Shfl Guide: John Zorn's Groups

Saxophonist and composer John Zorn has traveled a long way from the dry structured-improvisation exercises he presented in New York’s jazz lofts and other underground performance spaces in the late 1970s. The collage style of composition he began to explore on albums like 1985’s The Big Gundown (rearranging the film music of Ennio Morricone, and earning the maestro’s approval in the process) and 1987’s Spillane earned him a cult audience and a small but fervent school of critical admirers. 

Zorn has admirably broad and ecumenical taste and a legendarily vast record collection, and creates work that ignores genre boundaries. Since the late 1980s, he has periodically formed groups for which he will compose a book of pieces, disbanding each ensemble when it seems to have exhausted its potential. 

The first and best known of these was Naked City, a quintet of Downtown all-stars — guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, bassist Fred Frith, and drummer Joey Baron — often fronted by Boredoms vocalist Eye Yamatsuka. Zorn treated the group as a compositional workshop, creating original pieces that leapt rapidly from perfect imitations of country, surf music, reggae or jazz to blasting grindcore outbursts, some less than ten seconds long. These were placed alongside comparatively straightforward arrangements of movie scores and modern classical pieces by Charles Ives, Olivier Messiaen, Alexander Scriabin and others.

Naked City existed from 1988 to 1993 and made six studio albums. Most were collage-style, like the debut, but 1992’s Leng Tch’e was a single 32-minute piece in a doom metal style, and 1993’s Absinthe was a quiet, ambient noise work. As the project was winding down, Zorn formed a new trio, Painkiller, with bassist Bill Laswell and Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. Their music combined grindcore, dub and screaming saxophone. Painkiller’s debut EP, Guts Of A Virgin, initially featured an autopsy photo of a murdered pregnant woman (and her fetus) on its cover; UK customs seized and destroyed it for violating the Obscene Publications Act. Their second, Buried Secrets, featured guest appearances from Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green of Godflesh, and 1994’s Execution Ground was a two-CD set showcasing longer, more slickly produced compositions and a second disc of “ambient” remixes.

Between 1994 and 1997, Zorn led and composed for the quartet Masada, which featured trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron. That ensemble’s ten studio albums (plus a two-CD collection of outtakes, and a clutch of live releases) combined Jewish scales with the improvisational principles at work in the music of Ornette Coleman. Though that group disbanded, Zorn has subsequently written hundreds more compositions in the ever-expanding “Masada book,” which have been performed by a wide range of ensembles and even soloists.

At century’s end, Zorn returned to heavy/aggressive music with Bladerunner, a quartet that included Fred Frith on guitar, Bill Laswell on bass, and Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo. Though they only played about a half dozen concerts and never made a full album, three tracks (including two with Marc Ribot on second guitar) can be heard on 1999’s Taboo And Exile.

His next rock-oriented project was Moonchild, which launched in 2006. A trio featuring Faith No More/Mr. Bungle vocalist Mike Patton, bassist Trevor Dunn, and Joey Baron on drums, they made seven albums that ran the gamut from jagged, pounding noise-rock featuring non-verbal mouth sounds (on Six Litanies For Heliogabalus, Patton gives an impression of a man choking to death that may nauseate some listeners) to dark, heavy prog rock with actual lyrics.

In 2015, Zorn summoned keyboardist John Medeski, guitarist Matt Hollenberg, and drummer Kenny Grohowski, dubbing the trio Simulacrum. The instrumentation was straight out of classic jazz (think Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton, et al.), but the music combined psychedelic fusion with the crunch of death metal. They made eight studio albums and one live disc in six years, including the brain-scrambling Baphomet, which contained a single 39-minute composition. In 2021, Zorn added a second keyboardist, Brian Marsella, to Simulacrum, dubbing the new group Chaos Magick. They’ve released two albums to date, and more are sure to follow. He’s also combined personnel — Hollenberg and Grohowski from Simulacrum/Chaos Magick, and Dunn from Moonchild, plus second guitarist Julian Lage — into the instrumental rock act Insurrection, who also have two albums to their name so far.

Naked City cover

The 1990 debut by Zorn’s quintet — Bill Frisell on guitar, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, Fred Frith on bass, Joey Baron on drums, with Boredoms vocalist Eye Yamatsuka howling and shrieking up front — brought his jump-cut aesthetic out of the New York avant-garde and onto college radio. His own furious compositions, which caromed from country to free jazz to dub to grindcore with little narrative logic but energy to spare, were balanced by romantic versions of movie themes from Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, and more, plus a take on Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” that features a driving rock backbeat.

