At certain hip independent record shops, John Zorn’s recorded body of work has its own small section of the store. And that makes perfect sense.
The singular composer, alto saxophonist, and multi-instrumentalist doesn’t limit himself to specific musical genres, with his formidable songbook encompassing everything from modern jazz, contemporary classical, and klezmer to avant-rock, free improvisation, and film-scoring explorations. He was named a MacArthur Fellow, receiving his “genius” grant in 2006, and his compositions have been performed by violinist Midori, guitarist Pat Metheny, and bassist and Newport Jazz Festival curator Christian McBride.
The breadth of Zorn’s artistry will be presented in San Francisco from Aug. 30 through Sept. 3 at the Great American Music Hall and Grace Cathedral. “John Zorn at 70” will celebrate the artist entering his eighth decade on Sept. 2 with 14 different programs over 15 concerts. The festival also reaffirms Zorn’s deep ties to the city, which has played host to the musician in recent residencies at The Chapel in 2018 and the now-closed Yoshi’s San Francisco in 2010.
Zorn himself will perform in seven of the concerts, including the world-premiere opener on Aug. 30 with organist John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) and drummer Dave Lombardo (Slayer, Suicidal Tendencies). His noontime birthday performance on Sept. 2, “The Hermetic Organ,” is the only event hosted at Grace Cathedral and also the only solo concert. The sacred space’s famed sonic delay of seven to 12 seconds and its 7,466-pipe organ make for an ideal setting for “The Hermetic Organ” project, which has been recorded on 10 albums released by Zorn’s own Tzadik label between 2012 and 2022.
Zorn will also take part in the festival’s only repeat set. His all-star trio with vocalist and violinist Laurie Anderson and guitarist and longtime Zorn collaborator Bill Frisell has performances scheduled for both 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Aug. 31.
Having cultivated an extensive musical community in New York as well as in the Bay Area, Zorn has an ever-expanding cast of musicians in his orbit. Frisell will also be playing in an all-acoustic guitar program with Gyan Riley and Santa Rosa native Julian Lage on Sept. 1. And Lage will be involved in four other concerts, including two with drummer Kenny Wollesen, who frequently gigs in Frisell’s various bands.
“It’s intense. You’ve got to be prepared for everything,” Wollesen replied when asked about the challenge of playing so many different shows during a single run. “There’s a lot to keep track of.”
Wollesen and Lage will be part of two classic Zorn bands: New Masada Quartet, with Zorn on alto saxophone and bassist Jorge Roeder, on Sept. 1 and New Electric Masada, with organist Medeski, guitarist Matt Hollenberg, bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Ches Smith, percussionist Cyro Baptista, Ikue Mori on laptop electronics, and Brian Marsella on Fender Rhodes, on Sept. 3.
Wollesen and Lage will also partake in the festival’s other world premiere, Love Songs, on Aug. 30. The all-seated show features vocalist Petra Haden, guitarist and vocalist Jesse Harris (who penned the Norah Jones smash hit “Don’t Know Why”), bassist Roeder, and Marsella on piano. The group will debut songs from a long-planned stage musical with lyrics by Harris and music by Zorn.
“I first met John at this festival called Radical Jewish Culture in Munich that he organized in 1992,” Wollesen shared by phone from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “He was a fan of this band called the New Klezmer Trio, which was [clarinetist] Ben Goldberg and [electric bassist] Dan Seamans and me. We were out of the Bay Area and played this, like, avant-garde klezmer music. So he brought the band to the festival, and I met him.
“Then I moved to New York, and I was just walking down the street and ran into him,” he added. “That was it. We just started playing together.”
A Santa Cruz County native and former Noe Valley resident, Wollesen’s fourth show during the festival will be as a member of the Cobra ensemble on Sept. 3. Zorn will direct a group that includes guitarists Trey Spruance and Fred Frith, keyboardist Dave Slusser, percussionist William Winant, and drummers Lombardo, Smith, and Kenny Grohowski. and. The ensemble also features Medeski on organ, Marsella on piano, Dunn on bass, and Mori and Mike Patton handling electronics. Zorn will prompt each participant to solo by note card, requiring the musicians to be especially alert, as Wollesen explained.
The percussionist’s upbringing in Capitola was the perfect preparation for such creative opportunities. “It was a magic place for me because all my friends were musicians,” Wollesen reflected. His classmates included tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Jesse Murphy, and keyboardist Jon Dryden, and they cherished growing up and playing in an area that could support both the Kuumbwa Jazz Center and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.
“There were really good [working] musicians living in Santa Cruz and really, really good teachers, too,” Wollesen shared, name-checking big band leader and Cabrillo College educator Ray Brown, the late music teacher Ruth Mueller, and band director Don Keller. “There also used to be this place called the Cooper House, which had a band play six days a week.
“That was where we all hung out, and part of our education was just hanging out with this band and sitting in with them,” Wollesen continued. “I also cleaned the toilets at Kuumbwa and didn’t get paid. But I got to see all the shows for free, so I saw every show. And that was also an incredible education.”
Hoping to take a quick trip to Santa Cruz during his return to San Francisco, Wollesen can’t speak highly enough of the time he spent in the beachside community. “It’s a magnet for creative people,” he concluded. “Anywhere I get in the world, I meet people who have been to Santa Cruz.”