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Early Reflections On Life In The Information Age: John Zorn's Naked City Turns 30
Peter Margasak , February 17th, 2020 07:23

The debut album from his top-flight quintet Naked City foresaw the content overload of the Internet while paving the way for jazz-metal fusion and mash-ups, says Peter Margasak

Long before John Zorn’s insanely versatile quintet Naked City released its eponymous debut album thirty years ago this month, the leader had already spent years experimenting with concepts that in many ways defined the band’s whiplash sound, particularly its jump-cut aesthetic. Yet Naked City was the project that elevated the notorious gadfly composer and saxophonist out of New York’s downtown ghetto and allowed to him reach a much wider and younger audience. In a sense this was his pop-rock band—albeit as uncompromising as anything he’s ever done--a nimble quintet driven by remarkable musicianship and a machine-gun spray of ideas that would seemingly make more sense in a rock club than the jazz festivals that usually programmed them.

At once a focused distillation of many of Zorn’s long-term musical concerns and interests and a highly prescient illustration of musical consumption in the Information Age, Naked City still maintains much of its power through its concision, precision, and sheer fury, even if the passage of time has taken some of the edge from its once-radical juxtapositions and nonchalant genre shuffling. As jazz critic Neil Tesser wrote in the Chicago Reader back in 1989, “Rather than shrink from the laser-optic pace at which information flies through our society, Zorn embraces it: his compositions segue rapidly from one chunk of an idea to another often unrelated one careening like a barely controlled roller coaster. In this way, the very structure of the music reflects the speed and rhythm of the late 20th century (which, depending on how you feel about the late 20th century, may or may not be a good thing).”

This conceit was laid bare on Naked City, a 26-track onslaught released by the major label Elektra-Nonesuch, that juggled and collided Zorn’s take on the hardcore sounds he’d been mainlining at the time, film themes by the likes of Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith, and Georges Delerue, and a quick-blink hodge podge of tropes purloined from country, bebop, reggae, New Orleans R&B, and more. Zorn’s top-flight band—bassist Fred Frith, guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, and drummer Joey Baron, then all active denizens of New York’s polyglot downtown scene—translated the leader’s vision brilliantly, articulating his rapid-fire shuffle of ideas with stop-on-a-dime exactitude. While Zorn’s colleague John Oswald had unleashed his mind-boggling sampling opus Plunderphonics in 1989, with its head-spinning profusion of cuts, and that same year the Beastie Boys dropped the astonishing Paul’s Boutique, with the style-splicing production of the Dust Brothers, Naked City was able to convey a similar spirit without the aid of computers. In 1989 I saw the band perform at Chicago’s Civic Opera, and its seamless performance left most of the audience with jaws agape.

The album veers all over the place in its sudden detours into different styles, but despite the disparate sources, Naked City’s adaptation of hardcore serves as the core of the recording. Between a filmic, chugging interpretation of Ornette Coleman’s ballad 'Lonely Woman' propelled by a tough loping groove meted out by Frith (who used the bass line of Roy Orbison’s 'Pretty Woman' under the keening sax melody) and Baron, and prodded by Hammond B-3 stabs from Horvitz and a wonderfully moody take on the Chinatown theme come eight blasts of hardcore given titles designed for calculated outrage ('Fuck The Facts' 'Blood Duster,' and 'Demon Sanctuary'). Most clock in under 30 seconds and all of them feature Boredoms frontman Yamatsuka Eye screaming his lungs out. Zorn, who spent extensive time living in Japan during the 80s and 90s, has said that he passed a tape of the first Boredoms album Soul Discharge to Mark Kramer of Shimmy Disc Records, which then released it in the US 1989, paving the way for them to sign with Warner Brothers.

