Jazz has held a flirtation with the Western classical music tradition as far back as the pre-Swing era. The relationship has been full of mixed signals, misunderstandings and miscommunications, but the ocassional moments of bliss keep the two coming back — they can’t quit each other. This has gone on almost entirely in the langauge of tonality, with the music of Debussy, Stravinsky and Bach finding its features interpolated into jazz, with the rare nod to the Scond Viennese School. The Romantics seem to be more in vogue lately, their material and ideas expressed through Uri Caine, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, the Vienna Art Orchestra and Tethered Moon. This is not only a selective view of classical music, but a highly limited one.

The restrictive musical logic is that musicians and composers have been seeking to augment jazz’s natural genius for rhythm, ensemble interplay and improvisation by shoring up what may seem weaknesses in comparison to classical music; harmonic and structural richness, complexity and sophistication. Jazz as it is stands on its own is an exceptional art form, of course, but every art form benefits from the interpolation of new ideas. Baroque and Neo-Classical counterpoint and form:

… help add small-scale structural and harmonic ideas and are kissing cousins to walking bass lines:

Debussy and the earlier Romantics are sources for vertically extended and ambigous harmonies:

The orchestral tradition supplies expanded duration and a sense of grandiosity:

But classical music didn’t stop with Stravinsky, and the post World War II fracturing of that tradition, and the concommitant spread of intellectual and aesthetic seedlings far afield, manifesting in an incredible proliferation of variety, has had little, which since Miles went electric has been carrying on a never-ending, fratricidal debate over its own nature and authenticity. So while someone like Steve Reich can reconcile Bach, Stravinsky and jazz, and Conlon Nancarrow can write multipart, polyrhythmic player-piano canons in the style of blues and boogie-woogie, and even Frank Zappa can make the logical fit between Varese and prog-rock, there’s been no comparable figure in jazz — not even Anthony Braxton or George Lewis — to even imagine that ideas found in Xenakis, Cage, Feldman and Ferneyhough can be adapted to jazz. No one, except for John Zorn.

If that had been his sole musical ambition and achievment, he would be invaluable, but he’s done so much more. Much of that has been good, and much of it has also been problematic, making him, in the compelling words of the “Penguin Guide to Jazz,” the ambiguous superstar of the avant-garde. Zorn is a great artist and an idol to many. All great artists produce less-than-great work, and all idols fall.

Although he spent time studying music in college, he is essentially an autodidact, with the autodidact’s conviction that the things they discover have never been seen before. While this might be irritating, it’s served Zorn well in his career. He was not the creator of his most notable techniques, but in the worlds of jazz and popular music, he was the first to apply them. Game techniques and strategies had been used in experimental music since Charles Ives, but Zorn applied them uniquely in jazz, organzing seminal and involvings works like Cobra and the pieces collected in the “Parachute Years” box set. Composers had used these concepts to produce their pieces, while Zorn used them to create an environment that would produce a group improvisation that fufilled his own criteria for success. Group and free improvisation were not new to jazz in the late 1970s, but the constructively antagonistic idea that one or more of the musicians could ‘win’ at the piece while others could lose, like a bunch of poker players, was new. The competetive sharpness of his approach keeps these recordings exceedingly fresh.

Likewise, conducted improvisation, with hand gestures, flash cards and the like, was decades old, and even ‘long-hair’ composers like Witold Lutoslawski had created ways to incorporate improvisation into orchestral pieces, but jazz had never used the autocratic conductor-based model when it came to group improvisation, where a sympathetic consensus was the common value. Zorn’s approach brought a bracing, and important, rigor to this kind of performance. Improvisation is a dangerous art, often spectacularly successful, but one where failure tends to be catastrophic. It’s about taking and making chances in the moment, and groups and musicians tend to find the things they are comfortable with and stick to them. The feeling that anything can happen is what you hear in large and small scale improvisations under the aegis of Zorn, on cryptic and compelling records like Yankees and Locus Solus.

During the first part of his career, he was a daring player and thinker. Nothing he did was safe, most of it was a success. The heedless élan of these recordings is representative of their times, and Zorn is as much the creatore and molder of a movement as Charlie Parker was two generations prior. Be-Bop had its roots in the blues, but there is no better expression of the social and political environment in America from the end of World War II to the end of the Korean War. A part joyful, part frantic neurosis, venting from a fervid melange of a mobilized, industrialized citizenry, high on amphetamines, money, and the success of surviving a cataclysm. It’s the soundtrack to Film Noir, “Invisible Man” and “On The Road.” Zorn’s concept and sound, with its roots in jazz via punk, reflects on and reacts to post-1968 America, a noisome reek of paranoia, urban decay and violence,  crack, do-it-yourself New York City street culture, “The Warriors,” and Jonestown.

