Pat Metheny: Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Vol. 20

John Zorn’s Book of Angels, 300 songs that constitute his second set of Masada pieces inspired by traditional Jewish music, has been interpreted by a diverse roster of artists including Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Jamie Saft and Medeski Martin & Wood. Now, in perhaps the most unexpected move of the Masada run, Pat Metheny puts his spin on six Book of Angels tunes.

Metheny, of course, is known primarily for his pleasing-to-the-ear sounds, whether he’s playing solo, dueting with the likes of pianist Brad Mehldau, or leading his Trio, Unity Band or Group. But let’s not forget that Metheny has a wild streak that he struts now and then. He ventured into free-jazz terrain with Ornette Coleman on 1986’s Song X and thrashed tunelessly on 1994’s Zero Tolerance for Silence. While Tap is more accessible than either of those efforts, it still comes as a shock that Mr. Bright Size Life would join forces with the avant-garde saxophonist and composer whose best-known album features on its cover a photo of a guy who’s been shot to death.

Tap could be seen as an extension of Metheny’s Orchestrion experiments, in which he controls all the instruments through robots. In fact, aside from the drums, played by Antonio Sanchez, Metheny plays all of the instruments on Tap-guitars, sitar guitar, bass, piano, keyboards, flugelhorn, bandoneon, percussion and his Orchestrion among them-mostly through the use of overdubs.

“Mastema” begins agreeably enough, a conversation in 6/8 among guitar, sitar guitar and bass, before Sanchez jumps in with a pulsating rhythm. Metheny then brings on the distortion and shreds in a manner we rarely hear from him. Relief arrives in the form of dreamy synth sounds and bells, but chaos soon resumes, electronics burble up through the fray, and the song is turned on its head.

We are in more familiar terrain as “Albim” opens with Metheny’s contemplative strumming, albeit it in a Middle Eastern scale. Sanchez drums lightly, just tapping the cymbals and snare, and Metheny lays thoughtful solos over his own steady bassline. Bandoneon enters, almost unnoticed, and suddenly an entire ensemble of Pat Methenys is making beautiful, reactive music. The pace quickens with “Tharsis,” a tense, fast number with a difficult melody. Here Metheny-on piano, guitars and synthesizer-and Sanchez are going for a theatrical sound, as though the listener is supposed to imagine a Mission: Impossible-style chase through the streets of Jerusalem.

“Sariel” opens with Metheny’s acoustic dialogue and segues to a mean electric guitar solo-rock-style, with liberal use of pitch-shifting. The song breaks down, intentionally, halfway through, with Sanchez’s steady rhythm deliberately falling out of step and the electric guitar giving way to a more soothing approach. But the lull is temporary, and the song ends like a Sonny Sharrock shred-fest. At 11 minutes apiece, “Sariel” and “Phanuel” are the physical and emotional centers of the album. The latter is the stranger performance. Plaintive guitar, atmospheric synth washes, electronic growling and disembodied voices meld to create an unsettling aesthetic. Four minutes in, the first hints of melody emerge, and the shock is that it gets prettier as it develops, despite the undercurrent of horror.

But the weirdest tune on the album is the closer, “Hurmiz,” a piano-and-drums duet. Metheny rummages around the keys, almost non-melodically, while Sanchez bashes the kit; it’s as if they’re trying to imitate one of Cecil Taylor’s FMP records from the late ’80s. Odder still is that it’s a convincing effort.

Unless Ahmad Jamal decides to jam with Peter Brötzmann, Tap will wind up being the most surprising collaboration of the year. What’s not surprising is that the partnership works so well.