John Zorn (born September 2, 1953 in New York City) is an American avant-garde composer, arranger, record producer, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist.
Zorn's recorded output is prolific with hundreds of album credits as a performer, composer, or producer. His work of avant-garde and experimental music expertly draws from a wide range of musical genres and traditions, often within a single composition, including jazz, rock, hardcore punk, classical, contemporary classical music, klezmer, film, cartoon, popular, and improvised music. Zorn has led the punk jazz band Naked City, the klezmer-influenced quartet Masada and composed the associated 'Masada Songbooks', written concert music for classical ensembles, and produced music for film and documentary. Zorn has stated that "I've got an incredibly short attention span. My music is jam-packed with information that is changing very fast... All the various styles are organically connected to one another. I'm an additive person - the entire storehouse of my knowledge informs everything I do. People are so obsessed with the surface that they can't see the connections, but they are there."
After releasing albums on several independent US and European labels, Zorn signed with Elektra Nonesuch and attracted wide acclaim in 1985 when he released The Big Gundown with his interpretations of music composed by Ennio Morricone. This was followed by the album Spillane in 1987, and the first album by Naked City in 1989 which all attracted further worldwide attention. Zorn then recorded on the Japanese DIW label and curated the Avant subsidiary label before forming Tzadik in 1995, where he has been prolific, issuing several new recordings each year and releasing works by many other musicians.
Zorn established himself within the New York City downtown music movement in the early 1980s but has since composed and performed with a wide range of musicians working in diverse musical areas. By the early 1990s Zorn was working extensively in Japan, attracted by that culture's openness about borrowing and remixing ingredients from elsewhere, where he performed and recorded under the name Dekoboko Hajime, before returning to New York as a permanent base in the mid-1990s.Zorn has undertaken many tours of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, often performing at festivals with varying ensembles to display his diverse output
John Zorn was born in New York City and learned piano, guitar and flute as a child. His family possessed broad musical tastes and he gained an appreciation of classical and world music from his mother, a professor of education, through his father, a hairdresser, was exposed to jazz, French chansons, and country music, and listened to his older brother's collection of doo-wop, and 1950s rock and roll. Zorn recalled an episode of his life, after buying a record by Mauricio Kagel in 1968 at the age of fifteen, that influenced his subsequent taste for experimental and avant-garde music.
Here we are: Kagel, "Improvisation Ajoutée." I bought this when I was about 15. Still marked: got it at Sam Goody in September, for 98 cents. And it's a really crazy piece, with the guys screaming and hooting, something that attracted me. I was over at my friend's house, and he really liked the Rolling Stones. And I just got this record, and I put it on and he looked at me like... who the hell are you? Are you out of your mind? And his mother was there, and she was like [puts palm on cheek] my God, take this off... and right then and there, I decided: this was the music.
As a teenager, Zorn played bass in a surf band. He studied music under Leonardo Balada. During these years, he taught himself about orchestration and counterpoint, by transcribing scores and using in his own compositions, a procedure of "plagiarizing, stealing, quoting, or whatever you can call it", of collage and transposition into his own world, that he has been using throughout his career.
Zorn picked up the saxophone after discovering Anthony Braxton's album For Alto (1969) while studying composition at Webster College (now Webster University) in St. Louis, Missouri, where he attended classes taught by Oliver Lake. While still at Webster, Zorn incorporated elements of free jazz, avant-garde and experimental music, film scores, performance art and the cartoon scores of Carl Stalling into his first recordings which were later released as First Recordings 1973 (1995).
After dropping out of college, and following a stint on the West Coast, Zorn moved to Manhattan and gave concerts in his apartment and other small NY venues playing saxophone and a variety of reeds, duck calls, tapes, and other instruments. He founded the Theatre of Musical Optics, a performance art project, in 1975 and became a major participant in the fertile, avant-garde downtown music scene as a composer, performer and producer of music that challenges the confines of any single musical genre. Zorn later used the term 'Theatre of Musical Optics' as the publishing company for his compositions.  Early composition
Zorn's early major compositions included several "game pieces" or "game theories", which he describes as "complex systems harnessing improvisers in flexible compositional formats," and which "involved strict rules, role playing, prompters with flashcards, all in the name of melding structure and improvisation in a seamless fashion." These works, in which groups of performers improvise while following structural rules, were often named after sports, and include Baseball (1976), Lacrosse (1976), Dominoes (1977), Curling (1977), Golf (1977), Hockey (1978), Cricket (1978), Fencing (1978), Pool (1979), and Archery (1979) which was recorded at Martin Bisi's studio. His most enduring "game piece" is Cobra (1984) which Zorn first released on album in 1987 and released in subsequent versions in 1992, 1994 and 2002, and has revisited in performance many times. These compositions use cues, rules, and strategies to combine and contrast improvisations in various, sometimes extreme, ways, enlisting the talents of many downtown musicians in large ensembles for performances of these pieces. Zorn discusses his history and the musical philosophy behind his early works in the book Talking Music by William Duckworth.
