Zorn Piano Trio

John Zorn — The Hierophant (Tzadik, 2019)

I have to admit, I expected all of The Hierophant to sound like this:

Turns out, a lot of it sounds like this:

Can you blame me? Upon reading the obi, with phrases like “modern chamber music” and “not like any piano trio you have ever heard,” my imagination went to dark, scary places — as it often does with Zorn.


But of course, Zorn has done lots of accessible music. Not everything is Torture Garden. And it turns out, these nine compositions based on tarot cards often let the trio sound like, well, a contemporary piano trio. It has that sparkle.

Those excerpts are from “The Devil” and “The Lovers,” respectively, and it’s not surprising that they are so different, given the theme of Tarot cards and their potentially divergent meanings. The point is, The Hierophant is truly a jazz piano trio album, ableit one that throws a few experimental twists at you.

Zorn’s name is on the CD as a composer only; it’s Brian Marsella on the piano, executing these compositions with brisk flair. It’s fun to hear Trevor Dunn on acoustic bass in an out-jazz capacity; that’s how I first got introduced to him. Fellow Bay Area transplant Kenny Wolleson holds down the drum chair with a light touch and tight energy.

This is not to say The Hierophant is harmless. “Death” features snail’s-pace bowing and a prepared piano that sounds like a sinister rattling of bones. The main theme of “The Tower” opens with insistent Morse code tapping, not exactly cocktail hour fare. And the title track is a dizzying speed run, as if many hands were clawing at you from every direction. Marsella’s playing can be simultaneously fleet and expansive, and some of the best passages of The Hierophant have him conjuring beauty while still speed-tap-dancing forward.

Masada String Trio


No, I haven’t sampled all of the Book of Angels CDs in John Zorn’s Masada series. Haven’t even come close.

So, despite the players’ pedigrees, I hadn’t yet heard the Masada String Trio.

Then this popped up. Posted to YouTube just last month, it appears to be a French TV broadcast of a live String Trio performance. Greg Cohen on bass, Erik Friedlander on cello, Mark Feldman on violin, and Zorn doing the conducting and grinning ear to ear. There’s some brilliant playing here.

This combination seems dear to Zorn’s heart, because Masada String Trio was granted two entries in the Book of Angels series (wherein each band in succession got to pick from Zorn’s “Masada Book Two” compositions). They also recorded the inaugural CD in Tzadik’s series celebrating Zorn’s 50th birthday in 2003. All of those discs are concerts recorded at the late, lamented Tonic.

Well, why not? Three downtown NYC veterans playing good music at a beyond-expert level — who wouldn’t be game for that? Glad I finally took the time to listen.

It’s John Zorn’s Metal Band

John ZornIpsissimus (Tzadik, 2010)

Ipsissimus“John Zorn’s metal band” is not news to most of you, it’s true. But most of my delving into the Tzadik catalogue hasn’t been in the metal/Mike Patton vein, so I hadn’t encountered Moonchild until now.

Where Naked City’s Torture Garden was informed by speed-blasting punk, Moonchild is more about the weighty styles of contemporary metal. Ipsissimus, the latest of that band’s five albums, does indeed get heavy, and yet, it’s got references back to prog rock and even jazz that give me some grounding in the music. (UPDATE: See comments; it turns out the latest Moonchild album is Templars – In Sacred Blood, which has lyrics and adds John Medeski to the mix.)

Which is helpful, because metal tends to combine murk and hyperstimulation in a way that gets lost on me. “Warlock” and “The Book of Los” both provide a balm of prog-rock brightness, at least in spots. And the opener, “Seven Sigils,” flickers between a 4/4 and 15/16 time signature, I think — which, combined with the knowledge that nice-guy Joey Baron is on the drums, tickles my prog center nicely.

Later on that track, Zorn’s sax solo even hits some surprising moments of soul-jazz melody before getting into, you know, Zornisms.

Throughout the album, Trevor Dunn gets to crank out the low-end electric bass lines — I’m guessing he relishes the sessions where he gets to do that — and Marc Ribot’s guitar gets all crunchy in that choppy metal vein. I don’t mean blazing speed-metal, but heavy storm-of-doom stuff with Mike Patton providing the Cookie Monster vocals.

Tracks like “Supplicant” are where Zorn and especially Patton really bring the metal in midtempo, heavy-growl mode. Unexpectedly, Ribot chooses a classic-rock guitar sound for his subsequent solo. On a “metal” album that draws from so many other resources, it fits.

