On the heels of the excellent Orchestrion Project, 13 live recordings of his tour for 2010’s studio album Orchestrion, legendary jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny has gone even weirder with Tap: John Zorn’s Book Of Angels, Vol. 20, a reworking of songs by the avant-garde composer Zorn himself. Zorn’s traditional Jewish-music inspired Masada Book has yielded over 500 tracks from artists like Marc Ribot, and it’s wholeheartedly surprising that Metheny hasn’t taken the opportunity to record and rework Zorn’s Masada Book songs until now.
The result of Metheny’s Zorn interpretation is an album that sounds forward-thinking and contemporary despite containing spiced up, yet uncomplicated versions of the original songs. Ultimately, it’s an effective and worthy piece in the prolific Metheny’s seemingly infinite catalogue.
Six tracks and 50 minutes long, Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Vol. 20 is always interesting and dynamic, moving along a hotbed of musical ideas at many miles per hour. Lead track Mastema starts with a sitar and travels over a funky bass, guitar arpeggios, and longtime Metheny drummer Antonio Sánchez’s foot-tapping drums, never straying from the song’s original focus even when venturing into the territory of computerized noise. Even more impressive, Albim contains what sounds like a fast-picked sitar but is really twirling jazz guitar on top of driving piano and drums, as if Django Reinhardt and Radiohead were making music at the same time.
Moreover, Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Vol. 20 partakes in contemporary sounds and trends, too. Closing track Hurmiz features free jazz piano over a simultaneously steady, yet avant-drum beat, while the at-first seemingly straightforward Phanuel isn’t necessarily so, as acoustic Latin guitar is complemented by background noise, a mixture of organ music, drones, and squeaks. Yet, Metheny’s latest is contemporary because, first and foremost, its stunningly globalized. Much of Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Vol. 20’s success comes from its ability to consolidate Western and Eastern music.
Examples of this can be found on Mastema and especially Tharsis, whose traditional Middle Eastern guitar makes its first few minutes sound, oddly, almost like an acoustic version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s slow burning Mladic. After its first few minutes of acoustic guitar, however, Tharsis is electrified, both literally and figuratively, as sensual Carlos Santana-like wailing guitar lines play over but do not dominate or drown out the acoustic guitars. Five minutes in, Thrasis slows down, but it ultimately picks back up into its thrilling territory of beautiful Latin-tinged electric guitar backed by Middle Eastern acoustic guitar, so much so that you forget that it ends with 30 seconds of noise.
For someone who collaborates as often and as well as Metheny, it’s shocking to learn that on Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Vol. 20 he basically overdubs everything on his own. He’s the jazz version of Billy Corgan: Metheny plays everything but drums, including guitars, keyboards and trumpets. Unlike Corgan’s work, however, Metheny’s ambition doesn’t come across as self-indulgent; even if he’s not playing with Zorn, he remains faithful to Zorn’s vaguely worldly sound. Metheny, a pioneer of contemporary fusion and ethno jazz, is thus perhaps the perfect person to interpret Zorn’s work.
With a plethora of examples and previous attempts to outdo and a clear reverence for his subject, Metheny knows exactly where to add in his flourishes and where to stay faithful to not necessarily Zorn’s sound, but to Zorn’s goals and ambitions: to simultaneously learn about his Jewish heritage through music and to take Jewish sounds into the 21st century. Metheny might not be Jewish, but he’s a citizen of the world.