John Zorn may have turned 70 this month, but he looks younger.
He sounds younger, too — energetic and irrepressible. Recent recordings of Zorn’s music, issued on his Tzadik label, include the swinging, mystic patterns of “Homenaje a Remedios Varo” and the brightly, largely consonant chamber guitar writing of “Nothing Is as Real as Nothing.” The coming “Parrhesiastes” showcases his trademark ferocity.
Zorn has been taking his stylistically varied live performances on the road to celebrate this birthday. His packed calendar includes a recent multiday festival in San Francisco, a daylong marathon at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and appearances at Roulette in Brooklyn.
On Thursday, the Miller Theater at Columbia University took its turn, with the first in a series of “composer portrait” concerts that continue into November. Throughout the evening, this most hyperactive of American composers could be seen bounding with ease between the stage and his seat in the audience.
With a ringleader’s zeal, Zorn introduced different groupings of musicians. During the changes between pieces, he leaped up onstage to describe his childhood interest in, say, the Dada writer Tristan Tzara, whose theatrical work “The Gas Heart” provided inspiration for Zorn’s mini-opera of the same name, performed on Thursday.
Befitting his reputation, the pacing of motivic events inside that work and others tended to be fast and furious. Yet each piece also communicated joy — and a certain fellowship among the interpreters who had spent time together mastering Zorn’s rigorous, change-on-a-dime aesthetic.
Here, the music featured the barreling riffs familiar from a lot of his chamber works, jazz tunes and extreme rock. But I came away from the Miller show dazzled by way in which a supple new approach to beauty has established itself in the past decade or two of his output. (Something similar has been going on with Zorn’s saxophone playing — not least in his New Masada Quartet, which has held crowds rapt at the Village Vanguard and Roulette in recent seasons.)
Thursday’s concert began with a two-trumpet fanfare, “Circe” (2019), rendered with panache by Peter Evans and Sam Jones. The shortest piece on the program at a mere three minutes, it was also the most consistently hardcore. Yet its aggressive motifs were precisely coordinated — and given the independence to roam, even amid the overall feel of maelstrom. In between piercing trills, you could perceive and appreciate the way units of melody passed between the players.
The three other pieces on the program, all from 2020, focused on Zorn’s writing for strings. Each involved one or more members of the JACK Quartet. (Austin Wulliman, a violinist with the group, was not available, but David Fulmer substituted with aplomb.) And there were other guests, including the cellist Michael Nicolas in the string quintet “Sigil Magick.”
In that work, listeners were offered short, droning chords, as well as polyphonic ensemble passages of whipsawing extended technique. But players within the quintet also diverged to present deliriously contrasting material: At one such juncture, while two parts held down a static pattern with a parched, brittle approach to sound production, the violinist Christopher Otto launched into sumptuously singing parlando.
At the end of the concert, the violist Yura Lee joined the JACK players and Nicolas to create a sextet for — deep breath — “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science.” At over 20 packed minutes, this struck me as one of the loveliest and most widely ranging chamber music pieces in Zorn’s considerable catalog.
In addition to moments of chromatic density, the work welcomed gently strummed early music melody into its soundscape. At another point, both cellists bowed doleful yet gorgeous patterns near the top of the necks of their instruments, close to the tuning pegs, collaborating on a slightly sour intonation that seemed in line with medieval tunings. Given this range, “Prolegomena” shares something with recent Zorn string quartets, like “The Alchemist,” which JACK has recorded with his other quartets (for a planned release on Tzadik in 2024).
In between the quintet and sextet came Zorn’s adaptation of “The Gas Heart.” This was Zorn in absurdist-opera mode. Here, the JACK cellist Jay Campbell and Nichols joined two percussionists — Sae Hashimoto and Ches Smith — to form the cast. Smith provided expertly swinging rhythms at a traditional kit, but also slurped water and appeared to be operating a device that played back giddy laughter; when not playing vibraphone or other pitched percussion, Hashimoto could be seen torturing a pillow with a long whip or sawing a wooden board.
The cello music — often smartly, subtly amplified — was sometimes grim and gravely, and produced by bowing below the bridge. But there were also delicate moments for the strings, often positioned in contrast to some of the wildness of the percussionists. This was all funny, as intended. Every bar, though, seemed as carefully deliberate as in the more obviously “profound” string music of “Prolegomena.”
And here may be a secret of Zorn’s longevity: A piece may tend comic or grave, but every moment is intensely felt.
Earlier on Thursday, rumors had swirled online about the possible arrival of the Tzadik catalog on streaming services. On Friday, Zorn’s distributor, Redeye, confirmed that the move would happen, next week. This is big news, given how long Zorn has held out against streaming — and given the amount of care he takes in designing his physical releases.
However you access it — on recordings or in person — Zorn’s recent catalog is worth seeking out. This fall, the Miller will host Zorn and his New Masada Quartet, on a bill with one of his great metal groups, Simulacrum. Then comes a program of his music with the star soprano Barbara Hannigan.
The implicit message: One night is probably insufficient in encapsulating this artist’s range. But it could, as on Thursday, provide a riotously good start.