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.
JAZZCORE & AVANT ROCK
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.
EXOTICA & NEW ROMANTICISM
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.
ORCHESTRAL & CHAMBER WORKS
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.