Pat Metheny – Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angel’s, Vol. 20 (Nonesuch/Tzadik)
Reviewed by Des Cowley
Some months back, Brian Wise had the temerity to ask me: ‘What’s John Zorn up to these days, is he releasing much music?’ ‘Are you kidding’, I replied, ‘is he releasing much music?’
I could see the problem. Zorn releases music at such a voluminous rate that if you blink you can miss half a dozen releases. I kid you not. In this case, however, with a household name like Pat Metheny emblazoned on the cover, this latest release is bound to receive widespread notice outside the coterie of hardcore fans who follow Zorn’s every move.
Zorn’s Book of Angels is a monumental cycle of compositions – over 300 at last count – that is slowly being committed to record by many of the musicians he has worked with over the years, along with invited guests. The first volume in the series was released in 2005, and since then several installments have appeared each year, variously recorded by Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Joe Lovano, Mark Feldman, Ben Goldberg, the Masada String Trio, and Medeski, Martin & Wood.
For this latest volume – the 20th – we find Zorn’s compositions interpreted by guitar maestro Pat Metheny. Given Metheny’s relatively mainstream reputation, it struck me as on odd pairing; until I reminded myself of his occasional experimental dabbling: his brilliant collaboration with Ornette Coleman on Song X and his complex guitar overdubs on Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’, not to mention his Knitting Factory performances with avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey, released on the triple-CD noise-fest The Sign of 4, a record I’ve been too scared to play again since first hearing it.
Though Metheny had never met Zorn, the two had been corresponding for several years, after Zorn commissioned him to write some notes for one of Arcana series of publications. It was Metheny who first suggested he’d like to record some of the Book of Angels compositions, and Zorn responded by sending him a selection of unrecorded pieces from which he could choose. Over a twelve month period, during breaks from touring, Metheny retreated to his home studio and recorded the six compositions that make up Tap.
For anyone harbouring reservations about Metheny’s guitar chops, the opening half minute of this new record should put paid to any doubts. Taps is effectively a solo album, with Metheny overdubbing numerous sounds to startling effect. All told, he plays a heady array of instruments: acoustic and electric guitars, baritone guitar, sitar guitar, tiples; bass; piano; orchestrionic marimba, orchestra bells, bandoneon, percussion, electronics; flugelhorn. The only other musician on the album is long-term musical partner, drummer Antonio Sanchez, who plays a solid role throughout as timekeeper to Metheny’s soaring guitar flights.
The album’s opener ‘Mastema’ sets off with rapid-fire guitar overdubs, before settling into an Indian inflected groove, the whole thing grounded by Sanchez’s rhythmic pulse. The music comes across as a dense collage of sound, with multiple guitar parts overlaid upon a repetitive bass vamp. ‘Albim’ begins with a gentle, flamenco groove, slowly building to a hypnotic trance-like rhythm. Metheny’s acoustic work on this track is both beautiful and haunting. ‘Tharsis’ and ‘Sariel’ tap into Jewish melodies, so common to Zorn’s writing for his Masada and Book of Angels songbooks. Throughout, Metheny unleashes a range of sonic investigations, utilising synthesizer, and Hendrix-style feedback; it’s as if he’s conducting a guitar symphony. ‘Phanuel’ brings the pace right down; it’s a long and slow ruminative piece, full of acoustic texture. The final track ‘Hurmiz’ is almost the odd man out, with Metheny punching out choppy free-jazz rhythms on piano; it is almost like a strange coda to what’s come before.
While Metheny is working within a set framework of compositions, he acknowledges that Zorn’s writing encourages musicians to take his raw ingredients and make them their own. In this case, as he says, ‘I just kind of let my imagination run wild and added improvised extended intros and codas, reharmonized things, added counterpoint lines and generally let the pieces go wherever they seemed to want to go, using whatever tools seemed right for the result at hand’. The result is a blending of two distinct approaches into a single unified vision.
The album’s liner notes, penned by Metheny and Zorn, attest to the musical respect they hold for one another. Metheny labels Zorn ‘a force of good in the universe’. Zorn says of Metheny: ‘his incredible facility and dedication, indefatigable energy and focus, imagination and never-ending curiosity has distinguished him as truly one of the greatest musicians on the planet’. Coming from anyone else, these glowing testimonies might come across as disingenuous. Coming as they do, however, from two such accomplished musicians – and very different ones at that – who are united by an ever-restless and adventurous approach to music, they seem somehow fitting and right. Taps is a brilliant reminder, should we need it, of the unfettered openness Zorn and Metheny bring to their individual and collaborative projects. Hopefully, it will be find a wide audience, and encourage first-time listeners to seek out other recordings in Zorn’s on-going Book of Angels series.