As a music journalist with a website dedicated to promoting the world’s most skillful musicians and composers, I listen to a lot of new material every year. I play records when I write, when I clean up the house, when I work out and often when I read. I try to cover as much “ground” as humanly possible in order to discover and write about the truly remarkable gems of this sublime form of artistic expression.This dedication to quantity makes it hard to get attached to a record. I simply don’t have time to return to a particular work as often as I’d like. If you’ve been following my website, you may have noticed that I don’t believe in “content writing”. I only write about a handful of records, those that truly stand out, even among noteworthy peers.
I do have my little desert island list, comprised of works to which I constantly come back and, let me tell you, they are few and far between. But every so often I come across a piece of music that just absolutely resonates with the core of my being. It becomes haunting, as unrelentingly vital as air or books.
Sometime in spring, while searching for John Zorn videos on Youtube, I came across this concert:
It was love at first sound. How could it not be? The Song Project features a distinguished cast of performers from all over the musical spectrum, coming together to bring to life the tunes of one of the most accomplished, groundbreaking composers of all time.
Anyone who has to ask why John Zorn is a genius is probably not reading The Music and Myth. In The Song Project, the composer summoned three world-caliber vocalists to write lyrics to some of his greatest arrangements. What resulted was a new musical project of profound poignancy.Backed by an amazing band that features Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Trevor Dunn, Joey Barron, Cyro Baptista and Kenny Wollesen, vocalists Sofia Rei, Mike Patton and Jesee Harris each bring forth their own expressive insights. After a series of fantastic concerts, the composer fortuitously decided to capture the experience on vinyl, releasing a record simply titled The Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition under the self-run Tzadik label.
The album opens with “Flying Blind”, based on Zorn’s “Batman”. With an instant explosion of his characteristically forceful and edgy sound, guitarist Marc Ribot does a perfect job of introducing the first vocalist and catering to my passion for a good opening track.
Long-time Zorn collaborator Mike Patton probably needs no introduction. This incredibly versatile musician possesses an impressive six octave range and a supremely charismatic stage presence. He is best known as the lead singer of Faith No More, though he’s been part of numerous bands like Mr Bungles and Tomahawk, among others. On “Flying Blind” Patton presents the screaming and growling incarnation of his monumental voice in a high-octane delivery that sees vocals and guitar embrace each other’s craziness. Living up to the creative intensity of a Zorn composition is no easy task, but Patton and Ribot – both brilliant musicians in their own right – expertly build anticipation for the rest of the album.
The record continues with “Sombra en el Espejo”, a 180 degree shift in tempo and ambiance, spearheaded once again by Ribot. This time delicate and soulful, the chameleonic guitarist compliments the next singer’s exquisite voice.
As a vocalist, Patton seems like a natural fit for Zorn’s work. The two artists share a creative vision and feed off each other’s energy. It comes as no surprise that their collaboration is a perfect union. Sofia Rei, however, is probably not the first singer who comes to mind when you think Zorn. This Argentine-American musician is known for her imaginative hybridization of jazz and South American themes, which she knowledgeably explores in her own excellent recordings.
When she takes the reins of this stunning ballad, she delivers one of the most passionate vocal performances you will ever come across. It was in The Song Project that I was first introduced to Sofia’s work and my opinion of her talent is already well-documented. With her forceful and astonishingly gorgeous delivery, Sofia’s contributions are absolutely superb, the highlights of an overall powerful album. She turns the mysterious and melancholic “Besos de Sangre” into a gorgeous recital of lost love.
Jesse Harris takes over for “The Wind in the Clouds”, formerly “Tamalpais”. Though his voice doesn’t match the fierceness of Patton’s or the heartfelt intensity of Rei’s, it would be a mistake to overlook this New York musician’s contribution. His even, low-key delivery, counterbalances the more emotionally charged moments, expanding the melodic scope and strengthening the overall narrative. In the end, the record is about expansion as much as it is about harmony, and the individual contributions of each singer speak to a different facet of the human emotional and intellectual sensitivity.
The record continues with “Dalquiel”, which becomes “Perfect Crime” under the haunting poetry of Sean Lennon’s lyrics and the hypnotic vigor of Patton’s modulation. In a cavernous voice, Patton ominously declares:
When the first universe expanded
It was a perfect crime
For nobody knows who planned it
But the planets are doing their time.
So far, I have focused a lot on the vocalists and the way they each express their own vision of Zorn’s magnificent compositions but I also have to applaud the band. Living up to their collective experience, these accomplished musicians form a vast instrumental environment in which the singers’ stories can survive and evolve. Their irreproachable timing and the way they each manifest the subtleties of their respective personality without ever sacrificing balance is admirable. Nowhere is this equilibrium better realized than on “Perfect Crime”. Everything is well-timed, from Dunn’s bass, as ominous and resonant as Patton’s voice, to Baron’s dusty drums, Baptista’s gravely percussion and Wollesen’s ghostly vibes. Everything “clicks” in a masterful way. The exceptional use of background vocals turns them into an instrument of their own. By the time Ribot once again takes over with his vehement solos, the song has already become a veritable ode to synergy.
It’s hard to speak of an absolute highlight in this exceptional record, but I feel most attached to “Para Borrar tu Andar” (or “La Flor del Barrio”). Sofia’s flawless control of emotion is unparalleled – a profoundly spiritual statement. When she hits the high notes the result is heartrendingly beautiful. Patton’s background vocals certainly help, as his low incantation, at times shadowing Sofia’s lyrics, helps create a distinct phonetic entity.
The song is followed by the spellbinding, if a bit docile, “Towards Kafiristan” (shortened to simply “Kafiristan”) where the standout moments are provided by the dialogue between Medeski’s piano and Wollesen’s vibe. Patton returns for “Do Not Let us Forget” (“Zapata Rail”), a sublimely energetic piece that builds up to a cathartic, frenzied and memorable apogee before Sofia gets to showcase the more buoyant, sinuous aspect of her voice in “La Despedida.”
For some reason, Zorn decided to forego “Book of Shadows” which, in the concerts, provided a tender duet between Sofia and Jesse. Its absence is unfortunate, primarily because I feel it was Jesse’s strongest outing, at least from their wonderful Warsaw set list.
“Osaka Bondage” is split up in two and renamed “Burn” (Take 1 and 2). Patton’s hysterical barrage of wails and roars over the chaos of the instruments provides an almost humorous interlude and a supremely satisfying emotional discharge.
“Waiting for Christmas” continues in the vein of “Kafiristan”, preparing the listener for the record’s final act with Patton front and center. “The Man in the Blue Mask” is an absorbing ballad which finds the talented vocalist at his best: transitioning in depth and tempo from a slow, deep recount to an impassioned shriek and back. In a way, the narrative dynamic of this song mirrors that of the entire record, with its melodic ebb and flow.
Serving as closure, “Assasin’s Bay” showcases perhaps Patton’s most lyrical outing, as well as Medeski at his most gripping. The song concludes the story of the album in a powerful and pertinent way, leaving an opening for this excellent ensemble to continue telling its story – a story that begs for a sequel.
As you could easily infer from this article, The Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition is an outstanding work. I’m immensely happy that this live project materialized into a physical record and I hope Tzadik will decide to make it available in other formats as well. Few musical outings are as deserving of large-scale exposure.