John Zorn (born September 2, 1953) is an American avant-garde composer, arranger, producer, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist with hundreds of album credits as performer, composer, and producer across a variety of genres including jazz, rock, hardcore, classical, surf, metal, klezmer, soundtrack, ambient and improvised music. He incorporates diverse styles in his compositions which he identifies as avant-garde or experimental. Zorn was described by Down Beat as “one of our most important composers”
I first came to know John Zorn’s music from his band Masada, a jazz quartet recalling Ornette Coleman, at least to my ears. He made a series of ten recordings, all named using the first ten letters/numbers of the Hebrew alef-bet (Alef, Bet, Gimel, etc.). He also released several live dates with this same line-up: Zorn (alto saxophone), Dave Douglas (trumpet),Greg Cohen (double bass), and Joey Baron (drum set). On occasion, different drummers filled in for Baron – most regularly Kenny Wollesen. These recordings were all released on Zorn’s record label Tzadik.
By the end of 2004, Zorn had composed over 300 new tunes for the “second” Masada songbook. Some of the new tunes were debuted at Tonic in December 2004, as a mini festival. Tzadik has released a series of CDs of these songs played by various ensembles, including the Masada String Trio, Marc Ribot, Koby Israelite, Erik Friedlander and others as the “Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels” collection.
Zorn’s breakthrough recording was 1985’s widely acclaimed The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone, where Zorn offered radical arrangements of themes from The Big Gundown (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984), that incorporated elements of traditional Japanese music, soul jazz, and other diverse musical genres. The Big Gundown was endorsed by Morricone, who is quoted as saying: “This is a record that has fresh, good and intelligent ideas. It is realization on a high level, a work done by a maestro with great science-fantasy and creativity … Many people have done versions of my pieces, but no one has done them like this”.
Zorn followed this with his second major-label release Spillane in 1987, which included performances by Albert Collins and the Kronos Quartet, and the extended title track, one of Zorn’s file-card compositions, which featured text by Arto Lindsay set to an array of sonic film noir references. This method of combining composition and improvisation involved Zorn writing descriptions or ideas on file-cards and arranging them to form the piece. Zorn described the process in 2003: “I write in moments, in disparate sound blocks, so I find it convenient to store these events on filing cards so they can be sorted and ordered with minimum effort. Pacing is essential. If you move too fast, people tend to stop hearing the individual moments as complete in themselves and more as elements of a sort of cloud effect … I worked 10 to 12 hours a day for a week, just orchestrating these file cards. It was an intense process.” Zorn’s file-card method of organizing sound blocks into an overall structure largely depended on the musicians he chose, the way they interpreted what was written on the file cards, and their relationship with Zorn. “I’m not going to sit in some ivory tower and pass my scores down to the players.” said Zorn, “I have to be there with them, and that’s why I started playing saxophone, so that I could meet musicians. I still feel that I have to earn a player’s trust before they can play my music. At the end of the day, I want players to say: this was fun—it was a lot of fucking work, and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was worth the effort.”
Two other critically acclaimed releases on Nonesuch followed; Spy vs Spy in 1989, and Naked City in 1990, before Zorn left the label.
There is much more to John Zorn’s career and I encourage you to check out his music in all its expressions.