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Friday, September 6, 2013

John Zorn Week (Coda): A Beginner’s Guide to John Zorn

By Martin Schray

Colin suggested that we should have a selection of recommendations of John Zorn albums at the end of the birthday week but this turns out to be rather difficult because Zorn appears on over 400 recordings as a composer or performer. Now I tried to compile a selection of recordings which is highly subjective, of course. I thought it might be useful for listeners who are not so familiar with Mr Zorn’s work and for those who have discovered him just recently. I concentrated on albums that were released before this blog started. Please feel free to criticize my selection and add whatever you think is necessary. Here it comes:


Early Works:
  • The Big Gundown (1985) – Zorn’s notion of Ennio Morricone, a great and accessible album
  • Spillane (1987) – an early classic, especially the title track already gathers a bunch of long-time collaborators like Bill Frisell or Anthony Coleman

Naked City:
Maybe Naked City was Zorn’s most popular group, in any case it was his most spectacular one (Mike Patton/Yamazuka Eye on vocals, Zorn on saxes, Bill Frisell on guitars, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, Fred Frith on bass, Joey Baron on drums). The music is a weird collage of country & western, grindcore, free jazz, soundtrack snippets, electronics, ambient etc. and very often simultaneously. I would say that the first two albums are must-haves but all of them are fantastic.

Masada:
Masada is his jazziest group, here he combines his love for Ornette Coleman with his Jewish roots. The actual band was Zorn on sax, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums. The interplay is simply gorgeous, with such a line up you can’t go wrong. Maybe you don’t need all the releases, just pick one or two, you won’t be disappointed.

The Dreamers:
… are the alternative draft to bands like Naked City. You think you don’t like Easy Listening? Wait until you hear this band!

Electric Masada
Of all his contemporary bands this is the most exciting one. It consists of the same members as The Dreamers, except that Kenny Wollesen plays the drums instead of the vibes and that there is Ikue Mori on electronics. This says a lot more about Zorn than all the stuff that has been written about him.

10 comments:

Stef said...

Great overview Martin! I would add the Bar Kokhba sextet and Masada String Trio ... even if Zorn the musician is not part of this, these are really part of his work too, more as a composer/director. You can also add his less than accessible duck call duets with Fred Frith.

Guy said...

As for the early stuff, I'd add the Classic Guide To Strategy 1&2 and also the Sonny Clark tribute (Voodoo) and the two volumes with George Lewis & Bill Frisell (News For Lulu & More News For Lulu). There are also a few volumes in the Book Of Angels-series that demand to be heard (Bar Kokhba, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Secret Chiefs 3, Ben Goldberg, etc). There's a lot to discover!

Paolo Casertano said...

Thanks so much for this great week Martin!

Colin Green said...

An impressive set of reviews from Martin and Paul. I’d like to add the following early recordings, which show other aspects of John Zorn’s eclectic musical personality:

Spy vs. Spy: The Music Of Ornette Coleman (Nonesuch, 1988)

An assault on some of Ornette’s lesser known tunes, pummeled into submission by Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher (drums); Mark Dresser (bass) and Time Berne and Zorn (saxophones).

News for Lulu (hat ART, 1988 – reissued by hatOLOGY in 2008)
More News for Lulu (hat ART, 1992 – reissued by hatOLOGY in 2010)

Zorn’s take on the hard-bop tunes of Hank Mobley and others – a tight, swinging ensemble with George Lewis (trombone) and Bill Frisell (guitar). “More News for Lulu” is taken from two concerts during a European tour the trio made in 1989. The Lulu in question is Louise Brooks (who appears on the original CD covers) who played Lulu in G. W. Pabs’ silent classic “Pandora’s Box”, an adaptation of two of Wedekind’s plays, which Alban Berg also used for his last, incomplete opera. No obvious connection with the Blue Note recordings of the 50s and 60s, but that’s probably the point.

Yankees (Celluloid, 1983 – most recently reissued on CD by Charly Records in 1998)

Zorn has been a long time admirer of British improv. George Lewis is similarly inclined, and here they join forces with Derek Bailey (guitar) in some inspired free improvisation.

Richard said...

A great week of reviews, thanks Martin!

I'm glad News for Lulu got mentioned. A fantastic album, I haven't heard the second. Along similar lines is Yankees with Zorn, Derek Bailey and George Lewis.

For Masada, I personally like Live at Middelhiem. It must be great to see these guys live.

And hooray for Spy vs. Spy. "pummeled" is just the right word.

Martin Schray said...

Thanks for the nice words.
I know that “News for Lulu” has a reputation that precedes the album like thunderclap but somehow it is not my cup of tea, though. I would definitely agree on “Spy vs. Spy” (and yes, pummel is the right word, thanks Colin) and I should have mentioned Bar Khoba. I thought about Painkiller as well, his duo with Bill Laswell and Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. What is so amazing is the quality of the music considering such an awesome output. Does he actually sleep?

Lucky said...

great choices! naked city's debut may be good for starters - "grand guignol" and "absinthe" are personal favorites (grand guignol includes "torture garden" without the few hardcore tracks from the self-titles debut). adventurous hardcore + dub fans will be delighted with painkiller's output.

my favorite early recording from those not mentioned is "locus solus" (1983) - a sort of free improvised rock in various trio formats, with f.e. peter blegvad and christian marclay, or arto lindsay and ikue mori.

the several versions of his game piece "cobra" are mind-blowing - esp. the first on hat hut, the knitting factory one (not approved by zorn himself!) and the excellent "tokyo operations '94" on avant.

his many "filmsworks" are very varied - i'd recommend the first with collected works from 1986-90 especially! the cd's "elegy" and "redbird" are 2 quiet favorites.

Martin Schray said...

You are right, Lucky, the game pieces are underrepresented and "Cobra" is a great project. I also thought of including some of the filmworks and if I had to choose one I would pick the first one, too.Elegy is another marvelous recording, true that, and one I also thought about was the tremendous Kristallnacht.

Lucky said...

the games pieces are all a tough listen, and probably are much easier consumable while seeing them live. the earliest pieces on the parachute cd-box date back to the late 70's - but for beginners probably the worst entry in zorn's oeuvre.

kristallnacht is a tremendous piece of work, you're right - and as a start of zorn's jewish consciousness probably a must listen before diving into the masada songbook. but it's sure not easy listening - given the subject of the nazi night riot against jews no wonder!

there are two sides on zorn - zorn as composer and zorn as performer, the latter mostly on alto sax, earlier also on the fantastic duck calls and clarinet.

another great trio cd in the spirit of "yankees" is the later "harras" with derek bailey and william parker - it came out on his japanese label avant, which he started before tzadik (there were 80 releases on it, fantastic gems among them). it shows zorn in a free improvised context with equal partners.

Han-earl Park said...

How times change. Curious how the ‘Early Works’ starts with those under Nonesuch’s patronage (something that, in the 80s/90s, was talked about as Zorn’s acceptance into/by the broader vernacular).