A canvas of chaos – John Zorn’s Bagatelles live at Porgy & Bess, Vienna

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In January 2012 I accidentally fell off my bed and landed on the lower part of my spine. The impact jolted my brain and I had a seizure. I was taken to the ER and was eventually hooked up to an EEG device to monitor my brain’s electrical activity. Though the technician carrying out the procedure did not have the authority to set a diagnosis, she just couldn’t refrain from giving me her personal opinion: “It’s epilepsy.”

It absolutely wasn’t epilepsy. I haven’t had a seizure before or since. It was merely a very unfortunate accident coupled with what seems to be an all-around peculiar brain.

The neurologist who studied the results concluded that I’m fine. It’s just that my brain activity is slightly unusual – something she called “being a bit cuckoo”. She would be in a unique position to know since she also happens to be my mother-in-law.

This little story from 2012 will be relevant towards the end of the article but, for now, let’s focus on 2016.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally came across a Facebook post promoting a John Zorn marathon at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival. The prolific composer would be presenting his new opus, the Book of Bagatelles.

This project for live performance consists of three hundred short, atonal, improv-minded compositions meant for what Zorn often calls his “community” – a legion of long-time collaborators and young prodigies that excite the fiercely selective musician.

The lineup for the Sarajevo marathon was incredible, with eleven acts slated to perform for roughly twenty-five minutes each. Among them were such legendary projects as the Masada Quartet, the Nova (Express) Quartet and Asmodeus, but also exciting new bands and collaborations like the hard rock trio Trigger and the acoustic guitar duo of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. That’s about eighty percent of my bucket list gigs in one single show, including people like John Medeski, Craig Taborn, Trevor Dunn, Joey Baron and freakin’ Marc Ribot.

Unfortunately, the show was scheduled on a Friday evening and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to Sarajevo in time.

Desperately, I started looking at Zorn’s other tour dates only to discover that he was taking his Bagatelles Marathon to Vienna the very next day for a weekend-long show at the legendary Porgy & Bess. It seemed only fitting to hold an event of such magnitude at the distinguished venue located right in the heart of the European capital of music. One six hour drive later, I found myself staring at the familiar picture of my favorite songwriter as the queue was slowly moving forward towards what would become one of the defining musical experiences of my life.

When John Zorn hit the stage, he seemed delighted by the enthusiastic reception he received from the knowledgeable Porgy & Bess audience, who were asked not to photograph or record the performance.

The Bagatelles are designed for a concert experience. It’s an openly constructed, freely evolving manifestation of music which would lose its mystique and its very raison d’etre in a recording of any form.

“This music is meant for you,” the avant-garde mastermind explained. “It will never exist in the same form again.”

He went on to add that taping the show would not only diminish the audience’s intimate relationship with this music but also influence the musicians’ performance. “Musicians play differently when they know they’re being filmed,” Zorn confessed. To their credit, the audience respectfully complied.

This argument for a personal relationship with the music predicted a raw, intimate exhibition. What followed was perhaps one of the most spectacularly dynamic and narratively diverse performances an aficionado of serious music can experience today.

The evening started with the Masada Quartet, fronted by Zorn himself on alto saxophone and Dave Douglas on trumpet and backed by the incredible duo of Greg Cohen and Joey Baron on bass and drums respectively. It took me a while to fully comprehend that I’m actually getting to hear  this legendary project live.

Wasting no time with formalities, the band went full throttle from the first note. Instead of inviting the listener to join them on their musical journey, the veterans opted instead to grab the audience by the throat and hurl them straight into a loud, dissonant soundscape of schizophrenic intensity and boundless complexity. There was less klezmer and more free jazz than in other Masada gigs, with the Bagatelles feeling less like a series of melodic anchor points for improvisation and more like a canvas of chaos on which the inventive musicians sometimes deviated from action painting to coordinate their brushes for brief glimpses of expressionism. It was an improv enthusiast’s dream and, in my opinion, the perfect choice for an opening act because it already raised the bar for the upcoming bands.

