Jan 8 2017
While it can be problematic to classify the music on John Zorn‘s Tzadik label, there do tend to be some general themes in which to bundle recordings up for presentation in a column such as this. The titles loosely referred to as the Alhambra Ensemble sessions would be one example.
What began as a trio session with a specific framework and tone changed significantly over the arc of three recordings. Yet, while each of the albums has its own personality, they possess core attributes that tie them all up as belonging to the same family of music.
What do I most love about these recordings? Beautiful melodies that mainline straight to the heart, rhythms that make a cerebral connection, and a traceable evolution of sound as the personnel and thematic material expands. And tranquility. I love the tranquility that reigns supreme over this music, even when it flashes some edge and burns fiercely from within… there’s always a transcendent serenity that keeps bringing me back to these gorgeous, friendly recordings.
I have a whole bunch of Tzadik recordings on my shelf and digital library, and it’s been my intention for years to begin publishing some rundowns of what I enjoy and why. This is the first of those columns.
John Zorn – Alhambra Love Songs
The 2009 release Alhambra Love Songs is one of my very favorite Tzadik releases. It’s also proof of how diverse the label’s range of expression has grown. This set from the trio of pianist Rob Burger, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Ben Perowsky performs John Zorn compositions paying tribute to the Bay Area and the artists who call it home. But while the tribute subjects range greatly from Vince Guaraldi to Mike Patton to Clint Eastwood, the album’s prevailing sound keeps to one where melodies generate a ton of warmth and tempos keep to a chipper, easy-going nature.
The album’s winning quality is the comforting flow that carries along from piece to piece, unhurriedly, and in which every facet of every melody is allowed to shine. A track like “Novato” slips in a bit of old-school funk, while “Larkspur” adds some edge and both “Pacifica” and “Tiburon” possess a determined, serious tone, and all of it flows seamlessly into the album’s genial confluence, and none of it detracts from those gorgeous melodies, as vibrant as sunlight on a forest stream.
Your album personnel: Rob Burger (piano), Greg Cohen (bass) and Ben Perowsky (drums).
John Zorn – In Search of the Miraculous
The scope and breadth of the Alhambra Trio grew for the 2010 release In Search of the Miraculous. Gone were the associations with a specific place on planet Earth. Zorn wrote compositions that would serve as odes for the new millennium. And where Alhambra Love Songs had an almost quaint personality to express its gorgeous melodies, the reformatted Alhambra Quintet lets loose with dramatic flourishes and surges of intensity, and trades in a streak of nostalgia for a more abstract sense of mysticism.
Vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen and electric guitarist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz join the original Alhambra trio. Between the addition of personnel and compositions more open to thematic interpretation, it’s as if the entirety of the horizon line shot out exponentially in both directions. But even with the amped up activity, there’s still an immensely contemplative atmosphere to this music. Opening track “Prelude: From a Great Temple” gets right to dictating that tone with melodic lines that curl and twist and cycle in odd patterns, triggering daydream imagery that’s more suited for enchantment than interaction.
The thing is, with all of the changes, it’s still not that far removed from the original trio session. A track like “Affirmation” shows how those melodies with the sunny disposition still find a home on the current recording. And while the flow from track to track isn’t as prominent on the newest, it’s still alive & kicking in the duration of each individual piece. The rhythmic approach lives to bring those melodies to full bloom, and yet the melodic development sounds to have the best interests of the rhythm at heart, and it’s why each quality goes hand-in-hand regardless of where the spotlight is aimed.
Your album personnel: Rob Burger (piano, organ), Greg Cohen (acoustic bass) and Ben Perowsky (drums), Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz (electric bass) and Kenny Wollesen (vibraphone).
John Zorn – The Goddess: Music for the Ancient of Days
The third of the (to date) three Alhambra Ensemble recordings expanded the line-up while continuing the evolution of the theme. The 2010 release The Goddess: Music for the Ancient of Days is a set of odes paying tribute to women of mythological significance. Guitarist Marc Ribot and harpist Carol Emanuel sit in on this session, and both accentuate the melodies in ways not done previously, with the former bringing out their combustibility and the latter their potential for growth if allowed to go wandering.
The mystical sound that cropped up on In Search of the Miraculous is ratcheted up several notches on The Goddess, as are the tempos. What’s remarkable is how the greater intensity of this recording doesn’t shatter the prevailing serenity… it’s just a case of experiencing it at higher speeds. The melodies are still as crisp as ever, but they come from multiple directions on this session, and the patterns take on a cyclical shape and seem to wind about one another endlessly, obliterating the point where one begins and the other ends. And all of it is beautiful.
Your album personnel: Rob Burger (piano), Ben Perowsky (drums), Trevor Dunn (bass), Carol Emanuel (harp), Mark Ribot (guitar) and Kenny Wollesen (vibraphone).