A Guide To John Zorn & Tzadik Records, Now On Streaming Services
John Zorn turned 70 in September. And, as if he’s decided to celebrate by giving everyone else a gift, his label, Tzadik, has made its catalog available on streaming services. There was no PR announcement, because Tzadik has almost never done PR for any of its activities, but word spread quickly among the devoted, and now there are hundreds of albums’ worth of adventurous, boundary-breaking music to listen to that had previously been available only to CD buyers. (They sold MP3s via iTunes and Amazon, too, but you get my point.)
Zorn, a New York-based composer, alto saxophonist, writer, and general artistic catalyst since the 1970s, started Tzadik in 1995. He’d previously run another imprint, Avant, through the powerful Japanese label DIW. All but one of his famous genre-splicing band Naked City’s albums, and his Ornette Coleman-meets-Jewish-music quartet Masada’s studio work, came out on Avant. That made those records hard to find for a long time; in 2005, though, he remastered Naked City’s catalog and reissued it all as a 5CD box set on Tzadik. (That box is not streaming.) And he’s just announced a Masada box, about which more below.
The label’s name is a Hebrew word meaning “righteous one,” and Tzadik has always been run in a spirit of righteousness; it’s a not-for-profit label that from what I understand treats its artists very equitably (Jon Madof of Zion80, who’s made four albums for Tzadik, said in a recent interview, “The contracts are two pages and written in plain English”). They don’t do any PR for their releases or buy ads in magazines or anything else — they just put out the music. If artists on Tzadik want to get their albums reviewed anywhere, they have to hire publicists themselves, and most of them don’t. The whole operation really is a labor of love.
Zorn’s released almost 300 albums of his own music on Tzadik, but that’s only about a third of the catalog. It covers modern composition, avant-garde metal, free jazz, radical improvisation, and just about everything else you can imagine. A lot of it, of course, has nothing to do with jazz, and is thus beyond the scope of this column. I’m going to give you a very short introduction to Tzadik’s jazz side below, though, and leave you to swim around in the rest on your own.
Zorn’s most conventional jazz group is the quartet Masada, which featured trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron. Their music combined Jewish scales and melodies with the improvisational principles of Ornette Coleman’s 1959-61 quartets. The pieces stretch and flow, and can be quite abstract, but they always return to a kind of twitchy, exuberant joyfulness. It’s celebratory music. They released nine studio albums and one three-track EP, all named after letters in the Hebrew alphabet, on Avant/DIW between 1994 and 1997. Tzadik has just announced a deluxe box set reissuing all that material and more; again, it won’t be on streaming services. But there are six live albums recorded at the Knitting Factory and Tonic, and in Germany, Spain, China and Israel, and they might give you an even more potent dose of the band’s music than the studio releases.
There’s also a Naked City live album, recorded at the Knitting Factory in 1989, streaming now, and that’s pretty red-hot. Naked City was an all-star band featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, Fred Frith on bass, and Joey Baron on drums, playing extremely fast and complex compositions that jumped between jazz, grindcore, country, prog-rock, classical, and whatever else Zorn wanted to try, rarely sticking with one sound for more than a few bars at a time.
You can also check out the collected works of his trio Painkiller, with Bill Laswell on bass and Mick Harris (then just out of Napalm Death) on drums; their music was a blend of screaming free jazz sax, grindcore blast beats, and deep dub-noise bass. The second Painkiller EP, Buried Secrets, included guest appearances from Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green of Godflesh. The one time I saw them live, Harris was ill, so Ted Epstein of Blind Idiot God subbed in on drums, and they were still amazing. Painkiller are definitely not for everyone, but I love them.
Zorn has used Tzadik to support some of his favorite free and avant-garde jazz performers, too, often putting out ambitious albums that no other label would have touched. Trumpeter Jacques Coursil, who first emerged in Paris in the late 1960s and later became a teacher at the United Nations International School in New York (where a young Zorn was one of his students), hadn’t made a record for over 30 years — he’d been a professor and a linguist — when he released Minimal Brass, a set of multiply overdubbed pieces using circular breathing to create intense, swirling choirs of trumpets, in 2005.
In 2003, Zorn released One Atmosphere, a collection of avant-garde chamber pieces written by saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill. The music included jazz flourishes as well as lush string quartet parts, and was assembled by saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, as Hemphill had died in 1995.
