The Upshot: This is your brain on free jazz; this, on classical; and this, on rock; any questions?
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
One foot in free jazz, one in avant-garde classical music, one in aggressive rock and three in his own special system, composer John Zorn works in his own little corner of the musical universe, unconcerned whether or not anyone gets what he’s doing or not. That said, some of his recent works – the free jazz/hard rock fusion of the Simulacrum records, the acoustic guitar duets of Midsummer Moons – are actually quite accessible, like the less chaotic bits of his old band Naked City. Insurrection is one of Zorn’s most listener-friendly (for folks unaccustomed to his idiosyncratic style of writing) releases yet. Not coincidentally, it features three-fourths of Simulacrum (guitarist Matt Hollenberg, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Grohowski) and guitarist Julian Lage from Midsummer Moons.
Acting as composer and conductor and inspired by twentieth-century experimental literature from the likes of J.G. Ballard, Samuel Beckett and Kurt Vonnegut, Zorn provides the quartet with tunes and arrangements closer to rock than jazz, dipping his musicians’ toes into some surprising pools. The grooving, amiable “Pulsations” has more in common with the Allman Brothers than Naked City, while the atmospheric “The Journal of Albion Moonlight” leans straight into the prog rock-heavy fusion of the seventies. “Progeny” digs into overtly metallic grind as well as free improv, while “Nostromo” and “Mason and Dixon” sail calmer, jazzier waters. “The Recognitions” and “The Atrocity Exhibition,” meanwhile, revel in the kind of angular weirdness you’d expect from Zorn, though they pull back from being truly dissonant. Only the zany anarchy of “Cat’s Cradle” comes off as “typical” Zorn.
All of this is the Simulacrum players’ wheelhouse, if not as carnivorously physical, but the real revelation is Lage. The aggression here pushes him even further outside of his comfort zone than his recent work with Nels Cline, and the young guitar star rises to the occasion, meeting Hollenberg (whose day job is the experimental death metal band Cleric) step for step. Sounding like a true ensemble rather than a studio gathering, Hollenberg, Lage, Dunn and Grohowski become the perfect brushes to paint this particular canvas of Zorn’s musical mind.
DOWNLOAD: “The Journal of Albion Moonlight,” “The Atrocity Exhibition,” “Mason and Dixon”