Maybe it was John Zorn's post-punk take on the hipster role, his unmistakably deep knowledge of virtually all 20th-century music. Or maybe it was his refusal to submit to preconceived notions of a jazz musician's role, or a classical composer's role, or a punk musician's role. But back in the late 1980s, when his career reached the 15-year mark, John Zorn was all the rage in the music press.
Hip journalists fawned over him, seeking to convince skeptical readers that the alto saxophonist's squawking interrogation of tonality and traditional song form was something far more than idiosyncratic noise. Meanwhile, mainstream critics railed against Zorn, who wasn't exactly prone to understatement or the niceties of interview chitchat. By 1993, Zorn, who just a handful of years earlier had landed a plum contract with Nonesuch Records, had let his major-label deal slide; he's shunned interviews ever since.
Ignoring for the moment that Zorn is one of the three most prolific rule-benders of jazz in the 1970s-and-after era (the other two being Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton), the whole critical exchange remains fascinating. In Zorn, critics found the quintessential art-musician-gone-to-the-madding-crowd. Having formed his musical ideas at Webster College in St. Louis in the early '70s, Zorn studied with World Saxophone Quartet member Oliver Lake, absorbing the solo saxophone logic of that era's free jazz. Upon returning to his native New York in 1974, he played a skittish amalgam of punk, art rock, and free improvisation. He took his lessons in composition from Webster and high-vaulted the classical fence, injecting soundtrack cheese, punk energy, and far more into a mix that earned him a modicum of infamy.
By the mid-'80s, Zorn was living out the fantasy of the early '60s Greenwich Village scene, where the avant-garde took their preaching to the people in extended theatrical works that exploded American cultural mores like firecrackers. He was able to draw crowds and cross the line between the highbrow and lowbrow like no one else. And then he signed with Nonesuch, releasing tributes to detective-novel hero Mickey Spillane and film composer Ennio Morricone, and two homages to hardcore punk (Spy vs. Spy was a tribute to both Ornette Coleman and Naked City). Then, without fanfare, it was bon voyage.
Spending a great deal of time in Japan, where he could easily sate his appetite for jump-cut animation, midnight-of-the-soul aesthetics, and a rainbow of pop culture, Zorn also went on an extended spree, driving his career into a mad recorded frenzy of his early, middle, and late works, along with recordings of his colleagues, his influences, and even those he dubs the "Lunatic Fringe." In the '90s, Zorn has gone from a bad boy splicing genres together to an accomplished composer of piano concerti, chamber works, and noise collages to a first-rate impresario.
Chalk it up to name recognition, as Zorn is nothing if not well-recognized. Or to his ability to draw on singularly tweaked and seemingly limitless resources. Or to his ever-expanding knowledge of 20th-century music forms. But Zorn's found himself in the enviable position of shunning the press and then founding two record labels, Avant in Japan and Tzadik in the US, to document his favorite music.
Of course Zorn wouldn't be Zorn if he were simply reviewing everyone else's music. At its heart, his Tzadik label exists in large part to recirculate Zorn's own music. He's given critics (and historians, at this point) another rich fruit: a full panoply of his '70s work, from his earliest compositions to his first forays into game works, from his classical compositions to his duos with Japanese shamisen. His life has become an exercise in obsessive documentation, to the point that he formed his Masada quartet to explore the rail lines between Ornette Coleman's early '60s quartet and klezmer music, and then composed more than a hundred works for the group to perform—in a space of months.
In a world crowded with digital info, you'd think Zorn might be a fantastic antihero, indulging, as his work does, the wash of media. But instead, he's incurred more wrath, even driving Asian-American activist saxophonist Fred Ho to drub him as "a racist" with an "erotic fascination with the dismemberment of Japanese women."
While no one's going to reach any agreement on Zorn—on his pugnacious attitude towards critics; on his relentless pursuit of more, more, more; or even on his saxophone technique—we have in him an artist with the gumption to release most of what he's recorded in his career. And much of this is '70s material reissued on Tzadik in the '90s, leading listeners to scratch their heads over which Zorns are the best Zorns.
In an effort to help you wade through all that Zorn, here's a list of his best.
Masada, Live in Jerusalem (Tzadik)
The releases on Zorn's own label, Tzadik Records, fit into one of four sets: Radical Jewish Culture, New Japan, Lunatic Fringe, and the Archival Series. This two-CD glimpse of his Masada quartet falls into the first camp, and it is possibly the group's best outing. Recorded in the year Masada first went into the studio to record their 10 CDs, this live set is spry and hair-raising, explosive and rounded—in short, fantastic.
John Zorn/Michihiro Sato, Ganryu Island (Tzadik)
Falling into both the Archival and New Japan camps, this set of duos between Zorn on reeds and Sato on shamisen is about the nearest to intimate that you'll get with Zorn. This closeness reveals an experimentalist's approach to every aspect of sound. There are reedy blats and blurts of every stripe, not to mention javelin-sharp alto sax piercings. The shamisen absorbs and bounces the cutting horn sounds with abstract plucks and East Asian twang.
John Zorn, Spy vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Nonesuch)
Here, Zorn could be considered wholly arrogant, posing himself as a "spy" in the house of Coleman (the other "spy"). But this set of 17 Coleman tunes, fashioned after Napalm Deathlike thrash metal and played by Zorn and Tim Berne on alto saxes, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummers Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher, is genuinely awe-inspiring. Zorn takes every rhythmic nuance of Coleman's "harmolodics," where rhythm, harmony, and melody are simultaneous, and scrunches them into blasting fury.
John Zorn, Kristallnacht (Tzadik)
Zorn might never be given his due as a composer of avant-garde art music, in part because he's insisted on giving listeners everything (like a musical Kierkegaard, who wandered his house writing down virtually every thought that crossed his mind). But this look at the anti-Jewish Nazi pogrom is both heart- and gut-wrenching. It's an in-your-face, unflinching attack, first mixing klezmer with Hitlerian speeches, and then tearing through the speakers with the horror of the event. Dark, noisy, unrelenting, it's deeply—and aptly—scary.
John Zorn, The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone (Nonesuch)
This is the record that catapulted Zorn into the spotlight. He was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music for an all-Morricone concert, which he executed with a roll call of over 20 New York avant-gardists. Then came the CD, which juxtaposes screamy shreck with dust-bowl miniatures, twangy surf touches with musique concr败 blocks of sound—party music for your spaghetti Western barbecue.
John Zorn, Bar Kokhba (Tzadik)
Zorn shines on his chamber recordings, expanding the spastic nature of his earlier works (especially Naked City and Spillane) into extended and textured works for string trios, pianists, semi-jazz ensembles, and so on. Here he engages sweet string works filled with yearning and shaped by klezmer coloring. Then he signs the piano over to the loping Anthony Coleman, or breaks into a riff-framed, straight-ahead (almost) jazz interlude with John Medeski on piano and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Of course, chamber purists will hate the jazz jams, and vice versa.
John Zorn, Aporias (Tzadik)
Like some of his earliest jump-cut works, which worked in part due to the unruly rules of cue-card games that triggered particular musical action, Aporias changes shape almost constantly. It's also Zorn's most sprawling orchestral work. It's not for lighthearted listening, bearing resemblance to Elliott Carter, Iannis Xenakis, and other late-century boundary stretchers. The music is lively and leaping and has a sense of urgency that's missing from altogether too many concert works these days. Beware that all the accolades aren't going to stretch this CD beyond its short 33 minutes.