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The Big Gundown (1984)

10

The Big Gundown / Peur Sur La Ville / Poverty (Once Upon a Time in America) / Milano Odea / Erotico (The Burglars) / Battle of Algiers / Giu La Testa (Duck You Sucker!) / Metamorfosi (La Classe Operaia Via In Paradiso) / Tre Nel 5000 / Once Upon a Time in the West

The Big Gundown

Genre-bending and ambitious, John Zorn’s conceptual tribute to the film works of Ennio Morricone might very well be one of the most adventurous albums of its era. Indeed, The Big Gundown can be seen as one of the most successful proponents of the prevailing deconstructionist approach to music and literature. John Zorn constantly walks the thin line between admiration and pastiche, which is also a consequence of the expressive nature of Morricone’s music itself. More than any other film composer (with the possible exception of Bernard Herrmann), Morricone composed music that not only augmented the director’s images (whether it be Sergio Leone, Brian DePalma or Roman Polanski), but at the same time also commented on it and suggested things yet to come, the most notorious example of course his mocking score to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The mere fact that someone like John Zorn, a free jazz improviser and composer (?), would be the leading man behind a project like this, probably seemed quite weird at the time, but considering his infatuation with movies (he also worked on a Godard-tribute), pop culture and the most obscure art forms imaginable, it’s no wonder that this Renaissance man, who, since this project, has become one of the most versatile and respected avant-garde musicians around, decided to give it a shot. To give an idea of what kind of icon John Zorn is in the jazz-related music world: as a masterful alto sax player, he also became the leader of several jazz-related bands, composed various albums of film music and maintains his own label Tzadik, which promotes ethnic-oriented jazz. Many of his projects (Masada, and Masada Chamber Ensembles, Naked City, etc.) have topped numerous best of-lists during the past 15 years.

The list of (a few dozen) collaborators on this album is long and remarkable, to say the least: Blue Note recording artist Big John Patton and Belgian harmonica legend Toots Thielemans were probably the most ‘important’ ones at the time, but there are also several key members of the downtown New York jazz/rock scene (Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Arto Lindsay, Robert Quine, etc), and some young musicians who would become members of more popular bands later on, like Vernon Reid (Living Color), Anton Fier (The Golden Palominos) and Melvin Gibbs (Defunkt, Rollins Band). During 9 Morricone- and 1 Zorn-compositions (“Tre Nel 5000), these musicians make a journey that sometimes stays quite faithful to the originals, sometimes radically deconstructs them, and sometimes updates them into contemporary slices of adventurous avant-garde. Some of the renditions are kept simple (like “Poverty” which only features accordion, harp and Thielemans’ harmonica playing and whistling), while others (like the title track or “Giu la Testa (Duck You Sucker!)”) add layer after layer of fragmented music, while the widest range of instruments is used (guitar, bass, piano, drums, sax, but also oboe, horn, turntables, game calls, and more exotic stuff like pandeiro, cuica, caixa, shakuhachi and Tsugaru shamisen, which I never heard on a previous album, nor can I imagine how they look like). Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is: with these musicians and instruments and a bandleader like Zorn, the result could have never been just another conventional tribute or interpretation. Instead of just paying homage to the master, Zorn rips the originals apart, pasts them back together, adds some new colours and techniques, thus becoming another creating artist, not just an interpreting one.

The title track alternates inflammatory parts that are dominated by rolling percussion with sections that merely have eerie synths, guitar feedback and random-sounding vocals. Shards of whistling, trombone and other exotic instruments enter and leave the picture, hint at the original composition until it all comes together in another section, in which all the elements are finally combined and the seams are united again, until it’s disrupted by references to Beethoven’s Für Elise after which the song comes to its grand conclusion. “Peur Sur la Ville,” is dominated by a repetitive piano-line upon which squealing sax, ear-piercing guitar feedback and shouted vocals come and go. Quite similar (well, from a distance), is “Battle of Algiers” that also has an insistently hammering piano line, while the rest of the sounds are almost entirely created by turntables, martial drums and unlikely instruments such as the oboe. “Poverty” (one of the well-known themes from Once Upon a Time in America) is turned into an immensely beautiful piece of melancholy, solely by the muted passion of Thielemans’ whistling and harmonica playing, while the addition of harp and accordion turn it into a highlight. “Milano Odea” is probably the track that leans closest to rock, with no less than three guitarists contributing, laying layers of screeching and constricted accents over the main theme. “Erotico (The Burglars)” comes close to lounge music, with Big John Patton’s warm organ sound and the “sexy Italian vocals” by Laura Biscotto, while other vocalist Shelley Hirsch and guitar player Bill Frisell keep a wailing competition that end the first album side in a grand fashion.

“Giu La Testa (Duck You Sucker!)” is a lengthier track that has a long introduction of seemingly random-placed noises, before it transforms into a mini-suite that offers moments of sheer beauty until those Morricone-inspired noises (game calls, whistles, guitar) and nonsensical vocals (“Shoop shoop”) start mocking the entire deal again. “Metamorfosi” is probably the most abrasive track on the album, with pounding drums and vocal acrobat Diamanda Galas almost hysterically screaming and moaning for what she’s worth (and that’s a lot). If you’ve never explored one of these albums before, then don’t start with this song, as it’s certainly not your average one. Much more accessible is the album closer, a stunning version of one of Morricone’s masterpieces, “Once Upon a Time.” Guitarist Jody Harris and Robert Quine seem to hesitate to get to the theme, hint at it, make detours, before finally getting to the well-known melody, but even then they mess around with it, alternating melody with gentle or piercing feedback, exploring territory Sonny Sharrock had discovered before, and artists like Bill Frisell would return to regularly later on his career. Finally, there’s also Zorn’s own composition “Tre Nel 5000,” probably the most randomly structured of all the tracks here, as it sounds like a tribute to the chaotic music of Tom & Jerry-cartoons, “western” music, while other instruments and samples create an utter cacophony.

The Big Gundown is not only one hell of a tribute, but also quite a statement, one that would characterize Zorn’s entire career. Although his music sometimes sounds as if it doesn’t have any respect for any sort of rules at all, it’s always in some way structured or faithful to its source, but the free spirit always remains dominant. In this music, instruments and genres are stacked upon each other. There are hints of jazz, classical music, film scores, ethnic music and rock elements all over this record, and they all blend in because Zorn’s healthy arrogance and disdain for elitist approaches make it possible. By taking this direction, he not only offers a career statement (for further information, check out bands like Naked City and Masada, or the countless projects he was involved in – the man is the most versatile chameleon working today), but pays a nice tribute to Morricone, who was also one of the first, for instance, to incorporate twang-y electrical guitars in his scores, moving away from the classic Hollywood rules. The Big Gundown is sometimes hard to get into, but frequently it’s a hilarious trip through musical plurality materialized, and while that may sound pretentious, the most important that I wanted to convey is that it’s often stunningly creative, and always captivating.

