Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why There's No Money in My 401(k): A Diary of Obsessive Materialism Vol. II

In an effort to fulfill some bizarre need in my life, I purchase a lot of CDs, both old and new. They are obsessively cataloged and organized and poured over track by track (Seriously, it's obsessive. It involves post-it notes and code and excel spreadsheets). It is truly a labor of love (and an unhealthy psychological imperative). But, since I am consuming so much music, I thought I could use this constant influx for the powers of good. Should I come across anything worth sharing (either a new release or an old favorite), I will share them with you. So you'll love me.

Bar Kokhba Sextet - Lucifer: Book of Angels Volume 10 (Tzadik)
John Zorn's decades-long career in the downtown jazz scene has seen him exploring jazz to its outer realms, dabbling in heavy metal and hardcore, composing dozens of film scores, creating unholy (and holy) rackets, starting record labels, opening donation-only-funded music venues, and winning MacArthur Genius Grants. If you pick up an album with John Zorn's name on it, you could be getting amazing renditions of the works of Ennio Morricone, or something that sounds like (as my sister described it) a didgeridoo and a horse. The man is capable of anything from the bizarre to the near-unlistenable, and every so often he calms down and makes something beautiful and accessible like his work for the Bar Kokhba Sextet.

Much of Zorn's prolific work is infused with the music of his Jewish roots. The saxophonist's most famous band, Masada, is a jazz quartet that combines traditional extended jazz improv with melodies and themes that draw from Sephardic musical genelogy. After completing the first "book" of Masada songs with his quartet, he has started on book two: the "Book of Angels." Rather than record another decalogue of Masada albums, Zorn has chosen to farm these new compositions out to a variety of musical acts. One of the groups, the Bar Kokhba Sextet, is a group of musicians that perform "Sephardic exotica for young moderns." The musicians involved have performed with everyone from Alan Ginsberg to Tom Waits and the Mountain Goats. Guys like Marc Ribot and Cyro Baptista are all session-musician big guns with the skills to perform any style, and the chops to outplay anyone, which makes the subtle refinement of Lucifer so much more intriguing.

Volume ten in the Book of Angels is an intoxicating mix of jazz, lounge, surf, and world, and mixes them all in with a massive dash of Jewish mysticism. The pieces are sensual, occasionally sounding like the soundtrack to occulted bellydance opium lounges: strings slithering around each other, enticing the listener with their promises of exotic physical delights. In other passages, the music seems far more traditional, like a klezmer party in the Old World, at least until it blends into Ribot's surf guitar improvs (surf's up at Beth Shalom Beach!). The rhythm section of Joey Baron and Greg Cohen lock the whole enterprise down with entrancing polyrhythms, punctuated by Baptista's latin percussion.

A band that mixes latin, surf, klezmer, and jazz influences sounds like the recipe for one of those horrible bands you are forced to endure while waiting in line at the movie theaters by South Coast Plaza. The differences are, of course, Zorn's magnificent compositions as the music's melodic base and the sextet's honed-to-perfection improv skills. Any member of this group could blow the doors off of your face's ass with their ability, but the complete vibe of the project would be destroyed. The high point of the entire "Book of Angels" collection, Lucifer offers up an intoxicating and unique musical blend. And while this album has been described as "easy listening" (which is technically accurate), please don't fall prey to that genre's pejorative connotations. This plays more like a dynamic Hebrew rendtion of cool bop combos of years gone by than elevator music. Of course, in comparison to much of Zorn's catalog, nearly anything could be described as easy listening. He is currently the only artist in my library that has an album with an honest-to-Yahweh warning label on it, as certain pieces "may cause nausea....and permanent ear damage." Fear not, young moderns, this album goes down much smoother.


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