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ZORN : Work´s List



NACKED CITY. This is John Zorn's infamous turn-on-a-dime band. Although they can play any style of music, the majority of their songs are noisy and complex. At any moment, a beautiful melody can degenerate into a hurricane of white noise — and then suddenly switch to something else. They've taken everything aggressive about jazz and heavy metal, blended it together, and tightened it. They are disciplined players, but the music is a lot of fun.
They look like a rock band: drums, electric guitar, bass, keyboards, and saxophone. On four of the albums, Yamatsuka Eye adds his unique vocals. He howls and snorts like a maniac instead of singing. It's very entertaining. (He is sometimes credited as "Yamataka Eye.")
The band formed in 1989, playing live before they recorded their first album. They recorded their final album in December of 1992.
The series includes an album of ambient music (Absinthe), the soundtrack for an SM film (Heretic), an album that consists of a single 30-minute track (Leng Tch'e), a live album (Knitting Factory 1989), and four albums of hardcore/jazz/rock fusion (Radio, Naked City, Grand Guignol, Torture Garden).
Every member of the band has released a number of solo albums and played on other Zorn projects.


Naked City
recorded 1989
released 1990
ONE DISC: twenty-six tracks, 55 minutes

This is the first Naked City album. I'd say it's the best one, but then I'm biased — this is the first Zorn album I bought, back in 1996.
If They Might Be Giants hired the best jazz players in New York to make a heavy metal album, it would sound like this. (The major difference is the sense of humor. Zorn's sense of humor is more subtle than TMBGs.)
From The Wire:
Zorn debuted Naked City on Nonesuch in 1989. He denied that it was a supergroup, citing The Golden Palominos as an example of why supergroups never really work. But as ad hoc groupings of musicians go this pretty much brought together the cream of the 80s NYC downtown set. Naked City marks out the group's territory: jump-cutting micro-collages of hardcore, Country, sleazy jazz, covers of John Barry and Ornette Coleman, brief abstract tussles — a whole city crammed into two or three minute bursts.
The album's poles are its finest moments and somehow sum up all that the group seemed to do best: a 'suite' of ultra-brief thrashes which still manage to jump genres two or three times in the space of a couple of bars, and a gorgeous rendering of Jerry Goldsmith's untouched theme from Chinatown, which emerges magically from a haze of free improvisation.
The cover is a famous photograph by Weegee. Some record stores carry the album with the back of the CD booklet as the cover: an illustration of a Japanese girl with a snake slithering through her face. Apparently, this is considered less disturbing than the photo of a man laying on the sidewalk with a bullet wound in his face.


Naked City Live, Vol 1 The Knitting Factory 1989
recorded 1989

released 2002
ONE DISC: twenty tracks, 52 minutes

This album is essentially a live version of their debut album — 17 of the 20 songs come from Naked City, sometimes in the same sequence. One of the other three, Skatekey, is on Radio. The remaining two are previously unavailable cover songs: Erotico and The Way I Feel. Erotico is on Zorn's Ennio Morricone tribute, The Big Gundown, played by a different group of musicians.
The band sounds like they're having fun as they work through their musical hairpin turns on stage. A few songs are stretched out. Inside Straight, for example, is twice as long as the studio version. And Chinatown begins with a beautiful bit of atmosphere from Wayne Horvitz.
Although this is a single disc, the track listing on the back of the CD case makes it seem like a two-sided album. (Remember two-sided albums? Those were the days!) Side one emphasizes their fast-paced rock and jazz songs. The most accessible music comes first.
Side two has a set of hardcore miniatures, bookended by two lengthy cover songs (Chinatown and The Way I Feel). The band plows through 9 hardcore miniatures in less than 5 minutes. Just as it gets too intense, they shift to the jazz/rock fusion finale.


Grand Guignol
probably recorded 1989
released 1992
ONE DISC: forty-one tracks, 62 minutes

Grand Guignol is less accessible than the debut, but more rewarding. Zorn sequenced the songs into three distinct parts, which gives you more options when you listen — you can treat each third as an EP, or hit the RANDOM button on your disc player and mix it all up.
The first third — a single, cinematic track — could work as a companion piece to Naked City's other long-form song, Leng Tch'e. Grand Guignol sounds like the soundtrack for a stylish suspense film. Leng Tch'e is its retarded, Texas Chainsaw brother.
The final third includes Speedfreaks, a 48-second song that quotes every country music and jazz style, with blasts of heavy metal and screaming punk in between. Each musical passage is so brief that the moment it registers in your brain, the band has already cut to something entirely different.
From The Wire:
Grand Guignol is something else again, essentially bringing together three entirely discreet works. The title piece recalls something of Absinthe's nightmare drones but is interrupted with violent outbursts and overall has an appropriately melodramatic horror-flick patina.
There follows a suite of remarkable interpretations of Debussy, Scriabin, Lassus, Ives and Messiaen. In all the several hours of recorded Naked City this has to be the most unexpected. The pieces are quite magic(k)al, rendered with sumptuous arrangements and details bordering on the kitsch.
The album closes with all 34 of the slash-and-burn vignettes partially premiered on Naked City and collected together previously on the largely impossible-to-find Torture Garden. Anyone who doesn't enjoy these pieces is simply thinking about it too much.


Black Box
recorded 1989 and 1990
disc one originally released 1989
released as Black Box in 1996
DISC ONE: forty-two tracks, 26 minutes
DISC TWO: one track, 32 minutes

This is a package deal.
Black Box contains two albums: Torture Garden and Leng Tch'e. Leng Tch'e is a single track. Over the course of thirty minutes, it builds from feedback and grumbling rhythm to a whirl of improvised heavy metal that would make the Melvins proud. By the time Yamataka Eye starts screaming, you'll either be in heaven or hell. It's perfect background music on Christmas morning.