At this point, I have to take a moment to commend Greg Cohen’s impeccable playing. If the bass has a tendency to be underrated on Masada records, somewhat obscured by the boisterous brass and Joey Baron’s frantic drums, in the live performance I couldn’t look (or listen) away from Cohen’s dexterous delivery.

Next off was the acoustic tandem of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. On the flyer, they were promoted as a “delicate guitar duo that sets the standard for what the bagatelles is all about” and even when Zorn was introducing them you could tell he was extremely excited about this collaboration.

I was too, partly because I was dying to see how these bagatelles would translate to this particular arrangement but mostly because when something gets John Zorn this amped, you know you are in for an exceptional time.

I was familiar with Julian Lage from his work with Gary Burton and Jorge Roeder, so I already knew the depth of this young man’s talent. I was happy to discover that Gyan Riley matched him in skill and elegance.

Needless to say, their set was spectacular, a veritable celebration of timing and instinct as the expertly handled instruments succeeded in capturing the mysterious, almost metaphysical nature of these compositions. The touching chemistry shared by the young musicians translated into a moment that was wild, yet delicate. Judging by the audience’s reaction it was also the highlight of the evening. Zorn himself did not miss an opportunity to praise their work afterwards.

The third act was the Nova Quarter (of Nova Express fame), an all-star ensemble built around vibraphone wildman Kenny Wollesen, with John Medeski on piano, Trevor Dunn on bass and, once again, Joey Baron on drums. The most conventionally melodious (read: least discordant) of the projects, Wollesen and co. delivered a pensive and graceful set and perhaps the most cohesive interplay of the evening.

They were followed by violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, who’d worked with Zorn in duo form on Masada Recital and Malphas: Book of Angels Volume 3, and whose personal eccentricities on their respective instruments sounded like a perfect fit for Zorn’s idiosyncratic vision.

The result was a dark and spectral meditation on the traditional musicality of piano/violin duets which, in my opinion, brought out the best in these bagatelles. From Feldman’s wailing banshee moments to Courvoisier’s downright abusive treatment of her instrument, this performance was a delight from start to finish. It was the one I was looking forward to the most and, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire evening.

The show was supposed to end with the proverbial bang courtesy of the hard rock meltdown of Will Greene (guitar), Simon Hanes (bass) and Aaaron Edgcomb (drums) – collectively known as Trigger. However, Zorn urged us to stick around for a special guest appearance by Craig Taborn afterwards. I’m a big fan of Taborn’s playing, so I was extremely excited. He’d been on the Sarajevo roster, but wasn’t promoted for Vienna.

Before the  remarkable pianist could take the stage, it was time for the three “young twenty-something punks” to do their thing.

After a couple of minutes of technical difficulties, during which Zorn assured us that these kids can “play the shit out of their instruments”, the trio exploded into a powerful, loud, electric and electrifying performance which was highly reminiscent of Ceramic Dog (to my great satisfaction) .Clearly, Will Greene has been hanging out with Marc Ribot, and all three musicians seemed positively honored to share the stage with such legendary artists.

At first, the jazz crowd didn’t seem to know what to make of this relentlessly turbulent brand of bagatelles, but, by the end of the gig, almost everyone seemed charmed by the “young punks”. For their part, the trio never looked out of place, delivering their music with poise and – to be candid – with giant fucking balls. That didn’t come as a surprise since no one in their right mind would doubt Zorn’s instinct for picking musicians.

The show concluded with Craig Taborn’s solo performance, which he delivered with typical convulsive intensity. It was a suitably memorable finale to an evening that contained so much music it would take weeks for its broadness of scope to be fully processed. Which brings me back to my personal story from the beginning of the article.

