Recapping the Best of 2011: John Zorn – “At the Gates of Paradise”


With his label Tzadik, John Zorn has built a small but miraculous empire of quality recordings, both under his own name and albums under the direction of other artists.  This is one of his.  Zorn is big into themes, built around the concepts or writings that inspired them.  At the Gates of Paradise falls under his Mystical album series.  It’s these albums that have brought me the most joy.

Based on the writings of poet William Blake and ancient Gnostic writings from the Nag Hammad, Zorn has constructed a series of compositions that are hypnotic and dream-like, possessing a serenity found in the sweetest of romances.

Your album personnel:  John Medeski (piano & organ), Kenny Wollesen (vibes), Trevor Dunn (bass) and Joey Baron (drums).

Wollesen, who has appeared on all of the albums in this series, has a knack on vibes of simultaneously creating moments of hopefulness and unease.  Medeski complements him wonderfully on piano, giving buoyancy to the hope and a sharp edge to the unease.  Joey Baron, a vet from the old Bill Frisell days, is a wonderful surprise here, with his expressive sound on drums spurring the tunes on and his immaculate brushwork a gentle wash of emotion.  I’ve always liked Dunn’s work on bass; he gets a sound from it that’s kind of mysterious, effecting the same reaction from me that Sam Jones would as part of Clifford Jordan’s quartet.

The album starts out with the lively “The Eternals,” a composition that has the quartet sounding like autumn leaves caught in a gust wind and turning in a tight circle that dispels any calculations of where it begins and where it ends.  “Song of Innocence” is a softly lilting tune, with Wollesen and Medeski trading turns being the waves that gently rock the boat to and fro.  With “A Dream of Nine Nights”, the pace picks back up, with Medeski constructing piano lines atop one another with a Lego-block-like repetition, building tension that Baron provides the explanation point for over and over with the hazy crash of cymbals.  Wollesen layers his own lines of repetition beneath Medeski’s, sowing tension into the soil.

If the album up to this point has been a series of eyes-of-the-storm, then fourth track “Light Forms” signals that the torrents are near.  Bass and drums thunder as piano and vibes run angular lines like lightning strikes randomly touching ground.  The rain begins to fall with “The Aeons”, a steady but forceful gale of piano rhythms and cymbal patterns, vibes and bass like hail on windows and gutters.  “Liber XV” is the quiet hesitant moments after the storm ends, when everything is still and listening for any sign that the storm will return.

The album ends much as it began, with an up-tempo tune forming tight circles of notes blowing in gusts of wind, followed by languid moments of cool breeze.

If this album floats your boat, I also highly recommend similar Zorn albums Alhambra Love Songs, Goddess, and In Search of the Miraculous, all which feature similar sounds and similar personnel, and all which remain among my favorites and never gather dust on my shelf.

Released on the Tzadik label, which is a treasure trove of excellent music.  Please explore.

Here’s a link to his myspace page, which I don’t typically like to refer to, but he’s got a bunch of music to stream and some decent information and links to other resources.

Available at Amazon: CD | MP3