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Downtown music legend John Zorn is a hard man to pin down. No matter how much or little you know of him, it's never enough to not be surprised, delighted or simply dizzied by his music. What is constant - whether composing, playing, or both - is his ability to elude any one label or expectation by blending several into something unmistakably his own. Such is the case with two of the latest installments in a long series of Zorn-penned movie scores.
On Film Works XV, he is charged with accompanying Marc Levin's Protocols of Zion, a documentary exploring the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the wake of 9/11. What Zorn comes up with, more than just music, is an assembly of hypnotic rhythms, tones and themes that, with or without knowledge of the film itself, draw its unsettling subject into view.
With percussion whiz Cyro Baptista and bassist Shanir Blumenkranz by his side, Zorn sheds his usual alto saxophone in favor of a range of electric pianos. The result is an assimilation of American, African, Middle-Eastern and traditional Jewish rhythms into one infectious sound. From first note to last, intricate landscapes are sketched with skill and compassion. And with track titles like "Jew Watcher , "Hollywood/Rikers , "Fighting Time and "A Dark Future , one needn't know much more to invoke the film's troubling specter.
Film Works XVII, by contrast, is a mix of music from two different scores. One is a documentary on artist and filmmaker Marie Menken while the other profiles the enigmatic bone collector Ray Bandar. Here again Zorn inspires images of each subject, but by alternating between the two, he creates an interplay which bears an entirely separate musical entity.
For Menken, Zorn paints a complex portrait of artistic exploration - from the spirited ambling of "Glimpses to the manic, piercing "GoGoGO to "Bolex Dancing - as the sound of film hypnotically rounds the camera's gears. For Bandar, the echoes are similarly physical. Zorn turns to African thumb pianos, while Baptista and Kenny Wollesen lay a rich percussive bed beneath. The impression, appropriately, is that of chiming skulls. Woven together, the two scores strike a balance that benefits both. And though the risk in so doing is great, the payoff is still greater.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Protocols of Zion; ; Searching for a Past; Jew Watcherl Mystery of the Jew; History Repeats Itself; Arab and Jew; Fighting Time; Hollywood/Rikers; Elders of Zion; A Dark Future.
Personnel: Cyro Baptista: percussion; Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz: bass, oud; John Zorn: electric pianos.
Tracks: Menken; Skull I; Glimpses; Mood Mondrian; Skull II; Gogogo; Moonplay; Skull III; Tango Exotique; Zenscapes; Skull IV; Arabesque; Skull V; Bolex Dancing.
Personnel: Cyro Baptista: percussion; Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz: bass; Jon Madof: guitar; Kenny Wollesen: drums, percussion; John Zorn: wurlitzer piano, African thumb pianos.