The mindbogglingly prolific John Zorn is the undisputed king of the downtown New York art-music scene, a sonic omnivore who’s absorbed all of the extremes of 20th century music and processed it into “blocks of sound.” Zorn has worked with and influenced uncountable numbers of musicians. As a composer, he’s written pieces for everyone from Albert Collins to Guy Kluscevek; as a saxophonist, he’s played everything from free improvisation to thrash-metal to traditional jazz to licks on Joe Piscopo’s “Honeymooners Rap.” He’s also become a cottage mogul, masterminding two labels: Avant (in Japan) and Tzadik (in the US). Though his way-too-self-conscious eclecticism is sometimes hard to take, he’s always battering against the walls of music’s capabilities and is capable of both random bullshit and work of surpassing brilliance and even beauty.
The Pool/Hockey record is, like so many of Zorn’s lesser albums, a document rather than a listenable record. In this case, it captures two of his early “game pieces,” which are played the way one plays a game rather than the way one plays a composition, often with a prompter helping to direct the action. There are fragments of notation, but it’s mostly a set of rules for improvisation. Squeak, blat, pop, thud, honk. It also captures a scene: the 2000 Statues experimental music collective, for which many of Zorn’s early compositions were written. “Pool” is played by Zorn with violinist Polly Bradfield, percussionists Mark E. Miller and Charles K. Noyes and Bob Ostertag on electronics. The trio piece “Hockey” appears in two versions: one with Zorn, Miller and Bradfield, and one with Ostertag, guitar-improv headcase Eugene Chadbourne (who’d played with Zorn on his earliest release, 1978’s School, which includes three takes on another game piece, “Lacrosse”) and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz. Zorn notes in his liners that “Hockey” has had “over 11 performances.” That’s one way of putting it. Archery, dating from around the same time, has a dozen players, including bassist Bill Laswell and cellist Tom Cora; its rules are very different, but it sounds about the same.
Locus Solus is Zorn’s first major leap forward, and his first stab at something like rock (though it’s not really recognizable as such). A series of trios play improvised “songs,” often with vocals, all of which clock in under three minutes (many under two). The results are often hard to take — especially the eight tracks by the first trio, which pits Peter Blegvad’s intonations and Zorn’s sax, clarinet and game calls against warped turntable manipulations by Christian Marclay. Still, these infinitesimal-attention-span pieces don’t just bear up under careful examination, they demand it. It’s easy to hear how some of the 38 pieces, like “The Violent Death of Dutch Schultz” and a set of James Bond-influenced tracks, led toward Naked City, but others represent equally fascinating paths not taken. Also noteworthy: the presence of “singer”/”guitarist” Arto Lindsay, formerly of DNA, and drummer Anton Fier, on their way to the Golden Palominos (on whose first record Zorn also played).
Zorn was still keeping his hand in more traditional free improv, though. The two Classic Guide to Strategy records (reissued on a single Tzadik CD in 1996) are strangely calm solo meditations for saxophone, clarinet and his ever-present game calls; Yankees teams him with two improv legends from earlier schools, British guitarist Derek Bailey and trombonist George Lewis, for a playful, rule-free workout.
Ganryu Island is Zorn’s first major bow toward the East (Japanese music, film and record labels would later have a tremendous impact on his work). The album’s seven duets between Zorn (on various reeds) and Michihiro Sato (on the three-stringed shamisen) probably seemed like a fascinating idea, and they are — for about the first five minutes. Beyond that, the record is just more documentation.
Credited to the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, Voodoo is something new for Zorn: jazz. Clark was a fairly obscure pianist of the ’50s and ’60s; here, a quartet led by pianist Horvitz (also including bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Bobby Previte) plays perfectly straightforward versions of seven of his pieces. Zorn, on alto, plays it straight too, almost entirely avoiding his signature squawks, and proves himself capable of some very nice, if un-life-changing, traditional improvisation and a sharp, distinctive tone.
As with Voodoo, Zorn is essentially a sideman on Deadly Weapons, recorded with a quartet including Francophone vocalist Tonie Marshall and multi-instrumentalists Steve Beresford and David Toop; Zorn co-wrote only three of its eleven tracks and doesn’t appear at all on four of them. It’s a beautiful, unique record and, despite its title, mostly very quiet — built on sinuous keyboard and drum machine parts. Oddity: Zorn playing keyboards on “Chen Pe’i Pe’i.” High point: the sensuous, creepy keyboard riff that glides “Jayne Mansfield” along.
