Bill Laswell (left) and John Zorn, collaborators and friends for 40 years, make a rare duo appearance on Friday and Saturday, July 13-14, at the Chapel in San Francisco. Photo: Hiroshi Ohunma / @Amazon
The true artist, the one whose work endures, gives voice to a generation. As much as an act of pure creativity, artistic expression is a reflection and synthesis of the context of one's experience.
While they may go overlooked by many in the mainstream, few musicians more fearlessly and faithfully channel the present human condition than John Zorn and Bill Laswell, who are scheduled to appear at the Chapel on Friday and Saturday, July 13-14, marking their first-ever West Coast appearance as a duo - a unique opportunity to experience two giants of the New York avant-garde scene in the Bay Area.
This music is not for everyone and requires patience. As ugly as it is beautiful, Zorn and Laswell's music draws from all corners of the sonic spectrum, affording them a vast musical palette where nothing is sacred. It is not the inaccessibility of the music that is a challenge, it's the fierce and glaring accessibility - the rawness and directness of expression - that may make a listener uncomfortable.
Zorn's saxophone and Laswell's bass are elemental forces - like lightning and thunder - visceral, tangible and looking to touch a nerve.
Over their 40 years of friendship and on-and-off musical collaboration, their careers have run in tandem, with both having assembled staggeringly broad catalogs of work, defying genre classification and commercial convention.
Even calling these guys musicians is too narrow. Laswell describes Zorn as "a catalyst and composer, always evolving," whose sax playing is one of many vehicles that facilitates his wider artistic vision.
"He's not someone who comes from a jazz background, necessarily," says Laswell. "He's versatile and he can play jazz, but he's got his own voice and has made his own statement using that instrument."
Zorn's body of released work comprises hundreds of albums and thousands of compositions, incorporating jazz, rock, contemporary classical, thrash metal, pop culture and world influences, often sharply juxtaposed in the span of a single piece. He came to prominence in the fertile New York downtown jazz scene, and continues to cultivate new artists in that community through his Tzadik label and as artistic director for the Stone, a not-for-profit performance space promoting emerging avant-garde and experimental artists.
Laswell, whom Zorn describes simply as "a master - a complete original," is as renowned for his work as a producer as for his work as a bassist, with credits numbering in the thousands. His discography boasts collaborations with a varied array of artists including Iggy Pop, Herbie Hancock, Zakir Hussein, Nine Inch Nails, Pharoah Sanders, Angelique Kidjo, Bootsy Collins, MotÃ¶rhead and Laurie Anderson, as well as dozens of albums of original work.
The pair have played together in various contexts. They've performed with Painkiller, featuring Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris, and delved heavily into dense dissonance that Laswell describes as "hard-core noise." Zorn and Laswell's work with noted free jazz drummer Milford Graves explores somewhat more discernible harmonic territory and has a semblance of jazz sensibility, but generally stays away from any sort of straight swing or standard forms.
Laswell enjoys the freedom of the improvised duo format.
"It can be very ambient, it can be melodic, it can be very heavy, it can be very subtle, it can go a lot of places - places we couldn't drag a drummer into," he says. "And it's very different from night to night. Each show has its own theme that comes out."
The San Francisco gig benefits charities providing support and legal aid to immigrant children and families, and while an esoteric improvised duo show may seem an unlikely centerpiece, both Zorn and Laswell embrace the cause and understand that the state of the human condition is directly relevant to their work.
Zorn draws a connection between the plight of the artist and the current sociopolitical climate.
"Challenges are opportunities, and you must believe enough in what you are doing to put yourself in harm's way," says Zorn. "One cannot transcend anything without leaving safe ground, and only through discipline and extremes of experience is one able to get beyond the trivial and mundane. Music and art are two forms of such a discipline.
"The true artistic endeavor is breaking through to beautiful new worlds and to deeper realities - of achieving a fusion of heart and mind, of understanding the soul and its workings. But you can only go so far alone. One needs other people - and music is about people. Community is essential."