John Zorn: The Testament of Solomon

Someone whose introduction to John Zorn came from dipping into the Masada Marathon at this past summer’s Newport Jazz Festival might be surprised by the composer’s quieter side. If the idea of Masada is, as Zorn has said, “to produce a sort of radical Jewish music” and to “put Ornette Coleman and the Jewish scales together,” of late he has also sometimes eschewed Masada’s fire and explored a softer, more mystical and minimalist approach via his Gnostic Trio.

On this newer path, Zorn sets his saxophone aside and writes gorgeous melodies and contrapuntal weaving for the trio of guitar great Bill Frisell, harpist Carol Emanuel and, switching from his usual drums to vibraphone, Zorn’s (and Frisell’s) frequent collaborator Kenny Wollesen. The music for this, the fourth Gnostic Trio recording, was originally an instrumental prelude to Zorn’s vocal work Shir Hashirim and leaves more room for improvisation than those preceding it. The lushness of Emanuel’s harp contributes a celestial, Middle Eastern feel, especially at the outset of “Gappuha.” Wollesen’s impressive vibes work occasionally takes the lead (on “Atarah,” for instance) and sometimes calls to mind Gary Burton’s chamber-ensemble-like collaborations with Chick Corea.

But Frisell is the star instrumentalist here. On some tracks he’s all crisp ringing melody, as on his own album Nashville; on others he’s more into his effects pedals, dropping in rich chordal coloration and/or quiet distortion. Either way, Frisell, who played some of Zorn’s fiercest, wildest music in the band Naked City, is every bit as well matched with the maestro as Pat Metheny was on last year’s exquisite Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels Vol. 20.

Did the avant-garde firebrand mature and mellow as he passed age 60, or does he just contain Whitmanesque multitudes? Maybe both. What matters is that he’s staked another claim to his great range as a composer with this very lovely album.