why i (still) dig john zorn
man, a lot of people really hate this guy. what is it exactly about him? he’s slick, successful, knows how to sell himself – that lot alone would be enough, so i don’t plan to look any further for an answer to my own rhetorical question; but as for the hate, i have witnessed it myself first, second and third-hand, seen it repeated time and again, even sometimes by people whose opinions i usually respect: this guy just reduces them to toilet-wall graffiti. having learned the hard way, as i did, that to write about anthony braxton was to invite some harsh judgements and intense ill-feeling (among other things!), then surely now i am standing in full view of the archers and snipers, above the parapet. well, that’s ok, go ahead and chuck ’em, this has been growing organically in me for a while now and it’s time to let it be birthed: i really dig zorn’s music, and it’s about time i stuck up for him in a scene where musicians apparently love him but many listeners really, really don’t. i’m going to describe some of the manifold tricks he has up his capacious sleeve, and do so without leaving the confines of the dreamers, a 2008 release so simple that your editor dismissed it to me as “not too bad, just not really the sort of thing to hold one’s attention or be worth too many repeated hearings”, admitting that he couldn’t “for the life of me work out whether it’s meant to be ‘ironic’ or not”. yes, this could very well prove a prickly experience for all you jazzers out there, but y’know, try and stick with me here. believe it or not, the payoff is worth it.
before going any further i want to unpack the concept of “john zorn” a bit. too many people think they have precise, neat (yet often emotionally charged) handles on that name for it to have any meaningful common currency, so let’s examine some of the constituent elements a bit more closely.
zorn the catalyst/organiser – everyone likes this version, or at least, all people seem to who are actively involved in creative music (i.e. the tiny minority of people for whom i’m presuming to offer my writing!). critics and the public remain sceptical of the man’s motives even here, but joëlle léandre sorted this one out for me once and for all when, reminded by dan warburton that derek bailey’s ballads album was regarded by some as mere commercialism on zorn’s part, she responded: “who are these mean-spirited people? there are few people about with john’s generosity and openness of spirit.” good enough for her, that’s good enough for me, move on to:
zorn the soloist/improviser – “opinions” are split here, between those who rate him as an altoist in particular, and those who don’t – but yes, those ironic commas are there for a reason and i have to tell you that if you really don’t think z’s any good as a player, then you and i have little or nothing to say to each other here. on the other hand, people actively involved in the free improv scene readily recognise zorn as one of their own, and have regularly embraced him as such. one listener’s ridiculous, hydrophobic rantings about zorn’s having embarrassed or even insulted bailey with his own “punk” playing is negated simply by the crashingly obvious fact that the two played together on as-yet-uncounted occasions, and indeed worked together on many others. one friend of mine whose experience and opinions i respect a lot says that he has seen zorn play improv in numerous settings, never less than 100% committed, all the way into it… which is the most anyone can be asked to bring to such meetings.
as for individual taste – well, something i am discovering, two things i’m discovering on a weekly basis are that my own abilities to hear blurred, distorted or smeared tones and timbres become increasingly refined and acute with repeated (and varied) exposure; that sounds obvious enough, yet the second thing is that – i find this odd – many listeners don’t seem to find the same thing, for them a harsh sax sound is a harsh sound, a scream is a scream and that’s that. some of them like it, some don’t but in any case it always says the same thing, right? well – no, it really doesn’t, or that’s what i’m finding. if you really listen to zorn in contexts where his status as a soloist is important (not always the case), and you still don’t like him… well, fine but again, don’t bother telling me about it. no, but i do have some sympathy for those who dislike our third figure:
zorn the composer/arranger – by far the least popular of all. ok, so, i can understand that: as with zappa (someone else i still like, though derided by many), zorn can come across as rather utilitarian in his composing. hey, i got an idea for a band, now i need some songs for it – hey presto, ten days later there’s five albums worth of material, a tour, the works; if it takes off, the project will even spew forth side-projects. yes, but what’s inherently wrong with this approach? is the proof of the pudding not always just in the eating? can we legitimately dismiss some puddings out of hand simply it was too “easy” to cook them?!