Zorn had also become a huge fan of what was then labeled grindcore, particularly the UK band Napalm Death. Not long after the first Naked City album was released Zorn formed Painkiller with bassist Bill Laswell and Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris, and both Naked City and Painkiller released music on Earache, the influential UK grindcore imprint. In fact, Zorn has always lifted up and created opportunities for members of his own musical community, whether through the hundreds of albums he would go on to release on his own imprint Tzadik starting in 1995, or by programming unabashedly challenging work at the Stone since 2005. It’s hard to imagine the ongoing fusions of complex metal and jazz represented by folks as disparate as Weasel Walter, Dan Weiss, Matt Mitchell, and Mick Barr—among numerous others—wasn’t fomented in some way by Naked City.

While this music surely felt fresh and radical for those newly encountering Zorn, he’d been exploring related ideas for years at that point. While Charles Ives was famous for using musical quotations in his compositions and Stravinsky and Stockhausen had both adapted the use of blocks of sound in their writing, Zorn was drawing from a much wider set of materials thanks to the recordings he’d collected and absorbed since he was a kid. As he told writer Francis Davis for an essay published in The Atlantic in January of 1991, “In general, my generation and younger, this is how we grew up. We had an unprecedented variety of music available to us, because of the availability of everything on LP."

In May of 2009 he told Bill Milkowski of JazzTimes “People who grew up at the time that I did, in the 60s, we loved all different musics. We loved rock, we loved jazz, we loved classical, we loved world music. We had a hunger for anything new. We’d make little mix tapes on cassette that had all these different styles of music. That was like a very special thing. We’d play them at parties. Now, that’s normal, that’s the iPod shuffle. Everybody listens that way now. So in that sense, we have really succeeded. It’s like our generation, our kind of impetus of loving all these different things, that is kind of the new way to listen to music.” Naked City, of course, predated the iPod, and the music Zorn created, in some ways, anticipated the way that device would catalyse current listening habits, where the entire history of recorded music was readily available on a smart phone. The music also presaged the mash-up craze that was still a few years in the future.

Zorn’s 1989 fully notated chamber work 'For Your Eyes Only' applied similar ideas for a “classical” ensemble. As he told Tom Service in The Guardian in 2003, “I write in moments, in disparate sound blocks, so I find it convenient to store these events on filing cards so they can be sorted and ordered with minimum effort." Bits of bebop, tango, classical quotes and even a bit of Warner Bros. cartoon music by Carl Stalling—a hero of Zorn’s who himself borrowed melodies, including a lick from 'Powerhouse' by the American composer and bandleader Raymond Scott—shuffle by quickly in a fizzy, disorienting collage that draws upon a non-linear aesthetic much closer to film than music. Writing about Stalling in a liner note essay from the 1990 collection The Carl Stalling Project: Music From The Warner Bros. Cartoons 1936-1958, Zorn asserted, “No one style is inherently better than the other--and with Stalling all are embraced, chewed up and spit out in a format closer to Burroughs’ cut-ups, or Godard’s film editing of the ‘60s than to anything happening in the ‘40s.” It’s impossible not to hear 'For Your Eyes Only' as a perverse but sincere homage to Stalling, even as it quotes Mozart, Varese, Carter, Berg, Stravinsky, Xenakis, Reich and others. Zorn’s 1987 album Spillane also used the index card technique, essentially creating sonic analogues to scenes from pulp novels penned by the titular mystery writer.

In 2020 Naked City doesn’t exactly sound shocking, although Eye’s piercing shrieks can still elicit negative reactions from innocent bystanders. While the hardcore pieces remain technically impressive, there’s something hollow about them, played as hey were by four other musicians with little investment or connection to that music community. The mish-mash of divergent styles has also lost it shock value, in part because this record began a normalisation of that sort of thing. Naked City went on to release several more albums—toggling between hardcore, 20th century classical music, and the deliberate mash-ups of the album Radio, in which Zorn detailed his inspirations for each piece—but by 1993 they closed up shop. As Zorn said at the time, “This band was basically a composition workshop. When I stopped hearing/writing for the band, we broke up. Compositionally the challenge I set for myself was to see how much I could come up with given the limitations of the simple sax, guitar, keyboard, bass, drums format.” Obviously, he came up with a lot, making music that opened up minds and anticipated the way technology has irrevocably altered the way we experience music.