I can't remember exactly when I first bought my used cassette copy of Spy vs Spy. It was sometime in the early 90s, when I knew embarrassingly little about either John Zorn or Ornette Coleman. At the time, I'd worked my way back through popular music history from punk to early rock and roll, to r'n'b, bop, swing, and Louis Armstrong while skipping over most post-bop jazz and completely missing out on the avant-garde. When I purchased Spy vs Spy, I was in the early stages of filling in these gaps in my musical education.
Spy vs Spy wasn't a very good place to start with either Zorn or Ornette Coleman.
Somehow, I just wasn't prepared for the thrash punk approach to Coleman. Probably the only Ornette I'd heard was on the soundtrack to Naked Lunch. And I was deeply affected by old school punk in the late 70s, so it wasn't like I was coming to Spy vs Spy with a lot of preconceived notions or prejudices.
Besides, it was John Zorn doing Ornette Coleman tunes. Zorn and Ornette are both cool, right? In the liner notes, Zorn states "hardcore fucking rules," a sentiment that had a certain cachet for me. It should have been a natural, or so it seemed.
Spy vs Spy just didn't work for me. I listened to it a couple of times and didn't like the jackhammer rhythms, the wailing altos of Zorn and Tim Berne, and the short, sharp shock of songs that lasted about a minute each.
Every once in a while I'd bring it out and give it a listen. Usually after the first side, I'd put it away. Up to now, it has been one of those albums that a lot of people whose tastes I'm generally in accordance with love but that I just don't get. It happens. I've never really cared for the Red Norvo Trio with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus or Mingus's Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, to name just two examples of music that are cited as great by a lot of people. I also know that a lot of other peoplehave the same problem with Spy, which gives me the comfort of knowing that I'm not in a minority of one.
When The Squid's Ear asked me if I'd like to review Spy vs Spy for this issue, and asked if I thought that Zorn had destroyed Ornette, I replied that as much as I (now) love Ornette, that was how much I disliked Spy vs Spy.
Until this week, when I brought out Spy for the first time in a couple of years and, donning my critic's hat, listened really closely to the album and considered it in the context of some of Zorn's other work at the time.
Zorn was 34 when he, Tim Berne, Mark Dresser, Michael Vatcher, and Joey Baron recorded Spy vs Spy over two days in August 1988. He'd done News for Lulu, a much more straight-up tribute, the year before with George Lewis and Bill Frisell. Spy vs Spy came just a little before the first Naked City album was recorded. The title's Mad magazine reference suggests a cartoonish snottiness that reached its full flowering with the jump cut themes of Naked City.
On the face of it, the approach is directly at odds with Coleman, who is concerned with the exploration and development of melody. Zorn and company pulverize Coleman's themes, giving them with an explosive, swarming, stop-start density.
The playing, however, is breathtaking. Zorn and Berne spin tight unison lines at F1 speed, while Baron and Vatcher hammer out percussion bombs. The music is dizzyingly intense, and dense, though on the second half of the album the group explores the jazzier side of the music, allowing it a bit more air.
It's not an easy listen by any means. And no matter how much I might enjoy certain aspects of the approach or certain bits of the music, I can't help feeling that Zorn's approach to Coleman doesn't do much for Coleman's music. On the other hand, Zorn thanks Ornette and Denardo Coleman in the notes, and it surely would have been pointless to merely regurgitate Coleman, so perhaps the greatest tribute is not imitation but extension of the other person's ideas by one's own, as Zorn did with Spy.
I can't say that Spy vs Spy is an album that I'm ever going to love. If I want to hear Ornette Coleman, I'll usually go to the source. And if I want to hear Zorn's jump-cut approach at its best, I'll go to Naked City. But I'm glad to have received the prodding to re-evaluate Spy vs Spy. In retrospect, coming to this music with no preconceptions but very little knowledge was not a good thing. And, as is often the case, my first listen to an album gives me a general impression that can be hard to dispel.
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