again, we may well diverge here, so let’s make the full extent of that clear now, before i talk you through the album. to me, this man’s work is admirable and precious because he is being the best he can – like braxton, and as braxton encourages all his students; and with this in mind, yes, even a lowly piece of trash can be very beautiful if one simply makes it the best piece of trash it can be, or rather if one strives constantly in the attempt. having approached this article cautiously for some weeks now, knowing more or less what i wanted to do but not yet ready to make the attempt, i was inspired last night by watching tarantino‘s shockingly-underrated, generally misunderstood low-brow masterpiece deathproof – and this morning, before playing the dreamers for the twelfth, maybe fifteenth time at least (yep, holds up to repeated listenings), i warmed up with the second and third mastodon albums (leviathan and blood mountain respectively). these are both examples of artists striving to be the best they can be, in contexts dismissed by many “art” snobs as inherently worthless. i disagree strongly, but if you will insist that “composing” must always entail haemorrhoids and anguish, cannot simply spring into being, maybe you’d better just turn back now. as a writer, zorn makes a good arranger, which is to say that he quickly sets out very specific requirements for a piece and then fills in the details afterwards, albeit with terrific craftsmanship and precision. but… is that really not composition? i strongly suspect that people are just deeply mistrustful of someone who can work that fast, that efficiently – he has to be a con man of some sort. no, he doesn’t, and no, zorn isn’t – he really is some sort of magician.
* * *
the dreamers – 2008
[core line-up includes marc ribot, jamie saft, kenny wollesen (on vibes) plus trevor dunn, joey baron and cyro baptista – zorn plays sax only on one track (5 below)]
1. “mow mow” – right away the literal meaning of the album title is made clear: this is a collection of dream pieces, whole experiences in other realms, journeys to faraway places… in this case, a beach at sunset apparently, somewhere like the caribbean or maybe hawaii. now, admittedly there is a certain amount of chutzpah in leading off with this piece, because this really could almost be the shadows, never mind an ironic postmodern update; it’s straight surf music, of the blandest and least threatening kind. but it’s only a first track, it sets out the stall for what’s on offer without necessarily making any promises at all about the details, never mind the small print. this is a lovely place to inhabit, albeit you might go mad soon enough – but it’s brief, anyway, and besides –
– within ten minutes’ time, the voyager will already have been shown things so awful that he might wish he could simply return to the beach and just lie there gently forever. there’s dreams and dreams. (you did know that. but had you forgotten..?)
2. “uluwati” – and already we have shifted levels – once, then twice because the knowledge (recognition) of the original dimensional shift itself imparts a further immediate ascension. this piece contains one of the many musical keys zorn finds in semitic musics especially: an access code for an alternate plane, in this case almost literally shown to us as a visible silver key, the figure itself being voiced for delicate mallet percussion. this place is timeless and once there, one could happily while away hours without the inner critic getting overly irritated… or so i find. and in any case, what is this piece if not a zorn-flavoured, faster, less meditative “so what”, built as it is on one timeless mode which contains within itself the seed of a second mode, into which we step just as it seems as though the base mode will never end?
3. “a ride on cottonfair” – this is well and truly in the tradition of some previous zorn tracks threes, specifically “party girl” from radio by naked city (to be continued! see below). it’s a (jazz) piano trio, basically, light on the palate but dry and with little bittersweet notes; increasingly as it continues, the nature of these becomes clear. even before it does, the enjoyment the musicans take in playing the piece is evident. and why would they not enjoy it? simple, functional jazz exercise though it is, the melody is full of toeholds; the chance to work with brushes is always seized enthusiastically by baron; dunn gets to show off his contrabass a bit and invite comparisons with greg cohen.
