Guitarist and composer John Czajkowski's latest recording,“West ZooOpolis,” is one of the most unlikely projects I've encountered in quite some time. Equal parts progressive rock and jazz-rock fusion, and some other sort of undefined musical sub-genre, “West ZooOpolis” was conceived as a musical overlay to a 52-minute long, pre-recorded drum solo created by German drum virtuoso Marco Minnemann.
For those of you who aren't familiar with Minnemann, he is possibly one of the greatest technical drummers around today, and one of those rare musicians who is at home in every conceivable style of music. Like guitarist Alex Skolnick, Minnemann first made his reputation in the heavy metal realm. Unlike most metal drummers, Minnemann has a loose, free-flowing, swinging time feel to go with his prodigious technique and awesomely complete 4-limbed polyrhythmic independence. The amazing thing is that the drum solo itself (titled 'Normalizer 2' – sections of it can be viewed on YouTube) really doesn't come across as a massive exercise in self-indulgence. A lot of it is groove-based, and even though the grooves often contain internal superimpositions of various time signatures, they are quite tractable as a support structure for harmonic / melodic content. Minnemann distributed the solo to 7 musicians, including Czajkowski, ex-Zappa guitarist Mike Keneally, fusion guitarist Alex Machacek, and former King Crimson member Trey Gunn, to see what each instrumentalist would come up with. Czajkowski utilized the entire drum solo without editing, and created a continuous composition that he broke up into 20 arbitrary sections varying in length from just under a minute, to just under six minutes. Three years in the making, West ZooOpolis is easily one of the most satisfying listening experiences I've had over the past few months – and not just in the fusion / progressive vein. Czajkowski has created a magnum opus that blends hard rock, progressive rock, jazz, and country sensibilities into an intensely personal statement that is brainy, athletic, funky, and full of unexpected and delightful twists and turns.
Compared to his previous work with the band Hectic Watermelon, “West ZooOpolis” is more texturally varied, and emphasizes Czajkowski's compositional abilities. None of the 20 sections stays in one mood for very long, and Czajkowski moves frequently from electric guitar, to slide guitar, banjo, acoustic guitar, pedal steel, or various keyboards, and back again – often within a minute or two. Some parts remind me a bit of Frank Zappa's complex jazz-rock instrumental compositions from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s – particularly the pieces he wrote for 'Jazz From Hell.' By contrast, Czajkowski's use of pedal steel, banjo and acoustic guitar lends some of the sections an approachably breezy, homespun sound reminiscent of the Dixie Dregs, Bill Frisell's recent recordings, or Pat Metheny's circa 'American Garage.' Other sections (eg., 'Viking Rats,' 'Scratchin' with The Turkeys') have a crunchy, heavy prog-metal feel. 'Before Your Time' even has snatches of flamenco-like sounds. Like everything else, however, these moments only last a minute or two, as a new motif with slightly different instrumentation and rhythmic / harmonic content appears and takes over – like a musical analog of one of Bruce Bickford's shape-shifting claymation movies. Despite all of the compositional movement in “West ZooOpolois,” several sections (e.g., 'Chupalupacabra') open up long enough for Czajkowski to spin off a burning, stratospheric guitar solo over Minnemann's churning polymetric grooves. Similarly, the melodically atmospheric title track leaves some room for Minnemann's drumming to shine through.
The CD's most bizarre and jarring moment is 'Mayor Ass,' where Czajkowski takes his first turn as a vocalist – sounding a bit like the laid-back 70's jazz singer Michael Franks. It's a surprisingly effective move, and Czajkowski's inscrutable lyrics just add to the overall feeling of weirdness. Bassist Kevin Freeby is an integral part of the show, and gets in a couple of fleet-fingered solos as well – most remarkably on 'Eurorobot This Is Houston.' A sprawling, restless, quirkily original collaboration by an amazing drummer and one of the most interesting and eloquent guitarists and composers around, West ZooOpolis is not background music - this is a CD best listened to with all the attention you can muster, preferably in the dark, at high volume, with headphones on.