Regularly hailed as one the most important composers of the late 20th century, John Zorn is comfortable at the helm of an ensemble, as improviser on an array of instruments, and as a bold theorist of collaboration. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the New York artist and operator of the esteemed Tzadik label became known for assembling hardcore-inflected jazz ensembles and for devising “game systems,” or intricate musical conditions intended to force players into new territory. Partnering with Nonesuch in mid-1980s, he released The Big Gundown, which radically reimagines Ennio Morricone scores; and Spillane, which fuses improv and Zorn’s “file-card” system. Such titles brought Zorn critical accolades and the reputation of a provocateur, but none of them prepared audiences for the cataclysm of Naked City.
Released in 1990 on Nonesuch, Naked City bears a stark cover photograph by Weegee—noted for his unsparing images of New York crime scenes—and features one of the more staggering “rock” lineups ever assembled: Zorn on alto saxophone, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Fred Frith, drummer Joey Baron, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, and vocalist Yamatsuka Eye.
Naked City is a maelstrom of styles, veering recklessly between country, noise, New Orleans R&B, polka, and grindcore, with overtures from detective shows and film noir. In other words, it’s a daring maelstrom of American musical vernacular. It also explodes the rock format’s supposed limitation and retains a wildly intersectional listenership: devotees of punk, free jazz, and harsh noise celebrate Naked City. In short, as one writer put it, Naked City remains a “pinnacle of avant coolness.”