but the piano, now that’s where it’s at: those darting, askance little looks, cracks in the harmonic image which bespeak monk, elmo hope, sonny clark… and their dreams? those entailed lives, let’s be clear and honest, ruined by the pill or the needle or the bottle: the medicine we take to facilitate the passage beyond and/or to relieve our pain – what price does it have? and what price on top, if taking the dose itself becomes the addiction? we are then in man’s self-made hell…
4. “anulikwutsayl” – and the outlying provinces of hell’s right where we are, as the sun creeps up in the desert… cactus the first things to be picked out, and a shack which we approach with caution – and with good reason, for horrors have taken place here which could change one’s view of life permanently in one awful split-second.
this is actually the centrepiece of the album already, a superb feature for ribot, and a western theme, as becomes clear soon enough; but although leone (the obvious tributary via morricone) has plenty of dried blood under his fingernails, this is a giallo western, the sort of thing a young lucio fulci might have directed before moving onto zombies. this is not a nice safe cartoon where guns go bang and bad guys fall down dead. this is the sort of western where some poor miserable wretch ends up with his entrails coiled around a post, or staked out to fry in the noonday sun, quivering eyeballs and tongue torn out at the roots by greedy vultures. you may think i exaggerate grotesquely, but those screams say otherwise. [i have stretched time with this recording! i played the album in a busy stockroom a while ago, with mostly younger people who expected background music, who were told nothing and didn’t feel they could ask what the hell i was playing them. some probably thought the organ and obsessive guitar was creepy enough, but as the screams continued, the atmosphere in the room changed palpably, to my secret delight. only much later in the album did someone finally ask what on earth the music was, but these were nine very long minutes..!]
because it is the centrepiece and by far the most open-ended setup, requiring one player to rise to the occasion completely and give an individual performance of great power (not true of the other ten pieces), it’s worth hanging around here for a few minutes, before resuming our brisk progress with tracks 5-11. this piece, singled out by the composer with a name few would speak aloud with any confidence, contains most of the real meat on the album, and as i say, it’s fresh and bloody and there’s plenty of it.
the first daylight reaches the harmonic ear almost at once, in the form of a gentle percussive glissando, but then right away we have a dry rattle from baptista, washes from the cymbals, an ominous, plodding bass guitar and an uneasy, nagging high pitch from the organ, letting us know right away that this dream is of the kind called nightmare – even before the first human scream makes that explicit, ten seconds in. this immediately precedes ribot’s first entry, a sad, clanging arpeggiated chord which sets up his second: a prolonged and mangled howl which, in its density, itself probably represents about three percent of the actual musical “movement” in the entire album (this is not a condemnation of the album; but for this piece, it’s not “that” sort of album). and much of the rest of that movement is to be heard in the subsequent solo, drawn out across repetitions of the twanging, noirish central motif, first heard at 0.55 and obsessed over, again and again during the course of the piece. ribot is perfect for this, his delight in “mistakes” and clumsy attacks ensuring that every single repetition of the haunting, maddening phrase is worth waiting for, no two are quite alike. [i think ribot may have been contaminated by his association with the chattering classes – some already speak of him as a (long) spent force, but this track alone says otherwise.]
of course the other thing everyone knows about ribot these days is that he’s in constant thrall to albert ayler, whose own transports of ecstasy marked a whole new level in the music (as is now widely recognised) – and for a moment in the guitar solo, with a peak of intensity being reached and the promise of enlightenment seemingly about to break through, it’s as if we could be in heaven rather than in hell, after all; and right then is when the screams start again, only this time they don’t stop. so the thing about nightmares: we often give this name to our most dense, action-packed dreams and they are often not very enjoyable, nor would one wish to repeat them, yet they offer so many chances to learn. in the case of learning about what the human race is and isn’t capable of, looking human evil full in the face will be necessary – if painful – relatively early on, if one is to proceed safely in the world at all. right here we have a dream which shows us some of the abysmal depths to which the human condition may descend.
it’s extraordinarily vivid and picturesque, a soundscape brought to life with stark yet detailed clarity. indeed, it is basically movie-music so, again, if anyone has got this far in the hope that i’m going to declare zorn’s really j.s. bach after all (not that i would know) – this intense piece of soundtrack work is as deep as it gets here, and if that presents a cognitive problem for some of you… look away now.
but i think it’s a (miniature) masterpiece.