In 1981, Zorn was "blowing duck calls in buckets of water at fringe venues," which included 8BC, Roulette, Chandelier, and Zorn's own clubhouse, the Saint. Zorn's first solo saxophone (and duck call) recordings were originally released in two volumes as The Classic Guide to Strategy in 1983 and 1986 on the Lumina label. Zorn's early small group improvisations are documented on Locus Solus (1983) which featured Zorn with various combinations of other improvisers including Christian Marclay, Arto Lindsay, Wayne Horvitz, Ikue Mori, and Anton Fier. Ganryu Island featured a series of duets by Zorn with Satoh Michihiro on shamisen, which received limited release on the Yukon label in 1984. Zorn has subsequently released these recordings as CDs on Tzadik making them more widely available than the original vinyl pressings.
Zorn's breakthrough recording was 1985's The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone, where Zorn offered radical arrangements of the Roman composer's themes from movies including The Big Gundown (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The Big Gundown was endorsed by Morricone who is quoted as saying "This is a record that has fresh, good and intelligent ideas. It is realization on a high level, a work done by a maestro with great science-fantasy and creativity... Many people have done versions of my pieces, but no one has done them like this". Zorn's versions of Morricone's compositions incorporated elements of traditional Japanese music, soul jazz, and other diverse musical genres. Zorn's 15th Anniversary re-release of the album featured additional explorations of Morricone's work.
He first released the composition 'Godard', a tribute to French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard whose jump-cut technique inspired Zorn's compositional approach, on the French tribute album The Godard Fans: Godard Ca Vous Chante? in 1986. Zorn followed this with his second major-label release Spillane in 1987 composed of three different tribute compositions. The title track featured text by Arto Lindsay set to an array of sonic film noir references, 'Two-Lane Highway' a blues-based form to highlight the guitar of Albert Collins and 'Forbidden Fruit', Zorn's tribute to a Japanese film star, performed by the Kronos Quartet. Further exploration of film noir themes were recorded for radio plays and released by Zorn as The Bribe: variations and extensions on Spillane (1998). 'Godard' and 'Spillane' were re-released as a single CD, Godard/Spillane, on Tzadik in 1999.
These pieces are described by Zorn as "file-card compositions", a method of combining composition and improvisation in which Zorn would write down a description of what he wanted on file-cards and arrange them to form the piece. Zorn described the process in 2003. "I write in moments, in disparate sound blocks, so I find it convenient to store these events on filing cards so they can be sorted and ordered with minimum effort. Pacing is essential. If you move too fast, people tend to stop hearing the individual moments as complete in themselves and more as elements of a sort of cloud effect... I worked 10 to 12 hours a day for a week, just orchestrating these file cards. It was an intense process - one I don't want to go through again."
Zorn's "file-card" method of organizing sound blocks into an overall structure largely depended on the musicians he chose, the way they interpreted what was written on the file cards, and their relationship with Zorn. "I'm not going to sit in some ivory tower and pass my scores down to the players." said Zorn, "I have to be there with them, and that's why I started playing saxophone, so that I could meet musicians. I still feel that I have to earn a player's trust before they can play my music. At the end of the day, I want players to say: this was fun - it was a lot of fucking work, and it's one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it was worth the effort."
Beginning in 1986 Zorn participated in several projects focused on modern jazz composers which highlighted his saxophone style. These included Voodoo (1986) by The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, with Wayne Horvitz, Ray Drummond and Bobby Previte and Spy vs Spy (1989) featuring hardcore punk-informed interpretations of Ornette Coleman's music performed by Zorn and Tim Berne on saxophones, Mark Dresser on bass and Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher on drums. News for Lulu (1988) and More News for Lulu (1992) featured Zorn, Bill Frisell and George Lewis performing compositions by Kenny Dorham, Sonny Clark, Freddie Redd, and Hank Mobley. He performed on two recordings by organist Big John Patton - Blue Planet Man (1993) and Minor Swing (1995) and contributed to the Sax Legends series (later re-released as The Colossal Saxophone Sessions) in 1993 with a version of Wayne Shorter's composition "Devil's Island" alongside Lee Konitz, who Zorn has described as "one of my all-time heroes".