From the CD booklet:
Research into the relationship between violence and the sacred led Zorn to the writings of Georges Bataille. The historical photographs used in Leng Tch'e (found in Tears of Eros) were taken circa 1905 in Beijing to document the last public execution utilizing Leng Tch'e (hundred pieces) which dates from the Manchu dynasty. Given opium to extend the victim's life during the arduous process, the look of ecstasy on the man's face haunted Bataille:

"This photograph had a decisive role in my life. I have never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic and intolerable. I wonder what the Marquis de sade would have thought of this image, Sade who dreamed of torture, (which was inaccessible to him) but who never witnessed an actual torture session. In one way or another this image was incessantly before his eyes. But Sade would have wanted to see it in solitude, at least in relative solitude, without which the ecstatic and voluptuous effect is inconceivable. What I suddenly saw, and what imprisoned me in anguish — but which at the same time delivered me from it — was the identity of these perfect contraries, divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror. AND THIS IS MY INEVITABLE CONCLUSION TO A HISTORY OF EROTICISM."—Georges Bataille


Heretic
recorded 1991

released 1992
ONE DISC: twenty-four tracks, 57 minutes

Heretic is an experiment in improvised noise. The band breaks into pairs and trios to create twenty-four chunks of dissonant sound. Sometimes I think this album is a fascinating exploration of atonal music. Other times I think it's a lot of noisy crap. I've written a quick summary of every song on the notes page.
The high points are Wayne Horvitz's cinematic keyboard work (tracks 3, 9, 11, 18) and the three tracks in which John Zorn and Yamatsuka Eye go berserk (4, 16, 19). The Zorn/Eye tracks are either painfully noisy or hilarious, depending on your sensibilities. (I think they're great fun, but my girlfriend runs out of the room when they come on.)
From a posting to rec.music.bluenote and alt.asian-movies, 20 Aug 1993:
I went to the Cinema Village during the Hong Kong film festival a few months ago, and John Zorn sat down in the seat next to me for ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA and SWORDSMAN 2 (both excellent of course).
I took the opportunity to clear up a question that may be of interest to some of you folks: the Naked City album HERETIC JEUX DES DAMES CRUELLES (Avant 1) was not a sountrack to an actual film — not when it was recorded anyway. But subsequently a film was in fact made that used the album as its soundtrack. I think Zorn said that it was by some friend of his, a Japanese porn director. He also indicated that it would be virtually impossible for me to find it. Probably true.


Radio
recorded April 1992
released 1993
ONE DISC: nineteen tracks, 58 minutes

Radio is all about combining different styles of music. In 19 tracks, the band references the musical styles of over 60 musicians, paying tribute to each one by blending them together.
The combinations come in three forms. The first is block form, where the music shifts from one style to another throughout the song. For example, the song begins with funk, changes to bluegrass, then to jazz, then to something else. Most of the styles are aggressive and loud. The moments of silence that pop up here and there make everything else seem even more noisy. The final track, American Psycho, covers over twelve styles in six minutes.
The second form is the blend: two or more styles played at the same time. On Metaltov, Jewish folk music is played as heavy metal. It's a funny song, something you've probably never heard before.
The third form is a single style for an entire song. In this case, the song is a block of music within the rest of the album. Without the context of the CD, it's just another song. Party Girl, for example, is played straight — removed from the rest of the album, it sounds like a Little Feat song. Using the title Radio, you can imagine that you're turning the dial from one station to another, picking up all kinds of different styles of music, cutting songs off to get to another station, and starting up in the middle of a new song. If Zorn wanted to make the concept obvious, he could have put a little radio static between the cuts. But he didn't.


Absinthe
recorded December 1992
released December 1993
ONE DISC: nine tracks, 47 minutes

After six albums of noise, jazz, heavy metal, sound effects, and soundtrack themes, there was nothing left to do — except ambient music. Half of the songs on Absinthe are very ambient. Fleurs Du Mal, for example, is nothing more than four minutes of low rumbling. On Val de Travers, Bill Frisell plays isolated guitar notes backed by wind chimes. And Notre Dame De L'Oubli is a series of simple, echoing tones on top of a heartbeat rhythm.
The other songs are more complex. You could call them "file-card ambient." They shift from one block to the next, alternating between sound effects and minimalist music. Une Correspondance begins with a droning sound backed by clattering metal. Chimes and sleigh bells come in, the sound shifts to a low hum, and it ends with gongs, flying saucer effects, and distant bell tolls.
La Fee Verte features footsteps, echoing guitar, thunder, bass guitar notes over a sinister keyboard sound, reversed voices, and sound effects that summon up images of ghosts and water.
The last track, Rend Fou, is the final moment of the final album. It's Naked City at its most abstract, challenging, and weird: six minutes of static.


