Published Jul 05, 2010"If you don't think this is music, you can get the fuck out of here." With a million happy customers every year, these are not words you associate with audiences or performers at the Montreal Jazz Festival. But John Zorn's F-bomb from the stage was aimed at one of many agitated audience members who expressed their displeasure over the evening's all-star trio of himself, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. No doubt a large part of the audience was expecting "Sweet Jane," "Walk on the Wild Side," or even Anderson's "O Superman." Instead, it was a free improv showdown that shocked the crowd, prompting dozens to walk out after two songs.
Even before they had walked on stage, it was pretty obvious Reed was going to be the centre of this performance. Anderson's setup was an electric violin and a demure electronic workstation, while Zorn had nothing but his saxophone and chair. But Reed had four fancy guitars, three full racks of electronics and a warren of effects pedals and cables. It must be said that Reed is looking pretty fragile these days; needing a little help to his seat from the other two, and requiring a roadie to hand him guitars and plug them in as needed.
Musically, Anderson and Zorn would look over to Reed to start something on guitar, and they would improvise around it. Reed isn't much of an improviser and his contribution to the evening was a thick sonic carpet of bass heavy drones and occasional riffage. Sometimes he would get into chugging quarter-note motifs as though something Velvety was about to happen, but would fall back into keening guitar leads of no great distinction.
Fortunately, Zorn and Anderson were able to extrapolate a wide variety of harmonic and textural movement from Reed's undercooked noise. Anderson in particular played the shit out of the violin, aided by harmonized delay that created delicate arpeggiations or vaguely threatening string ensembles. Considering how much of her career focuses on words and visuals, to hear her improvise - with someone of Zorn's calibre no less - was a revelation. Zorn was in top form as usual. His own expertise with drones took off from what Reed was doing, but Zorn's contributions featured incredible breath control and dampening effects with the saxophone's bell against his leg. Overall, the set was just long enough for the three not to run out of ideas.
The Montreal Jazz Festival isn't huge on free improv, and it's unlikely the grand Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier has experienced that kind of racket in quite some time, if ever. And if you went in with no preconceptions, there was some good if not great music to be heard, but for those wearing their VU and Nico T-shirts, it was absolutely intolerable.