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Spy vs. Spy - The Music of Ornette Coleman (1989)
8

WRU / Chronology / Word for Bird / Good Old Days / The Disguise / Enfant / Rejoicing / Blues Connotation / C&D / Chippie / Peace Warriors / Ecars / Feet Music / Broadway Blues / Space Church / Zig Zag / Mob Job

Spy vs Spy

A tribute to one of Zorn’s predecessors and all-time jazz great Ornette Coleman, Spy Vs. Spy may be to jazz what Reign In Blood is to metal: one giant aural assault of skull-breaking volume and intensity that encompasses many accomplishments of before, channels them, lights the fuse and launches it with the sole purpose of kicking your ass. Like earlier classic examples Machine Gun (by Peter Brötzmann) or the albums by jazz-trash band Last Exit, all rules concerning volume and structure are disregarded in favor of a violent tabula rasa. Well, I’m not really speaking the truth here, as Zorn & Co. interpret compositions that had already abandoned conventional premises about what jazz had to sound like in the first place. Already during his early golden years 1958-’62 (from which 9 out of 17 tracks are taken) with classic albums such as Something Else, Tomorrow Is the Question and The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman and his quartet tossed the seeds of what a few years later would result in a blooming free jazz movement. Although they were largely ignored by mainstream artists and audiences, musicians like Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler elaborated on that liberating spirit by releasing albums of maddening intensity.

Zorn adds his two cents here, by gathering four musicians around him with the same loose attitude but tight musical capabilities. The results of this are two alto sax players (Zorn and Tim Berne), two drummers (the wonderful Joey baron, with whom Zorn would collaborate frequently, and Michael Vatcher) and Mark Dresser on bass. Discussing the songs separately is quite superfluous, as a lot of them are basically interchangeable. Maybe it’s also due to the fact that I wasn’t familiar with many of the originals (taken from more than 10 different albums – I can’t hear ‘em all, you know), but I’m fairly convinced it doesn’t really matter. The two saxes wail, screech, moan, and often sound remarkably conventional as well, while in the meantime Baron and Vatcher open the gates of hell by creating an enormous racket on drums. The cool thing about it all is that the quintet clearly wants to disclose its connections to various metal/hardcore bands, some of which (Napalm Death, DRI, The Accused) are mentioned in the liner notes. While some of the bands clearly employ the rhythmical patterns of the originals, the drumming in some of the songs (“Peace Warriors,” “Rejoicing” or the opening salvo of “WRU”) sounds as if it was played by metal/hardcore drummers: incredibly loud, cacophonous (which it probably isn’t) and fast. Not all the songs are as aggressive, like “Feet Music” (which – ironically - is the song that’s the most indebted to rock) and “Mob Job,” for instance, which have sections with a strutting swing. If you’re willing to explore jazz of this kind with an open mind, it might not even be that hard to take, but I can imagine this collection sounds near-apocalyptic to those who are already enervated by, say, Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Even the slower songs have – due to the double sax ànd drums attack – a force one rarely hears in jazz and therefore listening to this album is like listening to better thrash albums that might be abrasive, but whose ferociousness and brutality may appeal to fans of bands that take things just a little bit further. Like many metal bands’ albums, Spy Vs. Spy might’ve been better if it were 15 minutes shorter, but the material is uniformly top-notch.

Note: Zorn’s and Berne’s performances are over two channels, which makes it easy to focus on either one of them. They both seem to blow their horn to pieces, though.

Reader comments:


Chris Sawyer (USA):
I'd agree with the fifteen minute shaving. Strange how all the hardest hardcore stuff is seemingly piled up in the first 11 tracks and then followed by the relatively less violent & more varied interpretations. Interspersing the tracks might've made it much easier to listen to in one sitting--though I guess making things easy is pretty low on Zorn's list of priorities.


 

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Naked City (1989)

9

Batman / The Sicilian Clan / You Will Be Shot / Latin Quarter / A Shot in the Dark / Reanimator / Snagglepuss / I Want to Live / Lonely Woman / Igneous Ejaculation / Blood Duster / Hammerhead / Demon Sanctuary / Obeah Man / Ujaku / Fuck the Facts / Speedball / Chinatown / Punk China Doll / N.Y. Flat Top Box / Saigon Pickup / The James Bond Theme / Den of Sins / Contempt / Graveyard Shift / Inside Straight

Naked City

For a few years (1988-’93), John Zorn’s Naked City-project was about the most far out you could get, and Zorn’s exploration of what he “could come up with given the limitations of the simple sax, guitar, keyboard, bass, drums-format” became the pinnacle of avant coolness. It resulted in a whirlwind of creativity that spawned four albums of “thrash jazz” (the self-titled debut, the ultra-schizophrenic Radio, the dark Grand Guignol and the incredibly extreme Torture Garden – that gathered all the hardcore jazz tracks from the debut and Guignol), a soundtrack to an (apparently existent) S&M-movie (Herectic – Jeux des Dames Cruelles), an exploration of ambient music (Absinthe) and Leng Tch’e, a 30-minute slab of aural sludge*. Inspired by the writings of French novelist/philosopher Georges Bataille, who was obsessed by themes such as sex, (sexual) torture, degradation, manipulation and violence, Zorn set out to create an aural equivalent, not only incorporating the already familiar influences of Ornette Coleman and movie scores and traditional jazz forms, but also by incorporating the uncompromising, nihilist noise of bands like Napalm Death, Carcass and – a wet dream coming true, I bet – Japan’s The Boredoms. The result was a post-modern hybrid that cut up sequences as he saw fit and treated all genres equally: jazz, grindcore and country & western, were allowed to coexist, even in the same song. On top of that, the artwork always seemed to involve Asia, sex and death:

 

