To borrow from Walt Whitman: John Zorn contains multitudes.
The composer, alto saxophonist, bandleader, label head, and all-around innovator has managed to both delight and outrage listeners from across the spectrum over more than three decades.
Eclecticism flows through Zorn’s work in both a macro and a micro sense. His voluminous catalog traverses fistfuls of genres, from thrash to moody film scores and klezmer. But even within a single piece, he is conspicuously interested in juxtaposing moods and styles, even causing them to collide like tectonic plates.
“There’s this kind of clashing and complementary crashing and burning of genres,” observes pianist and New England Conservatory instructor Anthony Coleman, who played on many key Zorn recordings over a 20-year period beginning in 1979. “He’s a super-protean creator. The amount of music he’s done, the number of genres he’s touched on, the clarity of his expression, the body of work, the energy — what else can I say?”
The scope of Zorn’s oeuvre, complete with the technical and conceptual demands it can make on musician and listener alike, will be on vivid display in a retrospective program at NEC’s Jordan Hall on Tuesday. The event is particularly unusual given Zorn’s direct involvement as co-curator. Attendees will also get an opportunity rarely afforded to journalists — he’ll take questions from the audience before the concert. (It’s not precisely accurate to say that Zorn, 61, declined an interview request for this story — his unavailability was communicated before a request could even be made.)
Tuesday’s program ranges from “The Temptations of St. Anthony,” a 2013 composition inspired by the vernacular of European classical music and its contemporary inheritors, to “Cobra,” Zorn’s 1984 “game piece” in which an improvising ensemble responds to detailed cues provided by a conductor. Event co-curator Coleman, a member of the original “Cobra” ensemble, will serve as the prompter.
Most of the concert’s performers are culled from NEC’s contemporary improvisation program, which was originally founded by Gunther Schuller to explore the synthesis of jazz and classical forms, but has expanded in recent decades to embrace the promiscuous commingling of genres in general.
Also represented on the program is one of Zorn’s more popular projects, Masada, a reimagining of Jewish music that has spurred various iterations. In acoustic form, Masada often proposes an eminently accessible synthesis of klezmer and contemporary jazz; electric versions offer ear-pealing variants.
Masada — plus a fountain of similarly motivated projects by other artists issued under the “Radical Jewish Culture” designation on Zorn’s record label, Tzadik — has proved particularly influential to a cluster of NEC-associated artists. Hankus Netsky, the chair of the contemporary improvisation department, uses Jewish music traditions as a departure point in the Klezmer Conservatory Band. “Fables,” his 2010 duo album with reed player Marty Ehrlich, was released on Tzadik.
“There is an infrastructure, an industry, all these things that depend on the idea of musicians being separate and doing things in separate boxes, and John just never bought it,” Netsky says. “He kind of single-handedly created a context for Jewish cultural expression that was not in the box, that was not saying Jewish culture is this one thing. Jewish music, for all intents and purposes, can be seen in a very narrow sense or a very broad sense. John basically just made the umbrella much bigger.”
Pianist Stephen Drury, whose own resume spans Zorn premieres and work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, will lead his Callithumpian Consort for “St. Anthony” in Tuesday’s concert. Fellow NEC instructor Ted Reichman, who has also recorded for Tzadik, will direct his ensemble through “Saigon Pickup” from the influential “Naked City” album.
This will not be Zorn’s first visit to NEC. He recorded his 1988 album “Angelus Novus” at Jordan Hall with NEC-sourced players. The sessions were produced by Drury, whose long affiliation with Zorn began in the 1980s, when he invited the composer to lead a student performance of “Cobra.” Guitarist and NEC faculty member Joe Morris has also worked with Zorn in various capacities, including playing with him and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore last year in a New Year’s Eve show at Zorn’s Lower East Side concert venue, the Stone.
“There’s no leisure in a performance of one of his pieces,” Drury says. “You have to jump in immediately and constantly be jumping into something new. It’s a particular mind-set that’s hard [for a player] to locate sometimes. His particular language and way of creating continuity, which is not apparent, out of short bursts of material — I can’t think of anybody who’s picked up on that. That’s a very personal language.”
Coleman began working with Zorn shortly after grad school, when he was recruited to a gig after Zorn’s usual pianist went on vacation. He found a kindred spirit who was also interested in synthesizing different forms of musical vocabulary, he says.
“He challenges you, he pushes you, he drives you crazy, he makes you play things you didn’t know you could play,” Coleman says. “He pushes you emotionally and intellectually. You have to play on the edge of your musicality all the time. There’s no fudging.”