Founded by John Zorn in 1995, the Tzadik label is vast, perhaps even daunting, and now available on streaming. Qobuz guides you through this venerable catalog of experimental Jewish music, avant-garde jazz, skronk-metal and beyond.

During the final week of September 2023, fans of experimental jazz and aural esoterica experienced a Big Bang of creative energy as Tzadik Records dropped their musical universe onto Qobuz. The New York label, founded by composer-saxophonist-writer John Zorn in 1995, has been building a massive CD-only project for decades.

“It’s hard work, and you get isolated, and you get distracted by the normal human need for companionship and love and understanding and appreciation. Those are distractions from doing the work, I feel,” Zorn once said of his artistic life, which has involved a relentless exploration of his Jewish heritage and a celebration of what he calls “radical Jewish culture.” “That’s why I can’t read magazines or newspapers, I don’t look at TV. I try to focus on what’s important, which is really the work itself.”

Until now, most could only see the entirety of “the work itself” if they had access to the 800-plus compact discs issued by Tzadik. But, lo, in the gleaming brightness of early autumn, nearly all of these sonically brilliant galaxies have appeared: Locus Solos, Bar Kokhba, Eucademix, 7 Nades and hundreds more.

We’ve since been introduced (or reintroduced) to mysterious vistas and recurring characters, superheroes all: Ikue Mori, Marc Ribot, Fred Frith, Zeena Parkins, Susie Ibarra, Wayne Horvitz, Joey Baron and so many more. We’ve absorbed a realm filled with visual cues—distinct cover designs that represent various series, an aesthetic clarity—and traveled along winding tributaries that have led to grand sanctuaries of sound. Some of these spaces are difficult. Others are haunting. Others are as menacing as cobras ready to strike.

Tzadik means many things to many kinds of listeners—to say nothing of its ability to withstand extended metaphors: Like water cascading through a river, Tzadik is never the same label twice. It’s an ever-twisting musical kaleidoscope, like entering a jazz-skronk-experimental labyrinth blindfolded. No, it’s an ode to Hebrew culture. Each release is a verse in an epic tome.

There’s just so much, and the releases are so varied.

As such, you can’t make a definitive playlist of Tzadik, and sharp-eared sherpas who fully understand the terrain are hard to find. You know it when you hear it. “I have obsessions,” Zorn told visual artist Michael Goldberg in a 2002 interview with Bomb Magazine. “It’s a way of focusing them.” He added that Tzadik means “supporting specific things that I feel close to,” and concluded that he was “more interested in the stuff that fits in between the gaps.”

The stuff that fits between the gaps includes tight, fluid jazz based on Hebrew melodies; viciously distorted skronk-metal; resurrected esoterica classics; squawk-jazz; naive Japanese bedroom pop; Israeli dub; contemporary Brazilian forrós; solo bass records; mournful accordion pieces; traditional and experimental Jewish music; guitar albums that illustrate the instrument’s breadth.

Zorn told Goldberg that the intention that connects them and everything else on the label was “Making sure that you do the best possible thing in the purest possible way with the most imagination and technique and honesty that you can pull together.”

There is no authorized map of Tzadik’s Realm. There are, however, series and signifiers that help organize the chaos and suggest routes for exploration. Here are some ways of hearing Tzadik, starting with the founder’s own work.

John Zorn
Photo Courtesy of Tzadik Records

John Zorn

Zorn is among the most productive and versatile composers and alto sax players of the past half-century. He earned his first major attention with a series of themed releases for Nonesuch Records starting in the late 1980s before founding Tzadik. In Hebrew, Tzadik means “righteous” or “just.” In New York and the world, Tzadik has come to represent an aesthetic that’s equally righteous. Zorn has since released more than 200 albums for his label, collaborated with an expanded group of fellow travelers stretching back decades and maneuvered away from mainstream music systems.

Zorn’s ongoing project Masada is his Leaves of Grass—a constantly evolving creative endeavor that uses as its foundation an exploration of the self. In Zorn’s case, it’s the melodies, rhythms, secret history and ideas of klezmer music. Since the earliest Masada incarnations not long after the label’s founding, Zorn has created works for groups including Electric Masada, the Masada String Trio, the Masada Quintet and Masada Chamber Ensembles. He updates, augments, reconfigures and explores these works onstage on a regular basis.

Perhaps the best place to begin the Masada journey is with Live at Tonic 2001. Recorded at the now-defunct Lower East Side venue Tonic, the jazz-fueled two-volume set is a mindblowing convergence of locked-in experts and their instruments: Zorn’s alto sax, Dave Douglas’s trumpet and Zorn’s frequent rhythm section—bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron.

Zorn and his Masada Chamber Ensemble combined in 1996 to make Bar Kokhba, a profound double-disc studio set, one that adds often mournful klezmer-like strings, the immediately identifiable tone of guitarist Marc Ribot and keyboardist-organist John Medeski. It’s as revelatory on its hundredth listen as on its first.

