field report no.012118

LOCATION: the Orange Peel AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Neko Case

Neko Case at the Orange Peel

No writeup of Neko Case fails to mention that voice. It has a presence almost outside herself. A clear, forceful tone: sans vibrato and with only a hint of country twang (not enough to seem put on). Her voice is even more arresting live. It's worth pointing out, though, all her vocal prowess would be wasted if not married to such striking, individualistic songs. There are no shortage of good and powerful vocalists, but few of them have Case's creativity.

Neko's development is chartable, since her first couple of albums were mere covers affairs, which in retrospect seem more like clearing her throat than announcing her intent. By the time she released Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, she was a different beast entirely, easily fitting in with label-mates Nick Cave or Tom Waits. This songwriting is the heft behind her voice.

Case announced at some point, that this was the deep-album cut tour. In the midst of recording a new LP, this pass through was about performing songs that were rarely aired, live. Luckily, this ended up including many of my personal favorites. 

NOTES: Neko Case; Mt. Joy


Ildefonso Aguilar, 1985

The official history of ambient may already be written but the addenda are rapidly expanding. Continued hipster obsessions like vaporware created a cottage industry for excavating forgotten new age relics. Most of it is mere detritus only interesting in ironic context, but Ildefonso Aguilar's Erosión proves a revelation. It would easily fit into the mid-90s isolationist ambient scene, but was a decade too early. It's dark and cavernous atmosphere is too blurry to be on-the-nose moody, which dooms so many of it's peers. Instead Erosión is more abstractly cinematic, casting everyday moments as ominous.


Uon, 2017

In the late 90s, the Basic Channel label rewired electronic dub. Bass drops sunk so deep they were more felt than heard. Rhythms were implied with negative space as much as drum hits. Uon pushes these same concepts further out, so far I have a hard time explaining why I think this ZLO is in a dub record at all. Central elements of these songs seem to be missing, but their outlines are faintly visible in the periphery of what's left. The undertow of this has become a riptide the songs themselves can't escape. This is dub as a subliminal force.

field report no.111717

LOCATION: the Orange Peel AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Slowdive

Arriving at the show late from another event down the road, I knew I'd probably missed the opening act—Soccer Mommy—and Slowdive would have just taken the stage. I questioned that assumption when I heard the throbbing pulse coming from inside. While Slowdive has evolved through many sounds—from twee dream-pop to spacious ambient rock—rhythm was never their calling card. They punched up the rhythm on everything from their new, self-titled reunion album (arguably, their heaviest) to Souvlaki classics. I wonder what they sounded like to see back in their early-90s hey-day. Did they provide such a tight, cathartic performance? Or, was it more of the amorphous ambience that I expected? Is this is a trick they've learned in the intervening years, now they're play to be bigger crowds than back then? Regardless, I was pleasantly surprised.

NOTES: Slowdive; Soccer Mommy

Stairfoot Lane Bunker

Special Request, 2017

Special Request Stairfoot Lane Bunker

It can sometimes be hard, distinguishing between straight revival and subtle update. The are plenty of old skool jungle classicists, tweaking the Amen break like it's still 1996 (god bless 'em). Like garage rock, drum-n-bass seems to always be enjoying a reexamination in some corner of the scene—a truth also making it an easy anchor reference for explorations further afield.

Special Request's EP, Stairfoot Lane Bunker, has moments that could easily pass for vintage 'ardcore, but on closer listen it has a dark ambient heart. As much as the beats might skitter and surge, the sea level of every track is an ominous cloud of drone. It's a neat trick, really: upping the tension in every track, making the beats—when they burst free—truly cathartic.


