Sunday, October 02, 2011

John Zorn 2010 - Third Quarterly Report

Getting back to a project we started some time ago and then lost sight of, viz., tracking the progress of John Zorn in his attempt to release an album a month over 2010. We can now say with some certainty that he did achieve that goal (the one we have deemed to be the December release may not have turned up until the new year, but we should cut the guy a bit of slack: even eleven albums in a year isn't something normal people could manage). But we will for now confine ourselves to July-September.

First up was "Haborym", the most recent in the ongoing Book of Angels series.

You probably know the story of Masada; how Zorn wrote a couple of hundred tunes (I believe they may be called "heads") based on some mutant -- but inspired -- combination of Ornette Coleman's harmolodics and klezmer music, and put together a knockout quartet to record a few of them. Over time, thanks both to the original studio albums and to any number of (legit and otherwise) live recordings, many of these tunes became almost standards -- well, in our house, anyway -- so that, by the time Zorn started bringing in different combinations of musicians to interpret them, the amazing thing was not the tunes themselves but how they could be pulled apart and put back together in any number of ways and still hold up.

And then one day Zorn, who may or may not be easily bored, woke up and said to himself, okay, I think I will write another 300 or so of these things. And I will call it the Book of Angels.

And he did.

By this time, though, the original quartet had disbanded, so instead of starting with a solid and uniform template through which to introduce the new pieces, and from which variations could later spring, variations this time around are all we have. On each album a different combination of (mostly) "downtown luminaries" is brought in to interpret, under Zorn's watchful eye, several pieces from the Book of Angels. Practically none of the pieces have appeared more than once. Because of this, and because for the most part these pieces themselves sound like variations on the ones from the Masada songbook, the Book of Angels was always going to struggle to gain the recognition of the original Masada tunes.

Not that that would stop John Zorn. This album, the 16th (!) in the series, is an encore performance by my favourite of all of Zorn's journeymen combos, the Masada String Trio. Double bass, violin, cello. For what can be difficult music, it is seemingly effortlessly played, and cleanly recorded: there is not much more to be said. If you have crossed paths with these characters before, you absolutely know what you are going to get.

Masada and its offshoots, for me, are the core of Zorn's repertoire, and, although a certain, perhaps quite large, contingent of his followers might label it "conservative" (and perhaps, by his earlier standards, they would be right), well, outside of American politics that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The next disc to come along, in August, was "The Nobel Prize Winner", aka volume XXIV in the Filmworks series. This recording is something of a showcase for the piano playing of Rob Burger, who sets up an understated, melancholy mood, with little room (or need) for disruption or tension. (Although, this being Zorn, you do get a little of both.) Zorn regulars Kenny Wollesen (drums) and Trevor Dunn (upright bass) provide a rhythm section when called upon, with the overall effect that of being at a better class of smoky piano bar. If you find yourself thinking of Vince Guaraldi during some tracks, and Philip Glass during others, you are probably not alone. And, yes, I know the Tzadik website blurb mentions both of those surnames, but that doesn't make them wrong or not independently verifiable. (Besides, how do we know they weren't referring to Hopey Glass and, erm, Charlie Guaraldi?)

September, on the other hand, spawned a monster. "Ipsissimus" is the fifth release in the Moonchild series, and an altogether more raucous affair than the above two records. (It doesn't rupture your spleen as completely and instantly as "Spy Vs Spy", say, but we're all a lot older now.) Dunn again appears on bass, this time utilising electricity and amplification, alongside Joey Baron on a much abused drum kit. The two of them (over)drive these tracks, with their odd time signatures and thrash metal tropes. Texture is provided variously by Marc Ribot (in meistershredder mode), Zorn himself on sax, and Mike Patton's, uh, "versatile" vocal cords. On the one hand I was listening to this kind of thing 15 years ago courtesy David Brown and his pals. On the other hand it is still pretty freakin' awesome. (Note, especially, the Morricone-meets-"Rango" desert twang of "The Book of Los".) Best consumed loud -- very loud -- while wearing oversized shorts, runners and a black t-shirt bearing your choice of antisocial message, and using your free hand to throw a whole mess of devil's horns.