Tuesday, August 31, 2021

2 Zorns (Tzadik)

By Gary Chapin

What is the common thread running through and connecting all of the many many John Zorn projects that sit in my listening world? From Spillane (my first) to Naked City to the strategy pieces to Masada to Masada and to the other Masada, and now all the Ribot based projects and EVERY OTHER DAMN THING. When I say, “I like Zorn” (which I do say) what is the Zorn-ness that I am liking.

It’s a fool’s inquiry, especially when inquiring about the guy for whom the phrase more-eclectic-than-thou was coined. But I am convinced of the cohesion of his oeuvre, even if it is a sort of pell mell cohesion similar (in concept, not sound) to Zappa’s project object. Even if I can’t articulate it, I can feel it, and I feel it in these two recent Tzadik Zorn discs.

John Zorn - Les Maudits (Tzadic, ) ****

These records fall into the chamber music space. Zorn’s improv games feel like chamber music to me. I used to think of it as energy music — and there was a lot of energy! — but now it hits me as far more contemplative. It sounds the same, I am sure, but I am 30 years older, so I hear differently.

Les Maudits features three pieces. The first is a trio of Zorn, Ches Smith, and Simon Hanes playing around a dozen instruments between them. I haven’t discerned the exact improv strategy going on (and I don’t need to), but I’m sure it involves wild waving hand gestures and three by five cards. It begins with the guys yelling “Shit!” a few times, like they mean it, and … y’know what … in August 2021, I mean it , too. (I know. The piece was recorded more than five years ago.) It’s 20 minutes of noisy joy and exuberance and “Shit!” Zorn’s alto makes an appearance in its duck calling, register spanning role. Ches Smith has got me wondering what he can’t do. Anything that can make a sound does. Instruments are incidental, with mouth noises, squawks, baby cries, insectoid sonics etc. becoming the content.

The two other tracks are played by “The International Contemporary Ensemble,” but they quixotically have entirely different personnel. The pieces — dedicated to Gaugin and Baudelaire, respectively — are through-composed, and they do feel more intentionally random than a pure improv would feel. Free improv has waves to it of dynamics or timbral clusters. These two pieces — even with their abrupt turns and wrecks, long tones followed by skittish passages and slurred violins — feel more constructed. They’re each called a concerto grosso in the notes, and it feels like an apt description. In the end it feels like an unnatural-seeming natural phenomenon, like the microwave background noise of the universe. Order and peace expressed as chaos. It’s like a sound track for a Man Ray short.

John Zorn - Azoth (Tzadic, 2020) **** 

Zorn’s cello recital. It features comprovisations for Ches Smith (drums etc), Jay Campbell, cello, Michael Nicholas, cello, and Jorge Roeder, bass. We’ve got two pieces for solo cello, and two for two cellos plus bass plus drums. Well programmed.

Zorn has a history of great work with strings and “this kind of thing” has always been woven into his Masada String Trio work and his pieces for Marc Feldman, but this disc, with its thoroughgoing concentration on the cello, its extremes, and its indifference to the very idea of genre is somewhat breathtaking. Cello, in fact, was there at the inception of Zorn-ness, in the non-idiomatic cello free improv of the great Tom Cora — who, for me, defined free string playing and who I still miss after his passing twenty-three years ago. Azoth continues that tradition. I’m pleased to be reminded how great it is to visit a world without swing or groove.


Alex said...

Thanks Gary for reviewing the ever productive Zorn.
Allow me two annotations to "Les Maudits" (which I haven't heard yet):
Firstly, "Ubu" refers to the famous pre-dada/surrealist stage play "Ubu roi" (1896) by Alfred Jarry. The play begins with the exclamation "Merdre", a malapropism of the French word "Merde" (Engl. "Shit") by the main figure Père Ubu, which caused a tumult at the premiere.
Secondly, I am pretty sure that the other piece is dedicated to the painter Paul Gauguin.

Gary Chapin said...

Thanks for those insights in re Ubu. It was pretty shocking when I started the record and my wife was like, "This is different." So, tumult seems plausible.

And ... dang ... misspelling Gauguin. Rats.

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