John Zorn's Other Bands

Painkiller, News for Lulu, and more
John Zorn's two major bands are Masada and Naked City. But he's formed a few minor bands along the way. The most important of the minor bands is Painkiller, formed in 1991 with Mick Harris (drums) and Bill Laswell (bass). Painkiller plays the most annoying free-jazz heavy metal you can imagine. Zorn squeals on his saxophone over a chaotic mess of high-speed drums and rumbling bass lines. All of the music is improvised.
Painkiller released two EPs (Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets) in 1991. Then they put out their first full-length album, Execution Ground. These three discs and a live performance were released in a box set called The Collected Works. In 2002, Zorn released a 1994 live performance called Talisman.
The other bands are one-shots. Zorn gets together with two or three musicians and they play covers or they improvise. Sometimes he gives the group a name. For example, when he played hard-bop songs with George Lewis (trombone) and Bill Frisell (guitar), they called themselves News for Lulu. If the band doesn't have a name, the album is credited to the players.
These bands are a lot more democratic than most Zorn projects. The other musicians have just as much input as Zorn. He always stands out with his squealing saxophone, but he's not in change of the composition or the structure, so the music has a different (less intense) feel than his other CDs.
These are also some of the weakest Zorn albums. They have the feel of casual experiments that were recorded and released for no particular reason. That's okay, of course — sometimes an off-the-cuff improvisation works and sometimes it doesn't, so why not record it, throw it out there, and let the listeners decide if it's any good? These albums don't have the grand musical statement feel you get from some of Zorn's solo albums, which is good in a way — these CDs may be his least important, but they are also his least pretentious.


Guts of a Virgin
By Painkiller
recorded April 1991
released 1991
ONE DISC: twelve tracks, 25 minutes

In 1991, Zorn got together with Mick Harris (drums) and Bill Laswell (bass) to form the ultimate hardcore band, Painkiller. It's an experiment in improvised noise.
On Guts of a Virgin, their first album, the songs are fast and chaotic. Harris and Laswell play something heavy for a moment, then Zorn comes in, screeching with his saxophone. They improvise a little, pounding and squealing, until the song suddenly ends.
That's it. Sometimes the only difference between one song and another is the length.
On each track, it sounds like a song is trying to emerge. The improvised chaos is turning into real music. But it never comes together. It's always on the wrong side of the chaos/music threshhold.
In a way, it's impressive. It's so fucking shrill you want to applaud. But it's too indulgent to enjoy. It sounds like three guys being loud just for the sake of being loud. It might have worked better if Zorn did something other than screech. If he played low notes, this album would be fun to listen to.

Buried Secrets
By Painkiller
recorded August and October 1991
released 1991
ONE DISC: ten tracks, 28 minutes

The second Painkiller album is a little longer, with fewer songs. The formula is still here — heavy drums and bass with saxophone squeals on top — but this time they've added some guitar feedback and a singer to a few tracks. The pace slows down sometimes, making the whole album a little more dynamic.
Six of the songs are good. The first good one, One-Eyed Pessary, uses the formula, but for some reason it works this time. After a moment of screeching, Zorn switches to weird, low sounds.
Trailmarker is three seconds of noise. It has to be the shortest track in the entire Zorn catalogue. Every time I hear it, I laugh. Can a song be this short and still be a song?
Buried Secrets is the first great Painkiller song. It starts off with the kind of twisted guitar sound you hear on a Rage Against the Machine album. The drums come in slow . . . and then they speed up to industrial-strength pounding. The guitar riff is looped as the song fades out.
Black Chamber comes to a halt halfway through. It starts to build up, it stops, and then it starts up again. Zorn squeals a lot on this one, but he doesn't ruin it.
And then there's The Toll. The intro is slow and scary, with big drum crashes and guitar feedback. Then Justin Broderick (of the band Godflesh) starts singing. The guitars and drums slow to a crawl while he howls phrases like WE CAN'T WIN! and WE'RE ALL BALD! He switches to FALL! FALL! FALL! as Zorn uses his saxophone to scream and chirp like a bird.


Execution Ground
By Painkiller
recorded June 1994
released 1994 ?
DISC ONE: three tracks, 44 minutes
DISC TWO: two tracks, 39 minutes

This is the only good Painkiller album. In the Collected Works, it's spread out over two discs. The first disc is the original album — three tracks of screaming improvised heavy metal blended with ambient interludes. The second disc is a remix of the first — two tracks that bury the screeching under a flood of eerie ambient music.
What sets Execution Ground apart from Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets? The interludes of ambient hum. It sounds like Bill Laswell took one of the previous albums and spread it out, smearing the hardcore noise against a backdrop of drones and echoes. The music fades in and out, leaving you off-balance. It feels improvised and carefully composed at the same time.
Every time I hear it, I think about Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. That album isn't hardcore like this, but it has the same structure. My guess is that Laswell or Oz Fritz did the same thing Davis' longtime producer, Teo Macero, did — he took the free-jazz recordings and arranged them in the control room for maximum effect. By breaking the tracks apart, looping, and layering, he created a masterpiece of abstract jazz. Execution Ground accomplishes the same effect, but it gets to the point quicker.
The second disc is best described as ambient heavy metal. It sounds like Halloween music. On this disc, the remixing has turned the music into sound effects. But this disc feels more "free" than the original. The distant cries of Zorn's saxophone and the low rumble of the bass and drums seem to play off of each other by instinct. It's an impressive album, something I've never heard before.


Live in Osaka
By Painkiller
recorded November 1994
released 1997
ONE DISC: five tracks, 55 minutes

Live in Osaka sounds a lot like Execution Ground. The band flows, bouncing off of each other, creating some kind of middle ground between hardcore and ambient. It's unpredictable music, noisy but restrained.
On the first three tracks (each about 10 minutes long), Mick Harris plays steady and fast. Zorn switches from "cool jazz" sounds to sound effects to squeals. Bill Laswell hangs back, working his way into the loops of rhythm Harris is playing, or simply not playing at all.
On the last two tracks, Yamatsuka Eye joins in. First he joins the band for Bodkyithangga, which is nothing more than the first three tracks, plus screaming. Then he improvises with Zorn for the five-part bile song — Black Bile, Yellow Bile, Blue Bile, Crimson Bile, and Ivory Bile. There's no real difference between any of the five parts. It's just Zorn and Eye making a lot of hitch-pitched noise.
I never liked this album because there's so little happening. If the band found a groove of some kind, it might work. Or they could all play at once and blow out the speakers. But they don't. I suppose you could get into the flow of it. Mick Harris' drums are particularly good in this regard — he has a style of free-form drumming that keeps changing without missing the beat.
But, unlike most Zorn albums, this one doesn't reward repeated listening. The music you hear the first time is the same music you hear the tenth time.


