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John Zorn


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Honorary Collaborator
3 stars With Zorn every album is a new exciting mad drive through his visions. Spillane is no different although it is a less complex, brutal and crazy than others I've heard by him. For each piece he summoned the lineup of musicians he thought would best fir the music played. In the booklet of this album Zorn gives a background on his music and on each of the tracks here and how they came to be. It demonstrates the working process of Zorn and how he accomplishes his vision.

The title track Spillane is homage to Mickey Spillane, pseudonym of Frank Morrison Spillane, an American thriller writer. Spillane is best-known for his private detective Mike Hammer, who appeared in his first published book I, The Jury (1947). In Spillane he created filling cards in which he wrote the various musical scenes to be enetered to the final piece. Every scene is built according to Mickey Spillane's "work, his world, his characters, his ideology". He notes that in some cards he just writes in general terms what he thinks there should be ("Opening scream. Route 66 intro starting with a high hat, then piano, strings, harp"). In other cards he goes into more details ("Scene of the crime #1- high harp harmonics, basses and trombone drone, guitar sonorities, sounds of water dripping and narration on top"). He then sorted his cards and put them in the order he wanted (which took months) and chose the musicians to perform it. That is very interesting to compose music in this way, to decide what sounds you want to be and then creatre them. He first creates the mold and then fills it with content. He also states that in the studio, although it was him calling the shots and determining what would it sound like, there was a "real give and take with the musicians". He sometimes would bring the music alredy written and prepared for playing. At other times he aid to Anthony Coleman (piano) "play some cheesy cocktail piano" or he approached Bill Frisell (guitar) "go and improvise My Gun Is Quick [a Spillane novel]". He states that "my works often move from one block to another.. But I always have a unifying concept that ties all the sections together".

The title track Spillane, is literally a soundtrack to a film. The narration is in a Film Noir style. The different bits of music that mingle into each other depict the different events that occur in the song and therefore, move from the dark and mysterious music to blues, to free head spinning jazz to sounds being made with no particular order. It is a frantic voyage that does not leave you time for pondering or contemplating too much on what you are hearing. At times it can remind you of what Fantomas did in Delirium Cordia and Suspended Animation, especially the spooky soundscapes and music. You have to consider that this goes on for more than 25 minutes, so some may find this exhausting, but I think that it is an excellent tour de force of Zorn's abilities at composition. I prefer the free jazz parts and the fright music bits to the other styles displayed here, but all are done in a very good way. Moreover, the connection between the different parts is not forced at all and in my opinion flows naturally from a part in which you have some scary music with weird voices to a jazzy part that turns into a chaos of sax and clarinet played by Zorn. There is not much point in trying to further describe this piece. This track alone makes the album worth buying, and indeed it was the main reason I bought it.

But let us not forget there are two other lengthy tracks here that deserve mention as well. In Two-Lane Highway Zorn states that his "role is perhapse more akin to that of an organizer, producer and director". By that he means that this piece was created to praise guitar player and bluesman, Albert Collins. He wanted Collins to shine and bring the bst out of him. For this purpose he listened to almost every record Collins ever made. He then "constructed a plot, taking Collins through twelve scenes of various moods, keys, tempos etc". the final result is Zorn's "portrait of a great bluesman". Now the Two-Lane Highway parts 1 and 2 are actually blues tracks. Part 1 is made up of 9 smaller pieces and as I mentioned, it features Albert Collins on guitar and vocals. The guitar, piano and organ complement each other quite well. The result is a very groovy, well played, energetic blues music. Part 2 is more relaxed, drumless blues in which Collins' guitar and the keyboards jam together.

The closing track, Forbidden Fruit was done "to balance the dramatic, narrative style of Spillane and the hot, live quality of Two-Lane Highway". This piece is what Zorn terms "pure music". The idea for this piece came to life when Zorn heard of the death of a Japanese film star, Ishihara Yujiro, in July 1987. he felt the urge to write a tribute piece for him. (Zorn has been fascinated with Japan sonce he was a kid and he lived there for several months each year). He wrote Forbidden Fruit as a set of variations inspired by a photo (shown in the booklet) of Yujiro with his wife, Kitahara Mie and another actor, Tsugawa Masahiko taken from Yujiro's debut film in 1957. what Zorn did was to create a "set of 12 sound blocks. which...are spread out over the entire duration of the piece. Composed of 60 sections in all, four sets of 12 variations each and the 12 themes, all squeezed into 10 minutes". Forbidden Fruit is an avant-garde piece, the sort of which Zorn loves so much to create. There is an occasional female voice of Ohta Hiromi, speaking in Japanese which is the narrator in this piece. The violins shift from squeaking screeching sounds to peaceful and harmonic ones. The soundscapes he creates bring to mind images of a tortured person and there is a contradictory effect caused by the beautiful voice of Hiromi. It is a dense track and for instance from about 7:00 to the end you get a nonstop violin madness and constant shift from this frantic playing to a relaxed but always eerie violin sound.