The musicians he picked had all been involved in the scene that concentrated around New York’s hotbed for ‘difficult’ music, The Knitting Factory, and mentioning them is enough to make fans of the genre drivel for half an hour. All-round drummer Joey Baron could switch from light swing to robotic thrash drumming in a split second (he’d already shown his considerable skills on Spy v. Spy and collaborations with, for instance, Belgian harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans), bass player Fred Frith – an innovative solo musician in his own right – had a rich past in several unconventional projects (Henry Cow being the most famous), while keyboard player Wayne Horvitz drew from sci-fi textures, rock, and all sub-genres of jazz. Furthermore, there was Bill Frisell, one of the most innovative guitar players of the past few decades, the master of the delay pedal and the true heir to sonic innovator/terrorist Sonny Sharrock; and of course John Zorn and his inhuman, ear-piercing sax shrieks. And then, finally, there’s Yamatsuka Eye. Whether he was brought in to create a humorous effect or to push the already challenging mishmash to the outer limits, I’m not sure, but he moans, hisses, grunts and vomits words and shrieks like a psychiatric patient suffering from nightmarish D.T.’s. It’s not very surprising then, that this band had a sizeable impact on a certain Mike Patton and most of his projects (as a solo musician, or as a member of Mr. Bungle, Fantomas and, to a lesser extent, even Tomahawk). Naked City’s unremittingly brutal attack, combined with sometimes surprisingly beautiful sections, not only gave birth to a completely new genre and approach – infused by a healthy disdain for high/low distinctions and the “classic jazz establishment” – but it also introduced a new sense of liberation. The best thing of all was: Naked City played with the energy, enthusiasm and attitude of a good rock ‘n’ roll band (yes, they also did encores).

While you might get the impression that “chaos” was the key word, the reality of Naked City was one of practise and discipline. Many of the tracks gathered here are rumoured to have been composed in a few days, but even during the most extreme moments, when all hell seems to break loose, the band is firmly in control. “Tracks” like “Blood Duster,” “Igneous Ejaculation” “Fuck the Facts,” “Obeah Man” and a handful of others (often with equally interesting titles) stay well under 60 seconds, but they’re also as tight as you can imagine. Full-throttle, structured terrorism, if you like. Elsewhere, the band is considerably less assaulting, but still offensive enough if you’re used to hearing George Shearing or Coleman Hawkins. The re-worked “Batman’ combines surf guitar with sci-fi keyboards and high-pitched sax bursts, “Latin Quarter” contains New Orleans swing, New York noir, straightforward old-fashioned R&B and latin influences while Frisell’s guitar strokes & squeals further broaden the sonic palette. Most of the soundtrack pieces work extremely well: Morricone’s “The Sicilian Clan” sounds irresistibly seductive, Mancini’s “A Shot in the Dark” is thoroughly deconstructed as if Zorn’s collaborating with The Ventures and Illinois Jacquet, while “Chinatown” is a great showcase for Frisell’s loopy sound textures. Other favorites are “N.Y. Flat Top Box” (country thrash?), “Punk China Doll” (a great example of the outfit’s schizophrenic duality, switching from uncompromising noise to comforting ambient) and “Snagglepuss” (a funky brick against your head). Listening (and eventually, appreciating) to Naked City requires a certain, uh, open-mindedness and familiarity with most of the genres (at least, I think it’s hard to like it when you think jazz is for boring, old people), but once you’ve acquainted yourselves with their style it can become one hell rollercoaster ride. Granted, the hardcore fury is what’ll stick with you most clearly (and Naked City is merely the Iron Maiden to Grand Guignol’s Slayer), but do you really care when you’re listening to one the coolest bands that ever were?


* Because of their extreme graphic art-work (Leng Tch’e containing photographs from a public execution, while Torture Garden contained Asian S&M-photographs) Zorn ran into trouble with the CAAAV (Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence), after which he had the two albums re-packaged as The Black Box.

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Guts of a Virgin (1991) - by Painkiller

5.5

Scud Attack / Deadly Obstacle Collage / Damage to the Mask / Guts of a Virgin / Handjob / Portent / Hostage / Lathe of God / Dr. Phibes / Purgatory of Fiery Vulvas / Warhead / Devil’s Eye

Painkiller 1Painkiller is perhaps the ultimate noise band, a guerrilla unit targeting the body and the soul on the most basic of all levels: physical punishment. John Zorn had become so obsessed with the grindcore/death metal-scene of the late ‘80’s that he not only paid tribute to those bands with his jazzcore band Naked City, but also started another project (the guy never sleeps) with Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris and bass player Bill Laswell (Material, Last Exit, and about 4 million other projects/collaborations/production jobs, etc). Whereas the Naked City albums sounded to some ears as if they were 100% gratuitous, painful experiences created by a few people who didn’t know what they were doing, they were actually fully aware what they were doing, witness the stunning structure and tightness of so many of their songs. Painkiller was an entirely different thing: total improvisation for the most part, even though Harris had never recorded like this. As he said in an interview: “They set the mike up and I had a little go and within 30 minutes we’ve got the phones on and the tapes running. Three hours later we record Guts of a Virgin. All live takes!” * By consequence, the results are, um,… “challenging,” and repeatedly among the most intense, noisiest things your ears will ever have to deal with.

You thought Naked City pushed things to the limit? This goes even further: there’s nothing funny about Painkiller, there are no winks, no references to mass culture, movie scores, genre-bending attacks. It’s all about velocity and sheer volume here, it lacks the humour of Naked City and the focused brutality of Last Exit. Harris switches from thundering drum freak-outs to the occasional quieter section, Lawell’s bass sounds like this huge, pummeling meat grinder, and Zorn basically squeals and squeals and squeals and forces these high-pitched shrieks out of his saxophone. The brevity of the songs (half of them are shorter than 90 seconds, with “Handjob” and “Purgatory of Fiery Vulvas” clocking in under 30) will give you a déjà-entendu, but also the lengthier tracks are rather hard to distinguish from each other, as there are no discernible themes or melodies to be found. Occasionally, the trio seems to create something you might call “jazzrock” with a bit of imagination: “Dr. Phibes” has a few straightforward sections, the first minute of “Portent” is menacing, but accessible, and the release’s highlight is closer “Devil’s Eye,” which basically continues the same plodding rhythm for nearly five minutes and creates an opportunity for Zorn to make noises that come together complete with visions of torture, suffering, pending doom and other assorted horror (there’s also the controversial cover, of course). People who are into adventurous, fearless experimentation should check this out - even if it’s only to have heard it once -, but if Slayer and average free jazz are already too extreme for your tastes (pussy music!), just avoid this release, the real soundtrack to the apocalypse.

