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Published:March 30th, 2009 10:40 EST
John Zorn Pulls Multiple Rabbits Out of His Hat on Naked City!

John Zorn Pulls Multiple Rabbits Out of His Hat on Naked City!

By John G. Kays


As I try to pick out my all-time ten favorite records, John Zorn`s 1990 Naked City (I will put it at 8), his last on Electra Nonesuch, keeps rearing its multi-dimensional head up out of its cubby hole, and I keep ploppin` the platter into my notebook stereo for more punishment. The first offering of this record that I ever heard of, in this new Spy Crime-Jazz genre you see, came at a band (The Potatoes) rehearsal from our drummer, French Acers (aka Doctor Stix); we attempted to learn the Henry Mancini theme, A Shot In the Dark. Zorn`s arrangement comes with some surprises. Yet with Zorn`s treatment it tastefully stops and starts, modulates, and opens up entire sections for sax and organ solos. The Mancini melody is recognizable, but the whole thing is candy-coated with a tasteful, punk-spy icing.

A Weegee noir photo from 1942.


Naked City has stuck with me, or stuck to me rather, because it`s so daring in its use of so many musical genres, all within the same song or even inserted within a split second of the same bar of music. Since Zorn and his downtown musicians are so good, they can move freely between jazz, cowboy rock, or moody movie themes like gazelles in a meadow and no one notices, or cares, and all lines are crossed and no one gives a damn and fun is had for all. Fourteen of the songs on this jewell are John Zorn compositions, but they are weaved in and out of with some classic themes too, with giants such as Ornette Coleman, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, and Jerry Goldsmith spicing it up.


The cover, which helps a lot to bring across the message, is a black and white photo by Weegee (Arthus Fellis), `Corpse with Revolver C.A., 1940`. It shows the criminal Andrew Izzo, after a pulverizing shoot-out with the cops, zeroed out flat with his nose on the street, good hairdo and classy threads though, and a spilled revolver is parked a few feet away from his stiff corpse.


This photo was taken from Naked City, a book by Weegee that showcases some of his True Crime snapshots of hoodlums and victims caught in a compromising moment of urban squalor or murder and mayhem. The band itself is named after this book that seems to have defined a future role for the paparazzi, to find the sensational and take it to the cleaners for all to ogle over. Thus the tabloids were born. The music itself seems to mimic Weegee`s brutal urban nightscapes, but with sounds substituting for frozen bodies .


The line up of Bill Frisell on electric guitar, Joey Baron on drums, Fred Frith on bass, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, and John Zorn on alto saxophone is as perfect as it gets for me. My favorite song is The Sicilian Clan by Ennio Morricone; this was the theme for a rare French heist thriller of 1965. It has a beautiful, haunting melody, and I listened to the original this morning, and Zorn`s is fairly faithful. The movie is nowhere to be found; that makes it all the more novel, though!


There is much information about John Zorn on the internet, so I will just give you some of my impressions, simply off the top of my head, impromptu impressions of the songs. I want you to know how I feel about the songs, not how they define his career, how they are a feather in his hat. That is too boring!


Snaglepuss is a hybrid of Spike Jones sound effects, R & B boogie-woogie, and Sun Ra on sassafras, climb the wall jazz improvisation, and/or a black cat crossed your path Howlin` Wolf medley with Screaming Jay Hawkins lost in a coliseum corridor approximately. On Lonely Woman, an Ornette Coleman song, they start out tranquil and dreamy, then pull out the cement mixer for the finalé. The next seven songs are all short improvs that suck you up into the vortex of the spaceship of free flowing jazz, or some black-sheep off-shoot of that genre.


Speedball sounds like a couple a gallons of industrial strength skyscraper rivets are being dumped on the heads of the band; they wail on their instruments, bats outta hell with abandon, like they`re strapped to a lethal injection table and hatin` it, on a final countdown by the friendly state warden. A zillion notes bounce off your skull and you`re right there! Chinatown is the Jerry Goldsmith theme, that begins with art noise before the recognizable tune comes in, then you see Jack and Faye in your mind, and Roman barkin` out the director`s commands.


Saigon Pickup will take you uptown, downtown, and back again. A Zorn composition that starts off with a single simple piano riff, that reminds me of Del Shannon`s Runaway, then goes down the scale with a sax squeal. Suddenly, a short truck-driver rock thing emerges, then back full circle to the Del Shannon lick. Out of nowhere a little blues interlude, then a sax part blares and bleaches your hair white and you collapse into a big ball of hairy matter.  


Punk China Doll squalls and whines, flakes the floral wallpaper from your kitchen pantry, your hair is standing on end like Alfalfa and Spanky, butch-wax peeling from your scalp, you giggle and pop a bubble of bubblegum from an Archies` wrapper.  Huh? Zorn`s alto sax climbs the scale, gravity gone, the treble clef notes a pink lizard slithering up the side of a blue barnyard wall, you make hay while the sun shines, the James Bond spy riffs peel back your skull and open up a window to let in some light.


John Barry`s Bond theme tethers you again, good luck, riffs chime from your collective cinematic subconscious, but with cartoon abandon, sound effects, train wrecks, yelping coyote, racing Roadrunner "Dens of Sins is a nuclear explosion in a lonesome desert that singes the fur off the back of your grimy neck. No visuals required, sonic pipedreams leave you on cloud nine, my dear old friend.


When I listen to Naked City moods can change rapidly, and you are way into the spy crime-jazz genre one moment, and stuck in a punk-desert of hard-core flailing extempore the next time. Visuals come freely when listening, but today New York in the 1940s is mostly present. Things are black and white today, with a Weegee flavor; you are half-way in seamy cinema house and half-way on a grimy street in the Bowery, but you are up on your luck when this golden disc is playing. Don`t change anything, this is your life!


Just to keep up with all of John Zorn`s projects is nearly an impossible task. Scott Maykrantz`s page is very helpful when mining Zorn tracks in different genres. Here it is: