Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Formal introductions

John Zorn, that svengali of the downtown avant garde since the early 80s, commemorated his 60th birthday (on September 2nd) with a year-long list of international appearances that culminated in a stunning string of shows in the last two weeks of September. I'm still in a bit of reverie from attending.

Let's face facts: John Zorn is so prolific, he makes Robert Pollard look like a slacker. Not only does he produce 3-5 records a year under his own name, the consistent quality of each release is unmatchable. Not to diminish his compositional skills, but it helps that he has a crack team of masterful musicians at his ready disposal to bring any passing whimsy to life for him. If I had Marc Ribot, Kenny Wollesen, John Medeski, Joey Baron, Mark Feldman, Ikue Mori, et al on call, I could probably come up with a pretty decent album too. Through endless hours of composing, recording and performing--documenting it all on Tzadik, the label he heads--Zorn has ensured himself a legacy that will be hard to even completely fathom. He now has piles of albums to his name, spanning from jazz to computer music, from chamber orchestras to noise-rock.

His discography is daunting to wade into. Hell, it was intimidating when I started collecting in the early 90s, and he only had a infinitesimal fraction of what new listeners face. (I was aided by the fact that a good portion of it was on import labels and therefore harder to find and pricier, culling some of decision-making for me). As nothing other than a devoted fan, I thought I would provide a bit of a John Zorn 101, for the uninitiated. I've broken the work up into loose categories (essentially the same way that I've housed my own Zorn library) in hopes of grouping the work into a semblance of order, so that others can more readily navigate it based on their own curiosity.


The place I started was Masada: his long-running, much lauded jazz quartet with Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron. It was not the my first record by him, but the first that blew my mind. The songbook--apparently about 100-deep--was written to square the circle between his jewish musical heritage and his roots in the jazz tradition (that many detractors still questioned). Masada was like an opening salvo for his future productivity: the records tended to be released in sets of 3, all recorded over just a couple of days. Although there will always be special place in my heart for Gimel (or Vol.3 if you're counting), Zayin (or, Seven) is an almost undeniably good entry. The opener alone represents virtually everything this group did well: it is complex, melodic, sensual and exotic.

Eventually Masada evolved from a band and a songbook to an entire category of music unto itself: encompassing a string trio, an amped-up, electrified version of the band and an entire string of 20-plus records featuring different bands documenting a second, hundreds-deep songbook, subtitled the Book of Angels. One of the most compelling of the working groups is the Bar Kokhba sextet, a sort of chamber / lounge jazz sextet, features the Masada String Trio at its core, with the addition of Joey Baron and Cyro Baptista on drums and percussion, and Marc Ribot on electric guitar. Their entry in the Book of Angles series, Lucifer, is indispensable.

GAME PIECES                                        

In the late 70s, Zorn began a series of exploratory compositions looking to (counterintuitively) compose for improvisors. Others had been attempting this for decades--either through things like graphic scores or indeterminancy. Zorn hit upon a brilliant idea: gather a group of improvisors together and have a conducter tell them when and sometimes how to play but (crucially) not what to play. Works in this vein have come to be collectively known as his Game Pieces. A conductor uses hand signals and flash cards to guide the players, who themselves have some opportunities to democratically alter the piece from within. The Tzadik label seemed about to start a lengthy series documenting the many game pieces, but have inexplicably stopped at Volume 2. The first, Xu Feng--a previously unreleased work--was given a new reading by a truly fearsome double trio of guitars, drums and electronics. For all its impressive intensity, it's surprisingly listenable.

The most famous--and most performed--of the game pieces is Cobra. You could call it the culmination of all the other pieces; the end result. The performances of Cobra are often wildly explosive, playing scattershot, high-speed roulette with ideas and styles. Naturally, these game pieces are as much about who is performing it as the piece itself. That was crystal clear when a second album of Cobra recordings came out.  Tokyo Operations, as the title implies, is comprised of Japanese musicians and improvisors, on instruments both modern and traditional. It could not feel more different than the first Cobra album--released on HatHut in the early 80s--which was filled with Zorn's downtown denizens.

