Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ques que c'est 'sexy'?

The idea of 'sexy music' is an odd thing on close examination. I think we inherently sexualize musicians--people who would pass as merely average are slathered after as soon as they strap on a guitar to stand on stage. Can you imagine Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler being objectified sexually if they didn't make music? In my experience, most songs explicitly about sex serve the purpose of only making me think about sex, but I find them utterly distracting if engaged in anything remotely sexual ("I'm busy! Stop telling me what to do!") Of course, allowances must be made for personal history: my first girlfriend, Kimberly introduced me to Peter Murphy's Love Hysteria and R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction. They soundtracked so many of our first fumbling adventures, I'll always think of them as sexy.


There is one song I've long thought of as not just sexy, but downright dirty: Masada's Ziphim. I am not trying to be contrarian here, by picking a 'jazz song'; I have a small posse of friends who can attest that there's something primal and thrilling about free jazz in general--the way it squeals, it writhes, it lunges--but there is plenty to objectively defend this particular song.

John Zorn conceived of Masada both as a modern appropriation of his Jewish heritage and a tribute to the classic Ornette Coleman quartet. According to the lore, he wrote an entire book of 100 songs in a flurry. Each one takes a modal jazz approach to scales from traditional Jewish music. In practice, it captures a combination of euphoric energy, belly-dancing exotic eroticism, and complex interplay (because we all know the best sex engages the mind). 

First off, it is not funk. Funk is not fuck-me music. I'm sorry, it's true--it's get-ready-to-fuck-me music. It epitomizes flirting and acting raunchy on the dancefloor, but you know you don't want that playing while you're actually doing it, right? That said Ziphim does have a lithe groove it rides on. Joey Baron plays his kit with his bare hands--no sticks--giving the rhythm a rapid-fire-but-soft feel to it. (The rimshot-like click you hear in the rhythm is the bassist, Greg Cohen, popping one of the upright bass strings.) They hold down a steady, syncopated backbeat for the real show.

John Zorn opens the song (and album) up with a sharp, pinched saxophone bark. Then for a full minute before the rhythm section joins in, you hear him and trumpet player Dave Douglas feeling each other out; establishing a sort of push and pull interaction. After the initial head, Zorn and Douglas tear into improvisations simultaneously, wending melodic lines around each other tighter than a sailor's knot. Their complicated, never repeating discourse is a tangle, they're never going in exactly the same direction but they're never in each others way.

Then, after the two horns have been winding each other up for about 5 minutes, they come together in a wailing, held peak before the rhythm section moves forward to ride it out.

After that mind-boggling first five minutes, when they trade some lines off--one answering the other--it comes off a tad disappointing--too vanilla. When they return to the head at the end though, all is forgiven--the song executes an entire cycle, comes full circle and it's completely satisfying to hear them vamp the melody in unison.

Inevitably--though there does seem to be a modicum of consensus--what mood any given song represents is highly subjective. Ziphim somehow manages to perfectly embody the ideas of sex without trying to spell the act out, and that's what makes it the sexiest music I know.

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