Saturday, April 21, 2012

John Zorn 2010 - Fourth and Final Quarterly Report

Finally (feel free to stifle a yawn, or even not to stifle one), my thoughts on the last three John Zorn releases for 2010.

In October, he released "What Thou Wilt", a collection of three chamber pieces written between 1999 and 2007. I have said it before, and I'll say it again, but I just don't "get" this branch of Zorn's ouvre. I will merely observe that the strings in the first piece are so tasty you could eat them. The second, a twenty-two-minute solo piano work, is pretty serious (and again sounds marvellous: one thing about Zorn, he doesn't skimp on sound quality; or artwork quality, for that matter; and he's no slouch at quantity either). If, as the liner notes suggest, the pianist is doing all this from memory, then that's some memory.

For November he gave us "Interzone", the first of a pair of William S Burroughs-referencing works (the second, "Nova Express", appeared in early 2011). This is what Zornophiles would call an all-star line-up: Zorn, Ribot, Wollesen, Baptista, Medeski, Dunn, Mori. Those names, of course, don't tell you what to expect, but if you ran them through your internal processor you would probably imagine yourself to be somewhere between Naked City, The Dreamers, Electric Masada and the more recent series of chamber jazz albums (for want of a better description) which began with "In Search of the Miraculous".

What it is, or what it sounds like, is the 21st century equivalent of Zorn's File Card compositions, whereby certain heads, or instructions, were written on a series of file cards, which he flipped up in some kind of predetermined sequence and which the musicians were asked to follow. The overall length of this album, just shy of an hour, has allowed Zorn to give the individual segments more room to move than on the more turn-on-the-head-of-a-pin Carl-Stalling-with-ADHD adventures of, for example, Naked City's "Torture Garden". The pick-n-mix nature of this method ensures that some bits will appeal more than others, and your own mileage might differ, but I find the middle section of this album frequently a slog, which is a shame given the nature of the players. The upside is that if you don't like something it will be over before too long, and anyway whatever you think of the rest of it the last five or so minutes are a classic John Zorn blast.

What it has to do with William S Burroughs I can't really say, aside from what might be the sound of a gunshot early on, and some fragments that might have come out of a dusty back road in Algiers. But then my Burroughs days are 20-some years behind me, and I have no real intention of ever heading down that rabbit hole again.

And, bringing Zorn's big 2010 to an end (I have my suspicions that it may not have actually appeared until 2011, but let's cut the man a little slack), number 17 in the Book of Angels series, "Caym", this one by Cyro Baptista's own little ensemble, Banquet of the Spirits. Maybe by this point I was suffering from Zorn fatigue, or more specifically from Masada fatigue (although I sincerely hope not), but this seems to have less to offer than many others in the series. I have a theory, admittedly rather dubious, which is: the better the ensemble player, the less striking the ensemble player's own group. (I could give examples. Would that help? I doubt it.) Plus, as I've said here before, I have my own issues with the accordion.

(You should be allowed to make up your own mind. And there's no doubt these cats are all fine players. Here is a clip of them playing live.)

13.11 Cyro Baptista & Banquet of the Spirits live al Teatro Manzoni from aperitivo in concerto on Vimeo.

So, in summary, what can you say about a man who releases a dozen albums in a calendar year? I suppose you could say, "Slow down, man." But there isn't much chance of that happening, I expect. For a guy like John Zorn (i.e., for John Zorn), who has so many different strings to his bow, one couldn't imagine too many people liking all of them. Fifty percent might even be a good strike rate. But if someone whose work you generally admired released even half a dozen great albums in a year, you'd be in some kind of a heaven. And even if this was an exercise in clearing the decks (he went on to put out "only" five albums in 2011!) there's plenty of evidence that he has no intention of resting on his laurels just yet. (Word is that he's also planning something big for his 60th birthday, which comes around in 2013. You have been warned.)

Bonus Beats: you don't have to dig too far into this site for a quantity of audience video from Masada's recent South American shows. And I had no idea that he was going to bring the old gang back together. Enjoy.