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John Zorn: The Urmuz Epigrams

Don Phipps By

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Prolific composer John Zorn's The Urmuz Epigrams offers up an infectious mix of Stockhausen effects, polyrhythmic percussion, and twisty tunes, a combination which produces music that is unsettling, surprising, and humorous—often at the same time.

All the pieces repeat themselves. Zorn notates the first rendition as "modern" and the second as "original." And while the dual versions of each piece offer variations, the general structures of the compositions remain similar.

Zorn performs with Ches Smith, a percussionist in perfect sync with Zorn's odd and nightmarish visions. The musical arcs of each composition propel the imagination—as do the creative and unusual titles. Just what is Zorn trying to tell us with these epigrams? "The Pelican or the Pelicaness," for example, races along like an African wildebeest fleeing from some unknown danger—where is the pelican? There's some Steve Reich minimalism in the piece, but above the repetitive lines of Smith's vibraphone, Zorn uses all sorts of vocal and organ effects to add strange and exciting textures.

"After That the Funnel Became a Symbol" creates a surreal slumber that is interrupted abruptly by a mangled electronic and sax sound blast. "Desperate from Having Been Left Without a Bladder" sounds like mad laughter. The aptly titled "This Piano Lid Serves as a Wall," opens up with piano phrasing reminiscent of Erik Satie's Gymnopédies, but then the sweet French chords are dissected and gutted with strange pig squeals, thunderstorm effects, and dog pantings.

"With Wet Clothes and Disheveled Hair He Wandered in the Dead of Night in Search of Shelter" is another surreal epigram. The oddly arhythmic effects of percussion below the organ chords allude to fleeing from some monstrous musical id at night, ducking under dark concrete urban highway underpasses as cars rumble overhead. It all comes to a screeching halt with the sound of a bomb going off.

Funny, inventive, challenging, surreal—The Urmuz Epigrams delivers provocative and probing musical narratives about the absurdity of life. It is to Zorn's credit, that he is able to achieve such fascinating variety within a unified context. For those who want to experience what Lou Reed called "a walk on the wild side," this album is recommended.

Track Listing: Disgusted With Life; This Piano Lid Serves as a Wall; With Wet Clothes and Disheveled Hair He Wandered in the Dead of Night in Search of Shelter; Then Again, Who Amongst Us Can Complain; A Rain of Threats and Screams; The Pelican or the Pelicaness; After That the Funnel Became a Symbol; Desperate from Having Been Left Without a Bladder.

Personnel: John Zorn: saxophone, piano, organ, sound effects, guitar, bass, game call, percussion, voice; Ches Smith: drums, percussion, vibraphone, glockenspiel, voice.

Title: The Urmuz Epigrams | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Tzadik

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