Jazz Institute of Chicago

John Zorn

John Zorn
by Stuart Nicholson

Naked City
Elektra Nonesuch 979238-2.
John Zorn (alt); Bill Frisell (g); Wayne Horvitz (key); Fred Frith (b); Joey Baron (d); Yamatsuka Eye (v).
New York, 1989.

Batman. The Sicilian clan. You will be shot. Latin quarter. A shot in the dark. Reanimator. Snagglepuss. I want to live. Lonley woman.
Ingeneous ejeculation. 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. Graveyad shift. Inside straight.

By the mid-1990s, Zorn was celebrated as a conceptualist, a composer of both jazz and classical music(in particular his work for the Kronos Quartet(and as bandleader/saxophonist of a bewildering range of ensembles.) Yet such celebrity, which was still by no means universal within jazz, had been hard earned.

The most famous of that loose confederation of musicians that had become known as the 'Downtown' music scene in New York City, Zorn's early experiments in sound such as blowing saxophone mouthpieces in buckets of water to produce duck calls prompted what he would call 'unspeakable abuse' from critics, who even doubted whether he could play a saxophone. He could of course. While studying music at Webster College, St. Louis, he once wrote a thesis on the cartoon music of Carl. W. Stallings whom he considered created the 'great avant garde music of the 1940s' and went on to study composition at the UN School in Manhattan under Leonardo Balada.

However, he had come under the influence of the Black Artists Group while in St. Louis, in particular Oliver Lake, who had taught at his college and whom he credited for helping him break free of the classical canon and the influence of composers he had been studying that included Elliot Carter, Charles Ives, Edgard Varése, John Cage and Stockhausen. Inspired by the work of Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and Leo Smith he began exploring the 'sound makers' of the 1960s New Thing (Ayler, Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.)

During a ferocious period of experimentation that followed, Zorn began to formulate his ideas on composition and his approach to improvisation, the latter coloured by his study of Stravinsky, Webern and Varése alongside that of Stalling. What he seemed to be working towards was processes by which he decentred the process of improvisation and composition by abrupt segue.

This began to emerge in 'game' pieces such as "Cobra", "Hsü Feng", and "Ruan Lingyu"; 'narrative' pieces like "Hue Die" or "Qúê Trân"; and 'file card' compositions which were constructed in time, moment by moment, like "Godard" and "Forbidden Fruit".

The collision of ideas through abrupt segue that became a characteristic of Zorn's work had its roots in his love of Stalling's music, "Cartoon music is a very strong influence in the way I put together the disparate elements of my pieces," he explained. "Stravinsky and Carl Stalling, who was the composer responsible for the soundtracks of the great Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1940s, were successful at that. Their mastery of block structure completely changed the way I see the world."[i]

After a myriad of self-produced solo and concept albums on obscure and almost impossible to find labels, Zorn's identity as both a soloist and a composer was beginning to coalesce. In particular it was the post-modernistic zeal with which his compositions were ushering completely new sounds into jazz: blues, surf guitars, film noir moods, country music and short, sharp shocks of rebarbative noise followed one another in streams of vivid fleeting images. Sometimes the references could reach information overload in a provocative representation of late 20th century life.

Zorn likened this process of abrupt segue, something he called 'jump cuts', to channel zapping on television, a reflection of modern youth's compressed attention span. It was post-modernism with a vengeance, and nothing like it had been heard in jazz before.

Post-modernism was a term first applied to architecture that soon found wider application in the arts. Swimming in the currents of disunity and fragmentation—Niezsche especially—emphasising the chaos of modern life and its intractability before modern thought, post modern cultural artifacts are, by virtue of the eclecticism of their conception and the anarchy of their subject matter, immensely varied.

However, collage, pioneered by modernists, is a technique that post-modernism has made its own, a juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous elements creating a matrix of internal relations where there is never one fixed configuration thus destroying the traditional organic unity of a work of art.

In literature, a similar practise occurs in the superimposition of different worlds in many post-modern novels while in jazz, the post-modern jazz musician expropriated and transformed practices, fragments and 'signifiers' of different, sometimes alien, musics and cultures and relocated them within their own expressionism. In particular, post-modernism did not try and legitimise itself by reference to the past (a feature of the music of the hard bop revival in the 1980s and '90s.)

Post-modernism produced a myriad of highly personal styles and innovations which did not accede to commodification in the way the specific characteristics of previous styles of jazz had lent themselves to. Marketing strategies as much as canon formation gather around unified concepts such as 'New Orleans', 'Chicago', 'Swing', 'Bop', 'Cool' or 'West Coast', 'Hard Bop', 'Free', 'Jazz-Rock' and so on.

The sheer stylistic diversity of post-modernism meant that collectively, it resisted convienient categorisation so its impact was restricted to the recognition an individual player might achieve, rather than the collective force a community of similarly orientated and competing artists who had produced a single coherent style might generate, as had happened in the past. Then, as each new 'style' emerged, it allowed for the valorising of one artist over another and these competing claims of 'greatness' have traditionally formed the music's empowerment over fans and historians alike.

