Eight tunes from The Book of Angels make up Flaga, the 27th installment in a series exploring the parallel opus to John Zorn’s popular Masada series. His interpreters this time are pianist Craig Taborn, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. “Machnia” puts listeners into the thick of things, highlighting the playing as much as Zorn’s prolific gift for melody.
What would appear to be a triangular relationship in theory turns into a pyramidal one in practice. The atmosphere is joyful and exciting and finds each musician grabbing the wheel in succession with idiosyncratic vigor. It’s a formula that leads to consistent piquancy in the remaining tunes, if at times dulled by the compactness of the engineering, which suffocates tunes like “Peliel” and “Katzfiel.” Other places it works beautifully, however, as in “Shiftier.” Here Taborn balances sacred and secular impressions, launching into his solos with territorial wanderlust. But not even a few misfires at the mixing board can reign in a double take on “Talmai,” of which the landscape is vast and the rhythm sectioning robust.
As may be expected in anything branded Zorn, abstractions are never too far away. Their wonders enliven “Katzfiel” and “Rogziel,” the latter recalling its composer’s fascination with the cartoon music of Carl Stalling. In this respect, the trio allows the spirit at hand to take the music where it needs to go, even if, like sand in an hourglass, every particle of improvisation eventually funnels into a steady passage of time. Which is not to say that reveries are absent: “Agbas” and “Harbonah” show sensitivity in kind, the latter an atmospheric gem that draws an arco bass thread through a stormy patchwork of piano and cymbals, teasing out the indestructible heart of the whole enterprise.
The way these veterans ease into and out of such eclectic themes is masterful, yielding a fresh take on Zorn that may just be the standout disc of the series and one that reasserts his position in the modern jazz canon.
(This article originally appeared in the June 2016 The New York City Jazz Record, of which a PDF of the full issue is available here.)