Naked City, the demented, frenetic brainchild of saxophone maestro John Zorn (and the second scariest saxophone player I can think of- I will write about the first later), is a jazz band like no other, melding jazz-fusion, noise, surf, doo-wop, and whatever else you want, often over the course of thirty seconds. They released a handful of albums over the nineties, and their fourth, Radio, has always stood out to me as their best.It’s an hour long aural odyssey, with odyssey being the operative word there; this album takes you to so many places that it needs a good few listens for it to digest. And whilst yes, it is a harsh, scary, looming behemoth of an album that initially sounds like the Beach Boys with a saxophone and more pronounced bass (and no Brian Wilson), it devolves slowly into a sort of field-recording noise-scape hell, utilising the same kind of quiet-quiet-bang jumpscares that Hollywood would adopt a decade later but to more pronounced effect.
This is a formidable thing, and perhaps you’re wondering why you would want to subject yourself to it; I have two reasons. The first is that the musicianship on display is astonishing. There is a mastery of the instruments on display here which I can’t help but be in awe of; the way the ensemble jump genres, time-signatures, styles on the drop of the hat indicates to me that these guys are pros of the highest order. Zorn is excellent, but Bill Frisell’s guitar is clippy, stringy, or bold depending on what the track requires, Wayne Horvitz’s keyboard evokes whatever theme that song wants, Joey Baron’s drums can go from skittish (like King Crimson) to pummelling at the drop of a hat, frequent collaborator Yamatsuka Eye provides guttural screams when necessary, and Fred Frith’s bass ties the tracks together nicely.
Together, they recall that thing Ornette Coleman and Phillip Glass had going on where they had it in them to sound “nice”, but instead wanted to see what it would look like if their talents, their knowledge of music on the whole, was pushed towards the other end of the spectrum. This album is that journey in microcosm, from aesthetically pleasing to aesthetically challenging, over the course of a steadily more gruelling hour; but it’s good to be challenged, and the journey is imperceptibly marked (it’s hard to a pinpoint a track where it “switches”, you just know by the end that things are different).
The second reason why this album is fantastic and warrants many listens is because yes, it is exceptionally challenging; but more than just jumping straight in with a Merzbow cut, this is an album that seduces you first, buys you a few drinks and tells you how gorgeous you look, before five hours later you find yourself enacting some seriously kinky stuff in what looks like the set of Hellraiser and you’re kinda digging it, and... Wait, how did we get here? Why are the saxophones screaming? What time is it? More than just being a freak-out for freak-out’s sake, it has a sense of forward progression and carries itself.
That may not be for everyone, but it should be for you. It contains itself within itself, and even though initially it sounds discordant, jumpy and disjointed (and takes the form of a discordant, jumpy and disjointed set), it is far more cohesive than it lets on, a real work of auteur music. John Zorn deserves to be cherished in the way we cherish Zappa, or Beefheart; he’s a true original, and this album showcases his talents accessibly (for Zorn) and wonderfully.
(written by declan cochran)