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Monday, August 7, 2023

John Zorn: The Fourth Way and 444

By Gary Chapin

John Zorn’s work is abundant and consistently good, often great. It is reliably intriguing and fascinating. Sometimes I feel as if I’m repeating myself in these reviews (check out this Zorn review, and this one, and this one, and tell me if I’m lying), but the music is never repeating itself, either because there are new structures, new partners, new ingredients into the mixture, or new improvisations by old partners.

John Zorn - 444 (Tzadik 2023)

Brian Marsella (electric piano), John Medeski (organ), Matt Hollenberg (electric guitar), and Kenny Grohowski (drums and percussion) form a group for the ages. The electric piano always sends me back to Bitches Brew —and you might consider that a limitation for me—but its ability to float between shimmering elegy and wild abandon is unmatched. You can do things on the electric piano you can’t do anywhere else (as Sun Ra taught us), and Marsella does so many of those things on 444.

I spotlight Marsella because his voice drew my attention first. The four musicians are the quartet Chaos Magic, which started as Marsella+Simulacrum (a “heavy metal organ trio”). They are bound by the expectations of heavy metal or organ trios. “In Sulphur and in Flame” is a thrashy speed fest with the guitar sounding like an ax counting time. “Astral Projection” sounds like it could live behind a montage of Audrey Hepburn and a bombed-out city in France, just as the plants are starting to grow back. Shifting time signatures and jump scares are par for the course, as are evocations of beauty. The electric piano arpeggios that open “Tayy al-Ard,” with the shimmering cymbals underneath, are poetically powerful, pensive and filled with curiosity. The guitar and organ come in to lay a field, but the tune relies on persistence and repetition to say what it needs to say.

John Zorn - The Fourth Way (Tzadik 2023)

 Brian Marsella returns with Ches Smith (drums) and Jorge Roeder (bass) for a more conventionally jazz sounding piano trio. They are based in a lyrical space, and still one imbued with the sound of surprise. The compositions—based in the ideas of Gurdjieff, according to Zorn—take us through shifting scenes, but more complimentary than at odds. It’s like having one mise e n scène after another. Themes follow themes—motifs, meters, moods change—but all within the piano trio milieu. Marsella, Smith, and Roeder are given great material, and like any jazz player presented with a chart, they bring it vibrantly into life.


Anonymous said...

The Zorn catalog as of Oct2023 is finally up on streaming services… this is great news. Although I own about 35 Zorn CDs, there are SO many more to hear and appreciate.