It is completely unfair to say John Zorn doesn’t play good music. It is perfectly fair to say his music is not in the mainstream. I don’t want to be unfair … not yet.
For many years, I’ve wandered the fringes of music, often getting lost. Everyone (by which I mean the “internet”) tells me I should go see “Zorn”. Here’s a list:
- When I’m confused by Glenn Branca
- When I’m curious about Sonic Youth
- When listening to Marc Maron, a comedian, talk about music
- When hearing an interview of Andrew WK … yes Andrew Freaking WK
- When I’m trying to understand what grindcore is
- When I investigate Ennio Morricone
- When reading about the Boredoms
- When trying to find out what happened to Cibo Matto
- Even when trying to understand what “Buckethead” really is
Everywhere I turned, there was Zorn. I did not know what a Zorn was or why it mattered. I heard the words “Zorn” and “saxophone” mixed together and I ran away in fear. But then, I’d hear about Zorn from somewhere else. John Zorn was almost everywhere, as in almost there in almost every place.
If you know something about some of the list above, you’ll see a few common features. There’s experimental music of various sorts (Branca, Sonic Youth). There’s an emphasis on improvisation (Sonic Youth, Buckethead). Some feature rhythmic textures (Cibo Matto, Morricone, Boredoms). There’s jazz-influenced perfomers (Cibo Matto, Morricone). A New York connection (Branca, Sonic Youth, Maron, Cibo Matto, WK). And then some feature unusual juxtapositions (almost all) and annoyance as performance (again, almost all).
Now, if I were fair, I’d say that John Zorn’s music is entrancing and engaging on it’s own merit. I could say that, but I’d rather not. Mostly, it’s not for me. There’s jazzy jazz. Not for me. There’s the various experiments in improvisation which I find more interesting as a story than as music. There’s classically inspired composition. Still not for me.
There is one John Zorn project that really gets me going. Going crazy, going ecstatic. Sometimes just going to the next album. Naked City. Naked City is, as Zorn describes, a kind of experiment born, it seems, out of a period of alienation. Listening to it, it doesn’t sound alienating to me, but then I am no expert on aliens, alienation, or even alien invasions.
I find Naked City to be almost the ultimate version of ADD music (that’s attention deficit … huh?). Naked City sounds like someone took all the musical litter from a busy studio and pasted it together into a random quilt of noise. 20 seconds of hard bop? Great! 6 seconds of grindcore? Cool! A 10 second surf sequence? Alright! 15 seconds of open-range western music? Awesome! Let’s paste it together and call that song done! Wait, let’s finish it off with some rubbing-hands-on-the-balloon sax solo. That’s more like it.
The downside is that the recorded music, random and strange though it may be, doesn’t quite capture the joyful chaos. For that, consider the concert video below. In it, you will see 6 people, most with sheet music, playing this musical version of a dump truck colliding with a freight train and a tugboat (no humans were harmed in the making of this metaphor). I can’t imagine what that sheet music must look like, but let’s leave that unanswered. The fun comes from the joy that John Zorn has in guiding and listening to this cacophony. He’s playing his own sax, singing (more gargling/screaming) and, via judicious gestures, guiding the band. The result, to me, is an exhilarating nonsensical mix of everything I like in music (and some things I don’t). What does that say about my mental health?