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Buried Secrets (1991)

6

Tortured Souls / One-Eyed Pessary / Trailmarker / Blackhole Dub / Buried Secrets / The Ladder / Executioner / Black Chamber / Skinned / The Toll

Painkiller 2Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes me check out music like this. Is it the brutality, the ugliness, the potential to offend, the randomness, the explicit cover art? Most people wouldn’t even call this ‘music’ when facing a .44 at close range. It must be the sheer extremity of it all that attracts me. I’ve always had periods in my life that I sort of “investigated” issues/material that most people consider “not done,” whether it’s the Faces of Death-series, serial killers, cannibalism, Satanism, Phil Collins’ catalogue or Bob Saget’s Full House-series, and I guess it’s the same with Zorn’s explorations of noise at the fringes of what could be called ‘music,’ the main difference being that this infatuation has been going on for more than a decade by now. I do not enjoy this music, I can’t play this when my parents or friends come around and I’m not even allowed to play it when my girlfriend is around, because it gives her an irregular heartbeat (I swear it’s true). I guess it’s the racket’s nearly physical impact that intrigues me the most: it’s music that defies all rules and tries to push the boundaries as far as possible, further than you imagined was possible. The theory that my girlfriend usually comes up with is that I need this inhumanly brutal music to satisfy my psychotic side that otherwise would make me kill or torture people or something, but I’m not buying that. I’m an Average Joe, but I just need to get my kicks.

Enough rambling. Buried Secrets is as consumer-friendly as Guts of a Virgin, but somehow it feels different. The grindcore-infatuation is kept intact with the three tumultuous seconds of “Trailmarker” and the twenty-two of “The Ladder,” but this album seems a bit more about atmosphere and, uh, structure. Or you could see it like this: whereas the debut is like shooting someone point blank, Buried Secrets feels like shooting someone point blank, after having beaten them unconscious with a baseball bat. There’s a sickening alternation of gut-wrenching, horrible noise – I bet most people out there can’t even imagine the terror of hearing Zorn’s sounds during “Tortured Souls” (adequate title, by the way) or “One-Eyed Pessary” – and doom-laden heaviness (“Blackhole Dub, which features a few sections of noir sax) that’s only equalled by apocalyptic industrial band Neurosis on a very bad day. Another difference is the appearance of Justin Broadrick (guitar, drum machine) and G.C. Green (bass), both from Godflesh, on the release’s longest tracks, “Buried Secrets” and “The Toll.” Their contributions take the already completely fucked-up music to even more insane levels, raising the question whether the real goal of the music has got something to do with learning how to deal with traumatic experiences and going through them once again. It’s exceptionally confrontational and seems motivated by the need to mirror mankind’s cruellest and sickest deeds. In short, it has the capacity to make one physically ill. My girlfriend just walked into the room and said while “The Toll” was playing that it’s ‘the music to kill to.’ She’s right, I need to stop it. Buried Secrets isn’t even a good album, but it sure is an experience.

Note: I do wonder, though, what would happen if I could blast this through the speakers of some religious discussion group in the middle of one of their sessions. I bet it would crack me up.

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Filmworks 1986-1990 (1992)

7

White and Lazy: Main Title / Homecoming / The Heist / Meat Dream / Phone Call / End Title // The Golden Boat: Fanfare / Theme / Jazz I / Horror Organ / Mexico / Mood / Rockabilly / Slow / Jazz Oboes / The Golden Boat (Turntable Mix) / End Titles // The Good, the Bad & the Ugly // She Must Be Seeing Things: Main Title / Swirling Shot / Homecoming / Catalina Flash / Seduction / Sex Shop Boogaloo / Catalina Escapes / Worms / Death Waltz Fantasy / Following Sequence / Movie Set / Climax / Going to Dinner / End Titles

Filmworks 1In the meantime better known as Filmworks, Vol. 1, this release offers the first products of soundtrack factory Zorn, Inc., which has already released 15 wildly varying and eclectic volumes in the meantime. Zorn actually mentions in the liner notes to the album that he was convinced he'd receive at least a few offers to score films after the release of The Big Gundown, yet no such thing happened. Not immediately anyway. The first one to approach him was a director named Robert Schwebber, who wanted Zorn to provide music for a 30 minute film. Given free reign to do whatever he wanted, Zorn assembled several musicians of the downtown NY scene, several of whom had also appeared on his Morricone-tribute, and set out to create something in the critical Zorn-vein by fusing elements from disposable pop culture (noise-rock, proto-rock 'n' roll, and more straightforward material fitting in the tradition of great movie scorers). With Robert Quine and Arto Lindsay, there are two terrific guitarists present and without being condescending towards the others (Anton Fier, Melvin Gibbs, etc), it's safe to say those two are the key attraction. Soon thereafter, Zorn was also asked by director Sheila McLaughlin to do a soundtrack for her movie She Must Be Seeing Things. As opposed to the six short cuts for the first one, these recordings sessions were more substantial (cuts 19-32) and also even more diverse, ranging from the percussion-heavy "Main Title," the lengthier "Seduction" (never used, because it overpowered the images too much), the Meters-tribute of "Sex Shop Boogaloo" and several dreamy sequences. With almost twice as many musicians around, these tracks are usually more dense and fully-realized, making it the most interesting section of this release. It's also interesting to see how Zorn was already sowing the seeds for later experiments, as some sections already point the way to what he'd accomplish with Naked City a few years later and confirm that the awesome reworkings of The Big Gundown weren't a fluke. The vaguely similar approach is also successful when coming up with own compositions, even though the album as a whole lacks cohesion or instantly classic themes that would put him in the Morricone/Herrmann/Mancini-league. In 1990, four years after the other two, the music for The Golden Boat (tracks 7-17) was recorded. Trying to record as many styles and genres as possible and then cutting the available material up led Zorn to change his attitude towards making film music, which went "from neurotic perfectionism to a more quirky, collaborative approach." With releases like this, Zorn was basically working outside the jazz-frame and experimenting with avant-garde compositions, but a lot of the music owes so much to jazz that his crossover tactics can be found at full-effect. Like all of his music that is laden with shifts, gimmicks, cut-up techniques and the complete lack of convention, this volume of Filmworks may strike one as too self-conscious and studied (as in the structured improvisation of the game pieces), but it also shows you a fearless musician and composer at work, willing to take risks and not afraid to fail once in a while. It's certainly not an easy listen, but then… how many of Zorn's hundred or so albums are really easy all the way through? Maybe five and this ain't one of them.

