Simon Hopkins grapples with the genre-busting output of John Zorn. This article originally appeared in The Wire 156 (February 1997).
The degree to which John Zorn - composer, saxophonist, jazz musician, label organiser, conceptualiser - has polarised opinion is remarkable even in a field where polarised opinions are hardly rare. For over 20 years he has been writing and performing music of astonishing breadth, with various areas of interest (to name some: film music, free jazz, hardcore thrash, Yiddish folk music) explored almost obsessively. The records recorded under his own name or by groups he has led and co-led number at least 50, and records to which he has contributed at least three times that. In addition, the two record labels he has headed through the 90s - Tokyo-based Avant and New York's Tzadik - have been responsible for always interesting and often indispensable releases, their eclecticism naturally reflecting Zorn's own tastes, mapping the occult lines from Japanese noise to contemporary composition to Ambient atmospherics to sampling collage to thrash pop... At a time when the musical underground prides itself on an openness of attitude which so infrequently bears fruit, Zorn's labels provide a remarkable and genuinely all-embracing fund of new music. (They have also been the source of some of the most stunning cover art and graphics of recent years.)
Yet Zorn attracts at least as many detractors as he does staunch advocates - indeed, probably more. Ignored by the mainstream contemporary art music establishment (see Kristallnacht below), his methods and concepts are yet deemed too highbrow by a musical underground too often concerned with attitudes and posturing to see beyond their own nose.
To a degree Zorn is to blame for this. One accusation which can never be fairly levelled at him is that he's gone out of his way to court opinion. Quite the contrary; in recent years in particular, his attitude to standard music business practices generally and the press in particular has become increasingly entrenched. (The Wire is not exempt from his scorn; he once claimed to keep a stack of this journal in his toilet, and it plainly wasn't there to be read.) He not only refuses to give interviews himself but Tzadik remain notoriously reluctant to promote its releases, and a recent rumour had it that Zorn refuses to let the musicians in his Masada group talk to the press while on tour with him.
In the end, though, Zorn's body of work makes him one of the most vital musical assets we have, and his reluctance to be more open only make his achievements more intriguing.
(Tzadik TZ7304 CD)
With increasing (and rather Zappa-like) sense of self-reliance Zorn has realised that you're better off performing archaeological reclamations of your own work than letting someone else do it. One of Tzadik's projects is the "Archival Series", and opportunity to release long-forgotten tapes, reissue crucial but now unavailable recordings or record previously unheard compositions. By definition First Recordings is barely among Zorn's genuinely most important work, but if you want to get a hold on where he came from it's pretty essential.
Recorded in 1973 and 74, when their creator was, as his own oddly moving sleevennotes make apparent, a 19 year old coming to terms with his "sad lonely life of self-imposed alienation and exile", the pieces both form a picture of a prodigiously experimental mind and somehow set a blueprint for many of the records to follow over the next 20-odd years.
The music certainly explores techniques which Zorn would go on to truly make his own. "Mikhail Zoetrope" is a jump-cutting collage of screaming vocals, bashed found objects and soprano saxophone; "Variations On a Theme By Albert Ayler" and "Automata Of Al-Jarzari" reveal an innate skill for arranging sampled sound; the brutally hamfisted guitar playing on "Wind Ko/la" hints at a kind of twisted love of the instrument later revealed in his choice of extraordinary guitar players as collaborators: Derek Bailey, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, Keiji Haino, Robert Quine, Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay...
What comes through most strongly here - in the music's
influences and in the themes on which it is based (I mean, check
those titles: this is a 19 year old, remember) - is a sense of
wonder at the arcane, a need to explore something beyond the
mundane. Zorn once described a youthful epiphany, watching the look
of horror on his schoolfriends' faces as he played them a recording
of Mauricio Kagel. These early recordings see him translating that
impulse into his own art, and two decades on it continues to inform
The Big Gundown
(Elektra Nonesuch 979139 CD)
Filmworks Volume 2
(Tzadik TZ7306 CD)
Film music, both real and imaginary, is big news at present, of course. Not altogether untypically Zorn was there a decade ago. The Big Gundown remains one of the 80s' most crucial albums, and of all Zorn's massive output it's this and his other Elektra collage work, Spillane, for which he remains best known outside the circle of ardent followers. It's easy to see why: The Big Gundown is in every sense a totally accessible work.
