There was always some doubt that John Zorn’s Naked City couldn’t have possibly navigated those quick cuts in the music without some studio trickery.
Listen closely to Naked City’s self-titled debut on Nonesuch from 1990, and it’s hard to tell whether some tracks were spliced.
More than a decade later, Zorn puts those doubts to rest by releasing Naked City Live Volume 1. Recorded in 1989 at the Knitting Factory in New York City, the album demonstrates the tightness of Zorn’s “super group” was no fluke.
“New York Flattop Box” is evidence enough. The 43-second track is pretty much a country tune disrupted by the group’s approximation of radio static. When Zorn interrupts Frisell’s twangy country playing with his screaming saxophone, it’s exact and precise. There’s no way any of it could have been manipulated.
That’s not to say some overdubs weren’t used in the studio. On recording, the chaotic intro of “Shot in the Dark” is a lot thicker than the performance captured on this album.
Still, it’s nice to hear different interpretations of some familiar music. Zorn has always been something of a hook-writer, and it was hard to remember Naked City was a jazz group, not a rock band.
Naked City Live Volume 1 reminds fans the group consisted of some of the best improvisers playing in New York’s Lower East Side. “Inside Straight”, a 5-minute piece that concluded the studio album, gets an extra three minutes of improvisation live. “The Way I Feel,” a track never included on a Naked City studio album, is 10 minutes of great swing.
The rest of the album pretty much sports tracks from what would eventually become Naked City’s first album. “Skate Key” wouldn’t show up till the band’s final album, Radio, but the band’s covers of movie themes — “Chinatown”, “A Shot in the Dark”, “I Want to Live” — have a big presence.
There’s even an interpretation of Ennio Morricone’s “Erotico”, another unreleased treasure which never found its way to a Naked City studio album.
Perhaps the most intriguing idea behind Naked City Live Volume 1 is the title — will there be more to come from Zorn and his Tzadik Archival Series? If so, it’ll be an interesting to see whether Naked City’s other albums were ever performed live.
A bit of history — although the band existed for only four years, Zorn managed to record five incredibly divergent albums with the group.
Grand Guignol featured arrangements of 20th Century classical music, while Absinthe was a haunting, ambient work as disturbing as it was fascinating to hear. Only Radio contained much of the same kind of stage-friendly music as Naked City.
It would be fascinating to hear Naked City’s interpretation of Claude Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral performed in front of an audience.
We’ll all find out if a second volume follows the first into stores.