Zorn's birthday Cobra opened as rolling percussion, then a roar, then back to the roll, then roar again, moving abruptly into low strings, then a quick round robin, by which point (a few minutes in) the first piece had found its voice and Zorn was free to play with its dense drama.
Not the 13 musicians on stage, but Zorn, at least initially. The players just played. It was several more minutes before the musicians began signaling the interactive cues that make Cobra, and all of Zorn's game pieces, an unusual structure for improvisation. The game allows musicians to attempt to guide or even wrest control of the piece as they play through a complex set of rules and gestures that the prompter, in this case Zorn, can either accept or deny. After a few more minutes, cellist Erik Friedlander, then violinist Mark Feldman, began signaling to create small groups, follow-the-leader type settings and other arrangements within the ensemble.
Of course it's Zorn's creation, and it winds up sounding like Zorn's music. Cobra tends to create the sort of fast-cut pieces textures also used in Zorn's arrangements of Ennio Morricone's music on his album The Big Gundown, but without scores. The jumping moods, the wide-screen cinematics, even the player's voices are familiar as Zorn territory.
Funny things happen during a Cobra, like the lyrical Friedlander having to emulate cellist Okkyung Lee's quick scrapes and skirmishes. He imitated her at half-speed with a crooked smile. Moments of beauty, like a trio of Feldman, laptop percussionist Ikue Mori and keyboardist Jamie Saft, called by pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, also erupt. Sections come off as composed - a moody, jazzy trio by bassist Trevor Dunn, keyboardist Yuka Honda and percussionists Christine Bard and Jim Pugliese - not because they sound especially familiar but because they're so well-played. Where at one time Cobra notoriously didn't work on record, more recent performances very well might. Certainly the recent studio version released on Tzadik does.
While the players shape the piece, Zorn is constantly arranging. The Dunn quartet section was drawn upon repeatedly, flipping their construction with percussion and heavy vibrato keys and creating dizzying mood swings of percussive noice, quiet electronics and pounding strings. Zorn can also work a player, in this case forcing Lee through solo after solo, unaccompanied, insisting she keep coming up with different modes then calling the whole ensemble into an explosion.
Zorn also likes to tease players who push too hard, saying on this night of Saft's directions, "Again? What is it with you? Control freak!" But Saft deeply gets the game. He's the strongest current player and knows how to have fun within the structure but still make music. His presence is the biggest reminder of the difference between current Cobras and those of yore (the piece is about 20 years old). Saft's ancestors in the game, notably Chris Cochrane and Zeena Parkins, made it a competition. If the piece has become more an exhibition than a scrimmage, then the music has grown with it.
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