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At jazz festival, Anderson, Reed and Zorn paint in the abstract

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, appearing as curators of Sydney's Vivid Festival in May, were joined on a Montreal jazz festival stage by John Zorn on July 2, 2010.

Rick Rycroft/Rick Rycroft/The Associated Press

Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed and John Zorn

At the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in Montréal Friday

The last few groans of distorted guitar died away, and after a pause the audience reacted. Some cheered, but others booed. As a smattering of listeners made their way to the exits, someone in the audience yelled an insult. John Zorn, standing centre stage between Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, cupped his hands around his mouth, and responded with language too strong to publish here.

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So much for music having charms to soothe a savage breast.

To understand why people were so upset, you'd have to go back to 1975, when Reed capped several albums of commercial, mainstream rock with Metal Machine Music, a double LP of vocal-less, electronic noise. Some listeners and critics applauded the move, but people who loved Sweet Jane and Walk on the Wild Side were outraged.

Apparently, they still are.

Friday's concert consisted of four improvised instrumentals (plus an encore), and while it was hardly Metal Machine live, it certainly drew heavily from that aesthetic. Not only was there no singing, there was also no rhythm section, just Anderson's violin and keyboard, Zorn's alto saxophone, and Reed's guitar and effect pedals.

Nor was there much in the way of song form or conventional melody. Instead, the three seemed more interested in texture and colour, as if they were working on the aural equivalent of an abstract painting. Reed's guitar, treated to allow for sustained tones rich with harmonics and distortion, offered bold, dark strokes like a Franz Kline painting; Zorn's free jazz alto splattered notes Jackson Pollack-style; Anderson, sliding her fingers lightly across the strings as she bowed, dappled the sound with sparkling harmonics, lending it a sort Jasper Johns finish.

There were moments of stunning synchronicity, as on the first piece when all three locked onto a sudden consonance and built waves of sound, with Zorn wailing a tonic drone as Anderson and Reed worked a simple chord progression. There were moments of surprising lyricism, as on the second piece when Anderson slipped beneath clouds of smoky guitar to play a sort of Viennese melody (more old-style than new school). And there were moments, as there always are with improvised performances, when all three seemed at a loss as to what to do next. But they played on regardless.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the concert was that, despite the high-volume shrieks of Zorn's alto and the epic amount of distortion Reed employed, the music had none of the sonic overkill that leads to post-concert tinnitus. So even if it wasn't exactly easy on the ears, it was at least kind to them.

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