Thursday, August 6, 2009

Marky's song #6: John Zorn - "Nefesh"

Those of us who are huge fans of John Zorn have a word to describe ourselves: “Zornthologists.” It’s meant as a term of endearment. There’s no codified process or minimum number of albums to purchase in order to cross the line into Zornthology, but those who are there usually don’t try to hide it. Between his solo albums, band projects, collaborations, one-offs and guest appearances, I have round 100 albums connected to him on one way or another. And that that’s only a minor dent into his discography, not to mention that there are certainly much more rabid Zorn fans than me.

Bar Kokhba is not one of his better-known albums. It is named after Simon Bar Kokhba, the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire in the year 135. The revolt was crushed overwhelmingly by the Romans and led to the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. Obviously a major event in Jewish history, the Bar Kokhba revolt is also cited as the first significant divergence between Christianity and Judaism.

As you might expect from an album named after an event of such grave emotional import, Bar Kokhba drips with somber spirituality. A double-CD released as part of the “Radical Jewish Culture” series on his own Tzadik label in 1996, the album features various small chamber ensembles. In fact, Zorn doesn’t play on the album at all, being credited solely as a composer. Those familiar with parts of the Masada catalog will recognize some of the themes and find it interesting to hear them out of a jazz context, but – and Zorn has emphatically stated this on many occasions – Masada was never meant to be strictly a “jazz” project.

The point behind the Masada project was for Zorn to write a “book” of melodies. He drew the inspiration for that from Duke Ellington. Duke had a book of songs – not full arrangements, but just main themes. Sometimes it would be nothing more than a couple lines on staff paper. He could then arrange those melodies into full-fledged compositions as the instrumentation dictated. If he needed to arrange it for a piano trio, he could do that. If he needed to arrange it for a 30-piece big band orchestra, he could do that as well. It was the same song, the same melody, but a different context.

Masada plays upon the same idea, but given Zorn’s breadth of musical interests, it doesn’t restrict itself to jazz. Melodies have been re-interpreted by string trios, techno artists and thrash bands. In the case of Bar Kokhba, it’s chamber music. But this track stands out from the rest of the album because it actually is a jazz piece.

John Zorn - "Nefesh"

The trio that plays on this track is John Medeski on piano, Mark Dresser on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. As far as I am aware, this is the only track anywhere that features this specific trio of musicians. A shame, because this song is one of the finest pieces of jazz I’ve heard anywhere, from any time period. The beautifully recorded track is balanced perfectly between the three instruments, each member getting a chance to stand out and shine without ever breaking the heavy mood. This track by itself may not be enough to recommend slogging through two full CDs of minor key chamber music, but it definitely deserves to be pulled out and placed on a pedestal.


  1. This is the most coherent, *pleasant* bit of Zorn I've ever heard. Great track! Granted, my JZ listening has been sporadic but I've never heard him sound (or arrange) like this. I was expecting a much more complicated song here. As always, great write up.