John Zorn is an alto player whose style is deeply rooted in Ornette Coleman, but who has supplemented that style with an array of freak effects he has made part of his ordinary sonic repertoire. He is also, more importantly, a unique and incredibly prolific composer who makes free use of any genre he likes, most prominently avant-garde jazz, heavy rock, avant-garde classical music, film and cartoon music, various types of popular music, and also certain world music traditions, especially Japanese and Jewish. This album, recorded in 1989 with Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Fred Frith, Joey Baron and the crazy vocalist Yamatsuka Eye, is a classic: an absolutely insane amalgam of styles, which flits impatiently between surfer rock, R&B, apocalyptic death-metal, high-octane modern jazz, spacey free-improvisation, atmospheric film-music, and all sorts of other things in between, the transitions occurring all in the blink of an eye. They play, for example, both Ornette’s ‘Lonely Woman’ and the James Bond theme tune. The death-metal bits are a bit hard to sit through, to be fair, but the overall experience is worth it: jazz produced a postmodernist!
Milford Graves / John Zorn duo
Recorded live in 2003, this often extreme and intense music amply displays Zorn’s ability to squeeze strange, distorted screams and bird-calls from his alto, as well as Grave’s ability to sound like a whole ensemble of percussionists.
It would be time-consuming and quite expensive to keep up with everything Zorn does, since his output has always been prolific and has been accelerating in recent years. This 2010 album, however, is certainly the best I’ve come across for a long time. Starting with a continuous beep that sounds like something has gone wrong somewhere, and which returns from time to time, Zorn takes you on an odyssey through a variety of utterly disparate musical idioms, somehow making it seem perfectly reasonable to go from a field recording of traditional African singing, to a heavy rock groove, to some strange sound effects, to free improvisation, to some sort of pan-pipe music with what sounds like a laser-gun firing in the background, to atonal piano music, etc. The highlight comes in the middle of the odyssey, when Zorn takes a very hot, post-Ornette alto solo in a conventional free jazz setting.