* * *
the longest and most intense piece is immediately followed with a an interlude of sorts, then the remainder of the album has something of a “counterweight” quality after that early peak, plenty more pleasant and less troubling dreams to soothe away the awful nightmare… the lessons decrease in intensity; yet occasional dark notes will remain from now on, evoking atavistic memories of the devil’s face which lurks behind even the softest, kindliest mask among us. but first –
5. “toys” – the only piece which seems to call for a sax in the voicings, hence the only piece on which the leader plays – and he plays only what’s required from a sideman, takes the limited amount of wiggle room he permits himself, i.e. one very brief outburst and that’s it, instead lets the rhythm guys play with these toys at their leisure… this is a simple enough game, a semitic puzzle piece which swings back and forth like a yo-yo, then twists and turns in on itself to create very intricate patterns within. and just listen to how much fun they have with those toys! [the juxtaposition with my earlier listening reminds me that mastodon have been building on similar ideas, such as the long and very difficult instrumental section in the middle of “capillarian quest” from blood mountain… basically quite similar to what saft, wolleson & crew evoke with their bead-stringing here – though this is far looser, of course, a product not of endless rehearsals but of simple instructions given to master players.]
6. “of wonder and certainty” – a perfect example of the bittersweet medicine to come after the intense nightmare, and some cynics out there had better watch out, this one could have them weeping big salty tears into their midnight tipple. this nostalgic power ballad basically turns out to be another feature for ribot, though shorter and far less harrowing than the previous one. here, he really does get to touch the face of god briefly, falling only gently back to earth, channelling sonny sharrock for a while there. and the title of the piece? not some girl’s name, but a reminder – voiced explicitly in the thoughtful, measured washes of the theme’s release – of the quiet joys and blessings which learning can bring, along with the inevitable pain. [meanwhile, another stage in the multi-ring circus was being set up to accommodate ribot’s full-blown pursuit of the same ecstasy he touches on here, in the shape of asmodeus, book of angels vol. 7. just the title/s of the latter series represents (the perspective which follows) a worthwhile piece of deconstruction.]
7. “mystic circles” – another lovely “hypno-key” in the manner of track 2, but such masterful deployment of sounds on this: to call this degree of sonic alchemy “production” seems woefully inadequate. and although this dream is again timeless – and thus does not move very far – there is still as much detail packed into any tiny fragment as the experiencer cares to seek (as indeed is the case with tarantino or trey parker and matt stone… frame by frame the best they can be, etc etc).
8. “nekashim” – whatever else we achieve with any of this, can we at least clear up once and for all the suggestion that zorn was somehow “flirting” with jewish music and hence (again) just being cynical? if any remaining doubts about the validity or honesty of his approach to those musics could just be screwed up and thrown neatly into the bin, please, as it’s passed round… he has demonstrated many times in recent years how many different, useful things he has absorbed from his research, and here is a sort of “learning song”, full of grace notes and half-glimpses; it’s a lesson spelled out by dancers, whose eye contact has one brow cocked ever so slightly throughout, but not in self-mocking irony, rather in shared recognition.
9. “exodus” – heh, we are right back to naked city again with this, indeed back to radio – and when the theme is actually picked up after the crime-scene exposition, sure enough it turns out to have blood ties to “metaltov”, the ringer or rogue piece in the masada book, originally waxed by the earlier (non-kosher) quintet. still given somewhat dreamlike qualities by the keys and vibes, this is more movie music, and not really a dream piece as such – this piece and “toys” possibly stand out as the least consistent with the overall concept, but i don’t really want to pick any more holes than i have to and besides, john is asking me here if i will please remind everyone again about radio by naked city which is an uderrated, indeed unjustly neglected album deserving of far better listeners.
