Secret Chiefs 3 meet John Zorn's Masada
Vincent Francone
9/22/2008 3:44:27 PM

I love the Secret Chiefs 3. Everything they have ever done has amazed me, even their shaky, improv heavy beginning as a Mr. Bungle side project. Trey Spruance & Co. have consistently awed me with their mash-ups of Eastern music, Bollywood/Morricone soundtrack plundering and re-imaginings of surf rock via violin, dulcimer, etc. and so on, and boy how ridiculous it suddenly feels to have to spit out these all-too easy tags in order to explain what the Chiefs do, as if that were possible. The music Spruance has been obsessively producing these last odd years has grown increasingly unclassifiable. And thank god for that. We now have what appears to be the superband to end them all, an outfit capable of anything. Seriously, anything. Book of Horizons [Tzadik], the last, and arguably best, effort by the Secret Chiefs 3, astounded listeners with its mammoth ambition. Seven versions of the Chiefs assembled to play music that ranged from spine tingling, beautiful, eerie, uplifting, and frightening (especially the forays into death metal). In an age of garage rock revivals (sigh), it proved that there was nothing off the table or out of scope for this complex outfit.

I love John Zorn. Or I used to. It is impossible for me to keep up with his indefatigable output. Who knows how many Zorn recordings exist? Thereís not only Zornís compositional work, but there are his bands (Naked City, Painkiller, Masada), his game recordings (Cobra, the Parachute recordings), his soundtracks (Iíve lost count on the Filmworks series, but there are plenty of them), and, as if all this were not enough, his reworking of his own material (Electric Masada, Bar Khoba, the Masada Sound Book). It would be an error to suggest that all of this material is essential, though there are fanatics out there who lap up everything Zorn produces, even if it is a recording of him making duck noises with saxophone reeds. To be sure Zorn can overextend himself at times. I was excited by the first installment of the Music and Romance series, Music for Children, but the 10 plus minutes of Zorn playing with wind machines is pretty expendable and always gets skipped. (The third release in the series, The Gift, is so great it redeems earlier missteps.) So while Zorn can do wrong, he can also do right. When heís a do-right man the results are astounding. Most of Masada proved he was a do-right man with an alto sax and three of the top hot-shit jazz players alive (Greg Cohen, Joey Barron and Dave Douglas). The resulting ten CD span was a roller coaster of acoustic four piece jazz in the vein of Ornette Coleman playing traditional Jewish melodies. It seemed Zorn found the perfect manifestation of his muse, a place where melody and digressive free-form bursts could intermingle and, somehow, cohere. And, of course, it didnít end there.

Writing over 300 songs in the year 2004, Zorn focused on the new vision of the increasingly popular and ever changing Masada project. He gathered the best players in many styles of music to interpret these compositions, branching off and away from the original concept and walking that dangerous line Zorn likes to walk, where inspired genius and tedious self-indulgence do battle. Regardless of the results, Zorn seems happy to put them on a CD and sell them for public consumption, scrutiny, adoration, and outrage. And, all things considered, it doesnít seem as though he cares if people ďget itĒ or not. Why should he?

Subsequently, many of us fans (rabid and casual) have had a hard time keeping up with Zorn as the economy hits the toilet and record stores become near extinct. (An search has revealed that Iím way behind on my Zorn releases.) I write with embarrassment the following statement: I canít get it within me to shell out 16 bucks for a CD without knowing a bit of what Iím in for. (That hurts. Really, I was so adventurous in my younger days, Iíd sacrifice rent money for music that seemed promising.) This being the case, a CD of the Secret Chiefs 3 playing Zornís Masada compositions seemed a safe bet.

Xaphan: Book of Angels, Volume 9 [Tzadik] is a safe bet. Better: itís a marvelous recording of complex music interpreted with skill passion, and fun. The production is outstanding (as is always the case with Spruanceís work) and, in keeping with the ethic of the Secret Chiefs 3, the record stretches to new heights without sacrificing its perfect vision (mixed metaphor? Oh, I don't care anymore). The Chiefs are never content to rest on their laurels and every new record seems a logical step up. Marrying Zornís compositions with Spruanceís inventiveness works better than anything Iíve heard come down Zorn Avenue in quite some time. (Iím struggling to like Moonchild, but damn I just canít get into it.) Listening to the record Iím reminded of one of Zornís greatest accomplishments, Elegy, a composition he wrote for Jean Genet and enlisted Bay area musicians, Spruance among them, to play. Perhaps the ďdowntown masterĒ of New Yorkís avant garde ought to work more with west coast musicians.

Iím still waiting for the follow up to Book of Horizons, but Xaphan will do more than hold me over. It has more than enough meat to keep this listener happy until I get another glimpse into the Chief's world of truth and beauty behind the manufactured illusion that is the music industry. It may be another ten plus years before Spruance and Zorn team up, but if the results are this amazing, Iíll wait.


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