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John Zorn
John Zorn

Mythically mystical

Music | Blake and Homer inspire two new albums

Issue: "Maximum insecurity," Feb. 23, 2013

Of the nearly 80 albums that the avant-garde musician-composer John Zorn has released under his own name, eight were released in 2012. For much of the year, it appeared that the Bram Stoker homage he released in April, Nosferatu, would go down as the crowning achievement in his annual demonstration of breathtaking productivity. 

Then in September, he released A Vision in Blakelight (Tzadik), an homage to the works of William Blake.

Zorn had most recently mined his affection for Blake in 2011 on the album At the Gates of Paradise. But on Paradise he had also drawn on Gnostic Christian texts, thus, at least to the doctrinally sensitive, sullying his aural ore. A Vision in Blakelight, on the other hand, is pure gold.

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The metaphor is not fanciful. Thanks to the delicate interplay of Kenny Wollesen’s vibraphone and bells, John Medeski’s piano, and the suggestively surnamed Carol Emanuel’s harp, Blakelight’s 10 tracks sparkle and gleam. Only one of them, the especially numinous “Shadows in Ancient Time,” contains the words of the works that inspired Zorn. But, drawn from the first chapter of Blake’s “prophetic” book Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Great Albion and sensitively read by the British actor Jack Huston, the 20 lines of poetry provide vital context.

“I see the Four-fold Man,” the passage begins, a reference to the “Humanity” (personality), “Spectre” (reason), “Emanation” (emotion, imagination), and “Shadow” (desire) that for Blake comprised the archetypical human ancestor who had fallen into a sleep so deep that only Christ could re-awaken him.

The passage goes on to mention “Bacon & Newton” (representing science) and the “Loom of Locke” (representing the “Schools & Universities of Europe”), only to conclude that both collude more to enslave the Four-fold Man than to return him to the “harmony & peace” of Eden. “[S]uch,” concludes Huston by transposing Blake’s stanzas, “is my awful vision.”

Whether by “awful” Blake meant “deeply reverential” or “extremely disagreeable” is hard to say as the adjective was invoked to mean both during his time. Zorn, however, seems to prefer the former: There is, after all, nothing disagreeable about the album. And obviously a great deal of reverence has gone into his continuing commitment to rendering the mythically mystical in sound.

Not to be outdone on that front is the jazz saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Potter, who has based his latest album, The Sirens (ECM), on Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Of the many things The Odyssey may be, one of them is certainly what James Joyce understood it to be—the experience of Everyman in Anytown on virtually every day of his life.

Potter must have been tempted to reduce The Siren’s nine tracks to mimesis, to make the music so directly evocative of the Homeric episodes after which they’re named, in other words, that listeners could guess what music went with which title. Twice he comes close.

The gently undulating languor of the title cut, for instance, which unfolds patiently for nearly nine minutes, would no doubt tickle the ears of battle-weary soldiers adrift on treacherous waters. And “Dawn (with Her Rosy Fingers),” with Potter’s saxophone and Larry Grenadier’s double bass groping their way through the mists suggested by Craig Taborn’s piano and Eric Harland’s percussion, is nothing if not epithetically rich.

The other seven pieces, however, while by no means at musical odds with their titular subjects, follow a more impressionistic tack. No matter how lovely or mischievous disinterested listeners will find “Penelope” or “Kalypso” respectively, not even Shakespeare’s Casca would have described their jazzy inflections as Greek to him.


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