John Zorn's Book of Angels

John Zorn’s rep as the angry bad boy of the downtown avant-garde has always been a bit of a caricature. His music has long stressed wit and beauty as much as squeals and hollers. But in the last few years, he’s tapped into a buoyant, almost gentle lyricism while still sounding distinctively Zorn.

It may have started in 2005 with a new series of compositions that he called “Book of Angels: Masada Book Two.” Masada was the quartet he formed in the early ‘90s (one of that decade’s most exciting and signature jazz bands). More to the point here, it was a book of eventually over 300 compositions that he wrote—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 didn’t specify instrumentation in this sheet music, so the tunes could be played by any sort of ensemble. First there was the quartet (with Zorn himself on alto sax); then there were the Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba (a sextet with strings and percussion), Electric Masada, and others.

“Book of Angels” continued this tradition, but with more emphasis on the ethereal and lyrical than on the noisy and intense (though there is still some of the latter, just as the original series had plenty of the former).

His two latest CDs (both on his own label, Tzadik) are among the best in this new incarnation: Haborym: Book of Angels, Vol. 16 with the Masada String Trio (Mark Feldman, violin; Erik Friedlander, cello; Greg Cohen, bass) and Ipos: Book of Angels, Vol. 14 with the Dreamers (a much newer group with Marc Ribot, electric guitar; Kenny Wolleson, vibes; Jamie Saft, keyboards; Trevor Dunn, bass; Joey Baron, drums; Cyro Baptista, percussion).

All of these players are longtime staples of various Zorn ensembles.

The string trio has always been the most lyrical of the Masada groups, but that’s not to be read as “mellow.” The players plow fierce energy into even the loveliest ballads. And Haborym blossoms with lovely ballads.

Ipos is an oddball in the Zorn oeuvre but instantly and thoroughly appealing. The album’s star is Ribot, strumming and twanging his guitar in a Hawaiian style that sounds more like the hip-retro rock of the Lounge Lizards (no coincidence, as Ribot once played in that group), alternating with quasi-minimalist tunes that, unlike much in the genre, is genuinely riveting. It’s a record that will keep you dancing in your head and on the floor.