At the Gates of Paradise

John Zorn

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At the Gates of Paradise Review

by Thom Jurek

Few would argue that John Zorn's music is peerlessly heterogeneous. While remaining ambitious in the 21st century and impossible to pin down to a single unifying factor (thank goodness), he has focused on a smaller number of areas -- simultaneously: music for his genre-bending Dreamers group; his expansive Masada Book II: Book of Angels recordings; his aggressive, electric Moonchild band, and, of late, a small but growing number of "mystical" recordings that began in 2010 with In Search of the Miraculous, continued with Goddess: Music for the Ancient of Days, and expands further here with At the Gates of Paradise. Longtime Zorn fans can successfully argue that he has been influenced by mysticism for decades. That said, these three recordings stand apart for their connections to one another rather than to his larger body of work. All three are quite formally composed, harmonically lyric, (mostly) rhythmically tight, and often repetitive with pulses and vamps. Like its predecessors, Zorn has chosen a small group to perform this music: pianist and organist John Medeski, drummer Joey Baron, upright bassist Trevor Dunn, and vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen (the sole link, he has played on all three records). Zorn was influenced by the work of William Blake and the gnostic writings from the Nag Hammadi for source material. The titles of these eight pieces are mostly named for Blake-ian works and concepts --- and one ("Light Forms") is directly from the Nag Hammadi literature. The music ranges between (mostly) closely scripted interactive pieces that have their roots in post-bop jazz and classical minimalism: one can hear traces of Steve Reich in the interlocking grooves in "The Eternals" and "A Dream of Nine Nights," though both give way to jazz improvisation. "Light Forms," at the center of the album, is the only truly free-form piece here, but open as it is with dissonant tonalities and extrapolated harmonies, the rhythmic framework is close. Another influence on At the Gates of Paradise is the work pianist Vince Guaraldi, reflective of Zorn's sense of humor and tenderness. (Check "The Æons" and "Dance of Albion" for direct evidence.) "Liber XV" is all minor-key repetition with beautiful snare work from Baron. "Song of Experience," the closer, is a jazz piece that touches on bossa nova and the MJQ's approach to blues. At the Gates of Paradise is, like its predecessors, among the most enjoyable and illuminating recordings in Zorn's later canon because its lyricism, rhythmic pulses, and grooves are accessible to virtually anyone.

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