Note: A nice bonus is the inclusion of "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly" (1987), Zorn's 64 second arrangement of the Morricone-song that was potentially gonna be used in a South East Asian advertisement for Camel cigarettes. Unsurprisingly, his submission was never used.

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Elegy (1992)

6.5

Blue / Yellow / Pink / Black

ElegyAlso known as Elegy for Jean Genet, this is one of the Zorn-less Zorn albums, as the puppet master takes care of the production and probably sat in the director's chair during the recording sessions. Elegy takes up a special position among Zorn's other works, as it's quite hard to lump it in with other ones. Throughout his career, Zorn has made disorienting, challenging and genre-defying albums, but usually it's quite easy what kind of Zorn album it is: you have the soundtracks, the tributes, the jazz-core experiments, the chamber music, the game pieces, etc. This one falls somewhere between some of these, as some moments come close to chamber music, but others employ the cut up-techniques or seem to function as an imaginary soundtrack. Another option is that you consider it an experiment in aural terror and not because it's a very alienating, extreme or demanding album throughout, but because it skilfully uses mood and shifts to hook you up with a feeling of unease. There are probably people around who'd unreservedly call this "art," because of its balance of atmosphere and elusive character, but that's another discussion. Like Genet's work, Elegy succeeds in creating a tension that's as dark as it is perverse, much like some of Naked City's longer pieces. This dramatic tension is mainly created by the contrast between conventional instruments (flute, strings, guitar) that set the tone on the one hand, and the percussion, turntables and voice effects that are the disruptive factors on the other. On this album, the vocal gymnastics are taken care of by Mike Patton, who makes his entrance into the world of avant garde music (Zorn would also produce Mr. Bungle's debut album), while the guitar is handled by Trey Spruance (here referred to as "Scummy"). These four pieces - three shorted ones and one ("Pink) taking up more than half of this short album's length at 15 minutes - are quite similar in nature: the fluttering or soothing violin and flute render music that evokes surreal dream sequences, but the atmosphere that is created is usually turned into a different direction by disorienting shifts or the sudden emergence of rumbling percussion or lashing turntable bursts. Patton remains fairly restrained, usually providing panting and sighing (and occasionally gasping, choking and groaning), which is very effective if you're listening with headphones. It all looks interesting on paper, and it really is, but I doubt anyone will feel the compulsion to play this album on a regular basis. For that, there's not enough of a pay-off in store, not enough structure or general ideas to steer this operation into a certain direction. As such, it works better as a sonic experiment than a well-rounded piece, as the dark atmosphere is the only constant factor. In other words: I have no idea what the hell I'm talking about and this ultimately sounds like a few goofballs having fun in a studio where somebody switched the lights off. That barking dog towards the end of "Pink" almost made me shit my pants, though. I really should learn how to turn down the volume a bit.

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More News for Lulu (1992)


8

Blue Minor I / Hank’s Other Tune / News for Lulu / Gare Guillemins / Minor Swing / KD’s Motion/Windmill / Funk in Deep Freeze / Eastern Incident / Lotus Blossoms / Melanie / Olé / Blue Minor II / Peckin’ Time / Blues, Blues, Blues / Melody for C

More News for Lulu

More News for Lulu, like its studio predecessor News for Lulu a few years earlier, made sure that Zorn’s releases weren’t all inaccessible or far out. The studio album was a way for this peculiar trio and line-up of Zorn (alto sax), George lewis (trombone) and Bill Frisell (guitar) to pay tribute to some of Zorn’s more mainstream inspiration sources Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark, Freddie Redd and Kenny Dorham, who are all remembered as some of the best hard bop players (basically a more straightforward and often tougher variation on classic be-bop, which became almost dominant during the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s) of their era. This release, recorded in Paris and Basel, Switzerland in 1989, also features 13 tracks which already were on the studio album, but adds one composition by the legendary John Patton (who appeared on Zorn’s The Big Gundown) and one by Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg, so I guess it’s safe to say More News basically expands on that studio album (which I haven’t heard). Those who were familiar with Zorn’s previous albums and often weird composing strategies (often using card games etc, that make the songs head into unfamiliar territory) probably expected him to even turn these bop compositions into fragments of musical terrorism, but that’s not the case this time.

Although the record starts off with sputtering horn sounds from both Lewis and Zorn, while Frisell’s guitar seems to yelp in pain in the background, the song soon takes on more of a unity and when the theme is introduced the musicians are suddenly back on track and deliver a quite faithful (I presume) and straightforward rendition of one of pianist Clark’s best-known compositions. It’s hard to describe the sound of the music on this album, because neither of these musicians seems to play his instrument in a conventional way. Zorn alternates between blowing straightforward and creating a certain swing while he also repeatedly interrupts himself and the others with squeals and atonal noises, while Lewis plays similar lines along, or ventures into a second theme of his own, and Frisell – with his clean and open sound that more than often reminds of Sonny Sharrock’s beautifully textured guitar parts – does his own thing. During the lovely intro of “Hank’s Other Tune,” for instance, the unique pedal-manipulated sound of Frisell subtly introduces, after making a few shimmering detours, the theme and then the horns take over, leaving Frisell with his own dreamy soundscapes. It’s particularly interesting, though, to hear how Frisell’s seemingly random guitar playing does fit in with the music, while it also succeeds in replacing a conventional rhythm section (drums and bass). Because no matter how limited this line-up may sound at first hearing, they do succeed in making the music swing, twist and turn. Just listen to the nervous noir theme of Mengelberg’s “Gare Guillemins,” which will make you tap your foot anyway, or Dorham’s “KD Motion” that suddenly has Frisell playing angular lines while Zorn and Lewis first play staccato notes and then try to outdo each other with squeezing out the weirdest noises, after which it all comes together again, of course, in a mesmerizing finale. Other personal favorites are the Asian-tinged “Lotus Blossom” during which Zorn’s sax has the loveliest tone, and the joyful sounding Clark-composition “Melody for C.” In accordance with the retro-ish cover art featuring several pictures of Louise (“Lulu”) Brooks, a famous movie star in the late ‘20’s and early ‘30’s, a few of the songs (“Melanie,” “Blue Minor I & II,” “Blues, Blues, Blues”) ooze out the sound and atmosphere of pre-war jazz clubs, where swinging music was consumed along with illegal alcohol and too much nicotine. More News for Lulu still isn’t your average bop tribute, because the horns honk and squeal a bit too often to be considered as truly faithful to hard bop, and Frisell’s guitar antics are probably not something a snobbish jazz buff will dig, but that was never the intention anyway. Amidst the edgy improvisation are also instances to be found of interestingly updated jazz that’s quite accessible, performed by a trio that succeeds in combining their personal style and the basic ingredients from the past.