A whole bunch of Zorn's contemporaries from New York's downtown avant garde community, as well as such notables as Toots Thielmans, Diamanda Galas and Big John Patton, crash through arrangements of the compositions of Ennio Morricone. Morricone has, of course, become the name to drop when any discussion of cult film composers arises. Zorn illustrates why. His arrangements seek out the real weirdness at the core of Morricone's music - the bizarre juxtapositions, the unique melodies, the absolute melodrama - and then heighten it. Still essential.
Filmworks runs to at least three volumes, bringing together various aspects of Zorn's film music work: pieces for art house films, interpretations of existing scores, and imaginary soundtracks. The second volume of the series is a complete score for an imaginary Walter Hill film. Hill's films are already well catered for by Ry Cooder's scores, which at their best (Trespass, The Long Riders) are the finest in the medium, but Zorn's piece is more than up to the job, straddling jaunty folk music, tense atmospherics and oddly loping funk grooves, summoning up a world of contemporary urban drugs deals and 19th century backwoods outlaws. Yet more evidence, as if it were needed, that today's best soundtrack work has yet to make it on to celluloid.
Voodoo with The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet
(Black Saint BSRO109 CD)
News for Lulu with George Lewis and Bill Frisell
(Hat Hut HatART6005 CD)
A constant problem for Zorn's detractors, or at least the more conservative of them, is that he can evidently play the ass off the saxophone. The fact that he's one of the most adept hard bop players to have emerged in the last couple of decades has been largely swept under the carpet, however. It's not difficult to see why. Mainstream jazz in the 80s was so manifestly about style as much as music - and specifically about a certain 50s fetishist retro-cool - that a geek with knee-length stripey socks and a Napalm Death T-shirt plainly wasn't going to cut it.
Except, of course, that he did. Voodoo features a quartet one might expect to turn in the usual downtown post-modernist mayhem: Zorn on alto, Wayne Horvitz on piano, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Bobby Previte. Instead the group play through seven pieces by the 60s pianist Sonny Clark with an overt love of the material which never becomes reverential. Drummond and Previte are an exceptional rhythm section, both driving and playful, and around them Horvitz (on this evidence a big fan of Lennie Tristano) and Zorn hang knowing, sassy and impassioned soloing.
News For Lulu is more intriguing still, bringing Zorn together
with AACM alumnus and electronics experimenter George Lewis and
regular companion Frisell to play pieces by Clark, Kenny Dorham,
Hank Mobley and Freddie Redd. It's an unlikely line-up to play this
material but like Voodoo the music swings fiercely (and without the
aid of a rhythm section). All three musicians seem to have an
intuitive feel for the music's exuberance, and as the pieces
progress through blues swagger, funk grime and the occasional
sublime ballad, what emerges is a refusal to reduce the music to
contemporary jazz cliches. Hard bop is so frequently used as an
arena for virtuosi to grandstand that it seems no one can find
fresh life in it. With a fierce hatred of any such tendencies,
Zorn, Lewis and Frisell instead find the music's heart, you can
hear them grinning all the way. Pure enjoyment.
Spy Vs Spy
(Elektra Musician 960844 CD)
(DIW DIW888 CD)
Spy Vs Spy remains in every sense iconic, from Mark Beyer's superb twisted comic-book art to the sleevenote's declamation: "fucking hardcore rules". God knows what Elektra thought they were getting when they signed Zorn but I doubt it was this. An all-acoustic twin-group - Zorn and Tim Berne on alto, Mark Dresser on bass, Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher on drums - play Ornette Coleman songs straddling nearly 30 years, from 1959's "Chronology" to tracks from 1987's In All Languages. The second half is played pretty straight, though blisteringly well, but it's the first half which is truly shocking. Zorn arranges 11 Coleman classics as though played by one of the groups he cites in the album's credits: Napalm Death, Blind Idiot God, Lip Cream, what he refers to as the New York-London-Tokyo Hardcore Triangle. Which may sound like some kind of academic exercise, something this music plainly isn't. Ornette's exuberant melodies are compressed into quadruple speed bursts of energy, Berne and Zorn sounding on the edge of immolation, Baron and Vatcher like they're going through the floor. As exhausting and thrilling after a hundred listens as it is on the first.