Zorn, like Parker, is a great sax player. Early in his career, many people only knew his honking, shrieking horn and use of duck calls. But when you hear his big sound, following after Jackie McLean, and has fiery, articulate and witty thinking on his News for Lulu records (only the second volume is currently in print), and in the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet Voodoo CD (my personal favorite out of all his work), you realize that he is one of the finest post-Bop alto players in all of jazz. One of the regrets and frustrations of following his career is that, lately, one is left wishing they had gotten to hear a lot more of his playing (this feeling was acute after the Masada Marathon concert at City Opera on March 30, which was bookended by viscerally exciting playing from him in his Masada Quartet, and then by a deathmetal scream fest between him and Mike Patton at the close, with nary another sax note for over three hours).

Zorn is a cultural magpie and his vast discography a testament to the countless shiny objects that fascinate him enough to collect. There’s jazz, of course, not just the avant-garde and the funky Hard-Bop of Clark, Freddy Redd and Kenny Dorham, but the cool, West Coast style of Bud Shank. And there are the irreverant experiments of composer Mauricia Kagel, the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and the astonishingly brilliant and subversive cartoon music of Carl Stalling (one of the twentieth century’s secret masters). There is also the underground films, the Japanese pornography, the Judaism as cultural reference, the aesthetic of derangement from Rimbaud and Artaud, the decadent, hermetic occultism of Aleister Crowley. Pick one and think through its implications, and you get masterpieces like The Big Gundown, one of the most important records of the twentieth century music, or the burning, hard-hitting Masada Quartet CDs (especially the stunningly intense Live at Tonic and Live in Jerusalem). Put a few shiny, pretty objects together and do nothing else but admire them, though, and you get stylish containers with not much in them. Zorn creates and attaches his name to many concepts, and sells them as such, and it is Zorn-as-brand that the Penguin Guide refers to.

The dividing line seems to be the Naked City project, not in the sense of a before and after that band, but in the sense of focus and critical concentration on the inside and musical-social subcultures on the outside, what they support and make possible. Naked City is a brilliant concept that is hit-or-miss in practice, and not just by chance. The first record has had a subtly minatory influence on the unwary, convincing them that the practice is the thing, not the result, that the value of Post-Modernism is a given, and that the rest is best left unexamined. The quick-switch juxtaposition of styles becomes the thing, and the first few minutes of a first hearing are dazzling. But there is never enough material to support the volume and duration, there’s an aesthetic of difference (between, say, cocktail lounge swing and Butthole Surfers thrash) rather than one of creative agency. The band is always a powerhouse, with an axis based on Joey Baron’s tremendous drumming and Zorn and Bill Frisell’s skronking, but the records tire out the ear quickly. There’s just not enough music amidst the frantic activity. The exceptions, like the great arrangements of soundtrack tunes on the first disc, or the long, grinding and rich “Leng Tch’e,” prove the rule by being so musically expressive and satisfying.

The contrast with his Painkiller band is surprisingly striking. Painkiller is heavier, deeper, richer and stronger in every way. The focus is off process and on saying something with music, and while not everyone who comes to Zorn from the jazz world will enjoy what is fundamentally black metal, the records are gripping and often exhilarating. As usual, Zorn is trying to prove a point, but in this case it’s a musical, rather than cultural one; good musicians can make good music in many genres and styles, and the label is secondary to the quality.

One thing the two projects share is the provocative song titles and imagery; “Perfume of a Critic’s Burning Flesh,” “Jazz Snob: Eat Shit,” “Sack of Shit,” “Osaka Bondage,” “Guts of a Virgin,” “Purgatory of Fiery Vulvas,” “Vapors of Phlegm and Blood,” accompanied by booklets and inserts with photgraphic and illustrative images of torture, mutilation, dismemberment. It’s easy to say take it or leave it, it’s the music that counts, except that the packages are disingenuously poker-faced about it all. What’s the point? To shock? To stimulate? To suggest counter- and sub-cultural bona fides? The attempt to épater le bourgoisie is clear and none too effective for being both so obvious and so underground — is there a staid, culturally cloistered audience for Naked City that, seeing the first CD cover with the classic Weegee photo of a dead body on the sidewalk, though, hmmmmm, this just might be for me?