Downtown Lullaby
By Previte Sharp Horvitz Zorn
recorded January 15, 1998
released June 1998
ONE DISC: seven tracks, 48 minutes

One day in January, 1998, John Zorn got together with Bobby Previte (drums), Wayne Horvitz (keyboards), and Elliott Sharp (guitar) to make this album. It's recorded live and improvised. They cut the music into seven songs and named them after locations in Manhattan.
After listening to the album over and over, I noticed that the first three songs had the same structure. So I made the chart below.
Each of the seven bars is a song. The quiet jams are in blue. The loud, crazy stuff is in black. On the first three songs — 484 Broome, 500 West 52nd, and Eighth Between B & C — the first half (more or less) is a quiet, complex improvisation. Then the band cuts loose, led by Zorn's screeching saxophone. The first song has an annoying introduction, and the third has a quiet coda.
The two green songs don't fit the pattern. Both songs are based on a fast rhythm played by Bobby Previte. The other three musicians play along, creating a fast-tempo, fluid hum of sound that never gets loud or aggressive. Everyone plays their instruments like drums. The green songs are the best part of the album. I've never heard anything like them.
Dowtown Lullaby is a mediocre album. It's an experiment in improvisation that will keep your interest, but it won't blow you away. It's best heard on headphones. On a stereo, it becomes background noise in the quiet (blue) parts, but it screams from the speakers in the black parts. It's easier to notice the subtleties when the music is being pumped directly into your ears.


Zohar
By The Mystic Fugu Orchestra
recorded . . . sometime in the 20th Century
released 1995
ONE DISC: eight tracks, 24 minutes

When Zorn and Yamatsuka Eye made this brain-damaged EP of static and fake Jewish hymns, they renamed themselves Rav Yechida and Rav Tzizit — also known as the Mystic Fugu Orchestra.
You're supposed to pretend that this a copy of an old, scratchy 78rpm disc of authentic klezmer music. But Zorn turned the scratches up so high, you can hardly hear anything else. Under a lot of repetitive crackling, you hear him play the harmonium while Yamatsuka Eye groans and sings.
This is one of the least essential albums Zorn has ever made, but it's also kind of funny. He's poking fun at the sacred roots of klezmer. Just so you know he doesn't take the Radical Jewish Culture thing too seriously, he's satirized it.
If he turned down the volume on the pops and crackles, this would be a good album. The harmonium has a warm sound, and Yamatsuka Eye doesn't scream. With a slightly different mix, you could almost mistake this for an improvised tribute to early klezmer.


Milford Graves and John Zorn, Duo
By Milford Graves and John Zorn
recorded September 8, 2003
released March 2004
ONE DISC: seven tracks, 54 minutes

This is an hour-long live improvisation on percussion and saxophone. Zorn and Milford Graves are really into it, and so is the audience. Graves plays very fast. His style is complex. Zorn plays honks, squeaks, and plays a few disjointed melodies over Graves' high-speed percussion. They don't sound like they're listening to each other. They seem to be in their own worlds.
But after you hear this album for the third or fourth time, the two parts come closer together. Zorn and Graves seem to be weaving in and out of each other in subtle ways. They never latch on to a steady melody or rhythm, so the whole performance remains challenging no matter how many times you hear it. But the chaotic complexity grows on you after you become familiar with each song.
This CD is one of Zorn's best improvisations. It has the feel of a game piece, but it's much simpler. With just two musicians performing, you can easily concentrate on one instrument. The game pieces are either overloaded with musicians, or each musician plays alone, taking turns. On this album, Zorn and Graves play continuously and creatively from start to finish, making the most of their limited resources.


John Zorn's Game Pieces

Cobra, Xu Feng, and more
In the 1970s, Zorn started writing game pieces — sets of improvisation rules for small groups of musicians.
Zorn: My first thought was "Here is a series of individuals, each has his own personal music. All worked on their instruments, on their own, to develop a highly personal language." So my first decision, which I think was the most important, was never to talk about language or sound at all. I left that completely up to the performers. What I was left with was structure.
What I came up with is a series of rules, like a trading system — one person plays, then the next person plays, then the next person plays — and event systems, where people independently perform events. Everybody can perform one event each, for example, but nobody can time it at the same time with anybody else. There might be a series of downbeats where at a downbeat a change will happen — if you're playing, maybe you must stop. If you're not playing, you may come in. That's just one example.
With each new piece, I made up new sets of rules, sometimes incorporating similar ideas and systems from old pieces but changing the sequences, or the overall way it was put together. I would perhaps get a series of fifteen systems, each one able to spark a different set of relationships among players, then figure out a way that these different system could be used by them.
This quote comes from an interview in Future Jazz, by Howard Mandel (1999). A longer excerpt is on the notes page.
In the late 1990s, Zorn released four game pieces (Hockey, Archery, Pool, Lacrosse) in a box set called The Parachute Years. These CDs were later released separately.
Starting in 2000, he began releasing the second wave of game pieces. This began with Xu Feng in 2000 and (in 2002) the latest performance of Cobra. In September 2003, during the Zornfest at Tonic, he recorded a number of game piece performances for future release.
Zorn has a real passion for improvised music, but these albums are his least accessible. He's spent a lot of time creating rules that he won't explain to outsiders — only the participating musicians know when to switch, when to cut in, and what to do next. You can't hear the rules, no matter how many times you've heard the album.
As a result, every game piece album sounds like a chaotic, highly-complex blend of music and noise. It doesn't make any sense, so all you can do is say, "There are a lot of musicians on this one" or "Hey, this version of Cobra is played very fast." (Or, "I can't believe I paid fifteen bucks for this.")