Metheny and Zorn

Pat MethenyTap: Book of Angels Vol. 20 (Nonesuch/Tzadik, 2013)

metheny-tapI’d read that I should expect Tap to sound like a Pat Metheny record, considering each track consists of Metheny overdubbed on Metheny, adding only Metheny’s drummer (Antonio Sanchez) to glue it all together. Well, OK then. What happens when Metheny fills your ears but mind of John Zorn is pushing  the buttons?

This is not another Song X or Zero Tolerance for Silence — that is, Metheny fans won’t cover their ears. You could mistake any one track for a Metheny original that happens to have some Middle Eastern influence to it.

But while the whole album carries his unmistakable sound, it seems to me Metheny also took seriously the mission behind the Book of Angels albums — that is, he’s trying to extrapolate the possibilities lying inside these Zorn compositions. That means covering them with his own fingerprints, yes, but he also cuts loose in ways that fit the Tzadik mold, and he uses a variety of guitars to create different sounds and personalities — it’s as if he brought a few different bands to the gig. The result is a really good album.

Metheny’s trademark cinematic soaring? It’s in there, in places. But a track like “Mastema,” the opener, also serves notice that Metheny is opening the creative box. It’s a pleasant, upbeat song, based on an ostinato that’s maybe spikier than Metheny’s usual melodies, and a driving beat by Sanchez that gets the blood flowing. With a bit of imagination, you could hear Zorn and Dave Douglas playing the short main theme in unison, flexing that Klezmer scale.

For most of the piece, Metheny solos over the main pattern — rocking out, basically, and it sounds great. He doesn’t use the usual synth-horn guitar; in fact, what Metheny adds is some hard-rock distortion on one of the soloing guitars for some unexpected punch. It’s later in the song that Metheny unleashes a staticky, scribbly guitar — like controlled feedback, played at an almost subtle volume, an edgy touch that tells you this album isn’t meant to be Masada Lite.

Similarly, “Sariel” opens in a traditional, folky vein and follows the arc of a typical Metheny song. Toward the end, though, it turns into an electric Metheny freakout over intensely strummed, zithery cords. The finale is a two-minute crash like an airliner coming apart in slow motion, with Metheny grinding away at electric guitar and Sanchez splashing a collision of drums into the foreground once in a while.

pat-tapA more normal Metheny shows up on the mellow, acoustic “Albim,” where he picks at a slow, gentle melody that’s allowed to unfold at its own pace. The song’s Klezmer roots twinkle in a comforting Spanish-guitar solo. The backing guitars are breezy, the drums a smooth rock bed.

“Tharsis” is jumpy, springy fun, probably in criss-crossing time signatures (it’s going to take another few listens for me to count it out). During a slower, airy stretch, we get full-force Metheny; here’s where the synth-horn guitar shows up, and the small metallic percussion to mark the beat (an effect he’s used for decades), and the sweeping cymbals in Sanchez’s drum work.

“Phanuel” is the slow, creeping one: dark shades and drifting metallic tones that eventually give way to the comfort of a slow, tender acoustic guitar. And Metheny apparently plays piano (or possibly MIDI-triggered piano via guitar) on “Hurmiz,” something I don’t think I’ve ever heard from him. That track is just the piano and Sanchez, blasting away gleefully, and it’s something you won’t find on Zero Tolerance, The Sign of Four, or any of Metheny’s other infamous albums. This track, or the closing of “Sariel,” are the places to start if you’re just out to annoy your Metheny-loving friends.

Naked City: CLICK

My bookshelf includes a March 1991 issue of Wire magazine, inherited from Gino Robair. He’d organized a special show memorializing the Dark Circle Lounge, his weekly concert series at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco. The show doubled as a reunion/party for the creative-music community, and it was amazing fun. To go with the nostalgic theme, Gino was handing out memorabilia — he’d cleaned out his garage or something, maybe — and that’s the one he put into my hands.

I throw away magazines all the time — I have to, to keep the Hoarders cameras away — but I’ve kept this one. I wasn’t into creative music in 1991, and to read about Evan Parker and Myra Melford’s 1990s work from a then-contemporary perspective feels special.

Plus, the issue has a very cool review of Torture Garden.

You know that one, right? It’s hyperactive tour de force album from John Zorn’s Naked City, flooded with jump cuts and short, short, short songs. Here’s an excerpt of Mike Fish’s review:

    Rejected by major click Suck this, you hapless click Impression that Zorn is trying a tad too hard to be a blood brother with those disaffected rock zombies who created hardcore in the first place, while he was off doing weird sh*t with Chadbourne and all those click Sumptuous click Nice sweet person like Frisell doing click Excerpts from a teenage operatic nightmare, maybe, with added click Favourite title: probably the winsomely detailed “New Jersey Scum Swamp,” unlocking click In an MTV world, there’s click

I especially love the Frisell bit. My sentiments exactly, once I found out just who Bill Frisell was.