In the 2010 Black Box reissue, Zorn explains and apologizes for the images. It’s sincere, as is his bewilderment that they upset anyone. His magpie eye was drawn to the current of sadism in Japanese culture, uncritically so. To him, it’s aesthetics, but saying it’s so doesn’t make it so. There’s a weird multi-cultural slumming going on when one regards the infantile violence and sadism in Japanese popular culture as something fascinatingly other, when the subject is the mistreatment of other human beings. It doesn’t take Haruki Murakami to point out things that are morally wrong, and while a fascination with human depravity is not unusual, when the fascination is over the inventiveness of techniques, that is the worst of hipsterism. Artists may not be willing to reveal their moral point of view of their material, and audiences may get it wrong — as so many do with “Blow Up” — but critics must, that’s our value and duty.

The cultural signifiers have gone from the hardest of hard core to the most mysterious. Songs Without Words, from Moonchild, is dedicated to Artaud, Varese and Crowley, and what they have to do with each other in anyone’s guess. Liberation (the liberator of reason, the liberator of sound, the liberator of morals)? If so, then why the administrative sense of control over the CD? I am a fan of the band — vocalist Mike Patton, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Joey Baron — and the music, which is daring and develops some astonishing beauty out of some excoriating harshness, but the Zorn connection is odd. The title is literally “John Zorn’s Moonchild, Songs Without Words,” but Zorn does not play at all. Inside, the credit is “conceived, composed, arranged and conducted by John Zorn.” That’s a lot of authorial control to assert over a set of tracks that, while based on specific themes from the composer, has a lot of input and exploration from the musicians.

Zorn’s role as a conductor in this and other ensembles that he forms but does not play in is unusual. If you see him lead one of his Masada/Book of Angels ensembles, he sits in a chair with them on stage, counts off time, cues solos, brings the band back to the top, the kind of thing a bandleader does while handling their axe. The bands are so dense with excellent musicians, so skilled, that it’s impossible to see why they need such cueing, especially because the structural results are so ordinary; head-solos-head, the kind of thing the jazz snobs can’t live without. Zorn writes the material, and he’s certainly entitled to shape it as he wishes, but the results, across myriad Masada and Book of Angles CDs (where various musicians play some of the several hundred Semitic flavored tunes he’s produced), are monotonous. The orchestration may change from a rock trio to a horn heavy jazz band, but there is almost no variety in how the music is arranged, and at the Marathon only the Secret Chiefs and the Masada String Trio exercised any freedom in the standard tune-solos-tune format. It’s expressed as ‘curation,’ but that word is both over and mis-used in contemporary language. Zorn is the composer, record producer, conductor and impressario, franchiser of the bands, and brand. What is the Dreamers, but another Zorn franchise, sounding exactly like a Masada/Book of Angels band but playing lively, supple music much more in a major key.

What I’ve come to think is that Zorn is a great systematizer, and that even the obscurest reference and the seemingly superfluous command are part of a large scale shaping and ordering of his ideas and his own musical personality. Certainly the way the brilliant first Masada Quartet disc, an idea that grafted exceptional song-craft onto a new version of the classic Ornette Coleman quartet, begat Masada as a set of tunes that then begat Book of Angels. The gestures towards Judaism, pagan magic, childhood as imagined by adults (as a sort of Neo-Victorian literary exercise that can include the imagery of Henry Darger) as a mystical, proto-outsider state, come together with the body of directed compositions, whether tunes or game pieces, into elements of an ordered system that produce a world that is the body of John Zorn’s work, the stylistic explorations (even the ones that seem to be churned out as just another marketable package) all integral features of a whole, a kind of geography of his aesthetic mind, where the listener can tour and explore their favorite regions. It’s akin to a vast fantasy world, like those of Tolkein or Zelazny, or a video game, or a comic book universe, with it’s own rules and full of details that may seem innocuous in passing but later become essential to telling the larger story. Musically, though, the success of that world seems based on how much trust one places in Zorn’s imagination. Music in Sacred Light and Astronome are supposedly narratives of Kabbalistic practices and Satanic rituals, an old-fashioned, Romantic idea. But who can say what they are? Who has the experience to reference this melody and that chord change, and what they symbolize? The geography of this music is deliberately hermetic, and invisible without the third eye, so despite the attraction of the notes, there is no connection of meaning and expression.