Lacrosse
composed 1977
recorded 1977 and 1978
released 1997
DISC ONE: six tracks, 72 minutes
DISC TWO: one track, 30 minutes

The music on this double-disc album sounds like a series of random noises. If there's a structure to the improvisation, it's impossible to detect. It's not a bad album, but . . . okay, it's pretty bad. Unless you are a hard-core Zorn fan, Lacrosse is a waste of your money.
The first track and the second track are approximately twenty minutes long. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth are seven minutes (give or take a minute). The second disc has a single track — half an hour of random blurts, plinks, and chords separated by moments of silence.
The first disc is played by Mark Abbott (electronics), Polly Bradfield (violin, viola, and electric violin), Eugene Chadbourne (guitars and dobro), LaDonna Smith (violin and viola), Davey Williams (banjo and guitar), and John Zorn (saxophone and clarinet).
The second disc is played by Eugene Chadbourne (guitar), Henry Kaiser (guitar), Bruce Ackley (saxophone), and John Zorn (saxophone).
Zorn: My early compositional efforts in improvisational structures, like Lacrosse, were about making every note count. That's what that piece was about. The problem is that each "little event" is a sound and not a little piece of music. There are other Zorn albums where collections of sounds blend together into something interesting. This isn't one of those albums. There seems to be no connection between each moment, so the listener has to impose some kind of meaning on top of it all. And that takes too much effort.


Xu Feng
composed 1985

recorded May 2000

released 2000
ONE DISC: eleven tracks, 75 minutes

Somehow, this one works. I wasn't impressed with the first two game piece albums that I heard, Lacrosse and Cobra: Tokyo Operations.
Lacrosse was boring, and Cobra never really took off like I expected. But Xu Feng is a lot of fun.
There are six players: Fred Frith and John Schott on guitars, Chris Brown and David Slusser playing "electronics", and William Winant and Dave Lombardo on drums and percussion. (Zorn is credited as the prompter.) Winant and Lombardo dominate the album. The guitarists and electronics-players spew out random licks and squeals over an earthquake of rhythm. Sometimes the drummers play what Zappa called "quaalude thunder" — macho heavy metal blasts, doubled-up bass drum rolls, and lots of pointless pounding. In other moments, they rattle away with clanks and clangs, bongo fills, and tricky cymbal rolls.
All of this seems entirely random — you won't hear a steady beat or melody — but it works. The drums and percussion just keep coming back, taking over and driving out the electronic beeps and the guitar feedback. There is some sort of method to the madness, but you can't pick it up consciously. Under the surface, there's a pattern.


Cobra
composed 1984
recorded 2002 ?
released March 2002
ONE DISC: nine tracks, 71 minutes

This is the second Cobra album I bought. Although it's better than the first, I still don't understand it. When I hear it, I say to myself, "Now that is some crazy shit! Listen to that chaotic crap!" And then I put it back on the shelf for months.
There are fourteen musicians on this album. Every song has the same build-up. It starts with a few musicians playing something complex, then the other players join in, adding their own little chunk of chaos. This builds up into a whirl of clashing notes, chords, drones, and rhythms. The music starts to drop off a little . . . and then it builds up again.
The only thing that distinguishes one track from another is the choice of instruments. One song is a barrage of computer-generated noise, another is a drone made by viola and horns, and a third is a collection of random notes and static created by guitar, drums, and piano. The songs full of computer effects and sampled sounds are particularly hard to listen to.
This is the first game piece album I've seen that includes a copy of the rules. If you remove the plastic CD tray inside the case, you can see a set of diagrams showing how Cobra is played. None of it is self-explanatory (it raises more questions than it answers) but it's fun to try to piece it together from that single page of clues.


Locus Solus live
recorded September 10, 2003
released April 2004
ONE DISC: seventeen tracks, 44 minutes

One of John Zorn's earliest musical projects was Locus Solus, a set of improvised hardcore songs inspired by rock and roll. Every song is played by Zorn, a drummer, and a third musician. On most cases, the third musician was Arto Lindsay, playing electric guitar. The original Locus Solus sessions were recorded live in the studio in 1983. A few tracks were adjusted with overdubbing, but the majority of the songs were improvised on the spot.
In September 2003, Zorn staged Locus Solus at Tonic in New York City. He teamed up with two musicians from the original sessions twenty years earlier — Arto Lindsay on guitar and vocals, and Anton Fier on drums. This performance was played live in front of an audience.
To outsiders who don't know Zorn — or avant-garde, experimental music — this CD is just a lot of noise. Anton Fier pummels the drums with no rhyme or reason, Zorn honks and squeals on his saxophone, and Arto Lindsay plays random chords while he sings surrealist lyrics. Like Painkiller, this is a mess of loud music played with a certain style in mind. The songs end when the players want them to end, and song titles are added later.
I thought the original Locus Solus was an indulgent waste of time, but it's also a great example of extreme improvisation. This live version matches that description, but it's faster, tighter, and less pretentious. This is the sound of Zorn and two of his friends goofing off, hoping something exciting might happen. Nothing does, but that's okay. Everyone is laughing throughout the performance, and the concert feels like an elaborate inside joke.
The worst thing about Locus Solus is the fact that you could re-create it at home with two friends. All you need is a set of drums, a guitar, a saxophone, and tolerant neighbors. No talent necessary. The three guys on this CD are great musicians, but there's no evidence of their talent in this performance.


