Somnambule - Writing About Music

Naked City ~ The Complete Studio Recordings

Naked City, named for the seminal crime movie, were such a wide-ranging group that summing them up in a single sentence is impossible. The group served as a compositional vehicle for John Zorn between 1989 and 1992. Accompanying him on the group’s seven releases were the cream of New York City’s downtown improvisational scene: Fred Frith, Wayne Horvitz, Joey Baron and Bill Frisell. In addition a small number of guests, chief among them Yamataka Eye, contributed hair-raising vocals. Naked City’s shortest track clocked in at 11 seconds (Hammerhead), its longest lasted 31 minutes 38 seconds (Leng Tch’e). They performed Zorn’s arrangements of everything from Scriabin and Debussy to Jerry Goldsmith, Ornette Coleman and Johnny Mandel. The group’s cover art, faithfully reproduced here and in the accompanying booklet, ranged from photographs of murder victims by the infamous New York crime reporter Weegee to sado-masochistic cartoons and images of severed limbs. Lest this reviewer forget, they also named a track on their third album ‘Perfume Of A Critic’s Burning Flesh’. All in all, perhaps not an ideal present for the in-laws then, unless you’re hoping for a quick divorce.

Naked City’s music was, and continues to be, genuinely unpredictable, at least until familiarity enables the listener to relish each and every hairpin bend and handbrake turn in the group’s musical armoury. Of the 121 songs collected here, one track from Naked City’s eponymous debut should serve as illustration: ‘N.Y. Flat Top Box’ negotiates a number of styles including hillbilly blues, thrash metal, cartoon music and rhythm and blues – all in 45 seconds. It’s played with astonishing accuracy, verve and much needed alacrity. The successive collage form of this and similar compositions was inspired by the jumpcut mini-symphonies of Carl Stalling’s music for Tom and Jerry as well as, perhaps, Zorn’s practice of composing with the television on.

Until now Naked City’s back catalogue has suffered from duplication of material and limited availability. The Complete Studio Recordings convincingly reorganises the group’s oeuvre into a cohesive whole. Their eponymous debut places the Batman and Bond themes alongside Ennio Morricone and a number of thrash metal miniatures. Its successor, Radio more successfully condenses these and other styles into coherent, multifaceted compositions while the last disc pairs the dark, unexpected ambiences of the group’s final release, Absinthe, with the lengthy and punishing Leng Tch’e: a final test for the initiate. Zorn himself has remastered everything for maximum impact and the packaging is gorgeous in a delicately curlicued and suggestively decadent manner. Despite ceasing operations thirteen years ago, Naked City continue to elude categorisation and to sound light years ahead of their time. The group created visceral, intellectually challenging and frequently very catchy music that still sends a shiver through the soul.
Colin Buttimer
April 2005
Published by Jazzwise magazine