In contrast, the post-modern proposition was that the essentially teleological model of coherent evolution had now passed to a diversity of individual contributors who refused to congregate around the security of established canons, but instead conceived and performed their own often highly individual interpretations of jazz drawing on a variety of sources from beyond the music.

It was the coruscating juxtaposition of so many references, Information Age soundbytes from alien cultures decontexulized by juxtaposition, that created something new. Above all, it was the speed and variety of references that sped by in competing clamour; it was if, as The New York Times put it, "Someone [was] spinning a radio dial across...soundtrack themes, bluesy hard bop, speedy hardcore, metallic funk, squealing free jazz, metallic funk and move music."[ii]

While the post-modern situation might have meant the absence of the emergence of a single dominant style so essential for music marketing and media valorisation, the possibilities it offered the individual performer by not being locked into conventions of expectation imposed by stylistic precedent were boundless. It was a situation that produced some of the most creative music in jazz since the early 1970s.

With the trend towards acedemicism producing revivalism in the 1980s and '90s, Zorn suddenly found himself among those at the forefront of jazz, his bold experiments, like the great experimenters in jazz before them, forcing the establishment to throw up their arms and demand, "Is this jazz???"

To answer such an apparently rhetorical question, Michael Dorf's 'What Is Jazz?' concert series began in 1988 alongside the JVC New York Jazz Festival in protest at the culture of conservatism that had overtaken jazz.

Dorf ran New York's Knitting Factory (to all intents and purposes the latter-day Minton's of contemporary jazz) and if by 1996 he had made his point with the What Is Jazz? Festival, The New York Times reporting that, "Every year the What Is Jazz? Festival has taken on weight, while the JVC Jazz Festival has become increasingly irrelevant,"[iii], general acceptance of the post modern situation in jazz was less widespread, the conservative mainstream remaining ascendant.

Zorn was one of the first artists to be hired by Dorf when he opened the Knitting Factory in February 1987 at its original location at 47 East Houston Street in New York City, (in 1994 it moved to 74 Leonard Street) and was responsible for the first line outside its doors.

By then his early notoriety had given way to a kind of respectability with his album The Big Gundown (+Nonesuch/Icon [A] 7559-79139-2) from 1985, featuring boldly reworked move themes by spaghetti-Western composer Ennio Morricone being voted a Top Ten Pop Record of 1986 by The New York Times. It was followed by Spillane (Elektra Nonesuch [A] 979172-1) in 1987, a homage to the B-movie genre in general and the Mike Hammer character in particular that was originally recorded under the working title of Once Upon a Time in East Village.

With this album, Zorn claimed a new legitimacy for the Downtown experimenters. The composition "Two lane highway", in essence a mini 'concerto', Ellington style, for the bluesman Albert Collins was shaped by Zorn for Collins to reveal the range of his performing persona in the manner of a "Concerto for Cootie".

The central exhibit, however, was the title track which explored the moody soundtracks associated with the film noir, complete with programmatic episodes that suggest the to-and-fro of windscreen wipers, car chases and other elements associated with the classic gumshoe following up a lead. A piece lasting 25 minutes, it included 60 'jump cuts' or abrupt segues into contrasting moods.

With Naked City Zorn pared down the sweeping extravaganza of Spillane to its essence. The album is dotted with nine musical fragments of ferocious ear-slaughter (between eight and 43 seconds), an affirmation of the New Thing 'sound makers' of the 1960s; fragments that in refusing to yield to conventional meaning are experienced as a shock by the listener.

These compositions—short bursts of 'sound'— such as "Obeah Man", "Ujaku", "Fuck the facts" and "Speedball" and longer compositions such as "Saigon Pickup" or "Inside Straight" are analogous to another aspect of post-modernism—time-space compression.

The frenetic writings of Baudrillard and Virilio are analogous in literature, in the way they replicate time-space compression with their own flamboyant rhetoric, or the cinema's use of time-space compression in Blade Runner, a science fiction film with post-modern themes, portraying the conflict of people living in different time scales, seeing and experiencing the world very differently as a result.

Time-space compression is what Zorn achieves with his own 'noisy' or 'flamboyant' bursts of unfathomable sound ( how long do they last? Is it seconds or minutes or even hours?)

In contrast, jump cutting is used to programmatic ends in "Latin Quarter", bringing to mind Ellington's description of what he was trying to portray in "Harlem Air Shaft". "You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love, you hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio, an airshaft is one great loudspeaker."[iv]

It is as if Zorn is trying to portray similar images during a walk through the Latin Quarter, capturing the competing sounds as you walk past a restaurant, a deli, a liquor store.

"Lonely Woman" engages directly with the post-modernist techniques of superimposition of different worlds that bear no relation to one another, here the bass line from the Henry Mancini theme for the TV series Peter Gunn is 'superimposed', and at the end he 'superimposes' the theme from a world far removed from Coleman's acoustic period on Contemporary Records from which "Lonely Woman" is taken (Coleman's electric period and the theme from Dancing in Your Head.)

