By Gary Chapin
It’s been one of my joys this week to have all eight volumes of John Zorn’s Bagatelles on my phone. We’ve had two substantive snow storms and the hours of shoveling have been greatly lightened by all of this music on shuffle. I reviewed volumes 1-4 last October, and many of the fascinations that poked at me then are alive for me still.
This second quartet of recordings is focused on keyboards in a variety of settings. Zorn again is a master of inviting musicians in and creating different idiomatic conditions to take this repertoire through. Here are the lineups of the four discs
VOL 5: KRIS DAVIS QUARTET:
Kris Davis - piano
Mary Halvorson - guitar
Drew Gress - bass
Kenny Wollesen - drums
VOL 6: BRIAN MARSELLA TRIO:
Brian Marsella - piano
Trevor Dunn - bass
Kenny Wollesen - drums
VOL 7: BRIAN MARSELLA:
Brian Marsella - piano
VOL 8: JOHN MEDESKI TRIO:
John Medeski - organ
David Fiuczynski - guitar
G. Calvin Weston - drumd
You’ve got a piano/guitar quartet, a piano trio, piano solo, and organ trio. Each configuration means something different for the tunes. (I wish that there were at least a few tunes repeated in the sets, so that I could triangulate and sort out what is Zorn and what is the performer, but there are none. Each Bagatelle, numbered not titled, appears only once.)
The Kris Davis Quartet starts in a fairly “normal” place. There are a few seconds maybe of homage to Oscar Peterson (the archetypal piano/guitar quartet from my upbringing is Peterson and Joe Pass), before it spirals away and the band make it their own. Can I say a few words about Mary Halvorson? Not enough has been said about Mary Halvorson. Look, I love Davis, Wollesen, and Gress—I really do!—but has anyone noticed how Halvorson has been absolutely killing it this year? Every release, every performance has destroyed me. It’s like an actress about whom they say, “Every time she walks on, the stage just lights up.” Whether playing clean “jazz lines” or spacetime sound effects or outish banging, there is so much joy in her playing that I can hardly stand it. Love it.
I had not heard Brian Marsella before. This week I’ve heard three full discs of him playing Zorn. Aside from these two discs, he also features in a trio on Zorn’s Meditations on the Tarot (recently out on Tzadik). Marsella’s trio and solo discs present the bagatelles in what feels like their natural state (although I know that’s a fiction). Like when Monk played his own tunes, the bagatelles seem so at home under Marsella’s fingers. I specifically mention Monk because on these discs the heads do sound a bit Monkish. But, again, as in the Kris Davis disc, the trio move quickly into freer territory, where they are also very at home.
The bagatelles comprise mainly angular, somewhat atonal, “weirdo” tunes (said with affection), to be interpreted by any improvising player or ensemble who comes along. Every once in a while, though, Zorn will give us a waltz or ballad of shocking simplicity and beauty. These would literally stop me in my tracks (in the snow). Marsella’s interpretations of these were especially fine. Heartbreakingly good.
The final disc blows out your pipes with Medesky, Fiuczynski, and Weston giving us an amazing, driving, improv funkrock organ trio. Weston is a monster on the drums (he always is, really) and the whole trio seems to be having a very good time. It’s loud and pounding and has that rock organ trio sound (more Keith Emerson than Jimmy Smith) which is a genuine benchmark artifact of the mid-20th century.
I know I talk a lot about how fascinating I find Zorn’s lifelong project (very) and how interesting or intriguing it is (very), but I want to close by saying that the concept of Zorn’s music has always been secondary to me. I love music to be fascinating and intriguing. I also need it to be beautiful (in a po-mo free jazz sense). Zorn has been succeeding at this for decades.
Brian Marsella was part of a collective of pianists, including Kris Davis, known as Winged Serpents, appearing individually on Six Encomiums for Cecil Taylor, released in 2018 as an obvious tribute. His playing was quite distinctive.
Despite stating you hadn't heard Brian Marsella before, I bet you have just didn't know. He's on a LOT of Zorn stuff the last 5 or so years. Like A LOT...
"Brian can also be heard on over 30 other albums including 15 on John Zorn's TZADIK label (3 as a leader). Over the past 5 years, Brian has become a central figure in John Zorn's world as a musician in both his Masada and Bagatelle projects as well as a member of Zorn's Cobra.
Since 2004, Marsella has been of member of Cyro Baptista's Beat the Donkey and Banquet of the Spirits."
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