Zorn’s next big compositional breakthrough was the arrangement of “Der kleine Leutnant des Lieben Gottes” that he came up with for the 1985 Kurt Weill tribute album Lost in the Stars — tossing the original into a blender, pulling out the little squirmy bits and alchemizing them into something recognizable only to those intimately familiar with the pre-mangled piece. Like Weill, Zorn is perpetually dragging “high” forms of composition into “low” forms, and vice versa; the next person he pulled that arranging strategy on was Ennio Morricone, whose spaghetti western film music he tackles on The Big Gundown. The cast of a few billion musicians includes old pals (Horvitz, Bradfield, Sato, Lindsay), emerging downtown types (trombonist Jim Staley, keyboardist Anthony Coleman) and a whole bunch of ringers (a Latin American percussion section, Toots Thielemans whistling and playing harmonica, several members of Living Colour).
Zorn’s best-known game piece is undoubtedly “Cobra,” whose rules (involving a complicated set of hand signals that players can use to indicate who should play what when) have been incorporated into many improvisers’ vocabularies for the sake of convenience. Written for (roughly) twelve players and a prompter, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play and to watch (headbands! gesticulations! dirty looks!); without the visual side and an easy indication of who’s playing what when, it can be dry and confusing to hear. Despite delightful and ornate packaging, the 1987 Cobra pretty much falls into the latter camp. It’s got two recordings, one studio (with a lineup of Staley, Marclay, guitarists Bill Frisell, Elliott Sharp and Arto Lindsay, Coleman, Horvitz and David Weinstein all playing keyboards of various types, harpists Carol Emanuel and Zeena Parkins, Bob James manipulating tapes, percussionist Bobby Previte and accordionist Guy Kluscevek) and one live (with Frisell, Sharp, Coleman, Horvitz, Weinstein, Kluscevek, James, Marclay and Previte, plus J.A. Deane playing trombone synthesizer). The CD edition adds six tracks.
Much more enjoyable is the later John Zorn’s Cobra Live at the Knitting Factory. “Cobra” was played at the New York club at least once a month for several years, each time by a different lineup; the 1995 disc collects short movements from ’92 performances. The sound is sometimes dodgy but the tremendous variation in lineups and the “greatest hits” nature of the selection process gives a good sense of what the game’s dynamics are like, even for those who’ve never seen it played. For a treat, check out “Taipan” and “D. Popylepis,” by an all-vocal Cobra lineup including Jeff Buckley, Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp and a pre-Soul Coughing M. Doughty (back in the days when he was the Knitting Factory’s ticket clerk).
Tokyo Operations ’94 is a full-length live Cobra performance recorded at Tokyo’s Shibuya La Mama with a dozen Japanese musicians, mostly playing traditional instruments and often improvising in a pre-20th-century style. After they get the everybody-make-a-lot-of-noise-now! thing out of their systems, some worthwhile, unusual music gets made, though 50 minutes of a single Cobra lineup is still a bit much to take if you can’t watch the musicians’ visual interactions.
Spillane is one of Zorn’s most show-offish albums and not one of his best. Zorn gets across the fact that he’s capable of a very broad range of styles, but seems over-anxious: look how many things I can do and how quickly! The side-long title piece is a somewhat more together take on The Big Gundown‘s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink film-music-isms with another very large cast; the other two tracks are a shifting series of settings for blues guitarist Albert Collins and “Forbidden Fruit,” played by the Kronos Quartet with additional vocals and turntables.
The News for Lulu trio formed around this time; though it has played only rarely, the group is one of Zorn’s most interesting projects. The eponymous first album finds Zorn (alto sax), George Lewis (trombone) and Bill Frisell (guitar) playing improvisations on seventeen pieces by Sonny Clark and his fellow ’60s Blue Note not-quite-household-names Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley and Freddie Redd; three are reprised in live versions recorded two days later. Similar to the kind of deconstruction Zorn worked on Weill and Morricone, this time it’s constantly pretty and coherent. Without a rhythm section, all three musicians have to lean on each other to support the songs’ structure, but nobody ever quite solos in a standard way: they’re just all on, all the time, finding fresh moments of startling loveliness within every song. And Zorn, it turns out, can really play.