JAZZCORE & AVANT ROCK                

John Zorn was already dubbed l'enfant terribles early on, but the haters had no idea what was coming their way. In quick succession, he introduced two bands in a style that has come to lovingly be referred to as 'thrash jazz': Naked City and Painkiller. Naked City, with it's wild, cut-n-paste aesthetic and all-star line-up--including Fred Frith, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and Joey Baron joining Zorn--seems to get all the love. Painkiller, was, at heart, a trio of Zorn, fellow avant-rock maven, Bill Laswell (on bass) and former Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. The first couple of their LPs, released on the metal label, Relapse, live up to the thrash jazz label. Their third record, though, is another beast entirely. The double album includes only three extended songs and two even-more-extended, ambient dub remixes. The originals are spacious and textural, if still menacing: all long horn squeals, aired out bursts of blast-drums, and distant, rubbery, thick low end vibrations and reverbed howls.

With his Masada work and his latest turn towards lustrous, exoctica-tinged melodicism, many had thought Zorn's days of audio devilry behind him. Enter, Moonchild: a trio of Joey Baron (again), Trevor Dunn (former Mr. Bungle-bassist-turned-jazzbo) and the infamous Mike Patton (yes, of Faith no More, Fantômas, and other avant rock favorites). Across six albums (on their own, and with guests like Marc Ribot, John Medeski and Zorn himself), the band has built a volatile vocabulary of explosive, metallic prog-jazz. Dunn's electric bass is distorted and mean, Baron is still one of the greatest living drummers, and Mike Patton is a gibberish-spewing madman with 100 different voices--from flayed squeal to doom growl to chanted mantras. John Zorn has known all of these peerless players for decades now, and seems to take irreverent glee in pushing each of them to their dextrous limits. In an odd sort of way, the Moonchild repertoire is operatic, often revolving around themes in acts. They're certainly Wagnerian in their epic intensity. Through them, Zorn has reclaimed the 'rock opera' from the trash-bin of history.

JAZZ & IMPROVISATION                      

John Zorn does not, himself, play on many of the records baring his name anymore. His role has moved more towards composer / conductor / maestro.  It may well be, in fact, that like many a-composer, he can now write pieces beyond his own playing ability--which considering his formidable skill, is saying something. Anytime I've caught him live, lately, it's in a free improv setting. The ratio of composed-to-improvised is heavily weighted towards compositions in his vast discography. He does have a number of truly vital improv albums though: the Classic Guide to Strategy, Vol.3 (recorded during his 50th birthday celebration, 10 years ago) or Ganryu Island with Sato Michihiro on koto. Downtown Lullaby is notable for it's easy-going air. Everyone in the group has played with each other for ages, and it feels friendly and casual; a conversation among close friends. Where many improvised albums busy and fiery, this one is almost groovy. Bobby Previte lays down syncopated beats the other players alternately snake around or soar over.

The Hermetic Organ series is interesting for splitting the difference between Zorn's past and present. The basic concept is solo improvisations on various pipe organs, but in recent interviews he's referred playing these immense instruments as akin to improvising with an orchestra--the range of voices and possibility for concurrent action is so vast. I saw one of these performances in the 60th birthday concert series, and was frankly amazed. His explorations of the organ--and by extension, the cathedral itself--are highly textural, finding the outer reaches. Almost inaudible highs fill the hidden corners and subsonic lows shake the very mortar of the building. This first disc in the series is by turns atmospheric and dramatic. Zorn had only previously appeared on keyboards a scant few times before this album, but on The Hermetic Organ he proves virtuosic; sympatico with the complex organism that is a pipe organ.


Somewhere after the turn of the century, a new voice started to hold sway in Zorn's work. He refers to the pieces in this style as 'New Romantic' pieces. The pieces are deeply melodic--some of the most downright beautiful music he has made. You can easily hear modes and themes developed when he was building the Masada songbooks as well as shades of Martin Denny's exotica and Astor Piazzolla's tangos. Kenny Wollessen is an almost constant presence on vibraphone, giving each album a lustrous sheen. Mount Analogue is a major work in the catalog. It plays as a single, multi-part suite, performed by longtime cohort, percussionist Cyro Baptista and his band Banquet of the Spirits (with Wollessen guesting). It is an archetype of this new development.

