Big Hairy Monster!
(All Album Reviews by Big Hairy Monster!)
Recipe for Naked City Stew:
Take John Zorn, an avant-jazz saxophonist with a taste for improvisation, Yiddish music, spy films, and hardcore punk.
Add one jazz rock/experimentalist drummer named Joey Baron.
Blend one part bass virtuoso Fred Frith with one part guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell.
Stir in the creative keyboard playing of Wayne Horvitz.
Add a pinch of screams and gurgles, courtesy of Yamatsuka Eye.
Pour into a crust of Ornette Coleman, Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone, with some nails, tacks, bullets, and evil thoughts.
What you wind up eating is a slice of avant acid noise jazz that is a wonderful meal, if you have the stomach for it. One minute this recording will have you nearly in tears for its sheer beauty, and literally seconds later you will cringe in fear at its sheer ferocity. Not only is this a group of extraordinary talent, but of extraordinary tightness...you have never heard a band stop on a dime, change styles, and triple tempo (!) like this group does.
There is some fantastic experimental jazz here, and some musical passages which rival (surpass?) Zappa's finest work. Naked City is beautiful, rich, challenging, and a recording of opposites...it is also brutal, harsh, and at times atonal. There is a dark beast that lurks here--it is the beastly side of this recording that scares the hell out of me. It could be Yamatsuka Eye's vocal presentation (no words, just screams of agony) or Zorn's screaming sax. But there is darkness here that is absolutely grotesque in it's beauty--or would that be beautiful in it's grotesqueness? It can sound like a nightmare, far surpassing Crimson, Balletto Di Bronzo, or Goblin in its darkness. It can be noisy darkness, but it only serves to heighten the intensity (or beauty) of whatever follows.
Very palatable indeed, if you have the taste for it.
As of this writing, there is a thread discussing the color of music. If music does have color, then Naked City is the cleanest of whites, the most beautiful of blues, the bloodiest of reds, and the darkest of blacks.
John Zorn, it should be noted, is one of my all time favorite musicians/composers, and my love for his work can approach near fanboy status. Of the four albums I own by him so far, three of them earn at least an A (masterpiece) rating, and the other gets a B+ (excellent, highly recommended). One of his albums, Astronome, even makes my top ten albums of all time. He is clearly a force in the avant-garde musical world, and that is perhaps never better seen than on Naked City.
Although technically released as a John Zorn solo album, Naked City kicked off the band of the same name, which included Zorn on sax (of course), Bill Frisell on guitar, Fred Frith on bass guitar, Joey Baron on drums, and Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, with the occasional contribution of avant-vocalist Yamatsuka Eye. Every one is a fantastic musician, capable of playing whatever needs to be played, doing so with such feeling that songs take on a life of their own.
Naked City is composed of twenty six short tracks, many of them under a minute in length. However, I couldn’t imagine the album without any of its songs, even the seven cover songs. Speaking of the cover songs, I am normally against them, but, in this case, they fit in so well with the album that it’s hard to imagine Zorn didn’t write them specifically for Naked City. The songs combine funky grooves with searing guitar, screeching sax, jazzy keyboards, and Joey Baron’s fantastic drums (I prefer his work on the Moonchild trilogy of albums, but he’s still brilliant here) to create a constantly shifting collage of sounds that takes you from the highest heights of heaven to the deepest depths of hell and everywhere in between, all without batting an eye. This album truly is, in every sense of the word, a journey.
One of my favorite aspects in music is when albums are able to tell a story without words. One great example of this is the album Western Culture by Henry Cow, which looks at the destruction of capitalism but which is entirely instrumental. John Zorn was another master of this, as his Moonchild trilogy and even more so Naked City show. The Moonchild trilogy actually has vocals, but they are entirely wordless. Naked City is the same, except that the vocals are far less present, and the story relies more on the music. As far as I can tell, this album looks at inner city life, corruption, and hypocrisy.
As always, however, John Zorn simply is not for the faint of heart. This album often switches from calm beauty to pure noise in a heartbeat, thinking nothing of it. It is music taken to its extremes, pushing and prodding the boundaries of listenability, never pushing too far, but going far enough that it will leave many listeners in the cold. If you like jazz, particularly free jazz, and don’t mind frequent forays into noise rock, however, this album could very well be for you. As it stands, Naked City is one of Zorn’s greatest accomplishments and should be owned by everyone who thinks they’ll be able to take it. Obviously, if you are a Zorn fan, you have no excuse not to own this one. None at all. I award it an A (masterpiece) with ease.
Though every song is brilliant, these songs stand out: “Batman,” “You Will Be Shot,” “Punk China Doll,” “The James Bond Theme,” and “Graveyard Shift.”