A great deal of Zorn’s musical geography is real though, and you can visit it, or at least the ghosts of it. Beyond the music-making, he is arguably the most important organizing figure in music of the past two generations. When he came on the scene, Downtown and Uptown were not just two differnet scenes but two different dimensions. A few crossed back and forth between each, but no one belonged to both. Zorn almost single-handedly knitted them together. He brought brought non-jazz players to improvisation and thus new music, and he brought jazz players to non-jazz improvisation. He connected the secret history of prog-rock, soundtracks and experimental music to non-classical players, then connected them to contemporary classical music, and from there, brought the contemporary classical playesr into his world. It’s been a long process that started with the duck calls and games and has culminated in his considerable development as a composer of structured, strictly notated contemporary classical music.

Zorn’s overall musical career is similar to that of Charles Bukowski. Each has done a small set of things with an almost monomaniacal focus, and produced major, influential work. Bukowski churned out short stories and poems, most formulaic, and as he got older the stories lost verve and freshness while the poems, which had been clumsy, became charming and sharp. Zorn, who was such a burning player, seems to have gradually handed off the ‘jazz’ part of his career to others, through his material and his supervision, while his career as a composer, which began unevenly, has reached a considerably impressive point.

It’s been like the mastery of any art, taking time, energy, focus, effort and practice. Early pieces varied in terms of both concept and the quality of the composing. Kristallnacht is too obvious to count as a success, and his ersatz Feldman on Redbird is just that. But there is a great deal of imagination and some fine writing in his Elegy for Jean Genet, and the string quartet music has always been impressive, especially considering the challenges of the form. Zorn’s compositional voice really makes its debut on The Big Gundown, one of the essential documents of the twentieth century. He’s less a composer on the disc than an arranger of genius, leaving a lot of the note-making and shaping to the musicians, but the way he slices apart themes from Ennio Morricone, in both vertical and horizontal fashion, and fits them back together to make new, coherent musical narratives, sets the conceptual and aesthetic stage for what was to come. The music had to go, like Carl Stallings, from one clear thematic idea to a completely different one in moments, then to the next. How to do that is the question of craft: how do I write a set of abstract, symbolic instructions for a musician so that it will be clear to them what they are supposed to play and how it is supposed to sound? It’s extremely difficult, and Zorn’s dedication to his craft shows in the way he is able to make difficult music sound coherent.

The culmination was the premiere of “Machine de l’Être” at City Opera. Quite a journey for any composer, much less one who has so completely gone his own way, one of the ultimate products of the DIY punk ethos on stage in a world that, to its detriment, sees a proper pedigree as paramount. In the company of notable works from Schoenberg and Feldman, Zorn’s score not only fit unselfconsciously but may have been the the most well-written. The music balanced disorientation with supple, flowing writing and a large-scale structural cohesion. From moment to moment, as mood and stye shifted, it may have sounded fragmented, but the quality of the thinking and expression laid out Zorn’s aesthetic clearly and convincingly, the unexpected sounding natural and often quite beautiful.

Capping off a year that has celebrated both his past and his current status as a composer, he was honored with a second Composers Portrait at Miller Theater (see Steve Smith for a cogent review). The honor is deserved. Beyond the novelty of the story of a downtown, avant-garde bad-body making good uptown is the reality that Zorn is a leading voice in contemporary classical music. In the current musical climate, there are branches and groups of musicians who fit together in easily understood styles, with the constantly looming danger that schools of thought will coalesce and ossify. Beyond the sheer quality of his music, which is considerable, Zorn just sounds like himself and no one else. As Allan Kozinn pointed out in the Times, the current crop of composers and musicians are completely comfortable in pop music styles, but their particular musical experience, at least as I hear it, doesn’t have anything like Zorn’s hard-scrabble, creatively chaotic experimentation. Hip-hop and indie-pop are their poles, while his is a mosaic of jazz, punk, improvisation, a touch of cheese, a does of derangement, more questions than answers. I think this gives him a considerable advantage, as well as the essential values of irreverence and anti-authoritarianism. Perhaps that is the secret system he seems to be exploring and organizing, an intellectual and aesthetic support system for artists to trust in their own work, their mistakes and their successes, and to be true to their goals, their basest as well as their most exalted. Practical magick.


Recommended Discography (while distribution can be scattered, these can be found via Zorn’s label Tzadik, Amazon, the Downtown Music Gallery or Jazzloft.com

The Parachute Years
Cobra
Locus Solus
News for Lulu/More New for Lulu
The Big Gundown
The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, Voodoo
Naked City
Filmworks Anthology, 1986 – 2005
Masada, Vol. 1
Elegy
The String Quartets
Painkiller, Collected Works
Moonchild
The Dreamers
Xaphan: Book of Angels Vol. 9
Mysterium

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