The complexity of this experiment is the most astounding aspect of Live at the Knitting Factory, a collection of "cobras" (musical pieces) that capture avant guru John Zorn's group of jazz-based musicians as they collaborate on fourteen challenging sound collages. The difference between utter nonsense and performance art of this nature is the control over the chaos. Appropriately, this CD gives top billing in the liner notes to the organizer of each piece. Zorn's role is unclear; he is not listed as an organizer for any of the pieces and he is listed as a musician on only one.
There are no unifying drum tracks, few repeated themes, and little cohesion within tracks. The liner notes name the musical pieces after species of cobras, even giving a brief description of that particular snake (e.g., track five: "D. Polylepis, Largest venomous snake in Africa, characterized by lightning quick, elegant movements in branches and the vigor of its reactions. When excited, lifts its head and neck and opens its mouth threateningly.") Here, then, is some cohesion. The songs are all cobras.
Perhaps there is no better description for this orchestrated mixture of percussion, guitars, horns, human voices, sound samples and noisemakers. It's much freer than the free-est jazz. It's not constipated like modern classical music, and though several cuts rely heavily on musical samples, only a madman would call this hip-hop. A looped excerpt from an old recording of "Midnight Special" is used for effect, not substance. A college fight song or Tin Pan Alley composition might be appropriated, or an R&B riff might creep into guitarist Marc Ribot's vocabulary, but every musical statement quickly yields to silence, and the piece dissipates into controlled chaos again.
This record asserts that improvisation reaches its most disjointed point in New York city's avant garde music haven, the Knitting Factory. It's the sound of ten people listening to each other, yet playing discordant parts. Live at the Knitting Factory is for those who see beauty in broken glass, for those who enjoy the results when two different radio stations overlap their signals, for those who value the infinite possibilities of dissonance.