In 2008, Tzadik released Beyond Quantum, a collection of five improvised pieces played by saxophonist Anthony Braxton, bassist William Parker, and drummer Milford Graves, with Bill Laswell producing. The three had never played together before, though Parker had worked with each of the other two men separately.
The avant-garde jazz artist who has undeniably benefited most from his relationship with Zorn is trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Tzadik has released nine of Smith’s albums, with all kinds of instrumentation from traditional jazz quartets to laptops and electronics, and he’s played on two others, one of which is a thrilling live trio set with Zorn and drummer Susie Ibarra. Tzadik has also reissued Smith’s early, self-released albums from the 1970s, accompanied by 90 minutes’ worth of previously unavailable material, as the four-CD box Kabell Years 1971-1979.
In recent years, Zorn has been working with players much younger than himself, in the process bridging the gap between more straightforward jazz and his own idiosyncratic music world. He put together a series of almost three dozen albums called the Book Of Angels, which featured compositions he’d written as part of the broader Masada project. Each album showcased a different performer or group tackling some of these pieces, and it’s fascinating to hear what they bring to the material. Flaga: The Book Of Angels Volume 27 features a piano trio composed of Craig Taborn, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Paimon: The Book Of Angels Volume 32 (the last in the series) was performed by Mary Halvorson’s quartet with second guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. One of the most beautiful volumes in the series, Tap: The Book Of Angels Volume 20, was given to guitarist Pat Metheny, playing more than a dozen instruments, and accompanied by drummer Antonio Sanchez.
Zorn has also formed some new jazz-adjacent groups in recent years, including the hard ‘n’ heavy organ trio Simulacrum (John Medeski on organ, Matt Hollenberg on guitar, Kenny Grohowski on drums, taking the jazz-rock fusion of Tony Williams Lifetime as a springboard into hard-charging prog-metal) and Chaos Magick, which is Simulacrum with second keyboardist Brian Marsella added. Then there’s Insurrection, a two-guitar quartet featuring Julian Lage and Matt Hollenberg, with Trevor Dunn on bass and Kenny Grohowski on drums. And most recently, he’s picked up the saxophone again, in the New Masada Quartet with Lage, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
The best way to find your way through this stuff is by going to the Tzadik website and exploring. Unfortunately, on streaming services, most of the albums are credited to Zorn, because he’s the composer, rather than the musicians playing on them. But once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll find a lifetime’s worth of material to dig through. Zorn is an unstoppable compositional force, and his music possesses a shocking degree of variety once you really start listening.
Tani Tabbal Quartet - "Reach Forward"
Drummer Tani Tabbal has been leading a trio with bassist Michael Bisio and alto saxophonist Adam Siegel for a while now; their first album together was released in 2016, but given the way free jazz works, they could have been playing together for several years before that. Tabbal’s worked with David Murray, Roscoe Mitchell, the Sun Ra Arkestra and more, but remains somewhat on the margins. On this album, the trio is joined by a guest: tenor saxophonist Joe McPhee. The combination is a good one. On “Reach Forward,” Tabbal’s loose, somewhat ritualistic rhythms (he sounds like he’s playing with his hands, not sticks) are a platform atop which the two saxophonists take slow, somewhat dreamlike solos, eventually coming together in wavering but confident harmony. (From Intentional, out now via Mahakala Music.)
Terell Stafford - "Between Two Worlds"
Trumpeter Terell Stafford doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, but every time I hear he’s got a new record out, I jump to hear it. On this one, he’s joined by tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield, pianist David Wong, bassist Bruce Barth, and drummer Johnathan Blake. These are all versatile guys — I’ve heard Blake in particular in a wide range of contexts, and I’ve seen Wong back some genuine legends — but they seem happiest when working in the hard bop tradition, and that’s what they’re doing here, delivering blazing workouts, simmering ballads, and a few Latin-tinged numbers, for which percussionist Alex Acuña joins the lineup. The album-opening title track is a serious burner; Stafford takes an absolutely skyscraping solo, Warfield chases him with almost as much energy, and Blake punctuates it all with a thunderous avalanche from behind the kit. (From Between Two Worlds, out now via Le Coq.)