Anyway, my recent mention of the Antheil/Naked City link is what nudged this memory into the open. And it’s funny how some things never change: One of the magazine’s feature articles is about the scarcity of venues for improvised music!

Playlist: July 3, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, July 3, 3:00 to 9:00 p.m. Marathon session to start my long weekend. It’s been a long

John Zorn‘s The Dreamers was the band I saw live at Yoshi’s, playing pretty much this whole album. Nice stuff, surprisingly accessible.

source: rastascan.comThe Splatter Trio‘s Clear the Club is an improv album at heart, but a surprisingly catchy one, with touches of reggae in some tracks, a hint of dark, evil rock in others. The group (Dave Barrett on sax, Myles Boisen on guitar or bass, Gino Robair on drums) did some great albums in the ’90s, now available on eMusic. The Splatter 3+N refers to the fact that the album uses recordings made with varying numbers of friends. They dipped into a couple year’s worth of jams and strung them together to create the album. Very cool.

….. Rigil is an indie songwriter type — really, a 20-year-old Brit named Robert Slade. He favors lots of synths and big, soaring, epic sounds. It’s overdramatic and often soundtrack-like, but he seems like a likeable chap.

source: roswellrudd.com….. Trombone Tribe is a Roswell Rudd grab bag o’ fun. You’ve got tracks with a three-trombone jazz sextet (Henry Grimes on bass), songs with a six-trombone band, and a small suite with the Gangbé Brass Band of Benin.

….. 15 Degrees Below Zero comes across more hardline electronics/noise on this album than on their previous one — or, at least that’s what I remember my ears hearing. No matter; it’s still good stuff, and the icy expansive sound I’d noted before is present on the 24-minute “2.5,” from which I took a patient six-minute excerpt. They’ll be on the air at KZSU on July 29.

Pianist Graham Connah has been performing under the name Admiral Ted Brinkley for some time now, popping up for the occasional show. Beth Lisick wrote one up back in 2004. Connah has been a longtime favorite of mine, playing heavily twisted cocktail jazz that, in more recent years, gets augmented with electric guitars and oddball vocals. He’s also got an album on Evander that, come to think of it, I really need to seek out. The next Adm. Ted installment comes Monday night, July 6, at the monthly Make-Out Room jazz session.

source: devinhoffplatform.comTwo solo bass tracks! I’d planned to throw in a track from the really nice Solo Bass from local musician Devin Hoff. (I still remember being blown away by his instrumental chamber-pop band, The Redressers.) Meanwhile, the vinyl album I’d randomly pulled as my sound bed for mic breaks was a Gary Peacock album that includes a few tracks of solo bass. I do like to give a “complete” spin to the album that provided the sound bed, so what the heck. Hoff’s track was arco (bowed), a lyrically wandering improvisation. Peacock’s was pizzacato, a galloping composition.

I stayed on the air for a couple of hours after this, spinning more of a rock show. That playlist is located here; for the “proper” show’s playlist, look below the fold.

Continue reading “Playlist: July 3, 2009”

John Zorn (Was) on WNYC

Being not from NYC, I’m slow to catch up on things like the “Ear to Ear” show on WYNC. But the interviews they’ve got archived are fantastic.

Case in point: the John Zorn discussion from Feb. 1, which I’ve just now heard. It’s an engaging 75 minutes with lots and lots of insights into Zorn’s philosophies and work process. He’s basically always working in some form. He notes how the songwriting can’t be forced; as you’d expect, it happens when it happens, as in the 300-song burst that became Masada Book II.

They spend a good amount of time talking about his movie soundtracks. He avoids the normal give-and-take process with the director and instead just puts a package of music together, then walks away. He also doesn’t take payment for this — his compensation is from the CD that’s produced, I guess.

His reasoning is that music writing is something he’s done since he was a kid, and it seems to demean the act if he gets paid for it. I sympathize, and I might do the same in his shoes, but for different reasons. I’ve found that once a passion becomes work, it loses some of the “passion” quality. To be precise: I enjoyed writing show reviews for the Bay Guardian, and I’d be glad to do it again if I could find the time and energy — but no matter how much I enjoyed the music, it was work.

Zorn also expresses a love of Bert Kaempfert’s music, noting Kaempfert’s pioneering use of acoustic and electric bass in the ’60s. I’d never been aware of Kaempfert, but the bass thing gets mentioned elsewhere, too, so it’s something to look out for.

