mere prelude for what followed: a maverick career that’s come to encompass a staggering 3,000 or so musical works for practically every ensemble configuration and musical style you can imagine. Zorn has composed operas, concertos, string quartets, solo piano works, songs, and instrumental pieces. There is also Masada, an enormous body of music for what he calls radical Jewish culture that he began writing in the 1990s. Much of his music is fully notated and much calls for improvisation; sometimes the two happen simultaneously. Tzadik, the label he founded in 1995, has released about 1,000 CDs; roughly 250 of those are his own music, including several volumes of organ improvisations.
Zorn’s arc is as remarkable as any in 20th- or 21st-century music. But because he’s remained stubbornly allergic to ingratiating himself with institutions, he has been all but invisible in some corners of the music world. He professes not to care: His devotion is to the ever-expanding group of musicians that has grown around him over the decades, a group whose devotion he repays with a seemingly unending flow of new, and always surprising, music.
“What the critics and musical establishment think has never had much weight in the grand scheme of things,” Zorn wrote to me in an email response to questions. “The community of musicians that believe in my work is what has kept me going.”
To judge by the abundance of 70th-birthday celebrations, though, the rest of the music world has caught up. Those include series at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the cross-genre Big Ears festival in Knoxville, not to mention a 15-concert celebration in San Francisco.
Boston will get a chance to sample a small sliver of his musical universe this fall, courtesy of three concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Organized by the museum’s music curator, George Steel, the series kicks off on Sunday with a performance by guitarists Bill Frisell, Julian Lage, and Gyan Riley, playing selections from the half-dozen CDs of Zorn’s music they’ve recorded. Subsequent concerts will feature the New Masada Quartet — Lage, bassist Jorge Roeder, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and Zorn himself on alto saxophone — on Oct. 22, and pianist Stephen Gosling playing Zorn’s “Turner Etudes” on Nov. 19.
“It makes me very happy to see him get the respect he deserves and, more importantly, the performances he really wants,” said Steel in a recent interview. “Forget respect — the right people are playing his music for the right reasons. And they’re playing it all over the world.”
But what, aside from the prolific and diverse output, makes Zorn’s music so special? What inspires some of the best and busiest musicians in the world to keep working with him?
Steel, who has known Zorn for almost two decades, pointed to the composer’s ability to create “incredibly intense moments, whether that moment is a shredding punk-rock freakout or the beautiful two-wind-machine passage that ends his violin concerto. John knows how to put those moments together so that they’re evocative and powerful.”
A longtime member of Zorn’s ever-growing musical community is Frisell, one of the world’s foremost guitarists and improvisers. He met Zorn in a SoHo record shop in 1983, and they quickly began collaborating, first in Zorn’s “game pieces,” controlled experiments in collective ensemble improvisation; then they played duets in tiny downtown clubs, “sometimes for three people” in the audience, he said. Later, he was a member of Zorn’s path-breaking early-’90s band Naked City, whose mien encompassed jazz, thrash metal, bossa nova, film music, and more — all in rapid-fire succession.
“He’s never tried to figure out what people want to hear,” said Frisell by phone. “He just stays true to what he wants to hear. I’d never heard anything like what he was doing back then, and it takes time for people to catch up. And they’ll come around or they won’t, but it just doesn’t matter to him.”
Lage was in his 20s when he met Zorn through the songwriter Jesse Harris, a mutual friend. Like Frisell, he formed a fast bond with Zorn; their collaboration now encompasses compositions, recordings, and performances in a number of the composer’s rotating cast of ensembles.
“If you’re lucky enough to be his friend, he writes music that not only honors what all the players natively do, but also, I think, challenges them,” Lage said. “I think we all feel that to play John’s music is to be pushed towards areas that, theoretically, we know we can reach but no one’s really asked us to do.”
That idea — of simultaneously tailoring music to individual performers and stretching them to their limits — is also key to Zorn’s composing. “I write for musicians — and try to push the envelope and challenge them as much as possible,” Zorn wrote. “The best compositions attain a balance between challenge and ability.”
Gosling agreed, pointing to one of the “Turner Etudes” that requires the pianist to coordinate a cycle of 26 notes in the left hand against 22 notes in the right hand — and then speed up the tempo. It’s a passage that tests even virtuosos.
Yet the reward for all those challenges, he said, is that “once he’s settled on you as an interpreter of his work, you become a beneficiary of that prolific quality, because he starts writing incredibly generously, with you specifically in mind.”
Zorn demurred when I asked what, at 70, he had left to accomplish. “One can’t make a list of the unknown,” he replied, an answer that was both logical and cryptic. But he certainly shows no signs of slowing down. Gosling mentioned that after playing at the festival in San Francisco, he stayed to watch Zorn perform with his Electric Masada ensemble. By the end, “my jaw was pretty much on the floor. He just has this absolute fizzing demonic energy.”
All the musicians I spoke to look forward to keeping their partnerships with Zorn going. “That’s my faith in John,” said Lage. “It’s always new, it’s always different. Nothing repeats, you know?”
That sentiment was echoed by Zorn himself. “Surprising oneself,” he wrote, “continues to be one of creative life’s greatest joys.”
JOHN ZORN 70TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Sept. 24, Oct. 22, and Nov. 19. Tickets $20-45. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org
David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com.