John Zorn: O'o (1986)
When John Zorn released The Dreamers (Tzadik) in 2008, it might have seemed like a temporary aberration: Zorn the master of the arbitrary (Cobra), the cutting edge (Torture Garden) and the anarchic (too many projects to mention) had embraced the genres of lounge and 1950s exotica to produce music that, perhaps ironically, approached easy listening, building on the more tuneful elements in his Electric Masada and Morricone projects. It seems the aberration wasn't temporary. On O'o Zorn returns to the same blend of genre elements and the same ensemble, with guitarist Marc Ribot, keyboardist Jamie Saft and vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen in the foreground and bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Joey Baron in the background, all of it accented by the brilliant vernacular percussion of Cyro Baptista.
The fundamental elements include the "jungle sounds" of Martin Denny, a tropical midnight soundscape of birdcalls and insect percussion, coupled with lushly resonant instrumentation. There's lounge a-plenty, but it covers terrain from surf guitar instrumentals to the Latin jazz of Cal Tjader and Vince Guaraldi to some sudden soulful piano that might recall Horace Silver or Sonny Clark. The clarity of Zorn's musical vision combines with the recovered elements to create sometimes startling emotional connections (that the CD is named for an extinct song bird is telling as is the booklet of bird drawings), as in the profoundly beautiful opening of "Akialoa," with its suggestion of John Coltrane modality and Morricone soundscape. The individual performances are at a consistently high level, but it would be impossible not to single out Ribot for his uncanny range of guitar timbres, remarkable not simply for their variety but their intensity and unfailing aptness.
While The Dreamers might have seemed like a brilliantly executed one-off, O'o testifies not just to Zorn's absorption in the new style, but to the band's commitment as well. You might go some distance to find contemporary music with more precisely meaningful detail or dedication to nuance.
Track Listing: Miller's Crake; Akialoa; Po'o'uli ; Little Bittern; Mysterious Starling; Laughing Owl; Archaeopteryx; Solitaire; Piopio; The Zapata Rail; Kakawahie; Magdalena.
Personnel: Cyro Baptista: percussion; Joey Baron: drums; Trevor Dunn: bass; Marc Ribot: guitar; Jamie Saft: piano, organ; Kenny Wollesen: vibraphone.