Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.
We’ve seen which songs, for whatever reason, I’ve played the most in the last three years, but what actually takes up the most real estate in the sprawling fairgrounds of my iPod?
The winner, the greediest, most space-hungry artist in my library, hands down, is John Zorn, with over 1400 songs on 110 different albums. Zorn is, in fact, a primary reason why I jumped from the 40GB iPod to the 80GB — to include not just my favorites, but to include every god-damned blast, squeak, skronk and squiggle I own from Mr. John Zorn.
Zorn is a true American original — a distinctive sax player, a flamboyantly avant-garde composer, an incredible bandleader and a master of all he surveys. He’s also made himself a legend in the music wars by creating his own label, releasing hundreds of first-class albums in what would ordinarily be a marketing man’s nightmare and insisting upon absolute control of his career. If that were not enough, he’s also acted as mentor and presenter of a whole host of musical outlaws on his Tzadik label.
I came to Zorn through his 1990 album Naked City, which was handed to me by a mentor of my own who had been trying to get me to listen to folks like Sonny Rollins to no avail. It was a good choice for my mentor, who knew that I needed something immediate and demanding to get me interested in a whole new genre of music. Naked City is more than jazz, it’s an encyclopedic engulfing of a century of American music (with some Europeans thrown in for good measure) chewed up in the fevered New York mind of Zorn, played with the intensity of hardcore punk by a crack band of some of the greatest jazz musicians alive. Naked City hit my brain like the Hindenburg at Lakehurst and remains one of my top ten albums of all time. I worked from Naked City (and the seven or so subsequent albums by the same team) to The Big Gundown, his chopping and splicing of the film music of Ennio Morricone, and Spillane, his sprawling, half-hour musical film noir (which he has since expanded into a full-length CD). From there I investigated his game pieces, where large ensembles participate in structured, spirited improvisations, his jittery, menacing, occasionally terrifying classical pieces, his stunning film soundtracks (he is my number one choice for composer when I make my first feature) and his career-in-themselves Masada albums, 17 or so and counting, where, for the first time to my knowledge, a composer has succeeded in wedding jazz to the Jewish musical tradition.
I have no idea how this LP ended up in my family’s record collection in the mid-60s (except that my father worked tangentially with animators in Hollywood for a while), but I discovered it when I was about 7 and it immediately became my favorite record of all time (surpassing “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen. Whole afternoons would pass while I played Zounds! What Sounds! over and over in a state of bliss.
What the record is, basically, is a collection of jazz and swing standards conducted by Dean Elliott, who, as far as I can tell, was to Tom and Jerry cartoons as Carl Stalling was to Bugs Bunny cartoons. The arrangements on Zounds! are jumpy enough all by themselves, but then they are augmented by what can only be termed “wacky cartoon sound effects.” And so a song called “Trees” is driven by the sounds of rhythmic sawing, a song called “It’s a Lonesome Old Town” is festooned with spooky crickets and hooting owls, “The Lonesome Road” is punctuated by the sounds of backfiring cars and tooting horns, and a song called “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” is inundated with the sounds of a thousand clocks and watches ticking and bonging. Boy, that sounds really stupid and annoying, doesn’t it? And yet it comes off as endlessly inventive, infectiously enthusiastic and wildly ecstatic. Or at least it did to my seven-year-old brain.
Then my family went bankrupt, my mother died, I ran away from home and endured about twenty years of soul-crushing poverty, and forgot all about the innocent joys of Zounds! What Sounds! so much so that before long I thought perhaps I had dreamed it.
Many years later, I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music watching a show by Pina Bausch, who uses whole dump-trucks of music snippets in her marathon 3-hour dance pieces, and out of nowhere, between the German cabaret numbers and the Ligeti, “The Lonesome Road” by Dean Elliott came blasting out of the sound system. Needless to say, I forgot all about the cerebral, angular, angsty choreography on display and was once again a seven-year-old in the suburbs of Chicago, innocently, joyously leaping about the house like a bug-eyed idiot to the manic strains of Dean Elliott and his Swinging, Big, Big band. The record I had come to think of as long gone had been found! By a skinny, severe, middle-aged German choreographer! By jiminy, I said, if Pina Bausch can find this record all the way over in godless Germany, I can certainly find a copy in New York City!
Which I did. Needless to say, it was long out of print and never a popular item to begin with (I’m guessing), but I was able to track down a bootleg CD copy at the now-long-gone Footlight Records, which specialized in obscure recordings of Broadway showtunes and other music outside the purview of Tower Records. Hearing it again after thirty years, I was instantly transported back to simpler days, when jazz standards hoked up on cartoon sound-effects could supply all the adrenaline I needed.
When I got my iPod, Zounds! What Sounds! was one of the first CDs I transferred, but it’s only 12 tracks in an ocean of over 18,000, so it doesn’t come up much on shuffle (which is what I almost always have iTunes on). Today “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” came on, sandwiched in between Fiona Apple and John Zorn, both of whom I think would have been comfortable with the comparison.
For those interested, apparently Basta! has done a proper re-mastering of this left-field classic.