Simulacrum cover

In 2015, John Zorn assembled an organ trio: John Medeski at the keys, Matt Hollenberg of tech-death metal band Cleric on guitar, and prog/metal drummer Kenny Grohowski. This self-titled debut album vacillates between swirling, organ-driven psychedelic jams reminiscent of Tony Williams Lifetime at their most explosive (“The Illusionist,” “Alterities”), and grinding pieces driven by thrash metal riffs (“Marmarath”). The music is recorded with astonishing clarity and precision; Grohowski’s drums are extraordinarily crisp and clear, allowing you to hear every pinpoint strike or tiny rattle of the hi-hat.

Torture Garden cover

Naked City’s self-titled debut included 11 “hardcore miniatures,” mind-blastingly fast pieces that combined snippets of conventional music styles (reggae, country, lounge jazz) with ultra-intense thrash for anywhere between eight and 40 seconds. Torture Garden, released on the Shimmy-Disc label when Elektra Nonesuch balked, included all of those, and added 31 more; the longest, “Osaka Bondage,” runs 1:14, while “Hammerhead” is a mere eight seconds. This may be the most exciting, nerve-jangling 25:46 of music ever recorded.

Moonchild: Songs Without Words cover

In 2006, Zorn assembled three longtime collaborators — vocalist Mike Patton, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Joey Baron — in the studio for a day of conducted improvisation. The resulting music is a blend of hardcore and noise-rock performed with unremitting intensity. Baron’s bass sound is a mix of fuzzy distortion and metallic scraping and clanging. As the album title suggests, Patton’s not singing lyrics, but the variety of mouth-noises he throws down atop Dunn and Baron’s constantly shifting, Unsane-meets-free jazz interactions is stunning and a little frightening.

Guts of a Virgin / Buried Secrets cover

John Zorn was deep into extremity when he formed Painkiller with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Mick “the Human Tornado” Harris, then a member of British grindcore pioneers Napalm Death. The trio’s first two EPs are combined on this 22-track, 52-minute disc. Guts Of A Virgin is pure explosive force: Zorn sputters and wails; Laswell lays down thick, distorted noise bass; and Harris demolishes the kit. On Buried Secrets, the sonic palette expands, incorporating dub and industrial. Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green of Godflesh guest on two tracks.

Spy vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman cover

This 1989 release marked the first recorded documentation of John Zorn’s obsession with hardcore and extreme metal. Teaming up with fellow alto saxophonist Tim Berne (Berne is in the left channel, Zorn in the right), bassist Mark Dresser, and drummers Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher, they blast through 17 Ornette Coleman tunes in just over 40 minutes. And “blast” is the right word: not only do they play at extreme velocity, but the music is recorded with the rawness and intent to overpower of grindcore. The drums are a continuous avalanche, and both saxophonists are in full cry from beginning to end; there’s no deviation from the mission here.

Chaos Magick cover

After nine albums (eight studio, one live) employing the jazz-metal trio Simulacrum, John Zorn added a second keyboardist, Brian Marsella, to the original lineup of organist John Medeski, guitarist Matt Hollenberg, and drummer Kenny Grohowski. The result is a music that’s spacy and psychedelic, with plenty of interplay between the two keyboardists and less of the thrash-metal riffing that propelled many Simulacrum compositions. In its quieter moments, this album may bring to mind the Doors or even the Moody Blues; of course, there are plenty of audio jump-cuts and sudden juxtapositions — this is still John Zorn we’re talking about.

Templars In Sacred Blood cover

John Zorn’s Moonchild project released seven albums, gradually mutating from an improvising noise-rock trio (bass, drums, vocals) to the closest thing the composer has ever assembled to a conventional rock band. This is album number six, and features organist John Medeski throughout. The music is moody prog, and Patton is declaiming actual lyrics written by Zorn in a variety of languages on the theme of the Knights Templar and ancient Christian mysticism. The typical Zorn jump-cut musical style is largely absent here, replaced by a thudding heavy rock style that brings to mind Van der Graaf Generator and King Crimson sometimes, and the Melvins others.

Beyond Good & Evil - Simulacrum Live cover

This CD mostly demonstrates Simulacrum’s ability to execute the melodic hairpin turns and lightning-fast tempo changes of John Zorn’s music in real time. The pieces are as close as possible to perfect reproductions of the studio versions; the running times may vary by a few seconds from the originals, as heard on the band’s first four CDs, but there’s little or no improvisation. The music is performed as written, and recorded beautifully (Firehouse 12, where the concert took place, has an in-house studio) without even crowd noise.

Execution Ground cover

On their only full-length studio album, PainKiller go big. The first disc contains three heavy, atmospheric tracks ranging in length from 14 to 16 minutes; the music nods to the dub-metal of Blind Idiot God. Zorn’s sax sometimes seems to float in on a cloud of effects, and Laswell and Harris have become a rhythm team, rather than momentarily allied individualists. The second disc offers two 20-minute “ambient” remixes, blown-out soundscapes of whooshing rumble, the sax shrieking in the distance like an apex predator stalking a burned-out city.

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