John Zorn's
Masada
John Zorn's jazz band

In the summer of 1993, John Zorn was writing the soundtrack for a low-budget move called Thieves Quartet.
Zorn: The movie was created in the mold of a modern film noir, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to put a band together for a jazz score in the tradition of Miles Davis' soundtrack Escalator to the Scaffold. Little did I realize that this band was to go on to become one of the most exciting musical groupings I've ever had the privilege of being associated with: Masada.
He called in Joey Baron (drums), Greg Cohen (bass), and Dave Douglas (trumpet). Zorn joined them on saxophone. They had an instant chemistry, so he gave them a name and started composing songs for a series of albums.
The songs comprise The Masada Book, a collection of over 200 songs that can be played straight, re-interpretted, or re-arranged. The new arrangements feature a wide range of instruments, including clarinet, guitar, piano, violin, and cello.
Zorn [in April 1994]: I am working on some pieces having to do with Jewish culture, and Masada continues what was begun in Kristallnacht. On Kristallnacht a different use was made of Jewish tradition and it had precise references to contemporary music. In Masada I'm using another set of references.
The band recorded ten albums, from February 1994 to September 1997. A series of live albums followed, starting with Taipei 1995, released in October 1998.
Masada lifted Zorn's reputation a little higher. Before Masada, he could have been accused of being a fringe player and a gimmicky composer — the guy who conducts chaotic "game pieces," or the guy who abuses his saxophone instead of actually playing it.
After Masada, it was obvious that he could play, compose, and lead a band just like a traditional jazz musician. He contributed to the development of jazz, as well, by combining ethnic music with small ensemble improvisation.
By the late 1990s, Masada was regarded as one of the most important jazz bands of the decade.
Zorn: The idea with Masada is to produce a sort of radical Jewish music, a new Jewish music which is not the traditional one in a different arrangement, but music for the Jews of today. The idea is to put Ornette Coleman and the Jewish scales together.
In early 2003, Zorn celebrated the tenth anniversary of the band with three new arrangement albums: Masada Guitars, Voices in the Wilderness, and The Unknown Masada.
He recorded additional Masada albums in September 2003, when the Tonic club hosted a month-long celebration of his music (and his 50th birthday). The Masada String Trio, Electric Masada, and the original four-piece band played live sets. These performances were released in 2004.


Dalet (Four)
recorded February 20, 1994
released 1995
ONE DISC: three tracks, 19 minutes

The fourth Masada album is an EP of just three songs. It's not wildly different from any of the other albums. In fact, its length is the only thing that sets it apart.
The first track, Midbar, is a typical Masada song. A theme is established at the start — a simple melody and tempo. The band runs with it, playing solos that stretch the theme until it's about to break. Just before they lose it, the theme comes charging back, sometimes in modified form. (In many Masada songs, Greg Cohen's bass is the secret anchor. No matter how far off the other three guys play, he plays the bass line steadily.)
The second track, Mahlah, is slower and quieter. It sounds like a "cool jazz" version of Midbar. Dave Douglas plays beautifully, Joey Baron breaks out the brushes, and Greg Cohen plays a bass solo.
Zenan is a compact, four-minute stomp. It starts off with some sort of Jewish belly-dancing theme. Then Joey Baron takes over, playing a drum solo that would make Neil Peart proud. The belly-dancing theme comes back, played simultaneously by Zorn and Douglas.
If you want a taste of Masada, this is a good album to start with. My copy cost fifteen bucks, which is a lot to pay for three songs, but if you can borrow it from a friend, do it.


Bar Kokhba
recorded August 1994, December 1995, March 1996
released 1996
DISC ONE: thirteen tracks, 63 minutes
DISC TWO: twelve tracks, 65 minutes

While he recorded the ten Masada albums, Zorn wrote new arrangements for 22 of the songs, adding cello, violin, guitar, piano, clarinet, and organ. The result is a double album of painfully beautiful music. This is a favorite among Zorn/Masada fans, with good reason.
This album shows just how simple the Masada songs are. The originals take off quickly into wild improvisation, but these arrangements are far more subtle — and better. It takes some effort for me to get through a normal Masada album (especially the live ones). The beautiful melodies descend into chaos too fast and for too long. Bar Kokhba reverses that, playing out so gently you almost get bored.
The high points are Abidan (one of the best Masada songs, played here on piano and clarinet), Sansanah (three musicians trade the melody back and forth, with haunting keyboard work by John Medeski), and Shear-Jashub (Erik Friedlander and Mark Feldman play fast and aggressive on violin and cello).
Disc two has a 13-minute rendition of Mochin on solo gutiar by Marc Ribot. This is a 4-minute song with a 9-minute introduction, played so slow it almost falls apart.
From the CD booklet:
Some of this music was originally recorded for The Art of Remembrance: Simon Wiesenthal, a feature documentary film by Johanna Heer and Werner Schmiedel.
According to the River Lights Pictures web site, the documentary premiered at the Human Rights International Film Festival in New York, and was shown on public television in April 1998. "Using a color scheme that provides symbolic and psychological dimensions and with an original soundtrack by renown composer John Zorn," the documentary "creates a vivid testimony of the legacy of the Holocaust in a world still plagued by ethnic and racial conflicts."


