One of my favorite things about being a freelance writer and working from my home office (aside from spending half my day in pajamas or a bathrobe and being able to take the time to properly enjoy my wife’s delicious coffee) is that I get to play the music I love all day long. It helps me relax and focus on my writing by completely eliminating any trace of boredom that might understandably arise from spending 8 hours in front of the PC screen in a room all by myself.
One day a few weeks ago as I was searching Youtube for any gigs I could find from Jazz in Marciac I came across this little gem. I loved this show so much that I’ve been playing it every single day since and I think it’s one of the best concerts you will find online.
Anyway, that made me curious to check out what has been going on with Zorn in 2013. I decided to just focus on his “solo records” due to the roughly 17497 collaborations[i] he’s been featured on this year alone.
So what do we have solo-wise? Well, so far this year (and keep in mind, the year is not over) we have three records: Lemma,Mysteries and Dreamachines, all released on Zorn’s own Tzadik label.
Let’s start off with Lemma, released in February and featuring three enormously talented violinists: David Fulmer, Pauline Kim and Chris Otto. The record starts off with “Apophthegms 1 through 12” a suite of 12 miniatures for 2 violins to be enjoyed first and foremost for the virtuosity of musicians Fulmer and Otto. Naturally, since this is an avant-garde composition one should not approach it expecting what I like to call “conventional musicality” as these tracks abound in scraping noises and downright dissonant changes of pace, serving as sort of a barrier between Zorn’s art and the audience. That means you are either instantly turned off and desperately run away to play some Mozart in order to cleanse your ears or you open yourself up to Zorn’s work with no prejudice and complete trust in this brilliant composer. If you decide to go with the second option, you will be surprised at how quickly you’ll be able to adapt and focus on the virtuosity of these violinists. I’ve had a similar experience with David S. Ware’s Saturnian: Solo Saxophones a few years ago, where, after a few minutes of getting almost annoyed with the structurally chaotic music I found myself gradually adapting to the point where I could “pay attention to that man behind the curtain”. After that I found it as soothing as any lullaby. That is not to say that Lemma is without fault, but I will get to that. The “Apophthegms” are followed by “Passagen” an intense and beautifully aggressive piece for solo violin delivered by Pauline Kim which is also the most open and extrovert, almost vulnerable composition on the record and thus, in my opinion, the highlight. The album follows with “Ceremonial Music” 1 through 4, starring David Fullmer, at times emotional and harmonic, at times harsh and raw and very dramatic at the end, abounding in repetition that made me think of Michael Gallasso’s Scenes. Zorn’s whole record (especially “Ceremonial Music”) carries much of Gallasso’s tension and anxiety but fails to match it in depth and density just as it displays the inventiveness found in Iva Bittova’s record (that I wrote about last time) but does not completely equal its distinctive character. Still, a brilliant avant-garde work the highlight of which is the impeccable performance of the musicians.
In April, Zorn teamed up again with Bill Frisell, Carol Emanuel and Kenny Wollesen to deliver The Mysteries a continuation of their 2012 collaboration Gnostic Preludes. The mystically minimalist Mysteries (see what I did there!?!) which features Frisell on guitar, Emanuel on harp and Wollesen on vibraphone is by far the softest, most melodic of the three records, and a perfect fit for Bill Frisell who really gets to do his thing on this album. The nine songs on the record seem designed for mediation, the very contemplative tone is kept throughout the record though the songs are by no means interchangeable (like purposefully designed Buddha Bar or Chill Out records or whatever the hell they’re called). Each of these songs has its distinctive personality though there is also a common thread that runs through this record making it a very solid body of work. “Sacred Oracle” starts off the album with a lovely two-minute long intro that has Emanuel provide a fertile ground from which Frisell’s guitar then gently blooms, after which Frisell takes over the melody allowing Wollesen’s vibes and bells to softly ascend, like the sun rising over the Mediterranean (this record is bringing out my poetic side). But all kidding aside this is an excellent opening track and those who have followed my blog know that I have a soft spot for a good structure. “Hymn of the Naassenes” is next and provides the general ambiance that will define the record, with Frissell’s melancholy guitar taking the lead. On “Dance of Sappho” the musicians get to have a little fun with the tone and pacing, though never losing the air of ancient mystery that characterizes the whole album, while “The Bachannalia” returns to a more low-key, somber mood. In every song something stands out, whether it’s the beautiful melody in “Consolamentum”, the “storytelling” in “Ode to the Cathars”, the interplay and perfect timing in “Apollo” or the tension in “Yaldabaoth”. At 11 minutes long, “The Nymphs” closes off the album in powerful fashion mixing together everything that stood out in the rest of the tracks and providing a brilliantly thought-out closure which, in my opinion, is almost as important as a powerful beginning. For the careful and sensitive listener, meaning someone who has a well-developed musical attention-span and doesn’t merely expect explosions of instant gratification, The Mysteries is a veritable gem, well-worth taking the time needed to immerse oneself in this minimalist yet immensely complex work.
The aforementioned explosion of instant gratification takes place in Dreamachines, my favorite record of the trio, as the opening track “Psychic Conspirator” wastes no time throwing avant-garde awesomeness at the listener. The track sounds like someone took the sheet of a Nik Bärtsch song, put it in the paper-shredder, then mixed-up all the little pieces and glued-them together dada-style before handing this post-apocalyptic partitur to the band. Speaking of the band you can’t help but marvel at their mastery as they deliver this very intense and difficult arrangement. But one would not expect nothing less from the likes of John Medeski (piano), Trevor Dunn (bass), Joey Baron (drums) and, again, Kenny Wollesen (vibraphone).
“Git-le-Coeur” is at the other end of the Zorn-spectrum, more laid-back but sprinkled, at times, with short rapid sequences. Baron’s drums are highlighted nicely throughout the song (if you pay attention). The third track, “The Conqueror Worm” matches the first in intensity but with a more conventional Jazz approach and is exactly the sound that comes to my mind when I think of a John Zorn recording. It’s also one of my favorite tracks on the record if only for the incredible sense of pacing and timing that is usually the norm on a John Zorn composition. The rest of the tracks keep this repetitive tone and structure, with occasional “zornian epileptic fits” that get to really test the skill of the musicians (and they all pass with flying colors). All the tracks are excellent but highlights include “The Dream Machine”, my personal favorite and especially a highlight for pianist Medeski whose show-stealing virtuosity is nothing short of magical, “Note Virus” for its pure madness and “1001 nights in Marrakech” for its hypnotic rhythm. Like I said though, these songs are the cream of the crop in an already excellent record.
With this trio of really powerful works Zorn has once again demonstrated not only his imagination and versatility as a composer but also his work-ethic and his talent in choosing and linking together musicians with great chemistry. Undoubtedly, Zorn is one of the greatest musical minds of his generation.
[i] Citation needed