Radical Jewish Culture: John Zorn's Tzadik Label

By Nachmann, Ron | Tikkun, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview

Radical Jewish Culture: John Zorn's Tzadik Label


Nachmann, Ron, Tikkun


Throughout his twenty-five-year career as a musician, producer and owner of the esteemed Tzadik record label, New York saxophonist and composer John Zorn has forged a hugely eclectic and uncompromising canon of music. Working with a global network of musicians to fold aspects of world music, cartoon soundtracks, and hardcore punk into an aesthetic based on the compositional freedom of jazz, Zorn has made his greatest contribution to Jewish music by questioning everything we think we know about it. What exactly is Jewish music? Is it klezmer, pop, or musique concrète? Is it music simply made by Jews, or is there an intrinsically Jewish musical aesthetic?

Radical Jewish Culture (RJC), a series of over 100 releases by artists selected by Zorn for Tzadik, both asks and answers these questions with each release. Yes, it's klezmer, but in keeping with the purest spirit of that music, it ignores boundaries in the purest spirit of that music-which itself blends gypsy music, Eastern European folk, and American jazz, among other influences. Listen to clarinetist David Krakaur's daring RJC album Klezmer Madness, and you hear tradition expanded in the most imaginative of ways.

Yes, it's also simply music made by Jews. The RJC series itself contains a sub-series of tribute albums called Great Jewish Music. Those albums mostly spotlight popular songwriters like American pop icon Burt Bacharach, French chanteur Serge Gainsbourg, and English glam-rocker Marc Bolan (of T. Rex) (whose Jewish identity has been largely invisible) with covers of their songs by Tzadik artists and other associated Jewish avant-garde and punk musicians.

And yes, Zorn seems to say that there exists an intrinsically Jewish musical aesthetic, one that above all values confrontation, risk, and diversity. Zorn fleshed out the RJC agenda in 1993 with his own provocatively themed album Kristallnacht, named after the night of Nazi attacks on German Jews in 1938 that catalyzed the Final Solution. Alongside the album's dogged, jazz-rooted avant-klezmer stood the terrifying twelve-minute piece "Never Again," a sound interpretation of Kristallnacht itself. Building on both incidental human sounds (Jewish liturgical singing, a solitary bell ringing) and the overwhelming white noise created by layered recordings of screams and broken glass, Zorn viscerally represents a moment of Jewish life being swallowed up by terror. …

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