Friday, May 28, 2010

Jahnke's Record Collection: John Zorn - Filmworks III 1990-1995

Of all the artists in my music library, none is more challenging than John Zorn, both musically and simply in terms of output. I dare you to keep up with Zorn’s staggeringly prolific discography. John Zorn is an intimidating artist for the uninitiated. According to Wikipedia, the man appears on over 400 albums as a composer and/or performer, including work with the bands Masada, Painkiller, Naked City, and more. His work has roots in jazz, neo-classical, klezmer and much more. Where does one even begin to delve into a musician like this?

I was introduced to Zorn through two albums in the late 80s: The Big Gundown, a tribute to legendary film composer Ennio Morricone, and Naked City, a mixture of originals and covers including John Barry’s James Bond Theme and Henry Mancini’s A Shot In The Dark. I enjoyed both quite a bit, although the avant-garde shrieks ‘n’ bleats tracks on Naked City didn’t exactly get played over and over again. I looked for more of Zorn’s work, still a manageable task back then. That began to change in 1995 when Zorn formed his own record label, Tzadik. Finally allowed to release whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, Zorn threw open the floodgates, releasing so much music that I found it impossible to keep up.

I knew I’d have to focus my interest down to just a few key areas unless I wanted to move into a larger house and officially dub one of the closets The John Zorn Room. Since I had first discovered his music through his reinterpretations of Morricone, a safe bet seemed to be collecting his Filmworks series. I’d bought the first volume when it was released on the Nonesuch label in ’92 and enjoyed it. Surely this small corner of Zorn’s music could be easily digested.

Yeah, right. As of this writing, the Filmworks series is up to its 23rd volume. That’s about two albums per year of music for movies, mostly underground and documentaries you’ve never heard of and will probably never get a chance to see. The most well-known film Zorn has worked on is probably Trembling Before G-d, the acclaimed 2001 documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews.

As much as I liked Zorn’s work, even the most difficult-to-listen-to avant-garde stuff struck me as interesting, he wasn’t someone who received much in the way of media coverage and I wasn’t passionate enough about him to follow his work obsessively. He was one of those guys that, if I was in a record store, once or twice a year I’d go over to the John Zorn section to see if he had a new album out. Usually, he would have about five or six new albums out. Over time, I became overwhelmed by all this and I stopped buying his work. I always tell myself that I’ll return someday but it’s daunting trying to decide which of the 200 or so albums he’s released in the meantime I should start with.

Filmworks III was the last Zorn album I bought, over ten years ago now. It’s divided into four sections, representing Zorn at his best and his most challenging. The music for Thieves Quartet and Hollywood Hotel are both top-notch. It’s jazzy, moody music that evokes a distinct noir mood. It’s virtually impossible for me to listen to the main titles of Hollywood Hotel with its delicate guitar work by Marc Ribot and dreamy alto sax by Zorn without feeling a cigarette between my fingers, the pleasurable burn of whisky at the back of my throat, and the red glare of a flashing neon sign outside the window, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. Zorn’s Music for Tsunta is more schizophrenic, nine cues sequenced back-to-back as one track featuring odd sound effects, turntable scratches and an occasional hesitant banjo from Bill Frisell. It’s good stuff but I can understand why most people would wonder what the hell was going on.

And then there’s the music for Weiden and Kennedy. W+K is a Portland-based advertising agency responsible for iconic campaigns like Nike’s Mars Blackmon spots with Spike Lee. It’s difficult to imagine Zorn’s music accompanying commercials but then again, it’s difficult to imagine some of the filmmakers Zorn works with on these spots, including David Cronenberg, Jean-Luc Godard and Sven Nykvist, making commercials in the first place. These are short little musical sucker punches, ranging from 14 seconds to just over a minute. Again, not the most relaxing music to have playing in the background on a Sunday morning. But Zorn gets his ideas across quickly, immediately conjuring up solid images and moods even if you haven’t seen the commercials. It’s a fascinating study in the specific needs of film composition. If I taught a class in film music, I’d have a day where we listened to these tracks and tried to dissect what they were used for.

Obviously John Zorn isn’t for everybody. I admit that I’ll rarely pull out one of his albums and listen to it from start to finish, although several of his more accessible tracks get played repeatedly on my iPod. But every so often, I enjoy giving my ears a bit of a workout and Zorn fits the bill perfectly, bleating saxes, crashing drums, guttural screams and all.

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