Full disclosure: I've fallen behind on the work of John Zorn — way behind. Let's face it, the guy is prolific, and often quite challenging. Now, don't get me wrong. I enjoy my fair share of "difficult listening" (thank you, Laurie Anderson), but when you're talking about an artist as uncompromising as Zorn you approach with caution. (I mean really, stuff like Cobra is easier to respect than listen to.)
So, I've fallen out of touch with Zorn. Maybe I'm still miffed that he didn't grant me an interview for my soundtrack book (he even cold-called me to learn more about the project — talk about getting my hopes up). Most of my Zorn collection dates from the '80s (Naked City, News for Lulu, The Big Gundown, etc.) Then, last week, I stumble onto O'o, reading that it's an exotica record (and I'm a big fan of Baxter, Denny, et al). Naturally, I needed to check it out.
O'o — it turns out — is sort of a sequel to another Zorn album, The Dreamers (2008), which was sort of a sequel to The Gift (2001) — both of which I hadn't yet heard when I listened to O'o. All three of these albums have been characterized as Zorn's most accessible work, and what they all have in common is Zorn's appreciation for exotica, surf, Latin jazz and film music. They also share several of the same musicians: guitarist Marc Ribot, keyboardist Jamie Saft, drummer Joey Baron, bassist Trevor Dunn, and percussionist Cyro Baptista, and vibe man Kenny Wollesen. Zorn acts as arranger, conductor and producer (but leaves his alto sax out of the mix). The ensemble works every groove without showboating or grandstanding, while still demonstrating exemplary chops. The restraint is admirable. They're simply there to serve the music, which breaks no new ground, but avoids cliches.
The moods on O'o range from lively to dreamy, with no jarring digressions along the way. Given Zorn's penchant for frantic fragmentary style-jumping it is pleasantly surprising to hear him work in a straight-forward manner, letting the music work its magic without virtuoso technique and avant-garde concepts. You can imagine cruising down a coastal highway, wind in your hair, without a care in the world — for someone who has always associated Zorn with big concept projects it's refreshing to hear him embrace melody and rhythm in such an organic way.