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John Zorn’s Cobra Live at the Knitting Factory (1992)


2

Hemachatus Haemachatus / Naja Naja Atra / Many-Banded Krait / Taipan / D. Popylepis / Lampropeltis Doliata Syspila / Boomslang / Maticora Intestinalis / Acanthopis Antarcticus / Hydrophiidae / Ngu Sam Liem / Ophiophagus Hannah / Boulengerina / Laticauda Laticauda

Cobra Live at the Knitting Factory

The first Cobra-album, released in 1986 (an album I’ve never even seen in the stores), is often considered the definitive one of John Zorn’s game piece albums besides earlier efforts such as Archery). He’d already developed the idea in the ‘70’s as a means to explore collective improvisation that somehow was propelled in a certain direction by the ‘director’ or organizer of the piece. The direction was given by a set of cards that told the musicians to play/improvise in a certain style and (I think) also to what degree of intensity and freedom. As a result, many of these performances ended up in Stockhausen-like call-and-response-pieces that pasted seemingly unconnected sections to each other with hairpin turns in style. A switch from be-bop to neo-classical was not only common, it was encouraged, so that the result often was a impenetrable cacophony of sound that hindered its own sense of structure from the get-go. It sounds like an idea with only a future in avant-garde music, but allegedly, Brian Eno and David Bowie (admittedly, they’re about the closest mainstream rock ever got to the avant-garde) used a similar technique to develop music and ideas for Bowie’s post-modern comeback album Outside in 1995. The recordings of these ‘songs’, however, happened live over the course of a year at New York’s hotbed of knotty and experimental music, The Knitting Factory.

All of the fourteen cuts are tributes to a certain kind of cobra (for instance the “Boulengerina” (“These cobras almost always live in shallow water and feed on nothing but fishes”) or the “Hemachatus Haemachatus” (“African, spits venom, has keeled scales and bears up to 60 live young”) and have a different line-up. While the instruments used aren’t that remarkable, it’s the combinations that are used that make it so awkward. On “Boomslang,” for instance, it ranges from string bass, bass clarinet and drums to electric harp, mouth organ and samplers. In fact, the sampler-element is a pretty constant factor throughout the recordings, often handled by the prodigious David Shea. Even though the performances sound arbitrary, the array of musicians involved is quite amazing, from trombone player Curtis Fowlkes, guitarist Marc Ribot and clarinettist David Krakauer to even Soul Coughing’s M. Doughty and the late Jeff Buckey, who’d always hung around with less mainstream musicians (he’d been in an experimental band called Gods & Monsters with former Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas). Anyway, to keep it short, this album is almost comparable to aural torture. It’s not that the majority is really loud or abrasive – in a way, Spy vs. Spy and several Naked City albums raise the cruelty level considerably higher – but it’s by far the most directionless and messy of all of Zorn’s albums that I’ve heard. Notwithstanding the fact that several cuts have quiet passages or parts that make ‘sense’, the majority seems just an endless series of 180° turns. I know that music shouldn’t always meet the listener’s expectations, but since this specific kind of music was designed to avoid traditional rules, it’s also bound to fail miserably once in a while, and most of the performances captured here just couldn’t hold my interest. Listen to a guy holler the same undecipherable “DDDHHHAAAAAAA” (“Taipan”) over and over again is not interesting, neither is it when a bunch of vocalists try to mimic barking dogs or the screaming of nuclear war victims (“D. Popylepis”). Some quieter sections (especially those with soprano Donna Jewell) are a bit reminiscing of Zorn’s deconstruction of Ennio Morricone’s music on The Big Gundown, but the overall impression is one of random chaos. As a “happening”, live on stage, this is probably exciting and fun to watch, but sitting on my chair in Brussels, this little shiny disc is a failure. If this is your first acquaintance with Zorn’s multifaceted universe, chances are you’ll never visit it again and therefore it only can serve as a treat for those who were there, seriously dedicated fans (the booklet’s of Zorn’s albums are always very stylish) or collectors of extreme music. Anyway, avoid at all cost if you’re not one of those.

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Kristallnacht (1993)


7

Shtetl (Ghetto Life) / Never Again / Gahelet (Embers) / Tikkun (Rectification) / Tzfia (Looking Ahead) / Barzel (Iron Fist) / Gariin (Nucleus – The New Settlement)

Kristallnacht

One of the first releases of the so-called Radical Jewish Culture-series, Kristallnacht is one of Zorn’s earliest and most popular explorations of Jewish music and history, released one year before the debut by the Masada quartet, with which he coupled his Jewish musical roots with the legacy of groundbreaking musicians/composers such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, etc. Kristallnacht is an attempt at a musical recreation of one of the darkest chapters of the Nazi reign, with music ranging from fairly conventional roots music to extreme near-industrial chaos. Like on many other of his RJC-releases, the majority of the musicians are Jewish as well, and several of ‘em were or would become important musicians, like Anthony Coleman (keyboards), Mark Ribot (guitar), Mark Feldman (violin), David Krakauer (clarinet). Not unlike The Big Gundown nearly ten years earlier, Kristallnacht is hard to classify: there are instances of jazz, neo-classical, and Jewish Klezmer thrown together, while several sections also have a majestic cinematographic quality that permeates lots of Zorn’s ambitious compositions. Despite the presence of several conventional and flat-out beautiful sections, the wilfully disruptive nature of the compositions (with violins screeching, walls of noises or the addition of Nazi speeches) creates an unsettling atmosphere that demands more than average effort from the listener, who’s invited to enjoy beauty and forced to experience horror as well.