The Circle Maker
recorded 1997
released 1998
DISC ONE: eleven tracks, 55 minutes (Zevulun)
DISC TWO: eighteen tracks, 67 minutes (Issachar)

Picking up where Bar Kokhba left off, Zorn took twenty-nine of the songs from the Masada songbook and rearranged them for two chamber music ensembles. He removed the horns — Dave Douglas' trumpet and his own saxophone — and added cello, violin, guitar, and percussion. The "free jazz" improvisation is gone.
The first disc, Zevulun, is played by the Bar Kokhba Sextet: Mark Feldman (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), Greg Cohen (bass), Marc Ribot (guitar), Cyro Baptista (percussion), and Joey Baron (drums).
Genesis 49: Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea. And he shall be for a haven of ships. And his border shall be upon Sidon.
The second disc, Issachar, is played by the Masada String Trio: Mark Feldman (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), Greg Cohen (bass).
Issachar is a strong ass, couching down between the sheepfolds. And he saw a resting-place that it was good. And he bowed his shoulder to bear. And became a servant under taskwork.
Even if you aren't interested in John Zorn's music, you'll like this album. It never gets old. It's a perfect blend of chamber music, traditional Jewish melodies, and jazz — three different styles that you can hear simultaneously in every song.


Live in Jerusalem
recorded in 1994
released April 1999
DISC ONE: nine tracks, 61 minutes
DISC TWO: nine tracks, 51 minutes

Live in Jerusalem is a two-disc concert packed with high-pitched squeals and bad improvisation. It sounds like Masada pretending to be Painkiller.
All of the standard Masada elements are here: the great klezmer melodies, the wild solos, and the balance between slow and fast paces. But on this album, the band is out of ideas. Every solo is weak, boring, or (in Zorn's case) the same old screech he's played a hundred times before.
Take Piram, the first song on the first disc. It starts off with a tight fusion of melody and rhythm. Then Zorn squeals for a moment, the band members play some awkward and uneven improvisation, and Greg Cohen plays a bass solo that's quieter than the round of applause he receives for playing it. It starts well, but then it falls off fast.
On the whole album, there's one good song: Ravayah.
The CD booklet has a cryptic list of impressions from the Holy Land. I assume these are the memorable moments from the band's visit: food, places, and brief adventures among the locals.
the wailing wall - teens with AK47s - salt baked fish - stations of the cross - the snake path - lying on the dead sea - the checkpoint at jericho - ancient glass - pistachio pastries - kosher fruitshakes at midnight - masada at dusk - dry heat of the sinai - the arab quarter - jean-claude jones' broken bridge- the old city - dome of the rock - mea shearim - ancient mosaics - the torah cave - felafel - jazz club jams - the cistern - chassid hangouts.


Live in Sevilla
recorded March 18, 2000
released July 2000
ONE DISC: nine tracks, 79 minutes

Live in Sevilla is one of the single-disc live Masada albums. In this concert, the band concentrates on some of the slower songs in The Masada Book.
Half of the concert is taken up by solos. On six of the nine tracks, Zorn plays a solo, followed by Dave Douglas. Douglas' style is classy but a little dull — his trumpet is beautiful, but he never surprises you.
Zorn, on the other hand, is all over this album. On the first track (Ne'eman), he plays for almost six minutes, climaxing in a series of squeals and grunts (from his saxophone). The crowd cheers, Douglas takes over, and the band races to the finish.
They continue with a five-minute excursion into cartoony sound effects and improvsation (Katzatz), a seven-minute drum solo by Joey Baron (Beeroth), a couple of polite songs with understated Greg Cohen solos (Yoreh and Hazor), a second five-minute song of cartoony sound effects (Lakom), and a gentle encore (Bith Aneth).
If you ever wanted to hear John Zorn really play, this is the album. He carries the songs, he plows through his solos, and he even shouts down Joey Baron's drums twice (on Nashon). (It sounds like a playful rivalry.)


Masada Guitars
recorded 2002
released January 2003
ONE DISC: twenty-one tracks, 75 minutes

On Bar Kokhba, Marc Ribot plays a 13-minute version of Mochin. There's no one else on the track. It's just one guy working out the song on his own.
Five years after the last "new arrangement" album, celebrating the 10th anniversary of Masada, Zorn has put together an entire CD based on Bar Kokhba's Mochin. He's split 21 Masada songs between three guitarists: Bill Frisell, Tim Sparks, and (back for more) Marc Ribot. There's no percussion, no bass by Greg Cohen — nothing except the guitar and the song.
Bill Frisell stands out. He takes on Katzatz, a spastic collection of cartoon klezmer themes. Somehow, he makes it work. On other tracks, he uses the echoing loop effect from his solo albums.
The songs come from almost every Masada album. Three come from Beit, two from Gimel, and three from Tet.. Four of the songs are not on the original ten albums — Bikkurim can be found on Bar Kokhba, and Hodaah, Sippur, and Kisofim are on The Circle Maker. You don't have to know the originals to enjoy these versions. In fact, it might be best to hear them on this album first.


