Saturday, November 17, 2012

What John Zorn did next

And so, after a hectic 2010, in which he released, more or less, an album a month, you would expect that John Zorn would have taken it easy in 2011. And in a sense, by his standards that is what he did. "Only" five albums under his own name appeared that year. One was a surprise. Now read on ...

"The Satyr's Play / Cerberus". There are some John Zorn albums that I would happily never listen to, or even think about, ever again. This album is in that category. Whether Zorn is in the business of throwing every kind of shit against the wall and seeing which lumps of it stick, or whether I just don't have the right set of ears for this kind of chamber/avant/compositional malarkey, is a question I won't spend too much time divining an answer to. I'm not interested, and that's that. Most of this album is given over to two Zorn regulars, Kenny Wollesen and Cyro Baptista, hitting things -- including some pretty nifty-sounding things, it has to be said -- as per Zorn's instructions, along with a selection of sound effects. As you might expect, goats appear. It would probably have been better (at least for the goats) if they hadn't. We are in the field or discourse where people tend to spell the word "Magic" with a "k", and "Weird" with a "y". It contains a couple of rather nice passages, but even these are marred by the appearance of those blasted goats. The rest of the album is given over to a mostly gnarly combination of bass trombone, tuba and trumpet. (The word "random" comes to mind.) For ten minutes. And if that sounds enticing, you are a braver person than I am.

"Nova Express". If you read William S Burroughs during your university days (as one does), you would recognise the title of this album, and also the names of a few of the tracks: "Port Of Saints". "Dead Fingers Talk". "The Ticket That Exploded". In fact, this is the second Burroughs-themed album of Zorn's, following on from 2010's "Interzone". As with that record, I have little to no sense of where the Burroughs connection might be coming from. Maybe it's a red herring. Maybe my Burroughs days are just too far behind me. Whatever. The music is very cool regardless. Joey Baron you already know as one smart, agile drummer. Trevor Dunn is a bassist Zorn has been using regularly of late, although usually he is plugged in (Greg Cohen being the go-to guy for the upright) whereas here he plays acoustic. Similarly John Medeski, best known as a Hammond technician, plays the piano. Kenny Wollesen finesses the vibraphone (because, y'know, everything sounds better with vibraphone). This is music to immerse yourself in. What sets this, with its frequent abstractions, apart from "The Satyr's Play / Cerberus"? That's hard to say. Maybe it's just one's greater familiarity with a piano/bass/drums structure. Maybe it's the intuitive sense of Baron's drumming doing just enough to provide the listener with an anchor. You can, at least most of the time, tap your feet to this music, while at the same time being invited to concentrate hard enough to get to the bottom of it. It's an invitation I am happy to accept this time around. Although such is not, alas, the case for ...

"Enigmata". "Res Ipsa Loquitur", writes Zorn in his lengthy accompanying essay to this album. The phrase is well known to lawyers: "the thing speaks for itself". But Zorn adds an addendum: "Sed Quid In Infernos Dicit" ("but what the hell does it say?"). Which, when put together, is not a bad explanation of what Zorn does, not just here, but on many of his records. He also makes a couple of other pertinent observations: "the world may not be ready for this music." And "it makes no pretensions to be anything other than what it is." Of course, he is making a case for his own work here, and while the music "sounds" good on paper, that doesn't convert the damn thing into anything that approaches my own understanding of what is "listenable". Which seems to me to be a bit of a setback. Maybe he took the time to articulate and communicate his thoughts about the creative process as a way of both acknowledging this music's wilful cussedness and engaging the listener in a kind of aural staring contest. In which case, whoops, I blinked. I can admire it (it must have been hell to learn and play -- you really need dudes of the calibre of Marc Ribot and Trevor Dunn (who switches to electric five-string bass here) to pull this off). But, as with the first album dealt with in this survey, I don't know that I really want to go through it all again in a hurry.

"At The Gates Of Paradise". On the other hand, and maybe here I am further demonstrating my own narrowmindedness, I can listen to Zorn's chamber jazz ensembles (my term) both at length and on repeat. Plus, this is the exact same quartet as on "Nova Express". The mystery here, if you choose to turn your mind to it, which you certainly don't have to, is as to when you are listening to Zorn's composition and when what you are hearing is the players, playin'. And on this occasion they are not telling. Which is fine, the music works the same way regardless. It is, as the man said, what it is. There are moments when you might imagine yourself sitting at a table in some smoke-filled supper club, drinking a martini and sucking on a cheroot, listening intently to the Vince Guaraldi Trio. At other times you might be immersed in a world of 1950s exotica a la Martin Denny. Certainly the vibraphone helps in this regard. But the versatility of John Medeski is maybe this record's trump card. This is a world that Zorn has been frequenting quite regularly of late. The question of whether this particular well might start to run dry hasn't yet formed itself, but it is a question that cannot be ruled out in the future.

"A Dreamers Christmas". Which brings us to the words we never thought we would be typing: this is John Zorn's Christmas album. To which the only response, as no doubt its author intended, is "What the???". Is it some kind of post-modern exercise/statement? An elaborate hoax? A move into the lucrative field of television-advertised product? A quest for fame and fortune? Something for the kiddies? It may even be all of the above. (The appearance of Mike Patton in the credits might suggest, to those familiar with his other Zorn-related utterances, that the kiddies should be kept well away. But let's keep an open mind.) Indeed, the front cover design is rather family-friendly, with the possible exception of Santa's slightly disturbing blackened eye-holes. (John Zorn would delight in pointing out to you that Santa is an anagram of Satan.) Once lured in by the cover, what do we find? Seven traditional Christmas songs and two Zorn originals, performed by The Dreamers sextet, the most potentially radio friendly of all of Zorn's projects. (Which is not necessarily even remotely close to radio friendly, really.) Trevor Dunn. Joey Baron. Kenny Wollesen. Cyro Baptista. The bearded wonder Jamie Saft on keyboard duties. And the trump card, Marc Ribot on guitar, a fellow guaranteed to breathe life into the most moribund of music. Not that this is at all lifeless. The surprise, which is no surprise at all really, is that you actually could slip this on while your grandmother is serving out the Christmas pud and nobody of any generation would bat an eye. Even Patton is on his best behaviour, channelling Mel Torme in his performance of Torme's own (with Robert Wells) "The Christmas Song". A (Christmas) cracker.

Which brings us, somewhat belatedly, to 2012, and by last count a further ten records under Zorn's name have been released this year, with at least one more to come. As usual, not everything will be to everyone's liking. None of it at all may be to some people's liking. Me, I'll take it all in when I'm good and ready and most likely write a few words about the exercise here. But you know by now not to expect it any time soon.