Although I’m not nearly a specialist (I can only speak of this in clichés, I’m afraid), I’ve have always thought that the most beautiful Klezmer music, like “Shtetl (Ghetto Life),” bears the marks of history. The trumpet and clarinet contributions in that song express a majestic beauty that contains both serenity and the weight of history, but then suddenly they’re also contrasted with the voice of a German leader. To further express the horror of the Kristallnacht (read about it if you don’t know what I’m referring to), tracks like “Never Again” and “Barzel” consist of nothing but the noise of shattering glass, screeching feedback and all other kinds of barely audible backgrounds noises. More a statement (an invitation to share the pain?) than actual compositions, these “songs” purposely alienate the listener by not offering any musical clue, and even more insightful is Zorn’s note: “Never Again contains high frequency extremes at the limits of human hearing & beyond, which may cause nausea, headaches & ringing in the ears. Prolonged or repeated listenings is not advisable as it may result in temporary or permanent ear damage”. However, the album offers more than the 11-minute aural torture of the previous song. The almost inaudible “Gahelet” is almost shocking in its deafening silence after the uncompromising torture. “Tzfia” and album closer “Gariin” somehow combine the extremes of both “Shtetl” and “Never Again,” as sweeping moments of melancholy are alternated with sudden instances of hammering keyboards, guitar feedback or terrifying samples of human misery. Zorn has never aimed at major popularity, preferring total independence above all, and this is what makes an album like Kristallnacht possible. I gotta be honest about this: I’ve listened to noisy tracks only twice, because I’m not a masochist. By consequence I do have respect for the uncompromising way in which Zorn makes the sheer horror of history almost “touchable” (or: audible), but of course it’s a track any listener will skip after a few times. Luckily there are several tracks in which he finds a much more impressive and bearable balance between disturbing noise and affecting beauty, a combination that’s characteristic of several of his releases. Or maybe it’s about disturbing beauty and affecting noise, I’m not entirely sure.

Note: as I write this, wearing headphones, my ears are indeed ringing. No kidding.

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Masada, Vol. 1 : Alef (1994)


9

Jair / Bith Aneth / Tzofeh / Ashnah / Tahah / Kanah / Delin / Janohah / Zebdi / Idalah-Abal / Zelah

Masada Vol. 1 Alef

One of his most popular projects, the Masada bands and releases are explorations of Zorn's Jewish roots. There are several incarnations, such a chamber ensemble (usually with a line-up of about a dozen people), an “Electric Masada” (usually with Marc Ribot and members of Medeski, Martin & Wood), the ever-changing line-ups during live gigs (featuring musicians such as Bill Frisell, Erik Friendlander or Anthony Coleman – all respected solo artists themselves), and finally the Masada Quartet featured here. Now, I’m not much of a jazz theorist, nor am I a specialist on Jewish heritage, but as I understood it, Zorn wants to bridge the gap between the jazz tradition, several kinds of East-European folk music and Klezmer music, and all this while paying respect to the tradition of Cultural Zionism (all of the Masada albums are dedicated to Asher Ginzberg, the founding father of that ‘movement’). The Quartet (Zorn – alto sax, Dave Douglas – trumpet, Greg Cohen – bass, Joey Baron – drums) is obviously inspired by the classic Ornette Coleman Quartet with the same instrumentation (with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins). Now, Zorn had already paid respect to Coleman with the thrash-jazz tribute of Spy Vs. Spy, but this is something entirely different. It’s certainly not as alienating as said project, but I can imagine this combination of cutting edge-jazz with influences from Klezmer, folk and avant-garde can be hard to take. Hell, I’m still confused by it myself.

The quartet churns out an immense variety of tunes, ranging from intensely sad ballads, to enjoyable mid-tempo faux-swing, to hectic freak-outs. One thing’s sure: if these guys step on the gas pedal, you’re in for a busy affair. As is to be expected, this is a very solo-oriented style of jazz, but whereas lots of jazz outfits regard these moments as the opportunity for the soloist to shine and for the rest of band to take it slowly, the tension in this outfit often remains very high, with two or more musicians giving their all simultaneously. Listen to “Jair,” for instance, where trumpet player Douglas suddenly reappears when Zorn’s solo is getting near-chaotic, reintroduces a modification of the intro and starts his own solo from there. The album’s really brimful of overwhelming moments like that, whether it’s during the exciting (and usually shorter) adrenaline bursts like “Delin, “Zebri” and also “Jair,” or during stretched out compositions like “Kanah” and the 10 minutes of “Janohah.” It’s hard to pick out a few highlights, but the seductive “Bith Aneth,” which creates a laidback atmosphere while the rhythm section lays down this calm groove over which Douglas and Zorn spread out their dosed solos, is certainly one. “Tahah,” a concert favorite, and “Tzofeh” are probably some of the most accessible tracks, featuring a more prominent and straightforward rhythm. Especially during the latter Baron keeps up a hard-hitting rhythm, while Douglas and Zorn trade solos and Baron ultimately gets the honor to shine at the end with some great soloing as well.

The one composition that justifies the purchase of this album, however, and the one track that after dozens of listens still makes the hairs on my entire body rise (basically one of the most touching pieces of music I ever heard - let that be clear) is the incredible ballad “Idalah-Abal.” Gently introduced by Cohen and Baron, it sounds like sad mourning when Zorn and Douglas simultaneously play the key melody. While Douglas calmly elaborates on this melody, Zorn makes his sax cry, weep and wail with an almost unbearable emotion. The song keeps up its graceful elegance to the end and is a transcendental moment of sheer beauty even they could rarely improve upon. It’s baffling that this quartet had been playing for only half a year at the time of this recording, and with the high quality of this release in mind it’s even more astonishing to hear that on that recording day, they recorded the music that would fill the first four volumes (three full-lengths and an EP) in a series of ten releases. Like I said above, I’m a poor theorist, but I quickly learned that – in order to be able to grasp the genre and the place of an artist/band in the grand overview – I should listen, listen, listen and then listen some more. And what my ears are telling me after many, many listens is that the Masada Quartet belongs up there with the greatest: the Coleman Quartet, the classic early ‘60’s Coltrane Quartet and the late ‘50’s Miles Davis Quintet.

