Z to A


In Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, perhaps the greatest American comedy of the last ten years, a character decides to listen to every jazz record ever made, in alphabetical order by artist. At a funeral early on, we hear the strains of Miles Davis. Later on, as the L.A. riots of 1992 swirl around him, he’s got Eric Dolphy on his boombox as he observes the chaos. And so on.

I first read the book in 1996. My pal Ernesto read the novel around the same time that I did. I’m not sure which one of us suggested it, but it was decided at some point that we’d do a miniature version of the same idea. Every month, Ernesto would buy a new jazz CD, moving alphabetically down a list, and write his response to the album. I’d do the same, but in reverse, starting with “Z” and moving up. We’d email our critiques to each other and, theoretically, our paths would crisscross at the thirteenth month. Bolstered by reviews and conversation, we would gradually acquire a basic understanding of jazz in a little over two years.

Well, I’ve got a history of ambitious attempts at self-edification. This one didn’t pan out so well, and it evaporated entirely after four or five months. Part of the reason that the systematic approach failed me was because my first choice, “Z,” was John Zorn’s Naked City. Here’s a taste of what I wrote in February 2000:

The first truly awful track is “Reanimator,” which begins with a digital keyboard effect that sounds a bit like a bird twittering, and then abruptly shifts to this godawful noise racket, and then plunges into a creepy, almost narcotically pleasant echoing guitar line. Its immediate successor, “Snagglepuss,” begins with more of the same squalling noise, then gets funky (in a whitebread way) for all of five seconds, then back to noise, then some jazzy piano work, then noise, then some nicely played blues guitar, and then… oh hell, I can’t keep up. And why bother?

I had a flat-out success—“W” was the splendid Ben Webster and Associates—but I had tainted the venture at the outset. I gave up around “V.”

Now, it’s worth noting that the plan was semi-successful. I’m now a slightly-more-than-casual appreciator of jazz, and jazz albums occupy about a third of my total music (around 400 CDs). But I can’t read music, my tastes are all over the place, my compositional knowledge is scattershot, and I often can’t tell one tenor saxophonist from another. And, for the better part of a decade, I’ve stayed far away from John Zorn, even as my tastes have led me at times to the avant-garde shelves in the music store.

In Philadelphia two weeks ago, however, I spent an hour at a store searching for Zorn’s Masada Guitars. I rifled through the huge jazz section; there was a lot of Zorn, but not what I was looking for. I checked the computer database, which informed me that 1) it was indeed in the store, and 2) it was in the “Israel/Judaica” section, dummy. Makes sense—it’s a collection of Zorn compositions written specifically on the Jewish musical scale, published by a label devoted to “Radical Jewish Culture.” If you’ve spent much time digging through the “World Music” sections of music shops, you know that they are the least organized, sloppiest, and maddening areas of the stores. I spent thirty minutes checking and re-checking the smallish section. It never occurred to me that someone might have stolen it, and that the database was wrong. When my finger landed on it, I yelped for joy. Seriously. People turned to look at me.

But why the hell was I even looking for it in the place? To explain, I need to turn to three small lucks over the past five years…

1) On a morning drive to work, I listened to an NPR interview with guitarist Bill Frisell, who came off as such a genuinely nice, down-to-earth, regular Joe that I was shocked that the music samples played on the air were so bizarre, otherworldly, and different from anything I’d ever heard the guitar do before. His CDs get filed in “jazz” only because there’s no place else that he fits. I bought his then-new CD, Ghost Town, based on the segment, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

2) Fred Kaplan, one of my favorite jazz writers, wrote movingly about John Zorn’s Masada project—out of which Masada Guitars springs—in Slate. Apparently, Zorn had toned down his screeching, atonal alto sax and found some peace in reclaiming his Jewish roots. The new stuff he was working on sounded terrific, and Kaplan recommended specifically Masada Guitars. Kaplan’s steered me to Maria Schneider and Dave Holland, so I trust his judgment.

3) My parents sent me a copy of the June 2000 issue of Down Beat because its cover story was on Phish, my then-favorite band. It featured a glowing review of Ghost Town, which finally made me buy the CD, as well as a review of Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos’s ¡Muy Divertido! that ended with the sentence: “May I suggest buying three or more copies?” I fell in love with Marc Ribot’s junky, feedbacky, guitar sound and the Cuban rhythms and melodies.

A short Wax Banks piece mentions that Masada Guitars features solo guitar interpretations of Zorn’s Masada pieces… by Frisell, Ribot, and Tim Sparks. Okay, I’d never heard of Sparks. Fine. Still, the album features tracks written by a rejuvenated composer, played by my two favorite jazz guitarists. I’ve been chomping at the bit ever since.

So, I’d found it. And it’s even better than I thought it would be. Most of the tracks are acoustic, so it’s quieter than expected. (Frisell does go electrical on “Kisofim” and “Bikkurim,” though, tossing off his beautifully fractured phrasing, loops, and slurred echoes.) It’s also less cluttered and noisy than Naked City—all to the good. Best of all, the pacing is no longer breakneck but instead relaxed and occasionally even tranquil. It creates an atmosphere of calm and introspection—it’s playing as I write this—but it’s by no means soporific. The biggest revelation is Sparks, whose intricate fingering—while simultaneously strumming the beat—is astonishing. It’s on his five tracks that you hear the old, fiery Zorn, but the fire is tempered by a lack of clutter and Sparks’s clean, precise musicianship.

So, I guess I’m back where I started. I’m starting with “Z” again. And, this time, I might get more than one before moving to “Y.”

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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