Simon Fisher Turner, 2017

I pre-ordered Giraffe by Simon Fisher Turner, not knowing what to expect. Sure, there was one song to preview, but there's so little of his music available on vinyl, or readily available at all. If you follow him, a new LP is an absolute event. I've tried before to explain SFT's ineffable output, and Giraffe is no easier to categorize. It moves between somnambulant ambient passages to dark isolationist paranoia, only to be interrupted by field recordings. He shows little or no attempt to make sense of it for you. Even many of the sounds with a naturalistic / recorded feel remain wholly unnamable. Giraffe is not an easy album because Turner invites you listen to sound within his own terms and conditions, and that's exactly why it's worth any minor discomfort.

Oblique Portrait: William Parker

Legendary bassist William Parker is the common denominator for this mix that spans 40+ years and includes the biggest names of the jazz avant garde. If you would like to keep up on future episodes, subscribe to sndlgc podcasts in iTunes or copy this link to subscribe manually.

You don't know the name, William Parker, if you're just starting to dig into jazz, but if you've listen to any free jazz from the last 40 years, you're likely to have heard him. You'll may start to notice how he keeps popping up, over and over in different contexts. Parker is a advanced, modern jazz: a leader, mentor, organizer, writer and a tireless player who has appeared on hundreds of records.

How many artists have sat in with both Derek Bailey and Yo la Tengo? Or Peter Brötzmann and DJ Spooky?

In his now 40+ year career, Parker's not only played with an impressive list of avant garde luminaries, he's is a fixture among their working groups. He played with Cecil Taylor for decades. He and Matthew Shipp were the anchors of David S. Ware's long-running quartet. 

Yet William Parker remains under the radar for many listeners. Maybe it's his instrument. The bass doesn't hog the spotlight like any horn, or even a guitar. Or, perhaps he was just too late: all the biggest names in jazz made their mark in the heydays of the 50s and 60s. Parker came up in the 70s, frequenting the much-discussed-but-rarely-heard loft jazz scene.

It's why I wanted to weave this particular sonic portrait. If you gathered a broad swath of William Parker's work—as a leader, collaborator or sideman—was there a common thread, an overarching theme? Was his presence a defining factor?

To that end, I didn't want to present this mix chronologically. William Parker's palette has expanded with time, so later experiments with vocals, electronics are  interspersed throughout the mix (rather than piling up at the end). I also wanted to Parker's frequent collaborators, making multiple appearances here, from appearing clusters.

Sound-wise, this was a massive undertaking. The 20 tracks included here made up a 5-hour playlist. Despite making drastic cuts to each song, I tried to make each one flow organically, to feel like a complete unit within the mix (while still, of course, showcasing Parker's contributions). Rather than excerpts, these are like 7-inch edits; readers' digest versions.

Maybe, after listening to this mix, you'll see the narrative, the outline of William Parker in all these disparate paths. If so, I hope you check out more of his work. There is a mountain of it to climb, but I would hold out one record in particular. I didn't include it in this mix because, by rights, you ought to own I Plan to Stay a Believer: the Inside Music of Curits Mayfield. It's a raucous free jazz soul party of a double album that never forgets the political edge at the heart of Mayfield's tunes.

Ensemble Muntu: Flight
Billy Bang: Summer Night
William Parker & Hamid Drake: Faces
Wayne Horvitz: Psalm
Frank Lowe: In Trane's Name
William Parker / Raining on the Moon: James Baldwin to the Rescue
Cecil Taylor: Calling it the 8th
Matthew Shipp String Trio: Whole Movement
Bill Dixon: Brothers
Free Zen Society: Majestical
David S. Ware Quartet: Infi-Rhythms
Derek Bailey / John Zorn / William Parker: Noon Harras
Toxic: This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People
Charles Gayle: Touchin' on Trane
Brötzmann / Parker / Drake: Shake-a-Tear
DJ Spooky: Absentia, Absentia
Yo la Tengo: Let's Be Still
William Parker / In Order to Survive: The Square Sun
Anthony Braxton / William Parker / Milford Graves: Third Meeting
William Parker: Crumbling in the Shadows Is Fraulein Miller's Stale Cake

field report no.110817

SUBJECT: Glenn Jones

Sitting at the front a gallery listening room, flanked by his collection of guitars and banjos—each in a different tuning—Glenn Jones makes his finger-tangling folk songs feel effortless. Hands down, Jones is my favorite inheritor of John Fahey's American Primitive guitar innovations. His command of dynamics turns his instrumentals into it's own type of storytelling. Songs dip and swell, surge forward or hold back, like breathing things.