I don’t know if this electrical particularity in my brain has anything to do with my restless nature, my ongoing battle with depression, the fact that I don’t sleep particularly well and can’t quite stay focused on a single activity or with the fact that I have a hard time winding down at the end of the day. Whatever the reason, I find it very difficult to rest, particularly to stop a torrent of disorderly thoughts from perpetually inundating the repository of my lucidity. That’s about as eloquently as I can put it and I write books for a living.

Rarely is my mind so engaged that it doesn’t seem to want to compete in an exhausting race against itself. Even when listening to music, my favorite activity along with writing and drinking wine, I find it hard to stay focused. Conventional musicality, with its repetitions, predictable patterns and harmonical spoon-feeding leaves ample room for distraction. That’s why I’ve been drawn to the coarse vocals and grotesque imagery of Tom Waits’s work and, later on, to the complexity and syncopation of jazz. That’s also why I’m drawn to John Zorn.

To me, the Bagatelles Marathon was the quintessential John Zorn experience: loud, aggressive, unpredictable, capricious and unrepentant. It was one of the rare moments when my mind was entirely engaged, so completely hung up on every note and elated by its inability to predict the erratic movements of this music that it left no room for distractions. This is as close to meditation as my cognitive construction will ever allow me to get.

Unfortunately, personal commitments forced me to return home the next day, thus missing part two of this unique musical experience, consisting of the John Medeski Trio, Erik Friedlander/ Jay Campbell Duo, Uri Caine Trio, Ikue Mori and Asmodeus.

Nevertheless, the amount and diversity of music I got to hear in one concert left me with a year’s worth of musical aesthetics to ponder and an evening’s worth of  inner peace.

 

 

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The 2014 Music and Myth Awards

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The 2014 Music and Myth Awards

2015 is here! With the 57th Grammy Awards fast approaching, it’s time for the yearly Music and Myth Awards (which I affectionately call the “Anti-Grammys”) For those who are just tuning in: the Music and Myth awards came to be as a result of my immense frustration with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences omitting to nominate Patricia Barber’s outstanding Smash for best vocal record of 2013. I decided to start my own independent awards, coming in the form of written recognition of the world’s best vocal and instrumental records of the year. Last year, I chose Smash by Patricia Barber and Iva Bittova by the Czech musician of the same name.

The article will be divided into two parts: in the first, I will make my Grammy predictions in the best vocal jazz record and best instrumental jazz record categories (since those are basically the only ones I care about), after a careful analysis of the ten nominated records.

Last year I correctly predicted that Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit would get best vocal, but I picked Gerald Clayton’s Life Forum for best instrumental, which ended up going to Terri Lyne Carrington’s Money Jungle. As such, I have a 1-1 record so far. Let’s see how my predictions fare this year.

In the second part I will announce my choices for best vocal record and best instrumental record according to The Music and Myth, along with a short explanation of exactly why I picked those particular records (justification is definitely lacking when it comes to the Grammys).

Let’s clarify some things first: Even though my website is heavily jazz-oriented, The Music and Myth Awards are not restricted to jazz. However, creative complexity and what I like to call “narrative coherence” are definitely a factor, so don’t expect to find much dubstep, punk rock or gangster rap.

Now, some might question what even qualifies me to grant an “award”. I’m a science fiction writer and independent music journalist, what could I even have to offer? A quick google search for the word “award” gave the following result:

noun

  1. 1.

a prize or other mark of recognition given in honour of an achievement.

