iTunes Catch of the Day: John Zorn

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We’ve seen which songs, for whatever reason, I’ve played the most in the last three years, but what actually takes up the most real estate in the sprawling fairgrounds of my iPod?

The winner, the greediest, most space-hungry artist in my library, hands down, is John Zorn, with over 1400 songs on 110 different albums. Zorn is, in fact, a primary reason why I jumped from the 40GB iPod to the 80GB — to include not just my favorites, but to include every god-damned blast, squeak, skronk and squiggle I own from Mr. John Zorn.

Zorn is a true American original — a distinctive sax player, a flamboyantly avant-garde composer, an incredible bandleader and a master of all he surveys. He’s also made himself a legend in the music wars by creating his own label, releasing hundreds of first-class albums in what would ordinarily be a marketing man’s nightmare and insisting upon absolute control of his career. If that were not enough, he’s also acted as mentor and presenter of a whole host of musical outlaws on his Tzadik label.

I came to Zorn through his 1990 album Naked City, which was handed to me by a mentor of my own who had been trying to get me to listen to folks like Sonny Rollins to no avail. It was a good choice for my mentor, who knew that I needed something immediate and demanding to get me interested in a whole new genre of music. Naked City is more than jazz, it’s an encyclopedic engulfing of a century of American music (with some Europeans thrown in for good measure) chewed up in the fevered New York mind of Zorn, played with the intensity of hardcore punk by a crack band of some of the greatest jazz musicians alive. Naked City hit my brain like the Hindenburg at Lakehurst and remains one of my top ten albums of all time. I worked from Naked City (and the seven or so subsequent albums by the same team) to The Big Gundown, his chopping and splicing of the film music of Ennio Morricone, and Spillane, his sprawling, half-hour musical film noir (which he has since expanded into a full-length CD). From there I investigated his game pieces, where large ensembles participate in structured, spirited improvisations, his jittery, menacing, occasionally terrifying classical pieces, his stunning film soundtracks (he is my number one choice for composer when I make my first feature) and his career-in-themselves Masada albums, 17 or so and counting, where, for the first time to my knowledge, a composer has succeeded in wedding jazz to the Jewish musical tradition.

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