Review Summary: Jazzy surf rock from one of music's greatest mavericks
John Zorn’s body of work is gargantuan and diverse to the degree that I would be hard pressed to describe it expediently in an entire review space. Many of his albums require at least a vague understanding of his compositional tendencies and ethos, yet The Gift is a particularly interesting release in how it defies this. It occupies one of the key points in Zorn’s discography yet is easily accessible to anyone with little to no awareness of him. It concludes his strikingly diverse Music Romance series and acts as a prequel for his famous Dreamers project, both in ensemble and style. The music you’ll hear here is a relaxed blend of jazz and exotica dressed up as surf rock. Although The Dreamers remain one of Zorn’s most popular projects, they are frequently criticised for being somewhat too easy-listening and bordering on ‘elevator music.’ In my opinion, The Gift elevates itself from this with its tighter concentration of surf influence; it elevates the tracks here to a degree of substance and concentration that makes it more focused and memorable than The Dreamers’ albums (which are still excellent in their own way).
Aside from this slight difference in composition, The Gift distinguishes itself by packing a wide range of ideas into a deceptively simple package. Although a few repeated listens are certainly required to get into all of it, there is a lot going on here; the stylish Makahaa and its upbeat reprise bookend the album in a foot-tapping manner that feels incredibly satisfying given the progression that occurs in between them. After the atmospheric surf combo of The Quiet Surf, Samarkan and Train to Thiensan, Zorn brings the jazz to the forefront for The Gift’s magnificent dual centrepiece: Snake Catcher belongs in every lounge ever, whilst Mao’s Moon is very evocative of quiet, romantic nights. Between the groovy smoothness of the former and the enchanting beauty of the latter, Zorn crafts a highlight of his whole discography.
The aftermath is where things get weird; Cutting Stone and Bridge to the Beyond are both atmospheric enough to fit into the album’s accessible aesthetic, but upon reflection neither of them are easy listening in the slightest. Cutting Stone borders on atonality and is droningly repetitive, whilst Bridge to the Beyond is enshrouded in darkness (embellished nicely by an appearance from Mike Patton) and relies on an upbeat jazz piano motif to keep it from seeming fully occult. The mysterious (and beautifully hypnotic) guitar solo piece La Flor Del Barrio separates these two, making for a highly interesting final streak before Makahaa (reprise) wraps things up.
Whilst it’s hardly representative of Zorn’s wider discography beyond a specific melodic niche, The Gift is an excellent album for fans and non-fans. There’s enough depth to match up to more twisted albums such as Interzone and The Bribe, yet The Gift makes for a great all-occasion album that you can entertain party guests with and reflect on in your own time with equal satisfaction, and in my book that marks a rare album.
On this album, John Zorn worked with:
Cyro Baptista - percussion
Joey Baron - drums
Jennifer Choi - violin
Greg Cohen - bass (on Mao's Moon)
Dave Douglas - trumpet (on Mao's Moon)
Trevor Dunn - bass
Mike Patton - voice (on Bridge to the Beyond)
Raman Ramakishna - cello
Marc Ribot - guitar
Masumi Rostad - viola
Ned Rothenberg - shakuhachi
Jamie Saft - organ, wurlitzer piano, piano, keyboards
John Zorn - piano, theremin (on Bridge to the Beyond)