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A threnody for Lou Reed

lou and jzIt’s already a year since Lou Reed died. You could mark the anniversary by saving up for the new super-deluxe edition of the Velvet Underground’s third album, now expanded to six CDs through the addition of alternative mixes and live stuff, or by reading the updated version of Jeremy Reed’s biography, Waiting for the Man. Or you could make a lateral move and listen to Transmigration of the Magus, written and recorded by John Zorn in memory of his late friend.

Just released on Zorn’s own Tzadik label, the album features the composer’s well established Gnostic Trio — Bill Frisell (guitar), Carol Emanuel (harp) and Kenny Wollesen (vibes and bells) — plus John Medeski (organ), Bridget Kibbey (harp) and Al Upowski (vibes and bells). The instrumentation along gives you an idea of what the music sounds like: a bright celestial noise reflecting Zorn’s interest in the numinous and his desire to write something to help Reed’s spirit through the bardo — the Tibetan word for the transitional state between death and the next incarnation.

Somewhere beneath the profanity of Reed’s music, the sacred was always lurking — whether in the exquisite melody of  “Pale Blue Eyes” or in Songs for Drella, the lovely elegy he and John Cale wrote for Andy Warhol. It’s not hard to glimpse him in the shimmering, tinkling haze of Zorn’s heavily arpeggiated compositions, but easier still in the handful of pieces where, without breaking the poise or the delicate weave of the ensemble, Frisell and Medeski get the chance to cut loose.

At the London Jazz Festival last week I listened to Frisell and Greg Leisz playing electric guitars on “Tired of Waiting for You” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” during the Guitar in the Space Age! show and was struck by how the silvery quality of the combined strings and a general feeling of ascension reminded me of two other partnerships: Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Frisell is equally wonderful here. The title track of Transmigration of the Magus is one of the loveliest and most powerful things I’ve heard all year.

* The photograph of Lou Reed and John Zorn was taken by Heung Heung Chin at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City on September 2, 2008, at a concert in celebration of Zorn’s 55th birthday.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. When I saw “threnody” and “Zorn”, I had an OHNO! moment.

    Penderecki, Hiroshima …

    Another Kristallnacht? An album which I listened to less than once – which warns you in its notes, with no irony in sight, “WARNING: this recording can destroy your hearing”. Or words to that effect.

    Coming to the blog (from twttr), I was much relieved. This is based around one of John’s familiar lineups, I have it on “The Mysteries”, with its lovely multiple crystal tintinnabulations of harp, vibes and highly sympathetic guitar, and its light themes.

    I hope to hear it – though I hate to think how much I have paid for JZ records! 😀 (I probably still favour the original Masada Quartet, as “everything music”, beautifully if in places circus-raucously played. But there is now a fabulously variegated output in place, and in places.

    I am glad you pick out “Pale Blue Eyes” as one of the best, Richard. Diaphanous, evanescent, lasting, regret, gratitude. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” might be more difficult!

    November 24, 2014
  2. John Evans #

    Album title is correct in your final para, wrong in your first para.

    November 24, 2014
  3. Paul Crowe #

    You’ve done it again, Richard – yet another insightful and beautifully written piece.

    November 26, 2014

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