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John Zorn - Spillane CD (album) cover


John Zorn



3.92 | 31 ratings

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5 stars Rating: A+

In his long career, John Zorn has done just about everything. He's invented new ways of composing/improvising music (file cards and game pieces), he's invented two new genres of music (extreme avant-garde, genre hopping), he's played or composed every type of music imaginable (free jazz, jazz, klezmer, grindcore, ragtime, soundtrack, metal, noise rock, avant-classical, minimalism, etc), and he's run a fantastic record label that has released a myriad of great releases (Tzadik). His greatest accomplishment of all, however, is Spillane, the most famous of his file card pieces. Mixing bluesy themes with spoken word into long, thoughtful compositions, Spillane is not only Zorn's compositional peak, it's also one of his most accessible releases, and a perfect introduction his vast discography (over 100 releases and swiftly counting - by the end of March, he will already have three 2008 releases).

To understand Spillane, though, one must understand exactly what his file card pieces are. Unlike Cobra (a game piece), where John Zorn creates rules to guide improvisation, turning music into a game, Spillane is purely compositional. The idea behind file cards is that Zorn, without writing any notes, imagines musical themes and writes down his ideas on file cards. After doing this, he takes the themes, no matter how disparate, and organizes them into the order he feels will sound best. Only once he's found the order that "feel's right" does he write down the notes, tying together the various themes into one tremendous composition, in this case, the twenty-five minute "Spillane".

Over its long run time, "Spillane" moves through a series of bluesy themes, allowing touches of jazz and free jazz to work their way in. Despite their great variety, from calm, quiet, and emotive to fast and joyous, all of the themes feel connected. Add on top the spoken vocals (in a somewhat Texan accent), and the end result is a piece that wouldn't feel out of place in a Western at any particular moment. On the whole, it probably wouldn't fit in such a movie, but each individual part feels like it could've been pulled from that setting. These spoken vocals give the track a great atmosphere, complementing the music but never distracting from it. Though it's all fantastic, my favorite moment is probably the one about 15:20 in, where the powerful, sweeping piano comes in. It only lasts half a minute, but it's one of the most compelling moments I've heard from John Zorn.

The rest of the CD is similar, though I don't believe it comes from the same file card composition technique as "Spillane." Tracks two and three are part of a larger composition (about eighteen minutes long in total) that explores similar bluesy avenues as "Spillane", and does so equally effectively. These two pieces, known as "Two Lane Highway," are a bit more energetic than "Spillane," making them slightly more accessible ("Spillane", on first listen, seems dead in sports, though repeatedly listening reveals the inherent purpose of these seemingly weaker sections). They actually feel slightly jam oriented; I wouldn't be surprised if Zorn snuck some improvisation in. Even more interesting than "Two Lane Highway", though, is the closing "Forbidden Fruit", which easily ranks among my favorite John Zorn pieces (as do "Spillane" and "Two Lane Highway"). Once again looking to blues for its base, it incorporates some Asian music influences that gel surprisingly well, making for a song that is equal parts compositionally rigorous and atmospherically intense, a balance that's incredibly hard to find.

Naked City may be the defining work in John Zorn's catalogue and is definitely a masterpiece, but Spillane is equally good. Along with Naked City and The Circle Maker, this is the place to go for a newcomer to Zorn's music. As for those who have had the pleasure of hearing Zorn's music (and who liked it), all I can say is, what the hell are you waiting for?!? This should be your next Zorn purchase, no question. Brilliantly composed, stunningly executed, and undeniably creative and innovative, Spillane is an all-around classic, and one every music fan should hear. Indispensable.

Pnoom! | 5/5 |


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