From swinging jazz to brutal noise, improvised or written out, from string quartets to powerful electronica: John Zorn’s creativity knows no bounds. He is a true multi-talent, incredibly productive and long since a legend in the jazz world. What is it like to work together with this truly extraordinary figure? What is the special appeal of his music? The musicians who appeared at his »Reflektor« festival are companions and friends; many of them have been part of the great Zorn cosmos for many years and have already spent a lot of time with him in rehearsal rooms…
Christopher Otto – violin
»John Zorn’s personality and music are perfect expressions of each other.«
»His diabolical laugh and intense glee at challenging us through the music impressed me.« – Violinist Christopher Otto still remembers well the first time he met John Zorn in 2012, when he played one of Zorn’s fiendishly difficult violin duos. In the meantime he has not only Zorn’s sole violin concerto in his repertoire, but also his complete string quartets, which he is performing in Hamburg together with his fantastic JACK Quartet.
»Zorn’s quartets offer very satisfying challenges that push us to the limits in different ways - the inventive sonic material and the sudden jump-cuts between contrasting moods continue to energize and surprise us,« the violinist enthuses. How were his rehearsals with Zorn? Intense: »His reactions to hearing his pieces for the first time can be extreme, unfiltered and genuine.«
John Zorn and the JACK Quartet
Cyro Baptista – percussion
»40 years of high lightning!«
»John Zorn turned my life upside down – many times!« says Cyro Baptista. And that’s really important to the legendary percussionist. When he came to New York from Brazil in 1980, it wasn’t long before he ran across John Zorn. It’s now a good 40 years since they met each other during rehearsals for one of his game pieces, which later morphed into the unique improvisation game piece »Cobra«. Since then, they have remained close companions, both musical partners and friends: »I was very happy when he came to the Carnegie Hall to play on my 60th birthday,« Cyro Baptista recalls.
Baptista, who is well-known for developing spacy new instruments, has had a firm place in a wide variety of formations led by John Zorn for decades now. In Hamburg he is looking forward to the world premiere of the ten-man all-star band New Electric Masada: »We will be there taking water out of the rock and playing for you the most beautiful songs Zorn ever wrote.«
Barbara Hannigan – soprano
»It’s one of those pieces that were life-changing.«
She has the reputation of an unprecedented vocal acrobat with some 100 first performances in her repertoire, and she conquered the music world with notoriously difficult parts such as the title role in Alban Berg’s »Lulu«… But this was a first for her: for John Zorn’s song cycle »Jumalatarett«, Barbara Hannigan spent a whole summer practising for hours every day. »I couldn’t land it,« she admits, »I was in a state of panic and anxiety. I knew I wasn’t ready.« In an email at the time, John Zorn cheered her up: »One cannot transcend anything by staying on safe ground. It is in that courageous moment of letting go and going for it that the music will become alive in a special and heroic way—a way that is beyond just the notes on paper.«
And so it happened: The upshot was that Barbara Hannigan sang what seemed unsingable, and caused a sensation when it premiered in New York in October 2019 with Stephen Gosling. Since then, the Canadian soprano has been working together with Zorn on a regular basis. In addition to »Jumalatarett«, she is presenting the work »Pandora’s Box« with the JACK Quartet in Hamburg.
»She is 1,000 percent music!«
Petra Haden – voice
»John Zorn helps me find notes I didn’t realize I could sing.«
As one of the triplet daughters born to legendary composer and bass player Charlie Haden, Petra Haden grew up surrounded by music. While still at school, she recorded her voice on multitrack tape recorders; for over 25 years now, her restless musical career has taken her from jazz projects through blues and classical music to the punk pop of her band That Dog. Her atmospheric a cappella arrangements, where Petra Haden overlays her own voice many times over, have remained.
It is for this voice that John Zorn wrote his »Songs for Petra«, which were released as an album in 2020. »I love working with John Zorn,« Haden says of her rehearsal work with Zorn, with whom she has been friends for many years. »He is so encouraging and supportive of everything I do. He is also a musical genius and it is inspiring to be around him.«
Kirsten Sollek – alto
»When the performance goes well, there are few things more satisfying.«
»Zorn’s music challenges me in the extremes of my range,« says alto Kirsten Sollek, who has been working with John Zorn for nearly 20 years. »As I learned and performed his pieces, I also learned a lot about my own voice.« Sollek’s wide understanding of music covering every era, from Handel’s Baroque operas through the High Romantic symphonies of Mahler to music of the 20th and 21st centuries, makes her the ideal interpreter for Zorn’s works.
The American alto joins forces with four other female singers to perform a Zorn composition at the Elbphilharmonie: the enraptured music of »The Holy Visions« revolves around medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. »›The Holy Visions‹ is a tour de force composition, and requires a tour de force performance. When it goes well, there are few things more satisfying,« Sollek explains.
Carol Emanuel – harp
»No comfort zones.«
»Working on Zorn’s music often catapults me into a timeless, eternal realm« – thus Carol Emanuel, one of New York’s leading harp players in the field of contemporary music. John Zorn got to know her in the mid-80s at a concert featuring music by the composer Anthony Braxton. »John had an elaborate hand-drawn announcement for an upcoming concert of his and asked me to come downtown and play. When I got there I noticed there were no music stands and no music. I asked him where all these necessary items were and he merely replied ›you get to make it up‹«.
Since then, Emanuel has been appearing regularly in Zorn projects – e.g. in the Gnostic Trio, with which she produces floating, sparkling music in the unusual line-up of harp, guitar and vibraphone. She is amazed time after time by Zorn’s inventiveness: sometimes he uses the harp for the bass line, sometimes as a melody instrument – and sometimes he writes chords for it. »John asks for the most out of our instruments and the best from us. No comfort zones.«