Wednesday, 28 May 2008

JOHN ZORN: Honey-Cab

In retrospect - note how such things are never expressed in the present tense - 1983's Locus Solus double album should have been the kind of record which would have made the charts if the implications of New Pop, at least in terms of letting all that other music in, had been properly followed through. In his notes to the 1991 CD reissue Zorn himself admits as much, but of course by 1983 it had long since been proved that only the vague indicators of colour and happy were wanted by The Public rather than any trouble (or, for that matter, Any Trouble, but anyway...). 38 tracks on the CD version, of which only the last eight were preordained in terms of structure; otherwise it's a three-way improv tag team all the way through with Zorn as the only constant and no improvising game plan as such - Arto Lindsay and Anton Fier constructing a sort of anti-Subtle Body, Wayne Horvitz and Ikue Mori re-digesting James Bond, DJ Whiz Kid and drummer M E Miller machine-gunning Dutch Schultz. Something for everyone, as long as every one is willing to be identified. Words and throwdowns improvised, few tracks exceeding the three minute limit (so almost all of them remain eligible for Eurovision)...a Newer Pop for those with ears ready to bend to full flexion.

In the immediate post-No Wave late seventies and incipient lounging early eighties, Zorn's direct input was a vital raygun for improv, forcing its processes to admit elements from everything else that was happening, especially from rock and pop (not in that order), and also reintroducing an element of fun - not the vexingly smug Rag Week collegiate "humour" endemic to career British improvisers (they know who they are) but a custard pie laced with red peppers of dynamos, all the better to broaden and deepen the reach and ambition of improvised music.

Zorn's most emblematic 1983 release was probably Yankees, a less Cool School modification of the old Giuffre/Brookmeyer/Hall template with George Lewis and Derek Bailey; light(ning fast) and swift swallows of interplay with added game calls, one of the best soundtracks to its summer (and I clearly should take the opportunity here to salute the recently departed Jimmy Giuffre, one of Woody Herman's original Four Brothers who went on to sketch an expressionist pastoralism in the freer skies of blue with great skill and restraint, and was also a very early champion of the music of Carla Bley). Whereas Locus Solus is as near to a "rockist" album as Zorn dared prior to Naked City, Pain Killer etc. But it also pops like an under-watched arthritic knee when the listener is less than careful.

Most immediately captivating of all these power trios is the opening one, featuring the turntables of Christian Marclay and the voice (and improvised lyrics) of Peter Blegvad as Zorn cackles and crows in and beyond any space that he can find. "Bass And The Treble" may be the most unlikely (if essentially tender of heart) yet most relevant of Karen Carpenter tributes, but for now let's settle on the speed blossom of "Honey-Cab," a sort of "Crosstown Traffic" set in the 19th dimension. Marclay unleashes the pocket history of music as Blegvad mutters and muses about his rider - "black as carbon/On paper white as snow" - polyrhythmic African drumming giving way to Toytown xylophones, bleeps of whatever was in that week's top ten snatched away just before you can recognise them, coded radiospeak, a fulsome operatic tenor, an optimistic bluff about Blegvad's detached but ecstatic moan. "Spend every dollar twice!" he declares as Zorn switches back to first gear and the window rolls down to take in some fruitier oxygen. I still think it could go Top 30, at the very least.