Composer/saxophonist/pianist John Zorn's recent entries in his Filmworks series have demonstrated a distinct mellowing. But given that his recent series of 50th Birthday Concert releases have covered ground from the generally accessible Masada String Trio to the more outrageous Hemophiliac and raucous Electric Masada, they mark an artist whose stylistic diversity never loses touch with his personal voice. Zorn simply aims to make music that fits specific contexts and concepts.
Filmworks XV: Protocols of Zion is Zorn's score for a film by Marc Levin concerning the increase in anti-Semitism since the 9/11 tragedy. The title refers to The Protocols of Zion, a fictitious set of minutes from a supposed secret meeting of Jewish elders at the end of the 19th Century that has been used to incite hatred since its publication in 1905. As recently as 9/11, it was used by some to perpetuate the fallacy that Jews were warned not to go to work at the World Trade Center that day and, consequently, no Jews died in the attack. These stories are all about rewriting history to suit an agenda, and books like The Protocol of Zion are dangerously inflammatory in that regard.
Zorn has been exploring Jewish culture through much of his recent musicspecifically the Masada Project, which started as a freely improvising quartet but has since expanded to an immense songbook interpreted by a variety of musical collaborators. Consequently, Levin felt him to be the perfect composer for the film, and Filmworks XV is arguably Zorn's most personal and deeply moving score to date.
Zorn, who plays electric piano on the date, teams up with bassist/oud player Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and percussionist Cyro Baptista for a series of evocative miniatures. Literally composed in less than a half hour, the whole score is consequently pervaded by a distinctive sense of immediacy. Even on more up-tempo pieces like "Arab and Jew," where Blumenkranz overdubs oud over his groove-centric bass playing, there's a distinct feeling of minimal preparation, a strong sense of "going for it." Although cuing music to image demands more concentration and forethought, it just feels that way.
Zorn's piano playing has a certain innocence of touch, a lack of presumption that belies a deeper understanding of the music. Zorn has spent so much time in recent years with the scales and harmonies associated with Jewish music that they come completely naturally to him; "Fighting Time" has him building tension by maintaining a simplistic eighth-note rhythmic pattern with one hand while he creates swirling melodies with the other. There even appear to be references to the Masada songbook in his ruminative solo section at the end of the piece.
Without seeing the documentary it's difficult to assess how successfully Zorn's music integrates into the big picture, but on its own merits Filmworks XV: The Protocols of Zion works as a self-contained cycle that beautifully captures a haunting Middle Eastern ambience combined with propulsive rhythms courtesy of Baptista, who seems to intuit Zorn's every need, regardless of the context.
Personnel: John Zorn (electric piano), Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz (bass, oud), Cyro Baptista (percussion)