Zorn's reinterpretation of Ornette's own revolution has continued in the 90s with his ongoing Masada project, currently running to seven or eight volumes. Fans will want the entire work, but the series' opener, Alef, states the case well enough. Thematically based on the defiant Jewish mass suicide at Masada in AD73, the music marries traditional Yiddish melodies to the sound of Ornette's classic 60s group. No jazz music of the last 30 years is so steeped in the cry of the blues as Coleman's; Zorn grasps this instinctively, bringing together two musics of defiance and exuberance. The musicianship is awesome (Zorn is joined by trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and regular cohort Baron), but beyond the group's technical grasp of the material is an underlying understanding of its passionate energy. Unquestionably among the few important acoustic jazz records of the 90s.
Naked City with Naked City
(Elektra Nonesuch 979238 CD)
Grand Guignol with Naked City
(Avant AVAN002 CD)
Absinthe with Naked City
(Avant AVAN004 CD)
Zorn debuted naked City on Nonesuch in 1989. He denied that it was a supergroup, citing The Golden Palominos as an example of why supergroups never really work. But as ad hoc groupings of musicians go this pretty much brought together the cream of the 80s NYC downtown set: Frisell, Horvitz, Baron, Fred Frith on bass and, as occasional guest, Boredoms' extraordinary vocalist Yamatsuka Eye. Naked City marks out the group's territory: jump-cutting micro-collages of hardcore, Country, sleazy jazz, covers of John Barry and Ornette Coleman, brief abstract tussles - a whole city crammed into two or three minute bursts. The album's poles are its finest moments and somehow sum up all that the group seemed to do best: a Œsuite' of ultra-brief thrashes which still manage to jump genres two or three times in the space of a couple of bars, and a gorgeous rendering of Jerry Goldsmith's untouched theme from Chinatown, which emerges magically from a haze of free improvisation.
A series of albums on Avant quickly saw the group move on to other areas, albeit taking with them their customary verve. Absinthe lives up to the promise of its cover art's extremely disturbing Hans Bellmer photographs. Conceptually based on the inner experiences of fin de siècle Parisian intellectuals while tripping on their favourite narcotic tipple, the album namechecks Mick Harris and Giacinto Scelsi in the same breath, strangely arriving at something which might have been termed Isolationist, were it not for its creator's distance from anything remotely post-rave. Whatever, Absinthe is a truly edgy listen with picked, dissonant guitar chords layered on scratchy, uncomfortable electronics and percussion. Considering that Zorn is such a full-on, in-your-face composer and player, there's something remarkably peripheral about this music.
Grand Guignol is something else again essentially bringing
together three entirely discreet works. The title piece recalls
something of Absinthe's nightmare drones but is interrupted with
violent outbursts and overall has an appropriately melodramatic
horror-flick patina. There follows a suite of remarkable
interpretations of Debussy, Scriabin, Lassus, Ives and Messiaen. In
all the several hours of recorded Naked City this has to be the
most unexpected. The pieces are quite magic(k)al, rendered with
sumptuous arrangements and details bordering on the kitsch. A
friend once commented that these tracks made him think of Tomita,
and I have to say that Frisell's reverb-soaked, translucent chords
remind me of BJ Cole's interpretations of the French Impressionists
on Transparent Music, an album which similarly flirts with kitsch.
So? Zorn was namechecking the likes of Esquivel long before the
largely risible Easy Listening revival, and his ear for the exotic
is as strong as his ear for the violent, the chaotic or the
outrageous. The album closes with all 34 of the slash-and-burn
vignettes partially premiered on Naked City and collected together
previously on the largely impossible-to-find Torture Garden. Anyone
who doesn't enjoy these pieces is simply thinking about it too
Cobra: Tokyo Operations 94
(Avant AVAN049 CD)
Harras with Derek Bailey and William Parker
(Avant AVAN056 CD)
It's instructive to compare Zorn's free playing with his game theory pieces, and these two CDs exemplify both. In the early 80s, very much under the influence of John Cage (still his most obvious 20th century predecessor), Zorn developed various strategies for large groups of musicians to improvise with a collective aim. For the listener any recording of these pieces makes it difficult to actually know what's going on thematically, although it's always apparent that some deep structure is at play. An earlier version of Cobra released on the Swiss hat HUT label is a belter, but this take, featuring bass, guitar and drums alongside sundry traditional Japanese instruments, only heightens the alien nature of this music, as one bizarre moment supercedes another over and over and over. As Zorn himself notes, "In a world of Cobras, this one stands apart".