Before Fahey's reappraisal in the 90s, the lore of six-string folk was mostly an oral history, so Jones (like many of the apostles of the style) is an encyclopedic storyteller. He wove winding tales introducing each song—each tied to figures he's known. Jones grants you a glimpse of his private lore, tracing the titanic footsteps he knows he's followed, but he never fails to push those traditions further with his own accomplishments.

NOTES: Glenn Jones; House & Land

Vermont Versions / Häxan Versions

Vermont & Prins Thomas / Dungen & Prins Thomas

My first exposure to Prins Thomas' work was his remix work for other artists. It's no mean feat to rearrange another artist's work, casting it in a different light, yet retaining a recognizable air of the original. I now rank Thomas alongside the likes of Andrew Weatherall, as a top tier remixer.

Both Vermont Versions and Häxan Versions are collections by artists who let Prins Thomas loose on entire albums—a prospect more interesting than either a hodge-podge of different remixers or a collection of different artists remixed by the same producer. The works still hang together as a whole. It's a complete album seen through a singular, new lens.

The origins of these two LPs could hardly be more different. Vermont is an analogue synth band on Kompakt records making an updated kosmische musik. Prins Thomas' cosmic-disco reworks are not a distant reach. Dungen on the other hand is a rock outfit, operating towards the space-rock end of heavy metal. Prins Thomas respect for the original material gives each record a distinct character, but it's his strong voice as a producer that brings the two ends together.

Leave Corners

Aquarelle, 2017

Not too long ago, the underground was in danger of drowning in ambient drone acts. Luckily the herd seems to have been thinned in the recent years. Otherwise, a fine example of string-and-effects driftwork like Aquarelle's Leave Corners would have easily been lost in the flood. Thoughtfully and tastefully created, Leave Corners pits stasis against melody while striking a balance between pristine beauty and distorted grit. The cello at the heart of these songs lends even the most static stretches a tactile warmth. Aquarelle is more tune oriented than the outer reaches of ambient, though. Perhaps it's best viewed as an electronic cousin to ambient-rock: pop-drone. 

field report no.102817

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Hailu Mergia

Moving from NYC to Asheville forced me to branch out. In New York, there was always something that fit the bill (as it were), but in Asheville I must, to some degree, take what's on offer. All the listing for Haliu Mergia needed to say was that he was an Ethiopian jazz musician from the 70s—I've devoured enough of the Éthiopiques album series enough to know what was in store.

It's a rare treat, anywhere, to see this form of groovy, traditional music presented by someone who was a part of its creation. Relying on the Fender Rhodes sets Mergia apart, though—most Ethio-jazz relies on tinny, biting organ sounds. The Rhodes' dulcet bell tones set a dreamier mood.  My favorite by far, though, was when Mergia switched to accordion. The pump action of the accordion mimicked the heavy, vibrato voicing I've come to associate with the 'Ethiopian Sound'. Aided by an able rhythm section, Hailu Mergia gave a small crowd in Asheville a master class in Ethio-jazz.

NOTES: Hailu Mergia Band; Lord King

Freedom of Speech

Phantom Band, 1981

Listening to the solo works of the various members of German legends, Can, you realize the band actually was, quite literally, the sum of its constituent parts. They were just amazing parts. Which is exactly why I love Freedom of Speech, by Phantom Band, because it plays exactly like an early-80s band led by Can's drummer ought to.

