"Los Cristeros," the opening track of John Zorn's twenty-third Filmworks volume, starts gently enough, building from a bass and marimba groove. Then Marc Ribot's electric guitar enters. Brash and distorted, with the cocksure step of a gunslinger, and the frayed edge of a fedora, Ribot's solo keens with the energy and inspiration of the best.
Continuing in the vein of recent Zorn projects, the album features simple, hypnotic melodies for eclectic instrumentation. Most tracks never quite recapture the explosiveness of the opener, but this isn't really a knock, as Kenny Wollesen's bass marimba and Rob Burger's piano and accordion bring out the cool tints and sultry grooves of tunes like "El General" and "Maximato."
Those familiar with Ribot's playing will not be surprised to hear the intensity he brings to either "Cristeros" or the quartet version of "Besos De Sangre," on which he goes acoustic for a dark, lilting flamenco. Simply put, he and Zorn bring out the best in each other. His Western-hued electric proves alluring, evocative, and even intimidating on "Mala Suerta" and "Exilio." It's all extremely listenable, however.
This isn't to say that the whole album is Ribot's show. Burger proves to be a commanding, though subtle presence throughout. His piano work soothes the six-strings' burn with sensuous backgrounds and nuanced solo work.
The trio version of "Besos De Sangre," featuring the piano, brings back the catchy Latin dance melody, perhaps a shade up-tempo and a little brighter. Burger plays with a warm, lyrical touch, pausing and fading unexpectedly, as if to breathe. Meanwhile, Wollesen makes his cymbal moan and pats the toms gently, and Greg Cohen's bass solo sashays sadly. It's a beautiful tune, the product of a great sensitivity among the musicians.
The music was originally composed for a documentary on Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles, and Latin touches appear throughout. Zorn always defies generalization, but listeners here will find touches of minimalism, lounge music, exotica, and '60s rock, all mixed in amidst the soundtrack themes.
The closing "Exactamente Eso" features ethereal, psychedelic guitar, as Ribot breaks out long tones that swirl in waves before they rise and break. The beauty of the trembling electric melds with the rolling, romantic piano figures underneath, to create something suggestive of Philip Glass doing tequila shots with McCoy Tyner and the Byrds.
But that's too simple a description. Within these cues, Zorn's distinct and wonderful touch is at work, pulling the different sounds, feelings, colors, etc... into something that exists unto itself, without needing a genre or a film to give it clarity, perspective, and meaning.
Personnel: Marc Ribot: acoustic and electric guitar; Rob Burger: piano, accordion; Greg Cohen: bass; Kenny Wollesen: bass marimba, vibraphone, drums.