AMN Reviews: John Zorn – Calculus (2020; Tzadik)

Calculus is the mathematics of change – whether determining instantaneous rates thereof or accumulating shapes of varying sizes. A clear analogy exists between calculus and John Zorn’s career, as the latter has never been able to stay in the same place for long. There is another even more obvious analogy between calculus and Zorn’s latest release of the same name.

Like many recent Zorn recordings, Calculus features other musicians playing his compositions, this time a piano trio. The rhythm section consists of long-time Zorn collaborators Trevor Dunn and Kenny Wollesen on bass and drums, respectively. Brian Marsella mans the lead instrument.

Even on the first listen there are two observations that can be made. First, the scope and variety exhibited by each of the two 20-minute tracks are nothing less than remarkable. Marsella, Dunn, and Wollesen move fluidly from jazz, to atonal workouts, to lounge music, to chaotic breaks. Indeed, like its mathematical namesake, these pieces are all about change. Second, Marsella is an absolute virtuoso navigating Zorn’s thorny compositions.

While all of this dynamism can make the music come across as disjointed, anyone familiar with Zorn’s output over the last 40 years will not find it to be distracting. If anything, this particular style is ear candy for anyone with a knack for patterns and who does not require the repetition that most musical forms employ. Attentive listeners may recognize fragments that are similar to melodies or rhythms from Zorn’s other recordings.

High points include Marsella fluidly playing clusters and inside-out runs over rapid-fire time changes, then jumping into a complex or conventional theme followed by Dunn and Wollesen. Dunn’s acoustic has a deep, rich sound as he plays it as straight as you can with Zorn’s material (with a few exceptions), while Wollesen is more exploratory. But there is no way to sum up Calculus in a few words – it is as hard to pin down as Zorn himself.

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