More News for Lulu, recorded in 1989 but not issued until three years later, includes two live performances. It adds Misha Mengelberg’s “Gare Guillemins” and Big John Patton’s “Minor Swing” to the group’s repertoire and takes a few tunes further out; otherwise, it’s more of the glorious same.
Spy Vs. Spy seems at first like a better idea for a single track than for an album: take a bunch of Ornette Coleman’s wild, tricky jazz compositions, throw them to a double-alto sax/bass/double-drum lineup (in order: Zorn, Tim Berne, Mark Dresser, Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher), speed them up to hardcore punk velocity, tell everyone to play as loud as they possibly can and see what happens. What happens is a wonderful, invigorating record. It steamrollers over the subtleties of Coleman’s writing (though Zorn and Berne are amazingly deft at these high speeds) and doesn’t exactly shed any new light on the tunes, but the energy of the recording is beyond belief. “Fucking hardcore rules,” Zorn declares on the back cover, and who would doubt him?
The Japanese Cynical Hysterie Hour contains a few dozen very short pieces Zorn wrote for animated cartoon shows — an excuse for him to take after his idol Carl Stalling, who scored Warner Bros.’ greatest cartoons. The lineup is pretty much the usual suspects (Frisell, Horvitz, Lindsay and a host of others); the eight pieces making up the “Trip Coaster” sequence were also issued as a separate 3-inch CD.
Recorded over a five-year span with more or less the same crew (though guitarist Robert Quine appears on most of it), Film Works collects Zorn’s scores to the movies White and Lazy, The Golden Boat and She Must Be Seeing Things, plus a version of Morricone’s theme song for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly recorded for a Southeast Asian ad for Camel cigarettes! Unfortunately, Zorn’s love for film music gets the better of him: there’s too much of his favorite composers here, and not enough of him. The White and Lazy score is interesting as another pointer toward Naked City, though.
Elegy, Zorn’s first non-Naked City recording in several years, is a half-hour piece recorded with several members of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle (Mike Patton and Trey Spruance), as well as turntable manipulator David Shea and a few others. Inspired by the beauty-in-torture imagery of Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal, it’s a slow, quiet, menacing composition that ends up being boring as hell, meandering all over the place and not ending up anywhere in particular.
Kristallnacht is another single long piece, this time about the Holocaust and the formation of the Jewish state. It is a very, very literal-minded piece of program music — the Jewish ghettos are represented by a mournful melody from klezmer musicians David Krakauer and Frank London with tapes of Hitler’s speeches played over the top, and the “Night of Broken Windows” of the title is represented by keyboardist Anthony Coleman (in a heartstopping passage) repeatedly playing a sample of glass being smashed. There are certain topics suited to literalism, and this is one of them — it’s a tremendously powerful work. The other musicians here include percussionist William Winant (also on Elegy), bassist Mark Dresser (of the Spy Vs. Spy band), guitarist Mark Ribot and violinist Mark Feldman.
Zorn’s fascination with Jewish history extended to the name and the content of his next major group of works, Masada, named after the site where Jews committed mass suicide rather than submit to Roman rule. Alef, Beit, Gimel and Daled (the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet) were all released in Japan within a single year with matching graphics; the eighteen-minute EP Daled was only available by mail with proofs of purchase of the first three. That they’re all pretty interchangeable may have something to do with the fact that they were all recorded on the same day, with the core lineup of Zorn (alto sax), Dave Douglas (trumpet), Greg Cohen (bass) and Joey Baron (drums). As for the music? In short and in long, harmolodic klezmer: Jewish-sounding minor-key themes, developed in ways that usually could have come straight off Ornette Coleman records. All four are terrific musicians (though Baron deserves special commendation), and they played together in public for a long time before they ever recorded, so the records are totally solid. You may not need to hear all of them, that’s all.
The Masada record to start with is probably Hei. Though its packaging is uniform with the first four and has the same lineup, the album was recorded more than a year later. The band is both looser and tighter, even more confident and daring than before, and they’ve toned down the Ornette-worship a little bit. The record’s centerpiece is “Hobah,” an eleven-minute almost-free workout in which Zorn’s wall-leveling squawking keeps resolving itself into a vague but present tonal structure.
