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John Zorn's 'Concert For Ukraine' at the New School joins a growing relief effort

John Zorn's New Masada, pictured in action recently at the Village Vanguard.
courtesy of the artist
John Zorn's New Masada, pictured in action recently at the Village Vanguard.

The war in Ukraine has galvanized diplomatic sanctions, global protest, and humanitarian actions big and small. One of the notable responses in our musical community is a benefit concert taking place tonight at the New School in New York.

Organized by composer and alto saxophonist John Zorn, it will feature his New Masada in an all-star lineup that includes composer Philip Glass, in a solo piano recital, and performance artist Laurie Anderson, in a duo with Zorn. Also performing are vocalist Sofia Rei, Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano’s Sound Prints, and the Julian Lage Trio.

The impulse behind the concert comes down to basic human principles, says Richard Kessler, Executive Dean for the College of Performing Arts at the New School, which is co-presenting the event. "You're seeing civilians being targeted, civilians trying to evacuate, being targeted by the Russian government," he tells WBGO.

Richard Kessler and John Zorn
Ang Santos
Richard Kessler, left, and John Zorn at The Stone at the New School in 2017.

Kessler adds: "We haven't seen anything like this in Europe since World War II. So I think really was John's initial feeling, and my initial feeling: We want to do something, as I think so many people want to, and I think we've seen it with how fast the tickets sold out for this."

The auditorium at the New School has a capacity of 465, and as Kessler notes, reservations filled quickly. Every RSVP came with a prompt to donate to one of three relief organizations, which Zorn and Kessler selected after carefully surveying the field. First among them was the International Rescue Committee — "one that, in my view, is among the gold standards for humanitarian relief in the 20th century, Kessler says. "We know them, and they mobilized very quickly around this. And then Save the Children had developed a very specific, family-oriented charity that was directed to Ukraine."

The third organization is Razom, which emerged out of the Maidan uprising, better known as the Revolution of Dignity, in 2014. "Both John and I were searching — you know, there were websites that emerged, and other media outlets, and they would recommend for those who want to give to the Ukrainian relief," Kessler says. "They would recommend charities, and Razom popped up on almost every one of the lists."

The Concert for Ukraine will be the first full-scale presentation in the New School auditorium since March of 2020. Kessler says that in addition to supporting humanitarian relief, the institution is now focused on providing resources and emotional support to its Ukrainian students — as well as its Russian students, who could be experiencing social ostracism or worse, regardless of their own opposition to the war.

Many other benefit concerts for Ukraine have cropped up in recent days and weeks, here and abroad. A separate yet identically named Concert for Ukraine is scheduled for Sunday night in London, as we discussed in a recent conversation with its organizer, Ukrainian-born harpist Alina Bzhezhinska.

As for Zorn, who has mobilized quickly around other humanitarian efforts in the past, he is preparing to mount two festival residencies in the coming weeks. Reflektor John Zorn is a four-day series unfolding next week at the Elbphilharmonie and Laeiszhalle in Hamburg, Germany. Then Zorn heads to Knoxville, Tenn. for the Big Ears Festival, which will present "The Music of John Zorn" as a fest-within-a-fest, featuring New Masada alongside more than a dozen fellow travelers in Zorn's sound-world.

He'll be back in the New York area on April 1 for Benefit for Ukraine Relief, at Roulette in Brooklyn. That event will feature a special edition of his Cobra project, along with Vadim Neselovskyi's Odessa Project, a solo piano set by Fred Hersch, and a video presentation of Meredith Monk’s "Happy Woman," with Monk on vocals and John Hollenbeck on drums. Tickets for that event are $50, and will be on sale soon.

For more information about the Concert for Ukraine, visit its official website.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.