Goddess: Music for the Ancient of Days, from 2010, is another life-affirming creation. Its centerpiece, “Beyond the Infinite,” moves with the exacting logic of a chalkboard-filling algebraic equation. More recently, Zorn has been writing for acoustic and electric guitar. In September 2023 he released Nothing is as Real as Nothing, a record that wouldn’t sound out of place on John Fahey’s Tacoma Records. Album closer “Endgame” is an exquisite tangle of plucks and strums.

Zorn composing gentle acoustic ballads? Plucks and strums? Only in the Tzadik-sphere is such a detour expected.

Radical Jewish Culture

Bar Kokhba was issued as part of Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series. A kind of “treasure hunt within tradition,” in the words of German-Israeli philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem, Zorn’s mission with the RJC series has been to follow Scholem’s directive to create “a living relationship to tradition and to which much of what is best in current Jewish consciousness is indebted, even where it was—and is—expressed outside the framework of orthodoxy.”

In Tzadik’s hands, that means tribute albums for Jewish songwriters including Serge Gainsbourg, Burt Bacharach and Marc Bolan, artists who didn’t necessarily tap “traditional” Jewish culture but who contributed to the broader one. For example: Kramer and Wayne Horvitz covering, respectively, Bacharach’s “Walk On By” and “Close to You,” or guitarist Vernon Reid covering T. Rex’s “Jeepster.”

It can also mean inspired esoteric jams such as those made by accordionist Yves Weyh’s Zakarya, a gymnastic European klezmer-rock-jazz-experimental project that has released a handful of records for Tzadik. Or the Rabbinical School Dropouts, a 10-piece Long Beach big band whose 2002 Tzadik debut, Cosmic Tree, is psychedelic-klezmer-lounge-soul-jazz at its finest. Dig deeper, and behold pianist-composer Anthony Coleman’s ramshackle Selfhaters, described on Tzadik’s site as “essential listening for anyone who has ever suffered the pains of alienation and rejection—or wants to!” The propulsive five-volume release by the Hasidic New Wave, The Complete Recordings, is a beast: It features all four of the group’s studio albums and a Koln-recorded live release.

New Japan

Zorn spent a decade starting in the mid-’80s living half the year in Japan (and continues to travel there regularly both to perform and explore). While there, he dove into the country’s scene with glee, working with drone rock bands such as Rovo, disjointed noise punk band Melt Banana, experimental pop group Hoahio and hermetic apartment dweller Jon’s utterly weird album Smoke, as well as as Ruins, Merzbow, Tetsu Inoue, and Keiji Haino—a who’s who of century-turning Japanese experimental music.

Visually identifiable by the gold borders along the outer edges of the CD covers, the New Japan series offers an expansive look at the country’s scene during a period of profound economic prosperity. Zorn’s early amplification of Osaka punk band Boredoms and its founder Yamataka EYE helped introduce the chaotic sound of 1990s Japanese noise punk to America. Zorn teamed with EYE, Wayne Horvitz, Joey Baron, Bill Frisell and Fred Frith on the spy-jazz project Naked City. Chaotic? No, insane. Zorn and EYE have also made two freeform duo albums, Nani Nani and Nani Nani II, as well as the utterly baffling Mystic Fugu Orchestra album Zohar.

Guitarist, composer and turntablist Otomo Yoshihide’s discography is a feast of riches, and Flutter, by his New Jazz Quintet, is a boisterous thrill. Coupling ace Japanese free jazz players with avant garde musicians Masami Akita of Merzbow and Sachiko M (Hoahia, Les Sculpteurs De Vinyl), the album tightropes between post-bop and drone-driven free jazz. For a more hypnotic listen, check Cathode, an electroacoustic exploration involving sampled sine waves and a traditional Japanese mouth organ called the shô. Yoshihide’s experiments in frequency modulation and phasing creates glorious eardrum gymnastics, especially on a good sound system.

Lunatic Fringe

KFC-tub-wearing guitarist Buckethead; song poem iconoclast Rodd Keith; surreal sleep-talker Dion McGregor; ridiculous late-’00s New York trio Brown Wing Overdrive; and Shimmy Disc and Bongwater operative Kramer. Tzadik’s Lunatic Fringe series gathers a bunch of inexplicably wonderful recordings from the world of so-called “outsider” music.

That all of it remains in print decades later is a testament to Tzadik and Zorn’s commitment: “One of the reasons I started Tzadik, which is my own label, is to keep things in print,” he told Bomb. “I got tired of labels dropping things out of print when they don’t sell.”

That means these and other oddball gems are secure in the world: Danny Cohen’s freaky, Ween-esque Museum of Dannys; Mike Pathos’s distorted song attack People; and the singular Arkestra-esque jazz-funk album Djoukoujou, by On Ka’a Davis.


Oracle consists of brilliant work by women artists, including percussionist Ikue Mori (founding member of no wave band DNA—and a 2022 MacArthur Fellow), Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto), Meredith Monk and Susie Ibarra. Mori’s work is the beating heart of Tzadik, albeit one with little concern for the metronome. Among Zorn’s earliest collaborators, her percussion and programming appears on dozens of solo and group albums for Tzadik. Mori’s work with bassist Kato Hideki and guitarist Fred Frith as Ambient Death is dynamic, improvised beauty of the highest order, sparse and surprising.

