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John Zorn’s 30th anniversary of ‘Cobra’

Zorn again! Legendary composer celebrates 30 years of ‘Cobra’

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Thirty years ago, John Zorn found a way to control chaos.

In 1984, the celebrated jazz saxophonist and composer introduced the world to a new composition called “Cobra” at a performance at Roulette, then located at a loft space in Tribeca.

For the show, a group of musicians — including guitarist Bill Frisell, turntablist Christian Marclay, and trombone player Jim Staley — were given visual instructions by Zorn via printed cards, hand gestures, and even the movement of his baseball cap to play little snippets of improvised solos. The result was a funny and fast-paced cacophony.

“It was a very exciting thing and was new for all of us,” said Staley, who is also Roulette’s artistic director, of that first “Cobra” performance. “The audience, too, really responded to the excitement and energy that came out of the piece.”

In the three decades since its premiere, ‘Cobra’ has never been written down, but it has been performed by groups of various shapes and sizes all over the world. Because the work is improvised, every performance is different, though the system of cards and gestures remains the same.

Now “Cobra” is returning home. On Nov. 29, at Roulette’s new location in Boerum Hill, Zorn will lead an anniversary edition of the piece with an all-star ensemble of experimental musicians and jazz players that includes Medeski Martin & Wood organist John Medeski, bassist Trevor Dunn, and cellist Erik Friedlander.

The show also furthers Zorn’s commitment to the new Roulette location, which he helped christen in 2011 with a series of concerts that culminated in a much-publicized set with performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson and her husband, the late Lou Reed.

“He likes the space,” said Staley. “He’s known us through the years and with the anniversary of ‘Cobra’ coming up, he knew it would be good to do it here.”

What is less known is what Zorn plans to do with ‘Cobra’ beyond Saturday’s show. Staley guessed that the score might finally be officially published, but all he could say for sure was that like a performance of work itself, we should expect the unexpected.

“It’s like baseball,” Staley said. “You recognize the game, but it’s always different and always surprising.”

John Zorn’s “Cobra” at Roulette [509 Atlantic Ave. between Third Avenue and Nevins Street in Boerum Hill, (212) 219–8242, www.roulette.org]. Nov. 29 at 8 pm. $35, $30 members and seniors.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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