While Zorn is often considered a jazz musician his schema is considerably broader. He stated "The term 'jazz', per se, is meaningless to me in a certain way. Musicians don’t think in terms of boxes. I know what jazz music is. I studied it. I love it. But when I sit down and make music, a lot of things come together. And sometimes it falls a little bit toward the classical side, sometimes it falls a little bit towards the jazz, sometimes it falls toward rock, sometimes it doesn’t fall anywhere, it's just floating in limbo. But no matter which way it falls, it's always a little bit of a freak. It doesn’t really belong anywhere. It's something unique, it's something different, it's something out of my heart. It's not connected with those traditions." "But the music is not jazz music, it’s not classical music, it’s not rock music. It’s a new kind of music... So I feel like that created a deep misunderstanding in what this music is. People started judging this new music with the standards of jazz, with the definitions of what jazz is and isn’t, because stories about it appeared in jazz magazines. And now I’ll do a gig at the Marciac Jazz Festival and I’ll get offstage and Wynton Marsalis will say, “That’s not jazz.” And I’ll say, “You’re right! But this is the only gig I’ve got, man. Give me another festival and I’ll play there.”"
Zorn has written music for documentaries, underground films, television advertisements and cartoons which are documented in the Filmworks albums on the Tzadik label. Some of these film scores are jazz-influenced, others classical, and most feature ensembles consisting of rotating combinations of downtown musicians. Zorn has often used his cinematic and television commissions to experiment with line-ups and forms that would become more established parts of his musical canon.
Zorn stated that "After my record The Big Gundown came out I was convinced that a lot of soundtrack work was going to be coming my way". While Hollywood acclaim was not forthcoming he attracted the attention of many independent filmmakers. The first director to commission him was Rob Schwebber for the 1986 short White And Lazy followed by his work for Sheila McLaughlin's film, She Must Be Seeing Things (1986). In 1990 he composed the soundtrack for the Raul Ruiz film The Golden Boat. All these soundtracks appeared on Filmworks 1986-1990 along with a sixty-four second interpretation of the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which featured future members of Naked City.
Zorn's second Filmworks release documented his Music for an Untitled Film by Walter Hill (1996) which was composed for the film Trespass (1992) but replaced by a score by Ry Cooder. Filmworks III: 1990-1995 (1997) featured the first recordings by the Masada lineup for Joe Chappelle's Thieves Quartet (1993) along with early drafts for the Cynical Hysterie Hour project, duets with Marc Ribot which featured in Mei-Juin Chen's Hollywood Hotel (1994), and a series of commercial soundtracks for the advertising firm Weiden and Kennedy, including one directed by Jean-Luc Godard - a long-term Zorn inspiration. Filmworks IV: S&M + More (1997) and Filmworks V: Tears of Ecstasy (1996) both included music written for films dealing with BDSM. Filmworks VI: 1996 contains the soundtracks to three underground films produced in 1996; Dina Waxman's Anton, Mailman, Henry Hills' Mechanics Of The Brain, and Maria Beatty's The Black Glove.
Filmworks VII: Cynical Hysterie Hour re-released the themes that Zorn produced for a Japanese cartoon which had only been previously available in limited release in Japan. Zorn regained the rights to these recordings by trading a booking at The Knitting Factory to Sony executives. Filmworks VIII: 1997 features music for the documentary Port Of Last Resort (1998), which detailed the experiences of Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai during the years preceding World War II, and the soundtrack to the underground film Latin Boys Go To Hell (1997).
Zorn's next soundtrack work did not appear until 2000 with Filmworks IX: Trembling Before G-d featuring music for an award winning documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews trying to reconcile their sexuality with their faith directed by Sandi Simcha DuBowski. The following year Filmworks X: In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2001) featured music for a documentary on the life and work of underground filmaker Maya Deren.
Zorn's concert works have been performed all over the world and he has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic and Brooklyn Philharmonic. When the piece for the Brooklyn Philharmonic was played at New Music America festival, he wrote in the pamphlet with the music:
Less than an actual music festival, New Music America is a one-sided overview that's more about politics, marketing, and sales than about the music it pretends to support... it's no more than a convention for the people in the music business who try to "out-hip" each other in the manipulation of artists. This postmodern yuppie tendency of business people dictating creative policy to artists is a very real danger that I intend to avoid at all costs.