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First Recordings 1973 (1995)

2

Mikhail Zoetrope, Acts 1-3 / Conquest of Mexico, Parts 1-3 / Wind Ko/La / Automata Of Al-Jazari / Variations on a Theme by Albert Ayler

First RecordingsA portrait of the artist as a young genius, goofball or radical experimentalist, depending on your point of view. In the liner notes to this release, Zorn lists a bunch of composers and musicians that made an impact on him, and several of these would remain Zorn's prime influences throughout his output of the past two and a half decades. Mainly pursuing a direction in musique concrète, the bulk of the material here seems to be concerned with pure and immediate sounds, or offering a lexicon of the possible 'new' sounds. While Zorn had been amazed by the extraordinary non-conformity of Anthony Braxton and Albert Ayler, who made you wonder whether what they were doing could still be considered jazz or, and especially in Braxton's case, something more abstract hovering in between the jazz tradition, modern classical and avant garde-experiments. The three-parted "Mikhail Zoetrope" (running more than three quarters of an hour) is in Zorn' own words "the craziest piece I've ever written." Those who've heard some of his more challenging works know what that implies: it's batshit insane. When discussing the brief "Wind Ko/La," Zorn reveals it's probably no surprise that his mother put him under observation at a psychiatric clinic from age 8 to 16. His mother must've been quite a tolerant person, as most other parents would undoubtedly hire an exorcist. "Zoetrope" (1974) basically consists of two improvisational performances, one in the right and one in the left channel. Method of operation: "(…) sitting on the floor surrounded by toy percussion, glasses, pots and pans, a cassette player, turntable, TV set, vacuum cleaner and my soprano saxophone." The result: a total cacophony, the sound of spitting, artificial farts, random yelling, tinkering, tinkling, bellowing, the shrieks of anguished chimpanzees, paper being folded and scrambled, music and TV in the background, etc. It's silly, confrontational and nerve-wrecking at the same time. The grammar of music as you know it is entirely disbanded, it's an anarchic collage of sounds (albeit one that was recorded in two long stretches, not pasted together), dismissing all notions of meter, rhythm, melody and harmony. During some instances, it hints at the dynamic madness of Carl Stalling's cartoon music, but for the most part, it's a pure mess that probably works fine as a concept (if you're into this stuff), but is simply un-listenable and worthless as "music." The fifteen minutes of the suite "Conquest of Mexico" (divided into "Warning Signs," "Confession" and "Convulsions/Abdication") was recorded in 1973 for a happening while Zorn was at college in St. Louis. In a live context, the soundtrack was augmented by guitars, sax, keyboards, drums and harmonica, but here electronic hisses, hums and treated percussion and piano sounds are dominant. It's less confrontational and random than "Zoetrope," yet obviously the work of a student obsessed with music theory. It ends up like the soundtrack to an arthouse sci-fi movie - I imagine something between THX 1138 and Zardoz would be perfect. The final three pieces were also recorded in 1973 and 1974, but are only interesting for Zorn scholars: the brief "Automata Al-Jazari" in which genres are switched bar by bar already hints at Naked City's miniature music dictionary "Speedfreaks," while the Ayler-tribute is a kind of drone with haunting sax parts during the first half, while the latter mainly expands on the ideas of "Conquest of Mexico." It's occasionally interesting to hear Zorn the adolescent at work, while some of the pieces show that his more fleshed-out efforts from a decade later were already waiting to pop up from below the surface. However, more than anything else, the album contains almost 80 minutes of half-assed experiments by a young artist playing with radical ideas and struggling to find an identity, yet failing to make a lasting impression. As such, the release of First Recordings 1973 is a vanity project, unless you're willing to go along, in which case it might be good for a few laughs (as Zorn suggests). File under "sounds for people that are fed up with music."

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Live, Vol. 1 - Knitting Factory 1989 (2002)

8.5

Batman / Latin Quarter / You Will Be Shot / Shot in the Dark / Skate Key / Erotico / Snagglepuss / I Want to Live / New York Flattop Box / Inside Straight / Chinatown / Igneous Ejaculation / Ujaku / Blood Duster / Hammerhead / Speedball / Obeah Man / Den of Sins / Demon Sanctuary / The Way I Feel

Live Vol. 1 - Knitting Factory 1989Convoluted, tortuous, bizarre and demanding, Naked City's music feels like a rollercoaster-ride in an amusement park for perverse minds that are fed-up with Disney, spoon-fed revisions of the same old and other prefab excursions in predictability. It was not only an outlet for Zorn's outrage and frustration - he's often said that the in-your-face-brutality of the band was a way of dealing with certain personal matters and venting anger - but also the postmodern ethic of genre-bending and cut 'n' paste tactics taken to an extreme. It all wouldn't have been half as interesting if the band hadn't been such a gathering of jazz monsters. With all the attention that's been paid to Zorn as a composer/innovator/style rapist, his enormous versatility as a sax player sometimes gets lost, and the band he surrounded himself with was equally impressive, ranging from Frisell's awesome electric menagerie, avant-veteran Frith (an inspired guitar player as well) and NYC knuckleheads Horvitz and Baron. Like Naked City, the album, this live registration is fairly accessible, certainly when compared to later releases such as Grand Guignol or the humour-less assault of the Painkiller-releases. The sound is rather clean and slick and because Frisell's guitar tone is more often a smooth delay-blanket than a weapon to smack you on the head with, the album is quite digestible to today's standards. Of course, the main reason for this is the absence of one man freak show Yamatsuka Eye, the man of a thousand spine-tingling screams, shrieks, roars and hisses. While the music already the potential to offend, Eye was the one who took Zorn's vision to a full closure. In the liner notes (skimpy, skimpy, skimpy), there's no reason given for his absence, it doesn't mention whether the live show was recorded before the studio album either, so maybe Eye wasn't part of the band yet. However, the set list basically follows the studio album rather faithfully: out of these 20 songs, 17 are also on Naked City and they're even grouped similarly, with an alternation of straightforward and jazzrock-oriented material in the beginning and a focus on the hardcore stuff on towards the end. There's no "The Sicilian Clan," but instead you get a magnificent interpretation of Morricone's "Erotico," which Zorn already dissected to fantastic results on The Big Gundown with the help of Shelley Hirsch and her sensual moans. Other than that, there are still several songs that never cease to crack me up, like the encyclopaedic thrash of "Snagglepuss," the country-hardcore of "New York Flattop Box" and an understated, whisper-like version of "Chinatown" that's followed by the band's thrash jazz desertstorm: 8 songs in five minutes. Squeals, precision bombings, sonic shrapnels, howls and buzzes, stop & start dynamics, drill sergeant mercilessness, grotesque caricatures. Funny and occasionally jaw-dropping, even though Eye's persona would've taken these to an even more insane level. His absence makes Live, Vol. 1 more accessible and perhaps the ideal introduction to Naked City, but it still feels there's something missing during the songs that demand his insanity (but perhaps he'll be featured on a future Vol. 2?). It's also a bit of a pity there's no talk between the songs (except after "Demon Sanctuary," when Zorn 'introduces' the band), no interaction with the public or explanation about the why and how of the band and the music, but I guess it all speaks for itself. A nice bonus comes in the way of the final track, Big John Patton's "The Way I Feel," a fine straightforward jazz performance and an ideal showcase for Horvitz and - especially - Frisell, who wraps up the show with a heart-stopping performance. Swell!

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