The music of John Zorn has been performed by Tzadik’s “house” musicians for so long that whatever personal idiosyncrasies the musicians bring to the sessions end up being a foregone conclusion. So it’s up to a band like Forro in the Dark to remind us that, when performed by a different group of people, the music of a composer like John Zorn can be fully realized in an entirely different way.
Of course, I’m not knocking Tzadik preferred roster of New York’s Downtown musicians. Performers such as Mark Feldman, Uri Caine, and Cyro Baptista, trained in classical and jazz, can always be counted on for bringing a certain level of musicianship to a John Zorn recording session. You could go so far as to say that you are guaranteed consistently good results from their performances each and every time. Be it rock, klezmer jazz, or chamber 12-tone classical, Tzadik’s usual suspects give priority to the compositions themselves. Forro in the Dark, a band signaling the “Nublu” scene, has a different agenda. With Forro Zinho: Forro in the Dark Plays Zorn, this 7-piece group takes a small slice of Zorn’s repertoire and feeds it through the Brazilian wringer. The music comes out light and peppy while managing to maintain the Jewish-tinged melodies that make it catchy as hell.
Transporting Zorn’s melodies into Forro in the Dark’s Brazilian sounds give them all a surf tinge, a by-product that the composer probably has no problem with. The album’s final song “The Quiet Surf” comes from The Gift, a very low-key and beautiful album that allowed John Zorn to write for a particular ensemble that would later become The Dreamers. Naked City was the composer’s excuse to write punk crossed with speed and Forro in the Dark’s cover of “Sunset Surfer” represents Naked City’s last-ditch efforts to branch out in sound before Zorn stopped writing material for them. In these moments, the water quietly laps at the shore as if a Brazilian band in New York covering Jewish jazz were the most naturally tropical thing in the world. And sometimes, all it takes is a different musician to use the same instrument to place a different emphasis on a different moment in the same score to let a whole other flower bloom for your enjoyment. For me, this comes on the cover of The Goddess: Music for the Ancient of Days‘s “Ode to Delphi”. If I were to exclaim “how sweet it is!”, then I would have to explain exactly what “it” is. This “it” is when a melody worms out of a set of speakers, no matter how big or how small, and the heart and mind can simultaneously exhale a pleasant “ah…” The siesta’s over when the band strikes up “Tempo de Festa”, a blistering south-of-the-border stomp that gives Zorn’s repertoire an unexpected smack.
It all kind of reminds me of a scene in Work Series: Musician, a documentary that follows Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark on his various gigging and composing adventures. During a Q&A session, someone asked Vandermark if he would like to hear his music covered by others. His answer was a lengthy yes, and it got me thinking Why haven’t more people covered Ken Vandermark? He has an enormous catalog, so someone should go for it. Well, John Zorn has an even bigger catalog of music and only a small number of artists outside the tightly-packed Tzadik circle actually seem to be up to the task. Forro Zinho: Forro in the Dark Plays Zorn makes the case that this shouldn’t be an exception. This is terrain meant not only to be explored but to be turned over, ripped up, stitched together, and poked at with a stick until something new takes shape. Will the music of John Zorn hold up against such repeated treatments? We’ll never know if we never try.