John Zorn

Nosferatu

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Rather than a John Zorn conceptual recording, Nosferatu was a commissioned work for a Polish theater group's dramatic production based on the Bram Stoker novel. Zorn gathered Rob Burger (piano and organ), Kevin Gordon (xylophone, drums, bells, and Tibetan prayer bowls), and bassist Bill Laswell together for this project. The composer played alto saxophone on four cuts, a bit of acoustic or Rhodes piano on others, and electronics on one more. Nosferatu is a proper score. Its 16 cues range from two minutes to over seven-and-a-half. Musically it's all over the place (a good thing). The character themes are the most formal compositions here, with piano and xylophones as their sole instrumentation. "Mina" is elegantly elliptical, and mysterious with classical overtones. "Lucy" is almost romantic in its dreaminess without sacrificing Zorn's trademark lyric twists and turns. "Jonathan Harker" contains a bluesy, modal feel. Others, such as the brief title cut, are almost experimental in texture with their lack of a fixed framework. "The Stalking" is the album's longest track and is downright dubwise. Fueled by a truly creepy organ, a shuffling, sinister drum kit, and Laswell's fat, dank bassline in the driver's seat, it also hosts Zorn's alto chittering in from the margin, while the organ, double bass, and drums plod forward menacingly. Likewise, the closing track is, in fact, meta: it's another deep, humid rhythm-fest entitled "Stalker's Dub." Speaking of menace, the barely contained rumbling drums and bass throb in "The Battle of Good and Evil" set up a Zorn skronkfest on the alto -- but it contains a surprise, too, in that he finds a Jewish folk chant to evoke as a melody line in the middle of the chaos. When Burger's organ begins freely improvising against the horn, it feels like free jazz meeting heavy metal -- without the guitars. "Death Grip" despite its ordained slow pace, spaciousness, and brevity, is the most abstract thing here. With the ever-changing nature of its music and the relatively short cues, Nosferatu feels much shorter than it is; it's a deeply focused work that holds together easily. While its very subject matter dictates sinister overtones, the music found here, with few exceptions, is quite pleasurable and accessible listening; when taken together, its cues suggest a new kind of American Gothic.

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