John Zorn and Tzadik Records: A Primer on New York’s essential label

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Randall Roberts
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So much Zorn! The Tzadik Records catalog is now available on streaming…

Last week, more than 25 years after it launched, the crucial New York label Tzadik released its remarkable discography of jazz, Japanese noise, experimental sounds and global esoterica to major streaming services. When it happened, more than 900 full-length recordings became available to anyone with an account.

The bounty boggles the imagination: Dozens of Zorn records; an astounding series of contemporary Japanese music called New Japan; another series called Radical Jewish Culture; a line of important recordings by mostly New York composers; another bunch of singular releases under the banner Lunatic Fringe. Solo and collaborative recordings from artists including Terry Riley, Marc Ribot, Ikue Mori, Derek Bailey, Keiji Haino, Meredith Monk, Tetsu Inoue, Bill Laswell, Cyro Baptista, Jenny Scheinman, Wadada Leo Smith, Otomo Yoshihide, Nana Vasconcelos, Susie Ibarra, and Zorn himself.

So much Zorn! He’s released 282 albums, and roughly 80% of them are available for the first time on a format that’s not compact disc. In addition to his dozens of solo albums, Tzadik has issued his work with the John Zorn Ensemble, the John Zorn Quartet, Locus Solus, Masada, Mystic Fugu Orchestra (with EYE from Boredoms), Naked City, New Masada Quartet, Painkiller (Zorn, Bill Laswell and metal drummer Mick Harris) and the Chadbournes.

Gentle solo piano. Pointillist solo guitar. Jewish dub. Yowling metal jazz. Film scores. Archival essentials. Once you start digging, the sheer volume is overwhelming.

Yes, we are LP devotees whose wanderings will always be in the analog-first realm, but in Tzadik’s case that’s never been an option. Founded in 1995 at the peak of the CD years, Zorn and Tzadik have seldom strayed into vinyl pressing, and even then on a very limited basis. So the only option has been CD or unauthorized YouTube listening – and Tzadik has been pretty diligent, rightfully so, about copyrights. (Hence the Qobuz embeds.)

Where to start? Below, 10 portals into the labyrinth that is Tzadik, with a disclaimer: There are so many portals into Tzadik that these ten are a mere fraction of the configurations and labyrinths within. You can, quite literally, work your way through the catalog only listening to experimental thrash metal and come out with eardrums humming with post-coital bliss — and then have a come-down smoke listening to freaky Tetsu Inoue experiments.

John Zorn/Masada Chamber Ensembles – Bar Kokhba

Zorn’s life-long Masada project explores the intersection of Jewish musical traditions and contemporary music. A celebration of Zorn’s heritage, it’s a sonic manifestation of his exploration of culture and history. He’s written more than 600 pieces under various Masada banners. Bar Kokhba is a jaw-dropping introduction that features downtown New York fixtures including John Medeski, Anthony Coleman, Marc Ribot, Greg Cohen, Dave Douglas and more.

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Bill Laswell and John Zorn – Memoria (2023)

Bassist-producer-visionary Bill Laswell has recorded two solo albums for Tzadik, Invisible Design and Invisible Design II. Both are deep, contemplative solo-bass ambient records. Laswell and Zorn have also joined forces for Tzadik collaborations. That most recently occurred earlier this year, when Laswell and Zorn released Memoria, a tribute to three recent fallen heroes: Pharoah Sanders, Milford Graves, and Wayne Shorter.

Terry Riley – Aleph (2000)

Utterly unlike anything else in his discography, Riley’s Aleph consists of two long improvised excursions that he layers, manipulates and blurs until it feels like an ambient storm.

Yuka Honda – Eucademix

After Cibo Matto broke up, cofounder Yuka Honda began a fascinating, if short-lived, solo journey for Tzadik. Her second record, Eucademix, is filled with experimental electronic pop.

Rovo – Tonic

Part of the same scene that spawned the Boredoms and UFO or Die, Rovo was a mesmerizing drone rock band (who’ve since move into ambient electronic) who rolled with a Hawkwind or Stereolab-like intensity. Tonic was recorded at the New York club of the same name, a longtime Zorn-focused performance space.

Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot & Tim Sparks – Masada Guitars

Three brilliant guitarists who have at one point or another recorded with or for Zorn and Tzadik, Ribot, Frisell and Sparks got into the studio to record Zorn-Masada pieces that are as beautiful as they are wild.

Milford Graves & John Zorn – 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 2

For his 50th birthday, Zorn celebrated with an extended residency in which he teamed for a series of collaborations. On various nights, Zorn worked with Yamataka EYE, Fred Frith, and Susie Ibarra, and played with ensembles including Painkiller, Electric Masada, Bar Kokhba Sextet and others. His set with Milford Graves? Insane.

Various – Great Jewish Music: Marc Bolan

Tzadik has issued a number of collections under the title Great Jewish Music. Each honors a different composer with a compilation of cover songs. The series has celebrated Burt Bacharach, Jacob do Bandolim, Sasha Argov and Marc Bolan. Among those who recorded for the series: Cyro Baptista, Joey Baron, Zeena Parkins, Mike Patton and Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Eyvand Kang – 7 Nades

This mesmerizing album by Seattle composer and cellist Eyvand Kang, who’s played with Joe McPhee, Bill Frisell, Secret Chiefs 3 and others, is one of six he has issued through Tzadik. A journey through smokey cocktail jazz, straight-ahead groove and string-driven curveballs, it’s a rollercoaster of a record. Bonus points: It features a young Reggie Watts on drum machine.

Susie Ibarra – Songbird Suite

One of the great jazz drummers of the past three decades, Ibarra could have made a comfortable living as a session player, but her muse pushed her away from comfort and into a universe of her own percussive design. Her work for Tzadik is worth an extended deep listen.

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