Vav (what will Zorn do when he runs out of letters?), recorded at the Hei session, is more of the same, only slightly less so. Again, nothing here doesn’t deserve to be released or to be heard; it’s all beautifully played, and it all rewards careful listening. It’s just that there’s a hell of a lot of Masada, and it’s all very similar. If you love it, great-there’s that much more of it to love. If you don’t, you’re not missing anything if you’ve only heard one of the records.
The Zorn/Fred Frith alto/guitar improv album The Art of Memory is dedicated to “Derek and Evan” — that would be English free-improv masters Derek Bailey (the guitarist whose Incus label released the album) and Evan Parker (the saxophonist whose style Zorn tries very hard to cop, especially on “The Chain,” though he doesn’t quite have Parker’s circular-breathing technique). Lots of interesting noises get made; not much of lasting consequence happens.
Harras, improvised live at the Knitting Factory, is proof that even if you put together Bailey, a saxophonist and a guy named Parker, you don’t quite get a Derek Bailey/Evan Parker record. The saxophonist is Zorn and the Parker is bassist William Parker, probably best known for his work with David S. Ware’s quartet. It’s a curious combination: Bailey and Parker’s playing is pretty much totally free, but Zorn, for all his noisemaking proclivities, is at heart a melodicist. At times, he almost seems to be improvising on some kind of melodic theme, while Parker and Bailey play off Zorn’s and each other’s textures. There’s some terrific chemistry going on, though, particularly on the 36-minute “Evening Harras.”
On a similar tip, Zorn wrote the 35 solo guitar études of The Book of Heads for Eugene Chadbourne in 1978, but they weren’t recorded until 1995 — by Marc Ribot, rather than Chadbourne. The pieces are an attempt to notate the language of guitar free-improv (and its attendant props: balloons, rice, pencils, that kind of thing); while it’s good to know that it’s possible to do and that somebody did it, no one actually has to hear it.
Released at the same time, First Recordings 1973 is even more time-delayed, although two of its five pieces actually date from 1974: the long collage “Mikhail Zoetrope” and the very short genre-hop “Automata of Al-Jazari.” Though they’re certainly juvenilia (Zorn was about 20 at the time he recorded them, all by himself) and occasionally embarrassing, these pieces hold up awfully well, and they anticipate his later work with nearly disturbing clarity.
That same year (1995) also saw two albums on which Zorn collaborated with the Boredoms’ (and Naked City’s) mic-swallowing vocal-sound-maker Eye, who had by this point changed his first name to Yamantaka. Nani Nani, on which Zorn appears as Dekoboko Hajime, was recorded in two days and is pretty much what you’d expect: screech, rattle, gulp, blurt, squawk. It lets Eye do his thing all over a dozen different settings of varying levels of interest (the best is the video-game-gone-berserk “Propolution”). Almost half the record is taken up by a single-note drone (with a little Eye hollering) imaginatively titled “Bad Hawkwind.”
The 24-minute Zohar is much stranger and more interesting. It’s credited to Mystic Fugu Orchestra; Zorn and Eye are respectively billed as Rav Tzizit and Rav Yechida. The idea is to approximate very early Jewish liturgical recordings; this means that every track consists of very faint Eye wailing, Zorn quietly playing harmonium lines loosely based on traditional Jewish modalities and incredibly loud surface-noise effects (they all but obliterate “Ayin”). There are a few surprises — a drum machine seems to be buried somewhere in “Frog Doina,” for instance — but it mostly sticks to the program. There’s no other record anything like it.
“Redbird,” which appears on the CD of the same name, is introduced by a nearly silent eight-minute percussion piece (played to zen perfection by James Pugliese). This time, Zorn’s inspiration is painter Agnes Martin, whose work’s merciless calm is shared by the music. A chamber ensemble plays a single note or chord every few seconds, then lets it gradually decay; this process goes on for 40 minutes. Depending on the amount of attention you pay to it, “Redbird” can be either soothing or maddening. In any case, when a composer who made his name with his short attention span pulls off something sustained this long and this well, it’s a real achievement.