Tomas Fujiwara - "Swelter"
Tomas Fujiwara is the drummer in most of guitarist Mary Halvorson’s groups, both the ones under her own name and the collective Thumbscrew. He also makes albums as a leader, though, including two and a half excellent releases with the group Triple Double. This is a more stripped-down release for just vibraphone (played by Patricia Brennan), cello (Tomeka Reid), and drums. But it’s not chamber jazz, or ambient music, by any means. Brennan’s shimmering, reverberant vibes and Reid’s cello — which drones atmospherically sometimes, and slaps like Charles Mingus’s bass other times — provide more than enough energy to keep a listener’s head bobbing. “Swelter” is one of the more uptempo tracks, driven by a melody Brennan seems to construct out of individual notes rather than chords, until she begins to spin off into dreamlike variations, with Fujiwara laying down a rumbling, tumbling beat behind her and Reid throbbing emphatically in the middle of it all. And then, about two and a half minutes in, the whole thing falls apart in the most thrilling possible fashion. (From Pith, out now via Out Of Your Head.)
Maciej Obara Quartet - "High Stone"
Polish alto saxophonist Maciej Obara has been leading this quartet with pianist Dominik Wania, bassist Ole Morten Vågan, and drummer Gard Nilssen for three albums now. Their debut, Unloved, was released in 2017, followed by Three Crowns two years later. On this album, they’ve clearly come together as a unit (Obara and Vågan are also members of Nilssen’s big band, the Supersonic Orchestra) and developed a collective voice. “High Stone” begins with Obara alone, seemingly lost in thought, chewing on an incantatory line; Wania comes in behind him almost immediately, laying down tinkling rows of notes that seem paradoxically to emphasize the solitude at the heart of his playing. When the bass and drums are added, the piece becomes a swaying ballad with a romantic but also spiritually questing feel, not unlike some of the music John Coltrane’s final quartet made on Stellar Regions and Expression. (From Frozen Silence, out now via ECM.)
Anna Webber - "Swell"
Flutist, saxophonist, and composer Anna Webber has made some of the most fascinating music of the last few years. Binary, Clockwise, Rectangles, and Idiom, all released between 2016 and 2021, are works that start with a strictly enforced set of compositional or performance parameters, but gradually make that seem less and less important as the music takes on a life that has nothing to do with the rules set up to govern its existence.
Shimmer Wince is the debut of a new ensemble of the same name; Webber plays tenor sax, flute, and bass flute, while Adam O’Farrill plays trumpet, Mariel Roberts plays cello, Elias Sterneseder is on synth, and Lesley Mok is on drums. This time out, the compositional conceit is based around just intonation, a tuning system I don’t understand because I am a knuckle-walking ape-man who only knows what sounds appeal to my ear. (Here’s the Wikipedia entry.) “Swell,” the album’s opening track, is built around unison sax-trumpet figures laid over a patient marching beat. Occasionally, the horns will seem to waver out of tune, then start over. (From Shimmer Wince, out now via Intakt.)
Kris Davis - "The Dancer"
Pianist Kris Davis released a fascinating album, Diatom Ribbons, in October 2019, on her own Pyroclastic label. It featured Val Jeanty on turntables and electronics, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, and a slew of guests: saxophonists JD Allen and Tony Malaby, guitarists Nels Cline and Marc Ribot, and vibraphonist Ches Smith, plus Esperanza Spalding on vocals on one track. She supported it almost three years later (guess why the delay?) with a May 2022 appearance at the Village Vanguard with Jeanty, Dunn, Carrington, and guitarist Julian Lage. But interestingly, this double live CD actually features all new music — not one of the songs from Diatom Ribbons is performed. “The Dancer” is a piece by the late pianist Geri Allen, and the band plays it as a kind of slow-motion zombie funk, with Carrington setting a crisp but spacious marching beat as Davis plucks the melody from the piano’s strings and Lage shadows her with piquant individual notes as Dunn lays down a thick groove like a cooling lava flow and Jeanty throws in echoing, haunted turntable sounds. (From Diatom Ribbons: Live At The Village Vanguard, out now via Pyroclastic.)
Mendoza Hoff Revels - "Echolocation"
Guitarist Ava Mendoza is a one-person counteroffensive against the tide of jazz guitarists who play like they’re afraid someone might hear them. Her music combines free jazz fervor with scorching, noisy rock ‘n’ roll energy like no one since the late Sonny Sharrock. If you haven’t heard William Parker’s album Mayan Space Station, which features her and drummer Gerald Cleaver, get on that. Her latest project is Mendoza Hoff Revels, a quartet featuring bassist Devin Hoff, saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, and drummer Ches Smith, and it’s heavy. The title track from their debut album is a slow, wandering semi-ballad; Lewis carries the main melody for a while, then Mendoza picks it up, taking a solo that sounds like if Neil Young played a Telecaster. Hoff and Smith are a tight, rumbling rhythm section, keeping things anchored but adding some funk to drive the music forward as well. (From Echolocation, out now via Aum Fidelity.)