These pieces rub shoulders with movie themes interpreted with contrasting reverence as art comfortably co-exists with kitsch. As Andreas Huyssen has pointed out, this was typical of what happened in certain films of the 1970s, such as the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, when "artists increasingly drew on popular or mass cultural forms and genres, overlaying them with modernist and/or avant gardist strategies."[v] A point not lost on Zorn, the avid movie buff.

Included were Morricone's "The Sicilian Clan" from The Godfather, Henry Mancini's "A Shot in the Dark" from the comedy film starring Peter Sellers, Johnny Mandel's "I Want to Live!" from the Oscar-winning Robert Wise film, Jerry Goldsmith's "Chinatown" (a latter day film noir), John Barry's "The James Bond Theme" and Georges Delerue's "Contempt" from the classic 1964 Italian film of the same name directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

Zorn's own Batman theme spurns the grand narrative of Spillane with its simplified rhetorical representation of TV culture and attempts to carve out one world, a favourite world, from an infinity of possible worlds that are daily shown on television.

When Zorn formed the group for an engagement at the Knitting Factory in the summer of 1989, the highly professional way in which he developed a repertoire for the band astounded club owner Michael Dorf, "The five days and nights Naked City played and rehearsed were amazing," he said. "John came in at 10am and passed out a booklet of songs he had prepared for everyone. By 8pm the group had learned 25 songs and played them for a standing room only crowd in our new [performance] space. The next morning the band came in, John gave them 15 new songs and by showtime they had those down and played some of the old material. This went on for each day. In five days they had a whole repertory and went on a European tour as if they had been together for years."[vi]

The seeming ease with which the band assembled their repertoire is perhaps less surprising when the musicians Zorn chose are examined a little closer. Bill Frisell had studied music at the University of Northern Colorado and at Berklee College and had become involved in the European improvised music scene, recording with Eberhard Weber and as a member of Jan Garbarek's group for the ECM label, where he subsequently made his debut as a leader on records, cutting three albums for the label. Through a recommendation from his former tutor at Berklee, Pat Metheny, Frisell joined an ensemble led by drummer Paul Motian in 1980, forming an enduring relationship that lasted well into the 1990s while at the same time developing a solo career.

Keyboardist Wayne Horvitz was also a leader in his own right, recording two classic 'Downtown' albums: This New Generation (+Elektra Musician [A] 960759-2) from 1987 and Bring Yr Camera (+Elektra Musician [A] 960799-2) from 1988 with his group The President. He was also co-leader, along with his wife Robin Holcomb, of the New York Composers Orchestra.

Bassist Fred Frith was formerly with the experimental/avant garde rock group Henry Cow, while Joey Baron was a ubiquitous figure on the 'Downtown' scene (a member of Bill Frisell's band, and bands led by Hank Roberts, Tim Berne and with his own ensembles.) His playing credits included work with the Toshiko Akyoshi Big Band, Carmen McRae, Dizzy Gillespie and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Post-modernism sees itself for the most part as a wilful and chaotic movement attempting to overcome the supposed ills of modernism either by caricaturing it or isolating aspects of it. Possibly it could be argued that postmodernism takes things too far, its emphasis on the text rather than the work, its preference for aesthetics over ethics, its often wilful deconstruction.

This argument maybe given force by subsequent Naked City albums; Heretic (+Avant [J] 001), Radio (+Avant [J] 003) and the unsuccessful Absinthe (+Avant [J] 004) that add little to the original, startling debut that suggested we should revel in the fragmentation as a part of the modern world. But at least in this, Zorn, and, indeed, the Downtown movement, could be said to be reflecting the contemporary mileau in which they operated more accurately than most musicians in jazz, who were concerned with celebrating the past and actually masking or concealing developments in the present through their reduction of jazz to a repertoire function.

Jazz is, after all, a modernist music, and in modernism the present is only valid in terms of the potentialities of the future. Change, therefore is not only inevitable, it is essential. And it is perhaps here the most telling argument in favour of Zorn's work is to be found, in that all jazz is a reflection of its times because contemporary culture has always created the context from which we extract meaning from the music since culture does not operate in isolation from society.

From that standpoint, every age is judged to aspire to cultural maturity, not by being, but by becoming. If, then, the only thing certain about post-modernism is uncertainty, then we should pay attention to the social forces that produced such a condition, for these are the forces that shaped Zorn's music.

i. Insert notes John Zorn: Spillane (Elektra Nonesuch [A] 979172-1).
ii. The New York Times, 27 February 1989.
iii. The New York Times, 16 June 1996.
iv. Liner notes, At His Very Best: Duke Ellington and his Orchestra (RCA Victor RD27133).
v. After the Great Divide by Andreas Huyssen (Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1986) pp 101.
vi. Knitting Music by Michael Dorf (Knitting Factory Works, New York 1992) pp 45.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.


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