The Free Jazz Collective
By Martin Schray
In the 1980s and early 90s I was working in a small record store and I still remember when the salesman of the record company presented a new album by John Zorn, a musician my boss and I vaguely knew from his Nonesuch albums The Big Gundown, a tribute to the music of Ennio Morricone, Spy vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman and Spillane, a #crude style mix between off-the-wall avant-garde jazz, blues (one track features guitarist Albert Collins) and new classical music (one composition was written for the Kronos Quartet). The salesman had a promo copy with him and we listened … and were confused. We expected a jazz album but what kind of music was this? Many tracks were extremely short (around one minute). Naked City, the name of the album, was speed metal, country, swing, punk, easy listening, surf sound and even more. Sometimes all the genres could be found in one track (e.g. in “Saigon Pickup“). Listening offhand we thought that the music consisted of samples, that it was hardly possible to play such music live. The band was on tour in Germany a bit later, we went there and of course they could. In fact, they were even more spectacular.
Naked City (the band) featured a phenomenal concentration of extraordinary musicianship from New York’s downtown experimental music scene, including John Zorn on saxophone, Bill Frisell (guitar), Wayne Horvitz (keyboards), Fred Frith (bass), and Joey Baron (drums). Later they were augmented by The Boredom’s frontman Yamatsuka Eye on voice. The band released seven completely different albums in three years (1990 - 1993) before they split - and a posthumous live album (2002).
As a fan of their complete works I was excited when I saw that there was a new live album from 1988, two years before the first official release of the band. Live in Quebec 1988 is a CBCFM Radio recording consisting of performances at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec. The set includes previously unreleased cover versions of the Beach Boys, Ornette Coleman, Henry Mancini, and Bernard Herrmann. From this concert four tracks made it on the actual debut, namely “Snagglepuss“, “The Sicilian Clan“, “Batman“ and “James Bond“. Many of the tracks could also have been on Zorn’s Filmworks series, however one gets an impression where the Naked City concept started from before it became the top notch post-modern project it was later on. Their typical collage-like genre mix is discernible but not yet as sophisticated as on their debut. It seems that they haven’t really decided which way to go with their approach. Their cover of the Beach Boys classic “Surfer Girl“ is rather reminiscent of Bill Frisell’s version on his Guitar in the Space Age! album from 2014. Then again, apart from being an interesting back link to the beginnings of the project the album contains excellent pieces, mainly John Zorn’s original compositions.
“Snagglepuss“, named after the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character, is already a signature piece, but more than twice as long as the studio version two years later, it’s exuberant and you can feel the fun the band seems to have. The same goes for “Reanimator“, “Den of Sins“, and “Graveyard Shift“, all breathing the punk spirit and the fast-change tendency inspired in part by Carl Stalling, the latter piece even processing funk and dub elements. Another outstanding track is Big John Patton’s “The Way I Feel“ (Naked City changed the title to “The Way It Feels“). The band doubles the speed, puts Wayne Horwitz’s piano to the fore and stretches the dramatic solos to breaking-point.
Unfortunately, it’s very disturbing that the CD contains the complete radio show including comments of the radio announcer, which is awkward (even in enchanting French). Wasn’t it possible to cut them out? Also, the sound could be better, especially the guitar sounds tinny. Last but not least there’s a bit too much background noise. That’s the reason for the rather conservative rating.
Watch the band on top of their art in 1992 with Yamatsuka Eye:
Fri Oct 05 06:00:00 CEST 2018