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The Friday Morning Listen: John Zorn –The Book of Heads

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Here's the weekday morning ritual. After I've let the dog out, made two pots of coffee (one for consumption now, the other for TheWife™ to take to work), had some breakfast (lately, oatmeal), helped TheWife™ out to her Jeep with her stuff (dang, teachers carry a lot of stuff), and retrieved the newspapers from the box down at the road (with the "help" of the dog, meaning that he just loves to race me back up the driveway), I get to relax with a cup of coffee. Soon after this, it's upstairs for a shower.

After showering and dressing, I find myself sitting on the bedroom couch, my squeaky clean bare feet ready for socks & shoes. Every danged morning Every so often, while I'm pulling on my sneakers, the books on the shelves start to talk to me. "Read me!" "Don't go to work!" "Yes, stay home and read!" Damned books.

Well, work obligations forced me to ignore the pleadings of our book collection. Still, one book in particular did catch my eye. I pulled it off the shelf, flipped it open and: "In general, Lou is not excessively fond of other members of the human race, so this album is, or wants to be, some kind of ultimate antisocial act. When the MC5 debuted, John Sinclair said that they and their music would 'make you feel it, or leave the room.' Lou wants to make music that'll make you feel it and leave the room. That way he can be happy: alone with his machines." That was the late great Lester Bangs starting off an essay on Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.

This got me to thinking that Bangs' characterization, "not excessively fond of other members of the human race," would likely be applied by most people to many records in my collection. John Coltrane's Interstellar Space, Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, Diamanda Galas' Plague Mass, just about anything by Derek Bailey. The list is not endless but certainly extensive.

John Zorn's The Book of Heads fits this bill. A collection of "etudes" written by Zorn and performed by guitarist Marc Ribot. This is that kind of music that drives people from the room. The plinks, sproinks, scratches, splattered note & chord clusters are sure to either delight or disgust. "This is not music," was how an old officemate of mine described Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. Hey, that's his opinion. I can't really fault somebody for not enjoying music with this high an "odd factor." For me, there are all sorts of discoveries to be made. There's just something about weird juxtapositions of tortured guitar noise, jazz lines, Chuck Berry riffs, and "Michael Row The Boat Ashore." Yes, all of those things are present on this album, though the latter might more aptly be titled "Michael, Your Inflatable Dingy Has Sprung A Leak!"

In the liner notes, Marc Ribot perfectly describes the usefulness of free improvisation: "I believe that the language of the free improv players is not only worth knowing, but maybe even essential to know for contemporary guitarists, not only because the process imposed by these unfamiliar techniques is a healthy Zen slap in the face for those too mesmerized (or bored by) their own chops, or because it is nice to have a few extra weird guitar sounds available; it is worth it because, as anyone who has witnessed a free improv performance knows, something amazing happens, and it's important to try to figure out what that something is, what makes it happen and how it can be composed with."

You can argue that this "something" is maybe not so useful for more tender ears (TheWife™ raises and wildly waves her hand), but I like to think that a little stretching is good for just about everybody.

…even if it is a little slap in the face.

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About Mark Saleski

  • JR

    “…as anyone who has witnessed a free improv performance knows, something amazing happens, and it’s important to try to figure out what that something is, what makes it happen and how it can be composed with.”

    Interesting quote. To me it implies that free improv is a means to an end – a tool for composing non-free music. On the other hand, performing free improv seems to be predicated on notion that the means are the end.

    If you never go on to compose (or listen to) the music based on what was learned from free improv, is free improv still worthwhile? Can you enjoy something as a process, even if the fact that it is never taken any farther implies that it’s not really part of a process?

  • Mark Saleski

    good questions. this is why i think that for most people, seeing a performance of this kind of thing can be far more interesting than listening to a recording.

    i’ve been at shows where i’ve been fascinated by what was going on with the group of performers…with thoughts like “how are they going to get out of this mess?” and “are they lost?”

  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog Mark Sahm

    You guys and your trademarked wife names.

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Oh no, it’s TheHeckler™

    ;&)

    -P

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Congrats, Saleski, this has been selected as an Editor’s Pick by Asst. Music Editor DJRadiohead.

  • http://www.scottelliott.com Scott Elliott

    The music is garbage. Your over analyzing a piece of garbage. Review something with a tune.

  • Mark Saleski

    no thank you. maybe next week.