Voices in the Wilderness
recorded August 2002 to January 2003
released April 2003
DISC ONE: twelve tracks, 61 minutes
DISC TWO: twelve tracks, 63 minutes

When I buy a new Zorn album, I'm always taking a chance. Will it be experimental and bad, or experimental and good? Will it be an indulgent waste of time, a head-scratcher, or my new favorite album?
Voices in the Wilderness is an exception. It's a sure thing.
The last three "new arrangement" albums were great, so how could this one go wrong? You've got amazing songs, brilliant musicians, and two CDs to stretch out and do whatever you want.
There are over 80 musicians, grouped in trios and quartets. Most of their arrangements are classy and subtle. Instead of turning the Masada songs into experimental noise, they've gone in the other direction, making the music more accessible than ever.
Although Zorn wrote the songs and he produced the album, the music is out of his control this time. It's a welcome change of pace. The booklet lists a dozen different engineers, giving you the impression that the musicians were in charge of their own recording, as well as their own arrangements. Out of his grasp, Voices in the Wilderness doesn't have the intensity of a typical Zorn album, but there's more variety in the tempo and interplay between musicians.
The best track is Tirzah, played by Pachora (Chris Speed, Brad Shepik, Skuli Sverrisson, Jim Black, and Jamie Saft). They sound like Mogwai or Godspeed You Black Emperor — dramatic and patient, with a lot of tension.


The Unknown Masada
recorded January to May 2003
released July 2003
ONE DISC: twelve tracks, 59 minutes

Some of John Zorn's 200+ Masada songs were never recorded by the band. To get them on a CD, he could have made an eleventh studio album. Instead, he created another "new arrangement" album. This time, you can't compare the new arrangements to the originals because there are no originals.
But you can imagine the originals if you listen closely. Unlike the previous new arrangement albums, which featured jazz musicians playing in creative but polite ways, The Unknown Masada is dominated by hard rock bands and fast tempos. There's even an electric guitar solo or two. It sounds like Mr. Bungle's contribution to the Radical Jewish Culture series. (And that's a good thing.)
On track #4, Shofetim, Yoshida Tutsuya plays all the instruments. Yoshida Tutsuya is one of the two guys in Ruins, a great Japanese prog-rock band. Ruins plays in the style of Primus, with an emphasis on complex time changes and virtuoso bass riffs. Shofetim is fast and fun, combining three or four different musical styles at once.
Track #10, Zemaraim, is played by Fantomas, the heavy metal supergroup. Two members are from Mr. Bungle (Mike Patton and Trevor Dunn), one from the Melvins (Buzz Osbourne), and one from Slayer (Dave Lombardo). The band takes a relatively simple melody and hammers away at it with abandon. At the end, they do their impression of Black Sabbath, playing the melody slow and loud, then cranking up the speed for the finale (just like Iron Man and Sweet Leaf). So if you've never heard a speed metal band do their impression of Black Sabbath playing klezmer, now you can.
Not all of the songs are fast and loud. Zorn plays with Dave Douglas on the third track, Vehuel. It's a busy, classy song. You can hear Zorn and Douglas having fun playing off of each other, just like they do on the "normal" Masada albums. Wadada Leo Smith and Ikue Mori get the same effect on Demai, near the end of the album. Demai is slow and spare, with quite a few experimental flourishes along the way. The musicians play together and against each other in interesting ways. The song is a gentle compliment to the harder stuff on the rest of the CD.


The Masada String Trio, Live
recorded September 4, 2003 (at 8 pm)
released February 2004
ONE DISC: eleven tracks, 63 minutes

The Masada String trio formed in 1996 for Bar Kokhba. They played on eight of Bar Kokhba's twenty-five tracks. Two years later, Zorn gave them an entire album of new arrangements, The Circle Maker. On one disc, they played by themselves. On the other, Zorn added three more musicians: percussion, guitar, and piano. At that point, it was obvious that The Masada String Trio was one of Zorn's best groups, just as dynamic and creative as Naked City and the original Masada quartet.
Zorn used them on three different albums over the next four years — the first half of Filmworks VIII (in 1997), a few tracks on Taboo & Exile (1999), and the Secret Lives soundtrack (Filmworks XI, 2002).
When the second Zornfest was staged at Tonic in Septmber 2003 — celebrating Zorn's music and his 50th birthday — the Masada String Trio performed live. This concert was the first release in a series of CDs from the 50th birthday Zornfest.



A guide to John Zorn's music


Anything and everything goes in Zorn's constantly evolving musical world: his pieces are a vision of what happens when postmodern practices become something much more meaningful John Zorn. Finding any one label to define the man and his work is pretty well impossible, but that impossibility reveals just how important his music is. You'll see what I mean.

Perennially youthful – even though he's 60 next year – Zorn, who was born and lives in New York, is a Pulitzer-prize nominated composer of pieces for classical musicians, a saxophonist (he's one of the most thrillingly inventive improvising players out there), an impresario – founder of the Tzadik record label, he also runs a club – The Stone, for experimental and avant-garde music, and he has done more to support and sustain an entire generation of musicians in the downtown New York scene than anybody else.

Pause for breath, but there's much, much more. In the 70s, Zorn created a new kind of collaborative composition for supergroups of improvising musicians, his series of "game pieces", he's worked with everyone from Derek Bailey to Slayer's drummer Dave Lombardo, and ex-Faith No More and Fantômas vocalist Mike Patton, he has created a repertoire of what he calls "radical Jewish music", his ongoing Masada project, and has composed films for the ears, masterpieces of aural cinema, Godard and Spillane. And all that's just the tip of the Zornian musical iceberg. He was most famous in the 80s for his Ennio Morricone reworkings, The Big Gundown, and for founding the world's most avant-garde pop band, Naked City (with guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Fred Frith, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, and drummer Joey Baron) which took the world's collective ear by storm.[...]
— The Guardian

— John Zorn - discografía completa álbumes