10. “forbidden tears” – aha, yes, i believe i’ve drunk (and been drunk) from that draught before, the sweet wine in the harem which turns out to be laced with sedatives… this, then, a sly erotic nightmare, subtly disturbing for sure, but far less harsh than the full-daylight, full-darkness version on show earlier. (this one, on that day in the stockroom, sounded the most like a tacked-on extra, but it’s actually more suited to the date than track 9; and besides, who knows, zorn the shocker may get quite a kick out of being able to air some of his more exotic and twisted fantasies in the open, without most people realising what they’re being shown..!)
11. “raksasa” – and finally, a magic carpet to whisk us away from the kingdom of dreams, a whirling ride through starlit heavens which allows ribot some final flights, and which melds many of the individual threads from the album: hurtling forward motion, the simple yet evocative access keys, even the return of the screams – though this time they are whooping dervish cries of the transported self. the guitar soars on the floating thermals of the keys and vibes, and carries us away.
what a memorable way to close this album, to ensure that the traveller is tempted to return..? and if we do return, we may find that even that gentle dream of the sunset beach is not quite as vanilla-smooth as was first thought: there is a little undertone of wistful sadness, just the ghost of a double edge. one cannot unlearn the knowledge of human weakness and evil; yet this bitter truth need not prevent us from enjoying the many beautiful experiences this vale of tears yet has to show.
* * *
well, fellow jazzers, i don’t reckon there was very much jazz in that album at all, but you know what, i really feel as if i’ve learned some very valuable things from that experience, from that set of journeys.
from a “purely” musical perspective: the point is, the simplicity of the pieces belies the extraordinary degree of precision in setting them up in the first place. again, call it production or arrangement rather than composition (if you must), but it remains shaping of sound and it’s masterly.
the other point is that nothing on this date sounds phoned in or cranked out by the yard – everyone is up for it, trying their best to make this as good as it can be… and this, in turn, is a level of devotion which zorn routinely inspires in his players, just like braxton.
yeah, that’s right, those are the reasons why i always end up coming back to this man’s albums, and why i’ve played this one however many times already, with more to come… thanks, mr zorn!
suggested further research:
1. naked city – radio (often unfairly dismissed as being the most like the early “cut-up” albums among the later work, which was generally more experimental… i have gone back to this album at regular intervals over the last fifteen years, there is a lot of material in it)
2. for sax playing: any solo dates or duos, or anything in a free improv setting; yankees (with derek bailey and george lewis) would be a good start; recent duets with milford graves are astonishing
3. for sax playing plus composition: the masada quartet albums (i have heard all ten studio vols and maintain they are all good, none just tossed off, not by any means)
4. for sax playing plus extreme textures/dynamics (hard hat required): pain killer
5. for generosity in writing for groups not featuring him: moonchild and astronome (mike patton/trevor dunn/baron) – as well as six litanies for heliogabalus, some of which does feature z’s sax … these recordings are influenced by ruins, fantômas, zeni geva etc etc and are personal favourites of mine
6. lots of other stuff!! take advantage of the fact that zorn makes no effort to prevent his music being shared on the net, and check some stuff out you haven’t heard before… never know, you might like it and if not, try something else, it’ll be different..! buying is always a good option too, the packaging is always sumptuous so one’s aesthetic sensibilities are fully indulged. (that’s pretty much guaranteed.)
finally, two recommendations picking up from the text:
frank zappa – zoot allures (1976)
gorillaz – demon days (2005)
(both exceptional examples of attention to fine detail in the presentation, selection and deployment of sounds – and within “vulgar” or low-brow idioms in both cases)
 interview transcript at http://paristransatlantic.com/magazine/interviews/leandre.html
 the earliest (pre-zombie) fulcis i’ve seen are una lucertola con la pelle di donna (1971, aka lizard in a woman’s skin) and non si sevizia un paperino (1972, aka don’t torture a duckling); but looking him up on the imdb i see that lucertola was already his twenty-sixth credit as a director..! maybe no westerns in there, a lot of schlock for certain… and one foreign legion movie, which sounds promising for desert horrors… but evidently it’s a comedy.