-Originally published in “The NYC Jazz Record”’ June 2018-
John Zorn, The Urmuz Epigrams (Tzadik, 2018)
John Zorn – saxophone,piano, organ, sound effects, guitar, bass, game calls, percussion, voice
Ches Smith – drums, percussion, vibraphone, glockenspiel, voice
CD Review by John Pietaro
The Urmuz Epigrams may be John Zorn’s most compellingconceptual album. The leader’s saxophones, keyboards and wealth of other instruments, is paired with the drums, mallets and percussion of Ches Smith. Though the eight compositions are the saxophonist’s own, the vision propelling the music and the album’s packaging is the work of the rather mythic Hungarian writer Urmuz. Born in Bucharest, 1883, his death came some forty years later by suicide. Urmuz foresaw the Dada movement, ushering middle Europe (and the rest of us) into the avant garde of rebellion. The writer had a prominent career in law, yet his continued activity among underground creatives—a leading radical, he opposed the wealthy hierarchy and conservative academia—saw the need for him to live a secretdouble existence. In 1923, just after Urmuz’s death, Dada founder Tristan Tzara attempted to stop his publication in France, fearful of a diminishment to his own standing. That said, his resurgence now within today’s avant garde should come asno surprise. Particularly when spearheaded by John Zorn.
Designed as a faux 1920s collection, the Urmuz Epigrams is visually stunning in both its simplicity and grandeur. And while Zorn released this on his own Tzadik label, an insignia akin to EMI’s Parlophone imprint is evident (Beatles fans knows Parlophone, right, John?)--modified here to Pahuciphone for the writer’s rebel group the Pahuci Brotherhood. Within, Zorn created a score to a Theatre of the Absurd drama that never was. His use of game calls, Cageian chance arrangements and the recording studio as an instrument signal a resurgence of Zorn’s own youth as much the concept is an homage to his target’s. The brief opening cut, “Disgusted with Life”, can only be described as slow-moving rapid fire, with sounds both acoustic and electronic dropping in and out as one motive seeps into the next. However on “This Piano Lid Serves as a Wall” the modal waltz music of Erik Satie (the godfather of modernist, absurdist musicians) is implied through Zorn’s piano and Smith’s touching vibraphone melody. Throughout, the musical offerings captivate and surprise and as is often the case with Zorn, one rarely knows where composition ends and improv starts. In fleeting bursts, powerful instrumental juxtapositions are heard. Smith’s thunderous timpani solos on “A Rain of Threats and Screams” is but one example.
In recreating the lost legend of Urmuz, Zorn’s notable false ending is the full replay of his “surrealistic suite”, heard in its “original” as opposed to “reconstructed” form, complete with simple analog mixes and 78 RPM hissing and pops. If this is parody, Zorn has achieved a parody for all time, one built on dire respect for an avant pioneer born far ahead of his time.