J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Zorn to Dance

Writers usually break out the hyphens for John Zorn, musician-composer of jazz-klezmer-classical-hardcore punk. His music has graced the soundtracks of some very odd films, including some S&M themed features, but last night was something completely different as Zorn’s Masada songbook themes were choreographed as Masada, one of four premieres presented under the title “New Ballet Choreographers” at Columbia’s Miller Theater.

The term “world premiere” used in the program might be debatably. It seems most of the music had been previously composed and performed—just the accompanying choreography was premiering. By Saturday, the third night of performances, it would be hard to call it any kind of premiere at all. That said, the dancers were quite impressive, and actually much of the fine music would still be effective without the choreography. The Masada String Trio, who frequently collaborated with Zorn in the past, performed his music, which in this case was definitely coming out of his classically oriented bag, featuring strong Middle Eastern influences.

During the big band era, jazz was the music for dancing. Now jazz’s reign as the popular music is a distant memory, and frankly social dancing is becoming a lost art too. Jazz still finds a place in modern dance from time to time, but its unpredictability and wild abandon usually have to be tempered for the sake of the choreography. Still, there have been many examples of jazz ballets. Duke Ellington composed The River for Alvin Ailey, and Wynton Marsalis composed the music for Garth Fagan’s Griot New York (recorded as Citi Movement). Trumpeter Randy Sandke actually composed the music for The Subway Ballet, recorded by Evening Star, but has yet to be performed with choreography.

While it was not really a jazz night, it was a good show at the Miller. However, they really should fix the squeaky curtain, as it caused snickers throughout the audience as opened for the start of each performance. Perhaps the best musical performance was the Chiara String Quartet’s interpretation of Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 5, 5th Movement.

Also of interest was Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, the striking austerity of which often seemed at odds with the increasingly dramatic choreography. Still, it is clear why the composer often found himself at odds with the Soviet musical authorities of his native Estonia. His work, which has been recorded by ECM’s classical division, is a world away from the bombastic martial music favored by the Communists. It was nice to see some original dance at Columbia. Maybe Sandke’s agent can send one of the new choreographers a copy of The Subway Ballet for future inspiration.