Tuesday, May 13, 2008

John Zorn's Hat Trick

John Zorn sure isn't who he used to be; folks who know John Zorn from his "Big Gundown" days would be in for a shock at his recent output. As opposed to the schizophrenic channel surfing of "Naked City" or the angry bursts of noise characterized by "Spy Vs. Spy," John Zorn has taken his downtown credibility and used it to create a forum for new music inspired by old Jewish sounds. As opposed to consolidating his (well-earned) rep as a noise-maker, Zorn barely plays saxophone these days; he's much more interested in writing music for his many performing ensembles and in using his venue, The Stone, as a veritable land of milk and honey for the downtown scene. One can't criticize him for the volume of his output though; he's released three (!) albums so far this year, not including his one-off collaboration with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.

The best of these three albums is "The Dreamers," by Zorn's electric Masada band, and it is also the only one to actually feature Zorn's saxophone playing. While it takes its time to unfold (the first track to really gel is the fourth track, "Anulikwutsayl," which prominently features Marc Ribot's guitar), when it finally does it never lets up. Marc Ribot and Jamie Saft (keyboard) manage to create a sort of Jewish-music-meets-surf-rock-meets-avant-garde vibe which sounds odd on paper but works brilliantly on record. Zorn himself burns on "Toys," a kitschy, nearly free-improvisatory exploration of a variety of sounds and styles too numerous to name here. Highly recommended.

"Lucifer," the tenth installment of original compositions from Zorn's recent "Book of Angels" (the sequel to his "Book of Masada"), is played by the Bar Kokhba Sextet, which also features Ribot and percussionist Cyro Baptista. The album isn't nearly as out there as "The Dreamers," and has more in common with chamber music than jazz. While that isn't necessarily a bad thing, the group doesn't move the idiom into new areas like it did on its installment of Zorn's "Fiftieth Birthday Celebration" series, and the album suffers because at time it seems boring. That said, Zorn's compositions are good, if not as stellar as those from his Book of Masada and so I'd give this album a tepid recommendation; if you love Zorn's current work, its still worth picking up.

Zorn's new edition of his "Filmworks" series, "Vol. 19: The Rain Horse," features Greg Cohen on bass, Mark Feldman on violin and Rob Burger on piano. The music is absolutely sublime; instead being all over the place as on "The Dreamers," Zorn's compositions here are beautiful in a quiet, understated way. Its not jazz in any sense of the word, but being that Zorn released so many albums I figured it was worth listening to, and I'm glad that I did. This one is definitely recommended for anyone who would like to hear a different side of Zorn, or for anyone who wants a way into his more recent classical work.

Next time I think I'll have a review of Matana Roberts' "Chicago Project," but that could change as a ton of albums were released today (including "History Mystery," by Bill Frisell, an old Zorn cohort).

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Trash Mammal said...
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