The most strikingly gorgeous of the new romantic works is the Gnostic Preludes. Performed by a trio of Carol Emanuel on harp, Kenny Wollessen on vibes and Bill Frisell (back in the fold) on guitar. Each of the instruments has a distinct sound and yet at some point each one can become so intertwined with the others, they create a hybridized voice. Even the solos seem deeply woven within the fabric of the flow and the group interplay. The results are never short of spellbinding. The Gnostic Preludes has become one of the most played albums in my Zorn collection.

FILM SCORES                                       
The early groundwork for the new romantic phase was laid in Zorn's prolific scoring for film. There are multiple albums in the soundtrack series I could site, but I'm particularly partial to The Treatment. The group is led by violin and accordion, giving it a stronger feel of tango and, and featuring no percussion, airs of chamber jazz. The cues are each long enough to give all the pieces the feel of fully-fleshed songs and the group is clearly enjoying themselves on these light-hearted compositions.

The Filmworks series now totals 25 albums, and encompasses almost every aspect of Zorn as a composer. Workingman's Death, a score for a documentary about deadly jobs in third world countries, is a more rare Zorn facet. Many of his abrasive works are also visceral and thrilling. Workingman's Death is seething and unsettling. Heavy on electronics, there is little purchase for the listener with unstable tonal centers and uncomfortable pitches. It's an engrossing and atmospheric work.


Beginning in the mid-90s, with the establishment of his own label, John Zorn began releasing albums of orchestral and chamber music. At first it seemed a lark, but as the various strains of his work have come together, it slowly became apparent that it would be a major part of his legacy. When given the palette of an entire symphony orchestra, his usually fast-paced changes actually speed up, as the different voices change gears in shifting layers. It's enough to give the listener whiplash. It's here, more than anywhere else, the influence of Carl Stalling--the composer for Looney Toons--is readily apparent. There's a darkly dramatic streak in Zorn's work though, especially as his fascination with mysticism has come to the fore, giving the work a gothic twist.

There's more to his orchestral work than showpieces. Dark River is a classic of restraint. Scored for two concert bass drums, is all about silence, spacing and deep, deep resonance. Originally part of the Masada songbook, Kol Nidre is a quartet that's been scored for strings or reeds (and in the last month's concerts, was performed as a full orchestral arrangement). An insistent but plaintive piece, it works on a simple concept: a single chord, held in a sustained vibrato, sweeps up and down in force, punctuated periodically by a poignant melody. It makes the most of expectations and anticipation: building drama while making you wait for the melody, or catching your attention when the held pitch suddenly changes for a few bars. It's been adapted and recorded so often because it is one of his most immediately beautiful compositions for chamber groups.

AVANT COMPOSITION                        

There is an area of John Zorn's work that is especially hard to categorize. It's highly composed, but not in any traditional orchestral or chamber mode. It's just, I guess, avant garde, for lack of a better term. New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands is one of the clearest examples of this vague terrain (and one of my all-time favorite discs). Consisting of three extended pieces, each narrated in a different language (Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese), with texts from different authors and each accompanied by a different twin pairing of guitars, drums or keyboards. The works closely follow, if not the story, the rhythms and cadence of the speech.

Nova Express, again, crosses two different streams of Zorn's career. Taking influence from the work of William Burroughs and Brian Gysin, when they were experimenting with cut-up strategies, Nova Express feels like the hyperactivity of Naked City recast with instrumentation and moods from his new romantic work. The playing on the record is utterly amazing. Kenny Wollessen is more virtuosic than I thought possible on vibes, playing with alacrity and precision. John Medeski leads the band through countless hairpin turns while Joey Baron and Trevor Dunn drive the band to even more harrowing speeds.

This all is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Each of the records I'm highlighting was chosen to stand in for an entire branch of John Zorn's work. Even within my declared categories, I tried to pick records that were recorded further apart, to give a wider sampling of his evolution and growth. I long ago lost count of how many records he's put out, but it must easily clear two-or-three hundred, and he shows no sign of slowing down. I hope this provides some entry, some access to an artist who is, at this point, a living legend. He may have just turned 60, but let me tell you, he looks a youthful and exuberant 60.

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