Jonathon Zorn: ContraBass
Jonathon Zorn (bass)
The title, perhaps, implies a conflict; that Zorn doesn't play contrabass, but ContraBass, against the bass, in that antagonistic relationship which so many improvisors have with their instruments. But the sound of this disc doesn't bear that out. Here is a player whose approach is one of technical control even in the most extreme of areas. Unlike some practitioners, he seems not to rely on chance so much as on concentration.
This is indicated by his claim that these are "compositions". As an important part of the musical activity surrounding Wesleyan University and the Middletown Creative Orchestra, it shouldn't be surprising that he uses composition and improvisation together, nor that the element of improvisation is used to add detail to general forms rather than to expressive ends. This disc, in common with other Newsonic releases, is resolutely anti-Romantic.
That might be taken imply that "ContraBass" is a heartless record; it isn't. Indeed, this is no abstract formalism but committed and often exhilarating stuff. Zorn uses repeated rhythms less than general melodic shapes which are subjected to ad hoc variations. He has a fantastic sense of harmony, too, as "Phys111" amply demonstrates; far from random note-picking or static droning, Zorn likes to move his harmonies around and keep them dynamic. Put together, these features make his playing extremely involving even as it eschews entirely the conventions of the blues.
Saddled with a hard name to live up to, Zorn is a unique and extremely imaginative voice on the bass. While many solo bass albums suffer from a lack of focus or an over-dependence on tricks, Zorn's extended techniques are almost entirely of the organic, bow-on-strings variety and so his playing flows smoothly along. There's barely a note of jazz on this disc -- and hardly a single pizzicato, even -- and yet, like John Butcher, Zorn is able to sustain this New Music aesthetic in a solo context without becoming boring. He can do it simply because he can focus closely enough to make sense of the music, although in this case the use of composition does help him shape the music (Butcher does his shaping in situ, as it were). Like virtually everyone on this scene, he's ploughing an unfashionable furrow, but in this case he's doing it extremely well and deserves wider recognition.