Though a drummer famous for devilish complexity, Jaki Liebezeit always played with sparse economy. As an album, Freedom of Speech is minimal in measures equal to his beats. Rhythms, cautiously conceal their craft in strident repetitions, while a keyboard or guitar fills are draped about, here or there, as filigree giving the illusion of song. It might have been a dour LP without vocalist Sheldon Ancel's humor, which never tips into novelty. More than once, I thought of John Lurie's Marvin Pontiac album, Greatest Hits (from 18 years later). Freedom of Speech represents a perfect showcase for the skill, restraint and playfulness that made Jaki Liebezeit's contributions to Can otherwise immeasurable.

field report no.102117

LOCATION: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Asheville Symphony Orchestra

Asheville Symphony Orchestra performs Tchaikovsky 5th Symph

As someone who doesn't go out to the symphony all that often, I was inordinately excited to find out that Asheville has its own symphony orchestra. During the 2017-18 season, they are auditioning finalists to be the new conductor and artistic director. Each major concert of the season features a different conductor, curating a set of their choice. Rei Hotoda's lineup caught my eye for including a modern concerto written for tabla and orchestra, by Dinuk Wijeratne, along with some more traditional fare by Dvorák and Tchaikovsky.

The concerto that brought there me ended up a disappointment. Perhaps it was well played, but unfortunately the mix was way off. The mic'd tablas overwhelemed the orchestra. It was all percussion and dimly heard strings. What did make it through, sounded as if the sections of the orchestra were used in rounds, to give the soloist, Sandeep Das, free reign to navigate his circuitous rhythms through it all, but it was hard to tell.

The revelation of the evening, for me, was Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. My Tchaikovsky barely extends beyond 1812 and the Nutcracker (the latter of which I've heard the composer himself didn't care for). This was far less cloying. It relied heavily on the underused lower registers of the pit, all contrabasses and low woodwinds. It gave the work and meaty, tactile sonorous quality.

NOTES: Rei Hotoda, conductor; Dvorák; Wijeratne; Sandeep Das, tabla; Tchaikovsky; 

One Thousand Years of Trouble

Age of Chance, 1987

Long before there was Kid Rock or Rage Against the Machine, their was Age of Chance from Leeds, pioneering rap-rock. I first heard them on the legendary NME C86 compilation, and sometime shortly thereafter, picked up 1000 Years of Trouble, as a cassette. [Quick aside: cassettes may be back in fashion with the ultra-hip, but let's give them one genuine advantage: used cassettes were cheap as shit, and that was kind of awesome to a kid on an allowance.] I can't say I've thought much about Age of Chance since I left for college, but a 30-year anniversary write-up on 1000 Years of Trouble over at the Quietus convinced me to go back and listen again.

With a little time and distance, I have to say Age of Chance aged well. There's something about 80s British rock and rap music. It must not have tasted so forbidden to them, as it did stateside. Maybe rap seemed as much an American innovation, as much as one bound up in race. To a white, suburban kid in America, most hip hop felt like trespassing, but a band like Age of Chance gave me an entrance. In retrospect, 1000 Years of Trouble is more convincing to me than, say, License to Ill. Age of Chance have some real vitriol to vent and enough clattering bombast to back it up. They even were even able to score remixes from hip hop legends like Afrika Bambaataa and the Bomb Squad, which ain't nothin'.

Dance of Magic

Normon Connors, 1974

Years ago, in Chicago, I frequented a pool hall. I didn't play, but they did have an exceptional jukebox. It was one of those CD-varieties, so for a couple of dollars I could cue up all four songs of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters while I drank my beer. It was my first experience with Hancock's work outside of Miles Davis. It didn't take long before I was obsessing about his Sextant-era band, but they only made three (albeit phenomenal) albums. Somehow, it's I only recently realized how much that group, sometimes called the Mwandishi band, did in the small span of a few years in the early 70s. Each of the members had a couple-few solo albums and they appeared in clusters on other, like-minded albums as well, like Dance of Magic, by Norman Connors.