Kofi Flexxx - "Aim" (Feat. Siyabonga Mthembu)
The artist currently making music as Kofi Flexxx has not revealed their government name, or their face. But it’s pretty obvious that Shabaka Hutchings is involved — his distinctive voice on reeds and flutes can be heard throughout the album, Native Rebel is his label, and the hard, loping grooves of most of these tracks nod to Sons Of Kemet. But the album also seems like the work of a collective operating under an individual name, as it features guest appearances from billy woods and ELUCID, as well as Anthony Joseph, Confucius MC, and Ganavya. (None of the instrumental contributors are credited, which is a bummer.)
“Aim” features mournful vocals from Siyabonga Mthembu, who’s also in Shabaka and the Ancestors. He moans with deep despair over a desolate piano-led ritual groove that’s like the kind of blues you get from gazing into the cosmic blackness and becoming truly, fully cognizant of human insignificance…and still striving to lay out an argument for your own existence to a god that’s not even listening. (From Flowers In The Dark, out now via Native Rebel.)
Matthew Shipp - "That Vibration"
I can’t be impartial about Matthew Shipp. We’ve been friends for over 20 years. I’ve written about him a lot. My wife has designed the covers for four of his albums, one of which — Reels, a 2021 collection of duos with drummer Whit Dickey — came out on the label she and I run together, Burning Ambulance Music. But even with all that taken into account, his latest solo release is one of the most powerful things he’s ever put out.
It’s a set of 10 improvised pieces given titles like “Jazz Emotions,” “Jazz Frequency,” “The Essence,” “Tune Into It,” and “The Bulldozer Poetics,” and while he’s doing different things on each piece — sometimes slamming out cluster chords with jackhammer force, sometimes playing one or two notes with relentless repetition, sometimes delivering free jazz extrapolations — it comes to feel like a suite by the time it’s all over. Still, the third track, “That Vibration,” stands out. The figures he’s playing with, turning them over and over in his hands like a jeweler examining a stone for flaws, have a hypnotic power, and the manically repetitive nature of the piece’s final minute will explode your brain. (From The Intrinsic Nature Of Shipp, out now via Mahakala Music.)
Roy Hargrove - "Young Dreams (Beauteous Visions)"
Roy Hargrove was an incredible trumpet player, a once-in-a-generation talent who was also a catalyst for incredible work by other people. He traveled between worlds, leading a variety of small groups that played hardcore post-bop and even putting together a big band that continues without him, but also forming the RH Factor, a funk/R&B/jazz/hip-hop hybrid ensemble that made several well-regarded albums.
He ventured into Latin jazz with the 1998 album Habana, which won him a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album, but he was also a member of the Soulquarians, the loose assemblage of kindred spirits that produced albums such as D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Black Messiah, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun and Worldwide Underground, all of which Hargrove played on. And he was a strong supporter of the music in general — he was one of the founders of the Jazz Gallery, and a regular presence at late-night jam sessions. When he died just about five years ago (of cardiac arrest, at 49, in November 2018), it was like an earthquake hit the jazz world. Everybody liked Roy Hargrove.
He was just 23 in 1993, when Jazz At Lincoln Center commissioned him to write The Love Suite: In Mahogany; he’d released three albums on RCA, but would really break out the following year after signing to Verve. This performance was recorded at Alice Tully Hall, and has never been released until now. The band includes Jesse Davis on alto sax, Ron Blake on tenor sax, Andre Hayward on trombone, Marc Cary on piano, Rodney Whitaker on bass, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. It’s a five-part piece that runs about 45 minutes, and it’s lushly arranged, allowing the horns to sway around each other like trees in a breeze.
“Young Daydreams (Beauteous Visions)” is the first movement, and it sets up the whole thing with a rich and dramatic fanfare that moves into some almost Ellingtonian work from the whole ensemble, and at about the two-minute mark, Hargrove launches his solo, which is as virtuosic and thrilling as the best work from Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard. He really was an astonishing player, and this is a brilliant piece of music. (From The Love Suite: In Mahogany, out now via Blue Engine.)