I have no physical prize to offer, but I do have my recognition, along with a music lover’s profound respect and admiration. Consequently, The Music and Myth Awards are as legitimate as any large-scale accolade. No distinction, large or small, can claim to be entirely objective. That is simply not possible. In the end, it’s just somebody’s opinion. And here is mine:

Grammy Predictions

My major grief with the Grammys has been what I’ve perceived as a very narrow outlook on the musical landscape. If nothing else, my work with The Music and Myth has taught me that there is a vast number of enormously talented musicians out there. Yet, a quick glance at the yearly lists of Grammy nominees reveals the same names over and over again – for a whole decade. Not only that, you will often find a particular nominee on another nominee’s record, playing a certain instrument or featured as a special guest vocalist. As an example I will use four-time Grammy winner Dianne Reeves’ Beautiful Life. The record is produced by last year’s “best instrumental jazz record” winner Terri Lynne Carrington and features special appearances by last year’s “best vocal jazz record” winner Gregory Porter, Gerald Clayton (nominated last year), Esperanza Spalding (2013 winner) etc.

Brian Blade is nominated for Landmarks but also appears on Chick Corea’s Trilogy, alongside Christian McBride, who was nominated with his record last year. You get the picture…

Since the Grammy Awards are by far the biggest of their kind, this creates the impression  that there is a small elite of musicians acting on some higher musical “plane”. That is simply not the case.

One other issue that I had last year was the lack of “new” music being considered, with many of the records (and one of the eventual winners) being cover- or so-called “tribute” records. I don’t presume to disqualify a record from consideration on the basis of it being a cover album, but even Al DiMeola admitted in an interview I did with him that it was much more difficult to summon up the creative force required to write completely new music than to develop existing melodies – and that was while he was promoting his own album of Beatles covers.

Again, I’m not stating that a cover record can’t be excellent, or worthy of the highest recognition, but I feel like creativity should definitely be a factor when considering the best of the best. That being said, let’s take a look at this year’s nominees and see if we can predict a winner.

Since we were speaking of covers, three-time Grammy award-winning pianist Billy Childs is nominated for Map to the Treasure, Reimagining Laura Nyro where a plethora of guest musicians (including Diane Reeves and Esperanza Spalding) are featured on the pianist’s arrangements, which certainly honor the legendary’s musician’s stellar compositions, but ultimately fail to really re-imagine them.

Also in tribute-land, the daring and charismatic René Marie pays homage to Eartha Kitt in I Wanna Be Evil, an outstanding tribute album, but just that. Tierney Sutton is once again present, this time with the tender Paris Sessions, an elegant, minimalist record featuring the singer’s marvelous voice on the backdrop of Serge Merlaud’s guitar and Kevin Axt’s bass. Meanwhile, Dianne Reeves’ Beautiful Life is gorgeous, but not groundbreaking and a bit too “calculated”.

I think the Grammy will go to Gretchen Parlato’s Live in NYC. This well-executed live recording brings forth some of Parlato’s best songs from her previous albums The Lost and Found and In a Dream. I can’t really explain why I feel Gretchen will take it, but it just “feels” like the music industry itself wants to grant her the award, just like last year “felt” like Porter’s year. The record is good and once you get accustomed to Gretchen’s unique delivery (which can be a bit of an acquired taste), you will discover depth, intelligence and most importantly, a strong sense of personal identity.

In the instrumental category we’ve got the raw and captivating Floating by Fred Hersch Trio, where the pianist returns to the studio to record perhaps his most sanguine outing. Jason Moran presents All Rise: A Joyful Elegy to Fats Waller, which is undoubtedly joyful and delightfully quirky but otherwise not outstanding. Enjoy the View deserves high praise for excellent compositions and fantastic interplay between Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn and Joey DeFrancesco, but lacks an overall narrative cohesion.

Personally, I would give the award to Brian Blade’s Landmarks, the most pensive and emotional of the records but I think the NARAS will use last year’s pattern, where they give the vocal award to the up-and-comer and  the instrumental to the veteran, so I predict that Chick Corea’s Trilogy will be the winner (which is also great news for Brian Blade, who plays drums on that record). In all fairness, Corea’s monster three-record magnum opus is an imposing work and I think the NARAS will want to honor Corea as a sort of “lifetime achievement” Grammy after nominating him sixty-one times and granting him twenty little gramophones. Let’s see if I’m right!

