A very young John Zorn peers out from the cover of First
Recordings 1973 implying that these recordings are the work
of a precocious young man destined to become an important
figure in jazz and improvised music. This may color the
perception of the release, which in
fact are the early recordings of a 19- and 20-year-old, sitting at
home or working on his college projects. I'd imagine Zorn snickers
a bit at that cover, or the picture on the back showing him as a
nerdish young man playing guitar, an instrument with which he's
not well associated.
Still there must have been something happening in the young
mind of this musical innovator, because at the age of 19 Zorn's
conception of sound and his ability to embrace a vast conceptual
realm are as impressive as they are dichotomous and strange.
Which translates to "you might not like this a lot, but if you're a fan,
you will be fascinated." None of the two large and three shorter
recordings on this disc are incredible in either their ability to
captivate or in their overall sound quality. Zorn himself points out
that one piece is a "strange, akward tribute" to one of the musical
figures he revered (Albert Ayler), and on another that his vocals are
"perhaps too revealing" while noting that his parents had him
under observation at a psychiatric clinic from ages 8 to 16. There is
something seething in these recordings, and perhaps his parents
had no way of coping with the creative energy that was to be
The first work on the cd, "Mikhail Zoetrope," is from 1974, and was
recorded by Zorn in his bedroom. He describes it as the craziest
piece he's ever written, and it's not difficult to believe it. Recorded
in two passes, first on the left channel and then the right, it shows
Zorn improvising with toy percussion, glasses, pots and pans, a
cassette player, turntable, TV set, vacuum cleaner, and of course a
sopranosax. The piece is an uneasy call-and-response utilizing
concepts ranging from Braxton to Cage to Kagel. The soprano
playing is distinctively Zorn, and the quirky instrumentation invokes
years of squawking, screaming, tinkling and indescribable noise to
come. At 22 minutes for the first part alone this is no passing
fancy, but a serious work that may not completely come together,
but certainly has a lot to say.
"Conquest of Mexico" from 1973 is another thing altogether, the
remaining scraps of a musique concrète composition that
functioned as the basis for a soundtrack to the filmed version of a
"happening" Zorn organized in his last year at college in St. Louis.
This piece was augmented at presentation with a live improvising
ensemble, but here is presented as a raw series of electronic tone
experiments, using psychedelic effects. What is notable, aside
from being an early “filmwork,” is that Zorn utilized the same
punch-in approach to composing the piece as he was to use later
in such pieces as Spillane, Godard, and The Big Gundown.
Difficult to listen to on its own, but perhaps telling as the one of the
influences is Antonin Artaud, an innovate yet clinically institutionalized
surrealist theater figure
from France in the 1920's. This no doubt would make Zorn's parents
just a bit more uneasy post-observation.
The remaining three pieces "Wind Ko/la," "Automata of Al-Jazari"
and "Variations on a Theme by Albert Ayler/Requiem for Albert"
present respectively "a little song" as Zorn intones into the mic; a
one-minute piece that genre-hops every bar with film quotes
interspersed; and a somewhat meandering tribute to Ayler that
includes early sax work with electronic mayhem and a panoply of
relatively crude studio effects noteable again for
the breadth of ideas and the shadow of what was to come.
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