Review: Julian Lage and Gyan Riley Play the Music of John Zorn

This Shakespeare-inspired set is music of striking beauty. Rendered expertly by two of today’s finest young guitarists, it’s at once approachable and deeply satisfying.
John Zorn, Gyan Riley, and Julian Lage

Julian Lage and Gyan Riley

Midsummer Moons: Music by John Zorn
(Tzadik)

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The works of William Shakespeare have been a source of rich inspiration for countless composers, from Giuseppe Verdi to Felix Mendelssohn to Duke Ellington. John Zorn, the notably eclectic composer and multi-instrumentalist, joins this tradition with the release of Midsummer Moons, a collection of ten pieces inspired by the playwright’s lunar imagery.

Like Ellington, Zorn has a knack for writing in such a way that the performers’ idiosyncrasies are as much a part of the composition as the notes he commits to manuscript. Midsummer Moons, an extended study in timbral contrasts—performed by Julian Lage on the steel-string guitar (incidentally, a prototype of the new Collings OM1 JL) and Gyan Riley on nylon-string—is no exception.

Lage and Riley come at music from different places: Lage, the jazz virtuoso, has lately crossed over into acoustic and folksy territory, while Riley, son of the legendary minimalist composer Terry Riley, has roots in new music as well as the classical tradition. But on Midsummer Moons, they find common ground and improvise together through Zorn’s twisting chord progressions, with conversational ease and apparent sensitivity to the composer’s intentions.

Much of Zorn’s extensive oeuvre might be challenging to uninitiated ears, especially his earliest collaborative improvisation pieces like Cobra, Hockey, and Lacrosse. This Shakespeare-inspired set, though, is music of striking beauty. Rendered expertly by two of today’s finest young guitarists, it’s at once approachable and deeply satisfying—highly recommended listening for all acoustic fans.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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