Now, let’s take a look at the winners of the most coveted “boutique” award in the music industry. Interestingly, both records are special edition works and both are deserving of large-scale exposure, so let’s hope the musicians decide to go that route as well.

The Music and Myth Awards go to…

Best Vocal Record: The Song Project – Vinyl Singles Edition (Tzadik)

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Sometime in late December I found out that John  Zorn decided to release this limited edition vinyl and I breathed a sigh of relief. No other musical project has haunted me throughout last year like this one. So far, The Song Project existed only in the form of concerts, like this marvelous performance in Warsaw. It was killing me that these songs hadn’t been captured on record, because I was itching to give this project “best vocal record”. It just felt wrong to grant the award to anyone else. Even on paper it looks brilliant: John Zorn employs three world-caliber vocalists to write lyrics to some of his most melodic tunes and puts together an all-star band of the world’s most capable musicians to perform the tracks. Just look at this list of names: Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Trevor Dunn, Cyro Baptista, Joey Barron, Kenny Wollesen, Jesee Harris, Sofia Rei and freakin’ Mike Patton. The compositions are fantastic, the interplay borders on the paranormal and the delivery by the three vocalists is exquisite. Here’s what I wrote about it in my review:

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.

This record is definitely a worthy successor to Patricia Barber’s fantastic Smash as the Music and Myth’s Best Vocal Record and I can only hope that Zorn will decide to make this music available in other formats as well.

Best Instrumental Record: Horea Crisovan – My Real Trip (self-released)

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To tell you the truth, I hesitated before deciding on this record. That’s not because I don’t consider it entirely deserving. It is, without a doubt, the best instrumental record I’ve come across this year (and I listen to a lot of music). The problem lies with Horea himself, or rather, with my relationship with him. Not only is he a compatriot, he is also a personal friend and that’s a well-documented fact. Of course, choosing the record merely on this basis would be unfair. But wouldn’t it be equally unfair to dismiss it for the same reasons?

Here is what I wrote about it in my review:

 My Real Trip doesn’t only feature Horea the guitarist, but also Horea the composer. The listener finds him at his most comfortable: on acoustic, playing profoundly melodious, story-driven songs. This is the purest form of music: self-released, in limited edition, containing entirely and exclusively the artist’s vision – a veritable breath of fresh air in an industry cluttered with easy-listening tunes for the lowest common denominator. In a way, this is the anti-record: an independent work of art that celebrates the musician’s vision and character. This is Horea drinking wine, it’s Horea riding his beloved bicycle or retreating to the mountains to think. It’s Horea playing the music he loves most, with no-one hovering over him, telling him what to write or pressing him to adjust his compositions to the perceived demands of an easily distracted target-audience. His target audience consists of people who love music for the artistry and dedicate their full attention to it. His audience does not merely want to hear sounds, they want to experience music and My Real Trip delivers.

[…]Horea Crișovan’s long-awaited debut is a heartfelt expression of love for the medium. The musician invites you into his own personal space and you truly feel like you are a part of his compositional universe.

I am not a musician, but I am an award-winning writer (sorry, I just had to place that in there :P) and as such, primarily a storyteller. The narrative and the genuineness of the artist (see Patricia Barber’s Smash, Sofia Rei’s De Tierra y Oro or Xela Zaid’s Orange Violet) are as important to me as their skill or the money their record label invests in post-production. Like last year’s record – Iva Bittova’s self-titled album- My Real Trip captures the essence of the musician in a simple, yet singular way and that is what makes it the best of the best.

Congratulations to the musicians, the physical prize consists in a copy of my science fiction novel Mindguard if you will just kindly leave me your e-mail addresses so I can send you the Amazon gift card. These are the Music and Myth Awards for 2014, I’m anxious to see what 2015 has in store for music lovers!

The Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition – a veritable ode to synergy

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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.

 

Zorn 2013 – Lemma, Mysteries and Dreamachines

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.

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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.

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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.

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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