Yuka Honda’s post-Cibo Matto records for Tzadik are lesser known gems that expand with each listen, especially the rhythmic avant pop record Eucademix. Famed vocalist and composer Meredith Monk selected some of her earliest pieces for Beginnings. In addition to the virtuosic voice works within, beat-driven songs like “Candy Bullets and the Moon” illustrate the breadth of her muse.

Looking for rhythmic expressionism? The trio of pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and percussionists Mori and Ibarra offers a series of gravity-defying stellar explorations as Mephista. On Black Narcissus (2002), Courvoisier explores her piano’s strings, hammers, keys and body as the two percussionists create zips, whips, thumps and clacks of sound. With four records on Tzadik, Ibarra (best known for her work with William Parker and David S. Ware) mixes her vast arsenal of percussion instruments with, at various points, strings, piano and electronics, to create highly composed pieces sure to endure and blossom as the decades pass.


Described on Tzadik’s site as “special projects and important recordings by crucial figures in the musical avant garde,” so-called Key recordings include a who’s who of international composition. Of particular note is Pieces for Guitar, British guitarist Derek Bailey’s earliest recorded works— revelatory documents of a master player’s formative years. The essential Ballads sounds like a shattered-mirror version of a Chet Atkins solo album; Carpal Tunnel, a wrenching, minimalist solo record, captures his struggles with the titular repetitive-motion condition.

The late cellist Tom Cora was a downtown mainstay whose passing in 1998 left a gaping hole in the scene. Hallelujah, Anyway - Remembering Tom Cora features a bounty of Tzadik operatives, including his partner Catherine Jauniaux, Wayne Horvitz and Zeena Parkins, as well as previously unreleased Cora recordings.

Wadada Leo Smith’s (AACM) work for Tzadik in the 1990s and 2000s captures the trumpeter-composer in his prime. Smith has described “Luminous Axis (The Caravans Of Winter And Summer)” as “an electronic sonic garden of delights and transformations,” and finds the trumpeter working with an astounding group: William Winant, John Bischoff, Chris Brown, Ikue Mori, Tim Perkis and Mark Trayle. Meltdown, by Massacre—the trio of guitarist Fred Frith, bassist Bill Laswell and This Heat drummer Charles Hayward—is a 2001 live recording from the Robert Wyatt-curated Meltdown Festival, and is a brilliant improvised set by a locked-in group.

Also give time to Brazilian forro-inspired percussionist Cyro Baptista, who’s released a half-dozen discs for Tzadik; Zorn and Thurston Moore’s skronky improvised record @; and Beyond Quantum, the improvised trio album by saxophonist-composer Anthony Braxton, the late visionary educator-percussionist-artist Milford Graves and bottom-dwelling bassist William Parker.

Film Music

What kind of film music do Zorn and Tzadik prefer? The kind, per Tzadik, “[injecting] new life into an exciting art form that continues to evolve despite Hollywood’s attempts to the contrary.” Tin Hat Trio cofounder Rob Burger’s City of Strangers, for example, gathers work from three of his scores to create a kinda-sorta travelog that moves through various American genres and dialects.

Bassist-producer Bill Laswell’s Filmtracks 2000 isn’t connected to a specific filmic work per se, and is immediately placeable by its uniquely early ‘00s focus on drum-and-bass rhythms. Laswell combines them with more bottom end, Middle Eastern accents and the help of guests including Ginger Baker, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Jah Wobble and Bernie Worrell. Evan Lurie, cofounder of the Lounge Lizards with his brother John, teamed with Tzadik in 1998 for the melodically inventive, Mancini-esque record How I Spent My Vacation. It includes music Lurie wrote for the Steve Buscemi-directed film Trees Lounge, Fisher Stevens’s Call of the Wylie and others.

And then there’s Zorn’s own body of film work. Corralled under the banner Filmworks, the series concluded with Vol. 25 in 2013. The first three volumes, issued in the 1990s but composed earlier, are portents for Zorn’s output to come: jazz-punk noir-skronk that mixes aggression with instrumental prowess, jerky stop-and-start antics of the kind he’d advance with Naked City and a smoky, private-eye-in-a-darkened-alley essence. For his Mexican-folk accented 2009 score for El General, about Mexican dictator Plutarco Elias Calles, Zorn got Ribot, Cohen, Burger and percussionist Kenny Wollesen in the studio with guitar, marimba, bass and accordion.

And on and on and on and on. Infinite in its expansiveness, Tzadik’s arrival is, to extend the cosmic metaphor to the bitter end, a kind of James Webb Space Telescope in the form of a search engine: We’ve now got access to the clearest-view of a singular cosmic event—the entire creative energy of Tzadik and its mastermind.

Shockingly, Zorn himself downplays Tzadik’s artistic success, while admitting that he does his best to remove himself from such conversations on his life’s work.

“I don’t think it’s well received anywhere. I think there are small groups of people that believe in it, or are intrigued by it, or are drawn to it for a variety of reasons. And some of the reasons could be shit, and some could be valid. I can’t be involved in that at all.”