Heavy Buys: John Zorn // The Parachute Years

You know, I was debating on whether to even write this article; I feel like I talk about John Zorn and his music so much on this blog that yet another article would seem like just an exercise in sycophantism. But here’s the deal: I like Zorn’s music. There’s no denying that—he’s without a doubt the most interesting artist I’ve ever listened to. However, he’s also just a person, capable of flaws like the rest of us. He’s not perfect. Some of his music I like more than others. Sometimes I go a day or two without listening to him because my brain needs a break.

But I really wanted to do this piece. The Parachute Years is a collection that I’ve been wanting to buy and listen to for a long time, and when I finally received it in the mail a few weeks ago, I decided I also needed to write about it—because as much as this is a collection and a piece of improvisation history, it’s also a tribute of sorts to the beauty of physical media. So, without further adieu, I present to you The Parachute Years.

The Parachute Years: A (Very Brief) Overview

For those who don’t know, The Parachute Years is a box set chronicling four of John Zorn’s early structured improvisation compositions. It’s a chunky thing, with seven CDs amounting to a little over six hours of music. This huge runtime is mostly due to the supplemental material added to the original editions of the pieces—Pool, Archery, Hockey, and Lacrosse. There are a number of rehearsal recordings and alternate takes included with each disc.

The Box Set

I honestly really like boxsets—they’re a little more expensive, but there’s nothing quite like having one on your shelf. (This is actually the third one I’ve bought, after my Beatles box set and the complete Naked City recordings.) What’s nice about The Parachute Years (along with just about anything collectable on the Tzadik label) is that while it’s still a boxset, it isn’t some huge monstrosity (like the aforementioned Beatles set)—I can actually place it on the shelf with all my other CDs and it isn’t an eyesore; it’s actually aesthetically pleasing. (A picture can be found below.) Zorn and the good people at Tzadik put together a package that is well worth the somewhat-exorbitant retail price. The entire set—seven CDs in four jewel cases (two of them double cases) are housed in a cardboard box featuring a picture of a very young John Zorn, some various sketches (of what might possibly be the game pieces presented), all with unique lettering and a low-gloss finish to top it off. Each jewel case’s art is simple, with just the name of the piece and a small, almost iconographic piece from the works of Islamic artist Ismail al-Jazari. I can’t say it’s the most beautiful artwork I’ve ever seen when considering all the elements its made of, but the uniformity and minimalist effort is nonetheless appealing. Zorn himself is a noted fan of physical media, with the liner notes describing how he “[loves] everything about these strange documents of recorded sound—from the cover to the spine to the label to the weight and the smell of vinyl…” In a way, The Parachute Years stand as a loving reminder of how beautiful not only music, but the physical media that includes music, is, and how much of an influence it’s had over the years.

The Liner Notes

Liner notes, for me, can be hit or miss. Some artists put a lot of time and thought into them. If you ever look at an old jazz album—especially some of the big albums from Charles Mingus and John Coltrane—there’s always a copious amount of information on the music in the album along with a brief rundown of personnel involved in the making of the release.

Others, however, don’t—either through a mild apathy towards the physical form, or a wish for the music to be the central focus as opposed to the physical medium. I don’t blame those who do either, really, as it’s their work and their vision. Zorn himself seems prone to the latter; most of his albums simply have a list of personnel, a tracklist, and sometimes a few dedications to his various influences. While he doesn’t outright say it, it seems obvious that he wants the music to be the most important thing on any release.

However, the liner notes on The Parachute Years feature some seriously cool content; they collect various anecdotes and recounts of the sessions for all of these structured improvisation pieces, stories of the destitute existence for relatively-underground avant-garde musicians to funny remarks about Zorn (including one where it’s shown that Zorn, according to the owner of the now-defunct Knitting Factory, was the only musician who actually forget to pick up his paychecks on a regular basis). There are here and there bits about the piece itself, but mostly it’s a sort of collected history, including a good amount of photos from the era of the pieces (mid-to-late 70s and early 80s).

The History

While the music is indeed the central focus of this box set—after all, all these anecdotes happened because of the music—I think that it also serves as a piece of history in itself. This is a great account of the beginnings of the modern New York Downtown scene. It gives you an idea of the living conditions Zorn and his fellow musicians went through at the time (and probably still go through to some degree)—eating potatoes for nearly every meal, taking any gig you could get, using the few dollars you could scrounge up to pay for recording sessions and vinyl pressings, et cetera. But it also shows how much music can connect people—all these musicians played with each other all the time. The number of names that Zorn tosses out in thanks for making this all possible is astounding. And even now, names in the Parachute Years’s personnel, like Bill Laswell, Anthony Coleman, and Wayne Horvitz still show up on Zorn albums.

Moreover, this was a crucial time in John Zorn’s career. He was at a point of relative obscurity in the Downtown scene—his name didn’t have a legendary status attached to it as it would after releasing The Big Gundown and starting Naked City and Masada. He was working incredibly hard at attempting to put together structured improvisation pieces, and it was with the compositions presented in this box set that he felt confident enough to present them to the world. These pieces also signify the first time that he produced his own recordings, and the first time he really put out music under his own name. This box set represents not only early Zorn, but Zorn first starting to come into his own.

The Music

I waited a little bit to talk about the music. While it is the crux to all of this, Heavy Buys is mostly supposed to be about physical media, and how the elements that make it up are worth some attention. Besides this, the music included on The Parachute Years isn’t exactly the most accessible. Like I’ve said before, it’s all structured improvisation—essentially an evolutionary step forward from what composers like Stockhausen and John Cage had started with indeterminate and aleatoric music—and about as alien-sounding as you can get. (If you want to read more about game pieces, please read my article on Zorn’s Cobra.) You can’t exactly experience it in the same way the musicians who recorded it can, since you weren’t there, nor a participating member. Unless you know exactly what each piece is about ahead of time, you sort of have to be a musical crime scene investigator and work backwards, which isn’t exactly an easy feat to accomplish. Some of the pieces are easier than others, such as Hockey, (which essentially boils down to each musician picking five short sounds to play, and trading off between said sounds, sounding, in a sense, like its name).

If you are a huge fan of Zorn’s work, though, and are up to the challenge of incredibly difficult music that might not always sound like “music”, this is a box set worth having. The price is a little much if you’re like me (read: cheap and poor), but the sheer knowledge and audacity presented here will keep you entertained and intrigued for years and years to come.

You can purchase your own copy of The Parachute Years on Tzadik’s website, Discogs, and Amazon, if you so wish.

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