Drummer Connors' debut as a leader is stacked with talent. Featuring none other than Herbie Hancock on keyboards, he brought Eddie Henderson and Billy Hart along, playing trumpet and percussion. Future fusion star Stanley Clarke plays bass, doubling up with Cecil McBee on the first side. While Dance of Magic may not reach for the same depth of abstraction, it does drive in the same advanced, atmospheric grooves the Sextant band pioneered. Connors expands the Mwandishi legacy, adding different shades to my collection. 

field report no.101317

LOCATION: Masonic Temple AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Bill Callahan

Even before he traded in Smog for his real name, Bill Callahan was shifting from stylized indie-rock productions to more stripped-back, malleable, folk forms. Live, he handles these simple structures with a bluesman's flair of timing—drawing out bars or speeding them up, to suit the mood or his whimsy. The electric guitarist, brought along as sole accompanist, deftly navigated his tempo shifts, adding color whilst taking care to not push the outside songs' boundaries. Despite their traditional framework, Callahan's songs never feel trite. He avoids relying on tired lyrical tropes of the styles he's donning. The differentiation is writ plainly on his face: where the average troubadour would be earnestly closing their eyes as they sang to covey their sincerity, Callahan stares wide-eyed into the audience, brows arched up as sings, looking charged and  electrified.

I had thought, for such a simple presentation, they had quite an elaborate stage set up, featuring a small forest of cutout trees with a multi-layer scrim painting. That was until Callahan made a comment about the oddity of it all. It must have been some part of a production going on the same stage, but really, it seemed perfect.

NOTES: Bill Callahan

a formal introduction

John Zorn is so prolific he makes indie-rock's biggest motormouth, Robert Pollard, look lazy by comparison. Even issuing upwards of 5 records a year, the consistency of each Zorn release is unimpeachable. Through endless hours of composing, recording, performing running a label, a not-for-profit arts foundation and a performance venue, Zorn has become a singular titan and kingmaker; the very image of the NYC avant garde.

Not to take away from the maestro, but he does sport crack team of masterful musicians at his ready disposal, bringing every passing whimsy to life. Hell, if I had Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Joey Baron, Mark Feldman Ikue Mori and the rest of the gang on speed dial, I could probably come up with a pretty decent album.

As such, his discography is daunting to dip into. It was intimidating when I first started collecting his albums in the late-80s, when it was just infinitesimal fraction of what new listeners face. (I was aided by a natural culling, since a lot of it used to be on expensive import labels). As nothing other than a devoted fan, I thought I would provide my own JOHN ZORN PRIMER, for the uninitiated. I've broken my choices into eight categories, giving curious listeners a framework to explore within.


It all started for me with Masada: Zorn's long-running, much lauded jazz quartet with Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron. Though, not my first John Zorn record, it was the first that blew my mind. The Masada songbook—apparently 100-deep—was an attempt to square the circle between his jewish musical heritage and his jazz tradition roots (a legacy many of his detractors questioned). Masada was also the opening salvo for his current productivity: releasing records in sets of 3, all recorded over just a few days. While there will always be special place in my heart for Gimel (or Vol.3 if you're counting), Zayin (vol.7) is an exemplary entry. Take the opener alone, Shevet represents virtually everything this group mastered so well. it's complex, fiery, melodic, exotic and sensual.

Masada eventually evolved from a band into an entire category of music unto itself: encompassing a string trio, an amped-up, electrified band and an entire 30-plus series of records, featuring different bands documenting a second songbook, titled the Book of Angels. One of the most compelling of the working groups is Bar Kokhba—a sort of chamber-jazz/ lounge-jazz hybrid sextet. With the Masada String Trio at its core, he added Joey Baron and Cyro Baptista on drums and percussion, and Marc Ribot on electric guitar. Bar Kokhba's Book of Angles album, Lucifer, is luxurious listening.


