Over the last few years, John Zorn -- composer, saxophonist, Tzadik label
founder and figurehead of the downtown NYC experimental music scene -- has
found his attention drifting more and more toward the roots he's found in
Jewish music. Recently, he's organized the "Great Jewish Music" series on
Tzadik: tribute albums dedicated to his favorite Jewish composers, first
Burt Bacharach and now the late French pop king Serge Gainsbourg.
Now, there are a lot of things that are brought to mind by
Gainsbourg's name -- sex, stubble, alcohol and decadence prominent among
them. He had hits in the '60s, under both his own name and various women's,
that were blatantly sexual enough to make Madonna blush -- Jane Birkin's
halting orgasmic gasps on "Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus" ("I Love You ... Nor
Do I") are impossible to forget. He pulled off pop, jazz and Afro-tinged
easy-listening with aplomb. And he was probably the ugliest sex symbol
Gainsbourg's being Jewish, on the other hand, is hardly a
commonplace. But there it is: He was born Lucien Ginzburg to Russian-Jewish
parents, and like the gang in the great Jewish musical "West Side Story"
almost sang, "once you're a Jew, you're a Jew all the way." Zorn's liner
notes to the disc waffle a bit -- "I will leave the provocative discussion of
just how Jewish his music is to another time and another place." Could
there be a more appropriate time than now?
The tribute disc itself is not terribly Jewish, and strangely
sexless. "Je T'Aime," done by an augmented lineup of Cibo Matto including
Sean Lennon, becomes a cute romp rather than a slippery fuck-anthem; even
the unbelievably blatant "69 Annie Erotique," in ex-Bongwater guy Kramer's
hands, becomes gentle but limp psychedelia. But what the Tzadik crew can't
quite manage with its groin, it makes up for with its hands, so to speak.
Zorn has surrounded himself with unique and often superb musicians, who've
got an ear for what made Gainsbourg's music tick and what they can add to
What musicians love most about Gainsbourg's records, though, is
their arrangements, and occasionally the temptation to re-create them
proves too great. Mike Patton's take on the ridiculous "Ford Mustang" has
the Faith No More singer imitating all of Gainsbourg's dizzy sound effects.
Shelley Hirsch tries pretty much the same thing on her a cappella "Comic
Strip," for which the effects in the original actually are vocal -- "shebang!
zip! pow! zoom!" -- but her French accent (for the English words) is a little
But the arrangers who take the greatest liberties on "Great Jewish Music" come
out the best, and bring out the most unexpected qualities in Gainsbourg's
work. Blonde Redhead, with the aid of Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, turns "Le
Chanson Du Slogan" into a crisp, dubby rock song. Franz Treichler strips
"Requiem Pour Un Con" of its skip-step beat and most of its melody,
replaces it with a low-key techno pulse and ends up making a case for
Gainsbourg as a trance innovator. And Zorn himself, not previously known
for singing on record, does a totally neat a cappella "Contact," layering
his vocals to play up both Gainsbourg's command of counterpoint and his
taste for disorienting effects, and comes off like a satanic Bobby
Gainsbourg's music is too little known in America, and if Zorn's
compilation of covers introduces it to listeners who might appreciate it,
great. Still, it's not the best place to start with Gainsbourg (that
would be "Comic Strip," a terrific compilation of his pop material recently
released in the U.S.); the renditions here are mostly at least convincing,
and sometimes illuminating, but only Zorn's "Contact" and Ikue Mori's fun,
breezy "Pauvre Lola" really live up to the originals. It'll be interesting
to see who the next volume of "Great Jewish Music" honors, though. Cross
your fingers for Sammy Davis Jr.