John Zorn's dreams

Has John Zorn gone mellow? His two new CDs, The Dreamers and Lucifer (both on his self-owned label, Tzadik), are swaying, swinging, crazy with catchy hooks, occasionally downright mellifluous. I don’t mean to overstate the contrast with the preceding Zorn oeuvre (which entails over a hundred albums, at least a thousand compositions). The time has long passed when Zorn—whose name is, almost novelistically, German for “anger”—gained notoriety for squealing on the alto sax like a banshee and cutting up compositions into surreal collage. The stereotype was never right: from the start of his career, in the mid-‘70s, he could play be-bop, Hammond-based soul, and Morricone movie-themes at a high level. But in the ‘80s, he delved more avidly into ear-ripping shards-of-sound (with fitting titles like Torture Garden and Grind Crusher). When he turned to exploring chords and melodies in the ‘90s, he didn’t abandon “noise” entirely; several of his great Masada albums alternate between blues or ballads and rippers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Up to a point, I liked that stuff, too. But these two new CDs have almost none of it. They’re jammed with buoyant, playful, joyous music—and I mean that in a good way.

Lucifer is the latest album featuring Bar Kokhba, Zorn’s Masada string sextet (a breathtakingly tight ensemble: Mark Feldman, violin; Erik Friedlander, cello; Marc Ribot, guitar; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums; Cyro Baptista, percussion), this time playing a slew of new Masada songs. Zorn started writing Masada music in the early ‘90s: initially 100 compositions (200 more in the years since), jazz heads, each written in one of the two “Jewish scales”—a major scale with the 2nd note flat or a minor scale with the 4th note sharp. Zorn wrote the tunes without specifying instruments. The first Masada band, and still the classic one, was a pianoless jazz quartet (Zorn, alto sax; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Cohen, bass; Baron, drums). But the string groups, which Zorn conducts, unveiled the harmonic colors. All their albums are beauts, and Lucifer may be the most satisfying: like a breezy drive along the Amalfi coast, with hairspin curves, taken at full speed, hard traction, and cool aplomb. You can dance to it, in your head and on the floor.

The Dreamers is silkier still. It features members of the Electric Masada band (Zorn, Ribot, and Bapista, plus Jamie Saft, keyboards; Kenny Wollesen, vibes; and Trevor Dunn, bass), but the music isn’t Masada; it’s more a mix of ska, Hawaiian wah-wah, blues, New Wave movie-scores, and howling rock and roll. It’s not the slightest bit camp. (Nothing of Zorn’s is.) These guys are into this deep, and they take you in with them.

The sound quality is superb, especially Lucifer, which is engineered by Jim Anderson, who has been sorely missed from jazz recordings since he ducked into academia a half-decade or so ago.

Andrew Chester's picture

Heard The Dreamers at the weekend and it is all you say.They are live in Paris in June - should be worth the trip

Mark Fleischmann's picture

Thanks for recommending Lucifer -- I played through the samples on Amazon and it sounded fantastic. I'll definitely buy it.

Jim Anderson's picture

Duck, Duck, Goose.Thanks for the compliment, Fred. As you see, I can be dragged out of academia, for a good project.Best,Jim Anderson, ChairClive Davis Department of Recorded Music, New York UniversityPresident-Elect Audio Engineering Society

Anon's picture

Thanks for recommending Lucifer -- I played through the samples on Amazon and it sounded fantastic. I'll definitely buy it.

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