They play lots of Zorn’s music, too, including soundtrack work; a selection from The Dreamers, the project I got to see at Yoshi’s in March; and the opening of “Astronome,” the ear-blasting opera Zorn did with Richard Foreman. It’s a really good interview. Zorn is more than accommodating and shows a good sense of humor. Listen to the end, where he starts going “Spock…! Spock…!”

Zorn and The Dreamers

John Zorn: The Dreamers (Source: Tzadik)

Here’s how busy my week was: It isn’t until a full five days later that I bother to blog about the coolness of my lone John Zorn show at Yoshi’s.

DJ Mike and I went to the Saturday show, featuring Zorn’s band The Dreamers. This is pop Zorn. Very accessible, jazzy melodies — accessible in a Bacharach sense, almost verging on corniness at points. One song had the happy, dippy air of a 1950s department store commercial.

But this is a band that burns, and the sizzling jams that come out of these songs meld bluesy guitar; loud surf guitar (both by Mark Ribot, of course); South American themes and percussions; Cyro Baptista making as many noises as possible; and Joey Baron just tearing it up on drums, smiling all the way of course. The stage was packed with instruments. Zorn, sitting, conducted everything with satisfied glee.

Jamie Saft got to play three keyboards, alternating piano, organ, and electric piano. (I’m guessing all three keyboards were Yoshi’s own.) Trevor Dunn, a welcome face from the Bay Area scene of the past, was digging down hard on electric bass. Kenny Wolleson, another former local, played vibraphone throughout, adding that sunny touch to a lot of the melodies. Baptista, as mentioned, just played all sorts of stuff — drums, noisemakers, whitles, clangy metal spirals. I picture him going through security with these fat sacks of stuff, trying to explain that it’s for his job.

The crowd ate it up. Many of these songs, though instrumental, have the right rhythm, melody, and guitar elements to fit on rock radio, IMHO; a relatively progressive station like KFOG could easily sneak this music into a playlist. (The lamented KKCY of the late ’80s would have been all over this album.) People didn’t clap for most of the solos, but the band got thick standing ovations for the set and the encore (which appeared to consist of two Masada tunes.) Amoeba Records had a table in the lobby to sell Zorn’s Tzadik wares, and copies of The Dreamers got snatched up like candy-coated popcorn.

The Dreamers is quite “nice,” but there’s an attitude to it. Don’t picture black-and-white suburban smiles; think instead of those little cartoon guys on the album cover, and the connection to Japanese pop culture. It’s Zorn’s nod to jazz and pop, viewed not from a retro lens, but with a hipster’s eye. (You can get the cartoon guys on a T-shirt at Tzadik, by the way. Pricey, but potentially irresistable. By the way, I haven’t seen the inside of the CD package; be reminded that Zorn sometimes employs artwork that you wouldn’t take home to mom.)

Zorn Has Landed

I’m not going until Saturday. But the SF Chronicle gives you an idea what to expect from John Zorn’s six-night residency at Yoshi’s in San Francisco.

Here’s an overview of the music, and a review of Tuesday night’s Secret Chiefs 3 performance.

The review says the show sold out — score one for the good guys. It’s worth noting, though, that that $20 show was the cheapest ticket of the week, with prices as high as $50 for the weekenders.

Zorn has brought an all-star team from New York to play these shows, so he probably commanded quite a premium for being here. I can understand how Yoshi’s arrived at the prices it did, but then again, I know I probably would have bought one more ticket for a little less skin. Considering they’re already having trouble attracting jazz fans to the venue, this might turn out to be a gamble that backfires — which would be a shame. There’s certainly some hubris to be accounted for here, and yes I complained about the ticket prices earlier, but I’d still hate to see Yoshi’s get punished for trying something this bold.

UPDATE: Wow, Zorn gave a long and gracious interview to KTVU — check it out here. I especially like his explanation of what he’s trying to accomplish with The Stone. Thanks to Siebert on Twitter for pointing it out.

Playlist: March 6, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, March 6, 2009, 3:00 p.m. to 4:45 p.m.

Items of note:

  • Axis Trio is pretty damn cool and will get their own writeup here soon. The band members’ heritages trace back to Pakistan, Morocco, and Iran.
  • Jen Baker‘s “lyrical vibrations” (singing into the trombone) got written up on the old page, here
  • Got to give away tickets to John Zorn’s Masada String Trio, one of the bands playing during Zorn’s week-long residency at Yoshi’s, which starts Tuesday.

Continue reading “Playlist: March 6, 2009”