By Gary Chapin
These reviews are ridiculously overdue, but sometimes I have to listen to a thing for a while to get a handle on it. I appreciate your forbearance.
John Zorn and Bill Laswell - The Cleansing (Tzadik 2021)
Two old friends who seldom have played together (at least in proportion to their huge discographies) come together during a COVID window in 2021 when the restrictions were briefly lifted. They emerge from their riverside burrows and merge to improvise a set of six pieces named for mystics, but which are not “mystical” or “spiritual” in any musically stereotypical way. This cleansing is harsh, like all good cleansings. A cosmic clearing of the throat. The hottest of hot showers. A scouring.
Zorn has worked with a vast number of creative persons in his career, many of whom have been equally as powerful in terms of vision and invention. I’m having a hard time, though, thinking of an instance of Zorn sharing the creative reigns of a project equally with others in the room. Maybe The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet or Spy vs. Spy?
On The Cleansing, they are true partners. Zorn is not the Leader, the Composer, or the Conductor. And neither is Laswell. They are equally titanic on the field, improvising six pieces that join their sound worlds in a way that almost never happens (I don’t I count their Painkiller trio, since that was an homage to Japanese hardcore).
One thing I’m reminded of: I love both these guys as players. It sounds odd to have to say it, but their work is often very fascinating conceptually. The simple joy of Zorn and Laswell improv chops can sometimes be under-appreciated. The saxophone is skittery and unpredictable, with a vibrato so variable it’s like different voices. The bass is thick and wavy, sounding like high tension ropes instead of strings. One shudders giddily to imagine what characters these sounds would represent (as in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf). Further electronics from Laswell create scenes and moods in ways that are intriguing, if cinematically familiar.
John Zorn - A Garden of Forking Paths (Tzadik 2022)
The forking paths mentioned in the title seem more like inputs rather than outputs. The album has a wonderful coherence to it. Featuring music written for the trio of acoustic guitarists – Bill Frisell, Juliane Lage, and Gyan Riley – the collection of nine pieces has a unity that satisfies wonderfully. Zorn has called on some rarely referenced influences this time.
What do I hear? The Incredible String Band. John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft. There’s a folkish, medievalistic implication, but it is neither folk nor medieval. Meters shift extravagantly and the harmonies extend beyond reason. The three guitars are weaving together melodic lines more than chords or finger-style patterns. One of the guitars will be in the lead, while the other two support. Roles change regularly, though it’s hard to tell one guitarist here from the others. Without their distinctive timbres, production preferences, and compositional voices, these three geniuses sometimes fall into each other.
John Zorn - New Masada Quartet (Tzadik 2021)
I don’t know if it’s a character flaw or strength that music provokes such vivid associations in me. I love the Masada project (object?), and love all of its permutations with few exceptions. But each embodiment of this set of tunes places me so firmly into a genre, ethos, or point in history that it colors my whole experience of it. The original Masada quartet—sax, trumpet, drums, bass—was Ornette-ish to a degree that Zorn was annoyed at how often people pointed it out. Yes, there was other stuff (surf music, skronkity-skronk, klezmer, etc.), but all that stuff was presented in what sounded to me like an OrnetteQuartet shaped frame.
The new Masada Quartet features sax, guitar, bass, and drums playing eight of the same tunes, but they seem to be coming from a completely different space or time. Julian Lage’s guitar adds some solid rock ‘n’ roll timbres (nailing down that surf music connection). Jorge Roeder and Kenny Wollesen drive the engine with a reckless joy that absolutely makes my day. At one point you can hear Zorn as conductor shouting, “Go, go, go!”
That perfectly encapsulates the Zorn mission for me. Not only creatively great and joyful in himself, but provoking greatness and joy in others.