In the late 70s, Zorn began a series of exploratory compositions looking for new a new way to compose for improvisors. In previous decades, others had pioneered different techniques, like graphic scores or indeterminancy. Zorn hit upon a brilliant idea: gather a group of improvisors together and have a conductor tell them when or how to play but (crucially) not what to play. These works were collectively known as Game Pieces. The conductor uses hand signals and flash cards to guide the players, who themselves have opportunities to democratically alter the piece from within. An early game piece, not recorded or released until more recently, Xu Feng, was given a fearsome run-through  by a double trio of guitars, drums and electronics. The results are, by turns, mysterious and furious.

The most famous—and most performed—of the game pieces, is Cobra. You could call it the culmination; the end result of the previous works. Performances of Cobra are wildly explosive, filled with a scattershot, high-speed roulette of ideas and styles. Naturally, these game pieces are as much about who is performing as the work itself, a fact made crystal clear when the second album of Cobra recordings was released.  Tokyo Operations, as the title implies, is comprised of Japanese musicians and improvisors, on instruments both modern and traditional. It could not feel more different than the original Cobra album—released on HatHut in the early 80s.


John Zorn was already dubbed l'enfant terribles as early as the late-80s, but haters had no idea what was about to come their way. In quick succession, he introduced two bands for which there is no better description than 'thrash jazz'. Naked City, with it's wild, cut-n-paste aesthetic and all-star line-up—including Fred Frith, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and Joey Baron joining Zorn—gets all the love. The other, Painkiller, was a trio of Zorn, fellow downtown denizen, Bill Laswell on bass, along with former Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. Their first couple of their LPs, released on the Relapse label, are metallic in attack. Their third record, Execution Ground, is another beast entirely. The double album includes only three extended songs and two even-more-extended, ambient-dub remixes. The songs are spacious and textural, yet even more menacing than Painkiller's thrashy early material. It's all long horn squeals, reverberated bursts of blast-drums, rubbery, thick sub-bass vibrations and echoing howls.

After Masada, as John Zorn's work turned more towards lustrous melodicism, many had thought his days of audio devilry behind him. Enter, Moonchild: a trio of Joey Baron (again), Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle-bassist, turned-jazzbo) and his former bandmate, the infamous Mike Patton (of Faith no More, Fantômas, and more). Across six albums, the band built a volatile vocabulary of explosive, metallic prog-jazz. Dunn's electric bass is monstrous and distorted. Baron is a ridiculously expressive drummer for how volatile his playing can be. Mike Patton is the gibberish-spewing madman with 100 different voices at the center—from flayed squeals or doomy growls to chanted mantras. John Zorn takes irreverent glee in pushing each of these players to their dextrous limits. In a way, the Moonchild repertoire is strangely operatic, Wagnerian in epic intensity. Through Moonchild, Zorn might yet reclaim the 'rock opera' from the trash-bin of history.


John Zorn does not, himself, play on his records much anymore, content to play the role of more composer, conductor and maestro. It may well be, that like many composers, he can now write pieces beyond his own ability to play—which is saying something. Anytime I've seen him perform, lately, it's been a free improv setting. While his discography is weighted towards compositions, he does have a number of truly vital improv albums. The solo, Classic Guide to Strategy, Vol.3 or Ganryu Island with Sato Michihiro on koto are both vital. I've always loved Downtown Lullaby, an easy-going meet-up of John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Wayne Horvitz and Bobby Previte. By the time they cut this, they'd been playing together for decades. Lullaby feels casual—a conversation among old friends. Where many free-improv albums are busy and fiery, this is downright groovy.

The Hermetic Organ series is a curious series of albums, each improvisations on a different pipe organ. In recent interviews Zorn compares playing these immense instruments to improvising with an orchestra—the range of voices and possibility for concurrent action is so vast. I saw one of these performances in NYC, and was floored. His explorations of the organ—and by extension, the cathedral itself—are highly textural. Almost inaudible highs fill the hidden corners of the space and subsonic lows shake the very mortar. This first disc in the series is by turns atmospheric and dramatic. Though piano was his first instrument, Zorn has only appeared on keyboards a scant few times before this. The Hermetic Organ proves him intimate with the complex organism that is a pipe organ.


