Wednesday, September 2, 2009

John Zorn O'o

John Zorn is probably best known by rock fans for a handful of collaborations with Mike Patton and his work with Naked City. That band, formed in 1989, applied the thrash-metal aesthetic to jazz, and blistered tape with covers of film scores (Ennio Morricone and Henry Mancini, among many others) and classical pieces (Claude Debussy, Charles Ives). Song titles like “Thrash Jazz Assassin”, “Jazz Snob Eat Shit”, and “Perfume of a Critic’s Burning Flesh” (to which I take absolutely no exception whatsoever) accurately evoke the attitude on the Naked City records.

But Zorn has hundreds of album credits dating back to the ’70s, so many projects that Zorn himself doesn’t even play on all of them. O’o is a follow-up to 2008’s The Dreamers, and while Zorn briefly appeared with his alto sax on that record, he composed but does not play on this set.

But the rest of the dreamers come through. “Little Bittern” rocks along with Joey Baron’s slow, heavy funk beat, on top of which Marc Ribot and Jamie Saft converse with Robby Krieger-like guitar and distorted Rhodes keyboard. While Cyro Baptista works his hands out on the percussion of “Solitaire”, the low-end vamp led by Saft and bassist Trevor Dunn keeps sounding like it’s going to lead into the M.A.S.H. theme song. The melodies on the record almost all belong to the vibraphone of Kenny Wollesen. One example, “Piopio”, is anchored by a tense jazz-samba beat that is occasionally released through spurts of Wollesen’s Middle-Eastern melodies.

Since so much of Zorn’s output has covered film scores or been intended as film scores, it is hard not to make cinematic associations with the music. “The Zapata Rail”, an uptempo, organ-driven jazz waltz, contains just enough pop schmaltz to suit an art-house remake of Beach Blanket Bingo. “Archaeopteryx” is a beautiful and sparse surf tune with sinister piano and percussion lurking beneath the melody; horror film ambience fills in the empty spaces, those dark, damp crevices where cannibals live. The crystalline piano chord changes on “Mysterious Starling” lands the song somewhere in between Pink Martini and Suba’s São Paulo Confessions—perfect for a range of Hollywood murder mystery throwback flicks.

O’o is named for an extinct Hawaiian bird, so it’s suitable then that listening to this record is like peeling back a banana leaf and discovering a rare breed of world music. The slick vibes are certain to divide people into two camps: Those that say “smooth” and those that scream “elevator music!” But on the whole, O’o is composed of third-world surf rock and West Coast jazz with enough off-kilter melodies to keep you on your toes.


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