Friday, May 23, 2008

The Overload

My head hurts. You can, it seems, listen to too much John Zorn. I have found myself with access to the best part of all 19 of his "Filmworks" series and I am trying to get through as much of it as I can as quickly as I can. But it may be a case of "less haste, more speed" (an expression I have never understood), or perhaps its opposite.

You can fairly precisely allocate Zorn's enormous volume of work into categories: the modern classical pieces; the jazz saxophone work; the various Masada permutations; the game theory works; Naked City; what you might call his "scare the children" music; and so on. But there is inevitably some bleeding between all of them, and I have often suspected that a lot of that blood might be found in his soundtrack work.

Some of this I have heard before. Some exists by legend (e.g. "Filmworks VII", which inadvertently secured the release of all of Zorn's catalogue from Elektra/Nonesuch, or so the story goes). At the moment it is all a bit of a blur, and listening in sequence this time around I am only up to "VI". But a case might perhaps be made that these recordings are an alternative way into, if not through, the Zorn labyrinth (hint: there is no way out), much in the way the Peel Sessions box set can do the same for The Fall.

Preliminary observations: quite a lot of the first six discs fails to leave a lasting impression, if only because much of it is fragmentary in nature, not to mention removed from its original context. Some is, frankly, a waste of money (viz., the last two pieces on "VI", which make up not much less than half that disc's running time). But it is particularly nice to hear the late Robert Quine being used to good effect, and often, on the early pieces (there are passages that are strongly reminiscent of the first Quine I ever heard (well, leaving aside "Blank Generation", which I didn't know he played on), "Basic", an album of duets with the drummer Fred Maher; kind of like rock and roll played by automatons); and it is always good to hear Zorn's other guitarists of choice, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot (the latter particularly stands out here; he runs through his inimitable range of twang, plink, chime, and skronk with concision and, well, charm). But what I mostly take away from "I" - "VI" are the first four tracks on "VI", just guitar (Ribot), bass (Greg Cohen, from the original Masada quartet) and percussion (Cyro Baptista, another Zorn regular in those days), laying down some quietly melodic tunes that at times put me in mind of Ry Cooder, but only in a good way; and the "Thieves' Quartet" pieces, on "III", which comprise (I think) the first appearance of what would become the Masada quartet, which I consider to be the pinnacle of Zorn's many achievements (so far). It is exciting (well, for me, anyway; to each ...) to listen to this music in the knowledge of where and how far it would take him (and them; and, uh, me ...) and to speculate on the creative journey involved. Like, was there a Eureka! moment when Zorn heard these four together (Dave Douglas stands out, especially, as bringing a new sound into the Zorn palette) and thought, "I can do something with this"? We will never know, I guess, but these 17 minutes are something of a Rosetta Stone.

More later.