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Album Review
mike


Tzadik
Produced by John Zorn
Recorded and Mixed by Marc Urselli
Mastered by Scott Hull
2009

5 out of 5 mics

Has anyone been on a such an amazing roll as John Zorn has been these past few years? The Gift, The Rain Horse, The Dreamers, Moonchild, Lucifer: Book of Angels Vol. 10, The Crucible, and now he takes another brilliant left turn with Filmworks XIII: El General.

The liner notes to El General explain the long and uncertain journey of this album. Zorn was reluctant to work on this music because, as he explains, the soundtrack medium is becoming a bit worn for him, and also because he just didn't think he was right for the project. The filmmaker was persistent however (thanks filmmaker!), but in the end gave Zorn short shrift by only placing three of the pieces in the film and hiring another composer to score the remainder (naughty filmmaker).

For all this, El General does not suffer one bit. The music has a completely fresh, and (to my ears) original sound. I can't say that I've heard music like this before from anyone. There's definitely Mexican influence (the film is about the Mexican dictator Plutarco Elias Calles), most evident in the use of accordion. But there's very little reference to traditional Mexican sounds, scales, and arrangements. Marc Ribot's electric guitar-work features prominently, as does Kenny Wolleson's vibraphone. This is an easy-going album, and light-hearted for the most part, but there are also moments and even entire songs which have a somber mood. The pace of the album is fairly steady throughout, which is not something found in most of the Zorn catalog.

Once again Zorn relies on the incredible talents of Marc Urselli to both capture the performance of these songs and also do the mixing, in order to make sure they come across to the listener as intended. Urselli has now recorded and mixed most of my favorite (and what I believe are the best and most subtle) Zorn albums. So it would seem that Marc is on just as much of a roll as Zorn himself.

Mr. Urselli has an amazing ability to remove all obstacles between the performance and the listener. He's able to give the recording such an immediacy and presence that the recording medium itself seems to not exist, as though the performance is happening anew for the listener each time. I recently learned from Marc that he'll be working his magic live with Zorn & company at the North Sea Jazz Fest this year. I imagine those will be some legendary shows.

Scott Hull gets the call for mastering duties and does not disappoint. It must be an extreme pleasure to polish these gems. I've listened to the Zorn albums mastered by Hull in countless different situations on systems of widely varying quality - the power, the nuance always comes across.

Keep it up gentlemen!