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John Zorn's Spillane

by John Bloner, Jr.

It begins with a scream . . .

In 1988, saxophonist and composer John Zorn arrived locked-and-loaded with his second release, Spillane, on the Elektra Nonesuch label, featuring the twenty-five minute plus title cut, a tribute to crime novelist, Mickey Spillane, and every film noir feature you could ever name.

Twenty-five years after hearing Spillane for the first time, the track still shocks (and delights) my ears. It's like taking a trip through the worst neighborhood in the dead of night, lined with bars, unlit alleyways, strip clubs, bookie joints, and filled with bad characters. It's a journey to a place where the trains run all night, squad cars cruise the mean streets, pointing their searchlight at angry dogs, howling at the sound of gunfire.

Spillane is an aural B-movie. It's jazz noir, hardcore, with some French New Wave and William S. Burroughs mixed in for good measure. It's every crime novel, gangster film or Philip Marlowe drama on a Zenith console radio. It may sound familiar, particularly if you're schooled in films like Kiss Me, Deadly, or it's like a spin on the radio dial of your dreams (if your dreams walk on the wicked side).

If you're quick, you can snap your fingers to its saxophones, dance or thrash about to the urban noise, or you can just lie low and let John Lurie, playing a Mike Hammer-inspired private dick on the record, do the driving while he delivers sardonic snatches of shoofly wisdom for your ears only.

His voice sounds so hard-boiled and bruised, you may swear his lines were punched out on Mickey Spillane's L.C. Smith Standard Super Speed typewriter.

Kiss him deadly.  Mickey Spillane and his typewriter.
Instead, guitarist Arto Lindsay channeled Spillane's tough-guy tone to write the record's prose. Mickey Spillane himself once wrote sentences that sounded chewed on before they were spit out. "The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat", he wrote. "And tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door."

Lindsay's pen is equally loaded on this record, as illustrated below. You can almost smell the darkness, can't you?

Spillane is much more than an aural B-movie (despite what I've said before).  It was born out of John Zorn's file-card method of composing--what he calls "moment form" in the video that begins this article--so words and phrases like "sleazy stripper" and "bloody murder with a car" become cues to create a dark mood.

Many moments in Spillane take only ten to thirty seconds to unfold, before the band pushes through the gears and finds a new road. A creaking organ segues into Spaghetti Western baritone guitar, drenched in reverb. (You can almost smell the smoke from Clint Eastwood's Toscano cigar.) The ambient flavor of a boxing ring, police sirens, and the spin of the dial on a rotary phone are woven into the dense fabric of Spillane.

The file-card method (along with its stylistic cousin in the artist's game pieces) distances Zorn from other artists in the jazz record bins. In the book, Plunderphonics, Pataphysics & Pop Mechanics, author Andrew Jones wrote, "Zorn was driving at a new way of improvising, strikingly different from the classic European model....rather than developing ideas through extended blowing, layering and building up a head of steam in the traditional solo manner, Zorn worked with an internal structure and communicated the parameters of this structure by eye or cue".

One of Zorn's seminal influences arrives from an unlikely place--Looney Tunes--but the connection soon makes sense by lending an ear to the cartoon music of Carl Stalling with its (in Zorn's words) "constantly changing kaleidoscope of styles, forms, melodies, quotations, yet there is something strangely familiar about it all".

"When you listen to [Stalling's] music," Zorn wrote, "Abstract it from the visuals of the cartoons, it's really incredible. There are a lot of abrupt changes in his music. And you can see how Stalling's work related to Stravinsky's and to Webern's experiments in the early part of this century. Stravinsky's whole thing was working with blocks of sound and reordering them, which is also very important for me."

Zorn's music contains influence from the classical music world of Igor Stravinsky and Karlheinz Stockhausen, to Enrico Morricone's music for Spaghetti Westerns like "A Fistful of Dollars", and it calls to mind the musical creations of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and the cut-up techniques of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs.

The sounds of Spillane spill out at such a rapid, yet precise pace, you might think that it's all studio trickery, a sleight-of-hand of a crafty editor, rather than the product of a living, breathing artist who has mastered not only one musical style, but many, from Japanese pop to TV network NBC's G-E-C tone chimes, to hardcore shouts and screams, to 1950's cool struttin' hard-bop jazz. Zorn can be both brutal and beautiful, often within seconds of each other.

Soon after sharing Spillane with the world, Zorn assembled his super-group, Naked City, featuring Bill Frisell on electric guitar, Joey Baron on drums, Fred Frith, bass, Wayne Horvitz, keyboards and Yamatsuka Eye, (now Yamantaka Eye), visual and sonic artist. This band could caterwaul and come out the other side with a wink or a wail. In the video below, you'll want to shout, "Heavens to Murgatroyd!", as Naked City storms, strums and shouts its way through the tune, Snagglepuss.

Spillane was first released in 1988 along with two additional pieces, "Two Lane  Highway", featuring blues guitarist Albert Collins, and "Forbidden Fruit" with the Kronos Quartet, turntable artist Christian Marclay and vocalist Ohta Hiromi. It was re-released in 1999 with another file-card piece, Godard, a tribute to the French film director.

Writing for the New York Times, Peter Watrous called Spillane, "a meditation on America, mid-century, with rhythm-and-blues and country and jazz all mixing, with desire and violence coming together in a sordid and funny jumble".

Around the same time as the release of the Spillane/Godard recording, Zorn issued The Bribe as a continuation and extension of Spillane.  Whereas, Spillane takes over twenty-five minutes to deliver its tale, The Bribe contains twenty-six tunes, some less than a minute or two in length.  Zorn's record label, Tzadik, describes it as "recorded in the same style as Spillane, with the same engineer, and very close to the same ensemble . . . this exciting music features lush moody orchestrations, swinging jazz, hard rock, groovy funk, noise, improvisations, exotic ambience and much, much more".

To learn more about John Zorn (and there is a whole lot more), visit the website of his record company, Tzadik, or the online home of his East Village performance space, The Stone, or purchase his sheet music at Hips Road Edition, or take a look at his alternative to the commercial art scene in The Obsessions Collective, or wrap your ears and mind around his catalog of music with sounds that can whisper a lullaby or keep you up all night (with the lights on).

If you're still wondering, "Who Is John Zorn?", NBC-1st Look NY aired the following interview in 1999. Zorn's philosophy, as you will see--if you have not already seen--goes well beyond making music.

In the same year that Spillane was released, I attended a concert by the John Zorn Ensemble at a summer show north of Chicago, IL.  Because of a tornado warning by Chicago's O'Hare Airport, guitarist Bill Frisell was unable to arrive and join his bandmates--Zorn, Joey Baron (drums), and Kermit Driscoll (bass)--at the indoor theatre, so the trio changed their program, deciding to play a night's worth of Sonny Clark tunes, because, as Zorn told the crowd, "Bill hates Sonny Clark". This statement may not be true, as in that same time period, Frisell and Zorn teamed up (along with George Lewis) to record News For Lulu, showcasing the work of Clark and his hard-bop brethren: Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, and Freddie Reed.

Thanks for reading, and see you next month.