Jazz Assassins

John Zorn's Painkiller and the Denison/Kimball Trio rewrite the rules of jazz

Jazz isn't dead, despite the whining of some traditionalists. Just ask John Zorn, the “thrash-jazz assassin” and one of the music's most socially relevant perpetrators. With his groups Painkiller and Naked City, Zorn has pushed the so-called genre to wall, busting through familiar borders. A host of younger artists like the Denison/Kimball Trio are following suit, breathing life into stagnant formulas — and malforming the music beyond recognition as far as the swingin'er-than-thou jazz establishment is concerned.

The old-school cats complain it all started 35 years ago, when Ornette Coleman first bastardized America's classical music by playing “outside” the chord changes and urging band members to explore, experiment and express beyond the guidelines on the written page. Traditionalists still bemoan this inevitable evolution as the demise of the art form and a careless tossing of the canon. What they fail to recognize is that rules are still in effect, only they've expanded and become more inclusive in the hands of Coleman and his heirs. They've progressed in tune with the frenzied pace of music's socio-technological developments.

Even more so than Ornette Coleman, John Zorn embodies the spirit of everything the establishment fears and scorns. Although the alto saxophonist has been known to dip into bebop licks for an allusive shout-out to the masters of yore, he's more likely to deconstruct the rigidity of jazz conventions with a restless and confrontational vision. Take Naked City, Zorn's furious exercise in brutality with Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Fred Frith, Joey Baron and the Boredoms' Yamatsuka Eye. Icons are obliterated and then resurrected in a new language best understood by deviants of the hardcore generation.

Is it jazz? No, not in the strictest traditional sense of the word. But then, the jazz dialogue has not evolved with the times. It has failed to keep up with the immense musical advancements and multidimensional hybrids of the past few years. But dwelling on the vagaries of semantics will get us nowhere. The music is what counts anyway, right?

I think Zorn would concur, though his loathing for music criticism is as well-known as his relentless assault on the crusty posteriors of jazz elitists. A few of the song titles on Naked City's Torture Garden neatly sum up Zorn's iconoclastic attitude: “Hellraiser,” “Perfume of a Critic's Burning Flesh,” “Jazz Snob: Eat Shit.”

Painkiller, Zorn's five-year-old trio with dub and ambient innovator Bill Laswell and Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris, just barely insinuates traditional jazz concepts on the two-CD Execution Ground (Subharmonic). How many other improvisational jazz acts inspire mosh pits? Fleeting moments of subway-corner soul are interspersed with raging thrash beats and solid dub grooves, but these elements invariably yield to a wailing wall of sonic splatter. A spookhouse of samples and dizzying electronics echo the chaotic sirens of the urban experience. And while Zorn's saxophone often blows feverishly in the upper register, evoking the anguished cries of a horse slaughterhouse, his temperamental moods are buttressed by Laswell's didgeridoo-like bass drones, Bootsy-style funk and hypnotic ambience.

The entire second disk of Execution Ground consists of two 20-minute “ambient” reworkings of tracks from disk one. Given Laswell's input and Zorn's penchant for new directions regardless of genre restraints, it's strange though unsurprising that Painkiller has flown as far away from jazz as one could imagine. How the band will approach this angle live is anyone's guess — just don't expect Painkiller to swing anywhere near the KJAZ tip.

Unlike Zorn, the Denison/Kimball Trio stands humbly in the daunting shadow of tradition — even as it gives contemporary jazz a subtle facelift. For Duane Denison, guitarist of the Jesus Lizard, and James Kimball, former drummer of Laughing Hyenas and Mule, the Denison/Kimball group (“Trio” refers to the occasional, floating third member) is a radical departure from the heavy rock/punk to which the duo are accustomed. “After a while,” explains Denison, “you just want to play something else.”

Grounded in honest, minimalist instrumentals, Soul Machine (Skin Graft), the Trio's second release, revolves around mood, color and space. The focus is on rhythmic interplay and harmonic balance, plus atmospheric sonic explorations via tasteful F/X and an enveloping volume-pedal swell à la Bill Frisell. Original pieces are both entirely scored and partially improvised, though the Trio also interprets Ornette Coleman's much-beloved “Lonely Woman” and delves into what Denison calls “pretty traditional bop mode, or whatever.”

Deftly combined, these elements demonstrate a thoughtful, creative expressionism more akin to the purveyors of jazz than to anyone else. But Denison disagrees: “We don't consider ourselves jazz musicians by any stretch of the imagination.” That's despite Denison's B.A. in music and Kimball's experience with both small and big-band jazz ensembles.

“I won't ever call myself a jazz musician,” Denison continues, offering the distinction that “jazz players play it every day. That's all they do. That's all they've ever done.”

In a global village era in which cross-pollination of the arts is the norm, Denison seems to cling — perhaps out of modesty — to an outmoded connotation of jazz more in tune with the class of '59 than with the class of '95. Yet his humble conviction underscores the problems inherent in labeling sound events in the first place. Take the word “alternative”: If there was ever a tag destined for misuse from inception, this is it. And yet “alterna-jazz” probably best describes the Trio's music.

Duane Denison would rather forget the discussion altogether, as long as the Trio's releases are displayed in the alternative-rock sections of music stores. He feels that being placed in the company of “old favorites like Chet Baker or Miles Davis” would substantially “cut us off from a huge percentage of people” — precisely those fans who are often lured in by the Trio's rock pedigrees.

“I've seen a lot of younger people who are into rock and look like they're from Seattle, but you'll hear them talking about hard bop, Sam Rivers and Cecil Taylor,” Denison says of the Trio's audiences in home base Chicago. “It's refreshing.”

Painkiller plays Fri, May 5, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333. Denison/Kimball Trio plays Mon, May 8, with Three O at the DNA Lounge in S.F.; call 626-1409.

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