Somewhere after the turn of the century, a new voice started to hold sway in Zorn's work. He refers to these pieces as 'New Romantic'. The works are deeply melodic and some of the most plainly beautiful he has written or recorded. Modes and themes developed when building the Masada songbooks are apparent, as well are shades of Martin Denny's exotica and Astor Piazzolla's tangos. Kenny Wollessen is an almost constant presence on vibraphone, giving the albums a shimmering quality. Mount Analogue is a major and unique work in the catalog. It plays as a single, multi-part suite, performed by longtime Zorn cohort, percussionist Cyro Baptista and his Banquet of the Spirits (with Wollessen guesting, of course).

The most gorgeous and prolific band performing new romantic works is the Gnostic Trio, who took their name from their first album, the Gnostic Preludes. The trio made up of Carol Emanuel on harp, Kenny Wollessen on vibes and Bill Frisell (back in the fold) on guitar are sublime together. Each of the instruments has its distinct sound, but at any given point, each one becomes so intertwined with the others, they'll create a single hybrid voice. Even the solos are deeply woven within the fabric of the flow and the group interplay. It's difficult to spot where they begin or end. The results are spellbinding.


The early groundwork for the new romantic pieces can be found amongst John Zorn's prolific scoring for film. There are a handful albums in his Filmworks series that presage his exotica bent, but I'm partial to The Treatment. Featuring a group led by violin and accordion, it steers toward a stronger tango feel. Without percussion the album also carries airs of chamber jazz. The cues are long enough to give each piece the feel of a fully-fleshed song. The group clearly enjoy digging into these light-hearted charts.

The Filmworks series totals 25 albums, now, and encompasses almost every aspect of Zorn's oeuvre. Workingman's Death, a score for a documentary about deadly jobs in third world countries, is a rarer facet of Zorn. Many of his more abrasive works are also visceral and rockist. Workingman's Death, instead, is seething and unsettling. Heavy on electronics, there is little purchase for the listener. It's all slippery, unstable tonal centers and uncomfortable pitches. It cloudy, threatening atmosphere is engrossing.


With the establishment of his own label in the mid-90s, John Zorn began releasing albums of orchestral and chamber music. At first, it seemed a lark, has, but as various strains of his work have come together, it's shaping up as a major part of his legacy. When given the palette of an entire symphony orchestra, his penchant for fast-paced changes actually speeds up. Now, different voices in the orchestra can change gears in shifting layers. It's enough to give a casual listener whiplash. It's in this format, more than elsewhere, the influence of the Looney Toons composer, Carl Stalling, is apparent. There's a darker, dramatic streak in Zorn's work, though. His fascination with mysticism and the occult color his orchestrations with a gothic twist.

There's more to his orchestral work than virtuosic showpieces. Dark River, scored for a duo concert bass drums, is all restraint—focusing on silence, spacing and deep resonance. Kol Nidre is a quartet that's been scored for strings or reeds (and even performed in a full orchestral arrangement). An insistent but plaintive work, it hinges on a simple concept: a single tremulous chord is held in sustained vibrato, sweeping up and down in force is periodically punctuated by a poignant, melodic chorus. Making the most of expectations and anticipation, he builds drama by making you wait for the melody, or refocusing your attention by dipping the held pitch unexpectedly. A versatile and lovely work, Kol Nidre is one his most performed and recorded chamber pieces.


There is an especially hard to categorize area of John Zorn's catalog. Highly composed, but not in any traditional mode, for lack of a better term, it is simply 'avant garde'. New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands is a prime example of this vague terrain (and one of my all-time favorites). Three extended pieces of spoken word, with texts from different authors and each narrated in a different language (Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese). They're accompanied by a different twin pairing of guitar, drum or keyboard duos. The music closely follows the rhythm and cadence of speech, making the music both logical yet unpredictable.

