Most releases on John Zorn’s Tzadik label come with a “micro-sleeve” wrapping the left-hand side of a fold-out album only one inch in width. On the latest release of Zorn’s own music, Dreammachines, the rear side lists the tracks; and the front side provides a brief summary of the content. This sleeve often falls off the first time the album is opened. I write this in order to recommend that the attentive listener save it, since it provides the only coherent account of what is on this new recording.
Actually, that account is so brief that it deserves to be reproduced:
Zorn’s work has been deeply influenced by the work of Gysin and Burroughs, beginning in the late ’60s when he first became aware of their art, writing and revolutionary techniques of third mind collaboration. Dreammachines celebrates this connection with nine compositions combining the quirky atonality of Zorn’s classical music, the cut-up techniques of Naked City and the soulful lyricism of the Masada songbook. A companion piece to Nova Express (2011), the music is incredibly varied and jumps from tonality to atonality with dramatic surprise. Another complex and intense program of modern chamber music performed by an all-star quartet of virtuosos from Zorn’s inner circle.
The quartet is basically a jazz quartet consisting of John Medeski on piano, Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. The album as a whole may best be described as taking my favorite characterization of jazz as chamber music by other means and standing it on its head by offering chamber music as jazz by other means. The credits state “music composed, arranged and conducted by John Zorn;” but I must confess (without any effort to sound pejorative) that, while listening, I am never quite sure what he was doing in each of these three categories of action. (I should also observe, out of fairness, that I have heard some very good chamber music players perform the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and make it sound like jazz by other means.)
My guess is that many readers will feel a need for some explanation of what the above quotation actually says. The two names cited are those of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, both of whom were major experimentalists in both writing and performing in the years following the Second World War. They both worked with what is known at the “cut-up technique,” a process of taking existing texts, cutting them into pieces, and rearranging the pieces. For Burroughs this was an approach to inventing new narratives; but the resulting texts could just as easily be descriptions or even logical arguments (in form, if not in coherence). Indeed, The Third Mind, is a collaboration by Burroughs and Gysin that uses the cut-up technique to create both short stories and essays (and, perhaps, the interview with Burroughs also included in the book). Zorn has worked with this technique through much of his own efforts as a composer.
The title of the album refers to one of Gysin’s inventions. On Gysin’s Wikipedia page, the Dreammachine is defined as “a flicker device designed as an art object to be viewed with the eyes closed.” On the album itself, there are compositions entitled “The Third Mind” and “The Dream Machine.” There is also “1001 Nights in Marrakech,” which probably refers to the restaurant that Gysin opened in Tangier in 1954, which he called The 1001 Nights.
Then there is the question of atonality. With only a few exceptions, most of the tracks fall back on a tonal center and a solid beat. Baron can then depart in any number of imaginative ways from the latter without every really abandoning it, while the other instrumentalists tend to work with various forms of ostinato and the solid tonal orientation of a walking bass. Again, the actual melodic lines can depart radically from their point of departure, but never so far as to suggest that tonality has been abandoned.
That leaves the question of the extent to which these are compositions, as opposed to four really good jazz musicians jamming according to some level of guidance provided by Zorn. Medeski’s piano work is particularly good with those departures from a tonal center. To my listening mind, however, he could just as easily be channeling the spirit of Cecil Taylor as working from a score that Zorn provided. The result is less one of “dramatic surprise” and more a somewhat comforting excursion through some highly energetic and elaborate approaches to embellishment that could just as easily be spontaneous bursts of energy as complex conceptions of composition.
Ultimately, it is the modulation of that energy level over the nine tracks of this album that matters most. This music is far more affable than provocative. One might even call it fun, and that may be the key attribute that makes listening to these nine tracks highly satisfying.