In the old days everything was better, or at least simpler!
Up to the 1960ies, the development of Jazz followed largely a straight line. A style followed the previous one, the most recent one dominated and was the most relevant one in the given context. Then during the sixties and seventies Jazz styles started existing partially in parallel.
But in the 1980, this all changed. There was no dominating genre anymore but also no struggle between different approaches. From then on, multiple styles have existed in parallel with musicians often mastering several of them, using whatever they find it appropriate in a given moment.
Especially younger musicians had grown up with abundant recorded music available and thus being exposed to a variety of genres.
Given the days of the nice and tidy Jazz world are gone, I needed to change my way of exploring the Jazz history a bit as well and decided to start picking out some musicians which stand for a specific style (or several…).
The first one is John Zorn. He stands for the New York Downtown scene, also known as No Wave and Noise Music. His music in many aspects is very different from traditionally structured music, including Free Jazz. The way John Zorn thinks and how he approaches composing is not comparable to what most others do. You will see!
As a word of caution – a lot which will follow further down is not necessarily what you would call Jazz. Although often being labelled a Jazz musician, John Zorn himself does not describe his music as Jazz. Instead he said: The term ‘jazz’, per se, is meaningless to me in a certain way. Musicians don’t think in terms of boxes. I know what jazz music is. I studied it. I love it. But when I sit down and make music, a lot of things come together. And sometimes it falls a little bit toward the classical side, sometimes it falls a little bit towards the jazz, sometimes it falls toward rock, sometimes it doesn’t fall anywhere, it’s just floating in limbo. But no matter which way it falls, it’s always a little bit of a freak. It doesn’t really belong anywhere. It’s something unique, it’s something different, it’s something out of my heart. It’s not connected with those traditions. But the music is not jazz music, it’s not classical music, it’s not rock music. It’s a new kind of music …
As Mr. Zorn seems to be a workaholic, which at the same time apparently has an unlimited source of inspiration, his catalogue is very vast. According to Wikipedia he appears on over 400 records. This gives me the opportunity to highlight a selection out of his work, which I find interesting, without any aspiration it to be exhaustive.
Some very early stuff
For me, his early compositions are actually the most amazing ones. He created some so called “game pieces” involving strict rules, role playing and prompters with flashcards. Only when I saw the video below I started to understand what this means!
This one is Cobra, composed in 1984 and first released on album in 1987 and in subsequent versions in 1992, 1994 and 2002, and revisited in performance many times.
Amazing, isn’t it?
About the same time, he was touring the venues of New York performing “duck calls”.
I might have asked for my money back after the show to be honest.
His first major commercial success John Zorn had with The Big Gundown, released in 1986, on which he reworks songs from Ennio Morricone. And if you read reworks, it really means reworks!
That record was followed by another good-seller Spillane in 1987.
Both records are quite accessible, at least in comparison to other John Zorn records.
Naked City & Painkiller
With Naked City and Painkiller we move into rock. John Zorn combines free jazz and noise with influences from hardcore / grindcore bands like Agnostic Front and Napalm Death.
It was really a test how far one can go with the traditional rock band format. Naked City featured Zorn (saxophone), Bill Frisell (guitars), Fred Frith (bass), Wayne Horvitz (keyboards), Joey Baron (drums), and occasional vocals from Yamatsuka Eye (and later Mike Patton from Faith No More).
Painkiller was formed by Bill Laswell on bass and Mick Harris on drums in 1991. Later Hamid Drake replaced Harris on drums and guest vocalist Mike Patton appeared.
If you are like me and enjoy hardcore metal, this is interesting stuff!
Masada is primarily a songbook comprising more than 500 relatively brief compositions. Each song is written in accordance with a number of rules, including the maximum number of staves, the modes or scales that are used, and the fact that the songs must be playable by any small group of instruments.
At the same time it is a new Jewish music as Zorn stated: 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.
Jazz related works
I hope the above has demonstrated without a doubt that John Zorn can’t be reduced to one genre. The breath of his work is unbelievably wide. If you want to get a listing of all his records, please go to http://www.tzadik.com/ which is his own label.
Nothing of the above has much to do with Jazz music. But, I had warned you at the beginning, hadn’t I?
However, there are at least three John Zorn records which belong to the Jazz space. The first one to mention is Spy vs Spy from 1989. If you like your daily dose of Free Jazz, this might be just the right thing for you as Zorn performs interpretations of Ornette Coleman’s music on it.
On News For Lulu (1992) and More News For Lulu (1992) he performs, together with Bill Frisell and George Lewis, compositions by Kenny Dorham, Sonny Clark, Freddie Redd and Hank Mobley.
The Jazz related record I appreciate most is Voodoo from 1986 on which he plays with the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet.
A different approach
While most of John Zorn’s work will not be on heavy rotation on my stereo, I raise my hat to him for his radically different approach. It sure took a lot of courage to go his way and there was quite some controversy around his work initially. But I think the guys from Down Beat got it absolutely right when describing John Zorn as one of our most important composers.
Two things stroke me when going through parts of his work. Firstly, he does not really think and work within traditional song structures. To the contrary, he thinks in sound blocks or fragments, which can be quite short. For example, for Spillane he wrote descriptions or ideas on file-cards and later arranged them to form the piece. He apparently worked 10 to 12 hours a day for a week orchestrating these file cards!
And of course, the organisation of these sound blocks can vary in live performances depending on the musicians he performs with.
The second difference to most other musicians is that Zorn, as others from this scene, uses sounds which surround us – a Zorn quote: When you ride down the Broadway at 1pm on your bicycle you will experience everything which is in our music.
Thanks for reading all the way down to here!