Nova Express crosses two streams of Zorn's career. Taking influence from William Burroughs' and Brian Gysin's experiments with cut-ups, Nova Express recasts the hyperactivity of Naked City with instrumentation and moods from his new romantic work. The breakneck performances on the record are utterly amazing. Kenny Wollessen is dextrous on the vibraphone, playing with untold speed and precision. Pianist John Medeski leads the band through hairpin turns while Joey Baron and Trevor Dunn whip the band to ever-more harrowing speeds. As they careen through Zorn's charts, it's like cliffside car chase from a film noir watched in fast-forward.

These sixteen albums are just the tip of the iceberg. I long ago lost count of how many records Zorn's put out—his discography easily clears 2-or-300—and he shows no sign of slowing down. Each of them was chosen to stand in for an entire branch of John Zorn's output. Even within these categories, I tried to pick records that were recorded at least a decade apart, to give a broader sampling of his evolution and growth. I hope I've provided a foothold, some insight or access to an artist who is, at this point, a living legend.

field report no.100317

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Ballister

A mere six months after catching Dave Rempis solo, his long-running trio, Ballister, rolled through Asheville. The group features fellow Vandermark 5 alum, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and tenor guitar, as well as the ubiquitous Norwegian, Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. Ballister's is a powerhouse sound, cast in the mold of bombastic FMP-era groups, but after 8 albums and 7 years of touring, they've developed a nuanced communication only well-heeled bands have access to.

In this raucous context, Rempis dips into his gut-bucket skronk more than he did on the solo set. Lonberg-Holm frequently plays the wildcard, pushing the trio over the precipice, sawing at the cello and running it through guitar pedals for a metallic edge. Nilssen-Love, for all his power, never just pummels his kit. He punctuates, deftly finding open spaces, even in an all out scrum.

NOTES: Ballister; Omnicaster


Seventeen Seconds

Frankie Rose, 2017

Cover tunes are rarely be for the original artists' fans. Firstly, It's nearly impossible that you'll ever improve upon their beloved songs. If you deviate too much in making the song your own, you'll probably offend. Conversely, if you adhere too closely to the original, you'll wind up simply redundant. The stakes are raised even higher when one artist covers another's entire record from beginning-to-end.

Turntable Kitchen, a quaint little label/purveyor, has begun commissioning a series of just such full-album covers. For her entry in the series, Frankie Rose tackled the Cure's Seventeen Sedconds—which, admittedly seems safer than say, Disintegration. Sure, the Cure has millions of fans, and some are, statistically, bound to cherish Seventeen Seconds above all others, but you're facing better odds. Many who hear this only have a passing familiarity with the album.

Musically, Rose does her best to capture the sound of the Cure's Seventeen Seconds. It's a sparse, moody album, more about ambiance than pop hooks. Without the right feel, it wouldn't pass as a proper cover. The real shift here is her voice: cool and distant, a for more relaxed thing than the young Robert Smith's. Rose's version is dusky and sultry where The Cure's is all angst-ridden nerve endings. By neither imitating nor reinventing, Rose affords us a chance to reassess Seventeen Seconds.


Michael Gordon, 2017

The sheet music for Sonatra (for solo piano) came with the LP—which features Gordon's work performed twice by Vicky Chow (of Bang On a Can): once in equal temperament and again in just intonation. On paper, the piece looks deadly simple, but I'm sure it's fucking murder to execute. Chow maintains a clockwork tempo as eighth notes climb up then cascade down scales in interlocking, two-handed patterns. The insane tension of it would be utterly lost if Sonatra were simply loaded and played as MIDI. Maybe we're so attuned to the subtlest shifts in tempo we inevitably pick up Chow's human fluctuations, or perhaps we're just dumbstruck at her accomplishment.

The work itself is hypnotic in its bloody-mindedness. So much so, there's a hint of disappointment when some slides down the keyboard come in towards the end, breaking the spell. I have a slight preference for the just intonation variation. The resonances clang in unexpected ways, giving a piece of such superhuman rigor a hint of surprise.