Spillane and Forbidden Fruit both demand the full attention of the listener as in many other Zorn pieces, while Two-Lane Highway is less obligating, but it should also be given full awareness. Now, I like this album as a whole and Spillane in particular and the musicianship is very good and demonstrates high level. However, I don't think it is an essential release. The title track itself is excellent but it is not enough to make the whole album essential, since the other two tracks, while being very much to my taste, don't give any additional value to the album. It's a kind of music we've heard elsewhere and isn't unique to Zorn (Two-Lane Highway) or we've heard it in another Zorn release (Forbidden Fruit). Therefore, I think it deserves 3 stars - good, but non essential.

Report this review (#82623)
Posted Tuesday, July 4, 2006 | Review Permalink
Cygnus X-2
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Avant-Jazz-Film-Noir never sounded so good

John Zorn is definitely an artist that can't be taken lightly or listened to lightly. He's one of the most diverse and difficult artists I've ever listened to. However, it seems that once you get a taste of his greatness, it never lets go of you. After experimenting with the art of improvisation with his infamous "Game Pieces" and the off the wall Locus Solus, Zorn moved onto this album. Of the four tracks on the album, the one that is worth the purchase of the album alone is the title track, the 25 minute opus that takes the listener on a journey (almost literally).

The piece that defines this album is the opener. It's a mix of lounge-jazz, freak out music, and film noir that adds up to success. The song has a gritty feel and you can almost visualize the story unfolding just from the music that is played (the track is largely instrumemental with brief breaks for the film noir narration). As I've read, this album is dedicated to mystery novelist Frank Morrison Spillane, which would explain this song. This track is the main reason why you'll want this album, it's the focal point and it really carries the album to the end (although you're only halfway done with the album when this song is over).

The other two songs combine blues guitar variations (Two-Lane Highway) and Japanese influenced avant-garde (complete with Japanese narration) music. These two songs are pretty well conceived and they show the diversity that John Zorn was always able to convey and present to this audience quite brilliantly. In particular, Two-Lane Highway is especially noteworthy for guitarists, as the solos from bluesman Albert Collins can certainly make your jaw drop with their beauty.

Spillane is probably one of Zorn's easiest albums to listen to, but still it's a challenging listen. I can't give it full marks, but I can surely tell you behind Naked City (which should be the essential starting point for someone interested in John Zorn) Spillane is the easiest and arguably the best entry-point into the expansive and dense catalogue of John Zorn. Like the title suggests, Avant-Jazz-Film-Noir never sounded so original, new, fresh, and most importantly, excellent.

Report this review (#108772)
Posted Thursday, January 25, 2007 | Review Permalink
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.

Report this review (#163472)
Posted Saturday, March 8, 2008 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Spillane is John Zorn's tribute to Mickey Spillane, American thriller writer ( I think almost everyone know TV serial about private detective Mike Hammer, based on his book). The album is one between few Zorn's first "movie" albums, and one of popular as well.

Whenever there are at least three great reviews on PA , I just will try to concentrate on my impressions.

There are two long compositions on this album. The first one is longest (25+ minutes) and is named by the album name. The composition has a bit unusual structure ( but quite characteristic for Zorn's music): short musical pieces were recorded on what is named "cards", and after John just combined these cards in order it looked best to him. Whenever the music on each card was very different - from free jazz, to 60-s movie soundtrack sound, to some bluesy and classic pieces, to avant-garde sounds, - all combination presents very eclectic mix, but organically melted in one composition. Big importance in this mixture is given to some spoken words (as movie fragments, in English and even in Russian - as short citation from Soviet propaganda-style movie) and many different movie-like noises. So, even if not all pieces are equally attractive, you wouldn't be bored.

Three other, shorter, album compositions are more usual, but again, in quite Zorn- ish style. Two-Lane Highway ( part I and II) both are excellent electric blues based compositions ,played by renowned blues guitarist Albert Collins. Zorn by himself (as often) doesn't play there at all, but are more idea author and manager. Both songs , even if based on bluesy roots, sounds enough fresh and attractive ( and are real gem for electric blues lovers). Not too much experimental, to be honest.

Last, fourth song, is longer composition again. It is pure avant-garde track based on strings cacophony, very nervous sound and occasional vocals in Japanese. Even if strange construction, this song build a logical frame for two bluesy compositions, placed between two much more unusual songs.

Everything in total build a strange, unusual, but very close to everyone musical "movie world" of Zorn, which he will develop in many more his later works.

Not masterpiece, but interesting and strong Zorn's album.

Report this review (#258983)
Posted Saturday, January 2, 2010 | Review Permalink

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