It was free jazz, though, as much as John Cage, which provided Zorn with both an initial stimulus and platform. There are so many recordings featuring Zorn in free playing scenarios that it's difficult to choose one example, but this recent live Knitting Factory performance is outstanding, seeing all three players on colossal form. It's always a delight to hear Zorn and Bailey together; the younger player has a genuine empathy with the master's unique language, and here you can really sense the heightened levels of communication.
What emerges on both records is Zorn's uncanny ability to create order from chaos. On Harras he's inside the music, making its architecture unmistakably his own, even in the company of such distinguished improvisors, and a recording of Cobra is as much his own as that of a composer performed note-perfect, say, two centuries after his death. Two completely hair raising records.
(Eva WWCX2050 CD)
The undeniable truth about Zorn is that, consummate outernationalist tendencies aside, he is squarely in a tradition of maverick American composers that stretches from Charles Ives though Harry Partch and Conlon Nancarrow to John Cage. The rise and rise of Minimalism has, of course, rather horribly eclipsed this tradition, so it's hardly surprising to find Zorn left out in the cold by the mainstream of American Œart' music any more than it's surprising to find a lesser, but crucially more art music-friendly composer such as Ingram Marshall state, "I don't like Zorn's music, and though I don't know him personally he seems like a loudmouth". (What a genius.)
Whatever. Kristallnacht, Zorn's musical evocation of the event which forms the symbolic beginning of the Holocaust, is one of the major works of composition of the last 20 years or so. Liberal Gentile attitudes towards the Holocaust remain ambivalent, vacillating between a cloying and entirely inappropriate sentimentality and a tendency to write it off as simply one of any number of 20th century atrocities. Zorn sidesteps both attitudes, seeing the Holocaust not as some cliched emblem of man's inhumanity to man but rather positing it as a specifically Jewish event.
The beautiful opening evocation of ghetto life, all plangent Yiddish melodies played by trumpeter Frank London and clarinettist David Krakauer, overlaid with German radio broadcasts, is soon overcome by the album's central piece. "Never Again", 12 minutes of high-frequency shattering (which the sleevenotes helpfully suggest might make the listener nauseous or cause hearing damage), literally the smashing of Jewish shopkeepers' and householders' windows on Kristallnacht, metaphorically the imminent destruction of several million lives. From then on, a coming to terms: sad but proud folk melodies wrung out of Mark Feldman's violin constantly pulled apart by dissonant harmonies and Mark Ribot's scratching, nagging guitar (Ribot is at his absolute best on this album.)
Zorn's exploration of his own Jewishness is ongoing; Tzadik has its own sub-series investigating "Radical Jewish Culture" and, of course, the continuing Masada project is a massive work of Jewish art. But Kristallnacht is something else again: a search for roots but also a confrontation, a demand, a scream of defiant anger.
Execution Ground with Painkiller
(Toy's Factory TFCK88731 3CDs)
And for fun...
Painkiller, Zorn's trio with Bill Laswell and Mick Harris, made a somewhat notorious debut in this country, the release of their Guts Of a Virgin album through Earache (about whose mainstay acts, Napalm Death and Carcass, Zorn had previously waxed so lyrical) delayed courtesy of HM Customs and Excise's interest in the album's intended path-lab cover art. Subsequent albums - Buried Secrets and Rituals (recorded live in Japan and featuring the usual scorched earth contributions of Keiji Haino) - developed the debut's melding of deep dub bass, hardcore freak-outs and unfettered sax screaming, but the triple CD Execution Ground remains the group's best jumping-on point, a kind of summing up of everything they do best.
The first disc features three 15 minute pieces with Zorn screaming hard bop lines, often heavily FXed, draped over sometimes hard, sometimes languorous grooves. The second disc features two long Ambient mixes of pieces from the first, which bear more resemblance to Laswell's and Harris's work throughout the 90s than to Zorn's; as such it's an opportunity to hear his saxophone in another universe from the many it already inhabits. The third disc is the real corker, the trio at their most ferocious, live in Osaka in 1994, ably abetted at times by Yamatsuka Eye. After four long, relentless, bludgeoning onslaughts, Eye and Zorn perform five tiny duets, each under two minutes, which sum up Zorn's work as well as anything in his canon: intense, hilarious, angry, they have you by the seat of your pants. Tzadik through Cargo. Elektra through WEA. Hat Hut, Black Saint, DIW and Avant through Harmonia Mundi. Eva through These. Toys Factory through Greyhound and Harmonia Mundi.