I remember it clearly. It was December of the year I turned 17, incidentally just a few weeks after I bought The Shape of Jazz to Come, my first Ornette Coleman album. I was in the parking lot of a concert, standing atop my cooler. I had been up there for about 30 minutes or so watching people walk by when one of the guys camping next to us started playing Spy vs. Spy on his car stereo. I had already made myself intimately familiar with the strains on Shape, so Zorn's mysterious and new (to me) spin on "Chronology" was a revelation. It literally fell out of the sky. Once the initial confusion subsided, there was bliss. I stayed on top of the cooler and talked to the guy who put on the album (Nate, from Columbus, who was standing on the ground). We chatted about other Ornette Coleman albums I should buy as we listened to Zorn's elite posse of contemporary jazzists sail through 15 more tunes. Although "Chronology" was the only one I knew, and it was over pretty fast, the rest of the disc already seemed like an old friend. Over the years, Shape and Spy became like mutual codexes to each other, which is funny, considering the lack of material that is common to both. In 1999 I lacked the listening background to bring a truly appreciative context to either record, but I'm astonished that either record filled the hole that it did, and I still enjoy them both greatly and they continually offer me new ideas to invest in.
Somewhere above, I listen to John Zorn
That is, I think, a testament to the enduring vision of each. That's a mouthful but I can't think of any other way to put it. When I hear Zorn, Joey Baron, Tim Berne, Mark Dresser and Michael Vatcher painting the walls with a group improv like those found on Spy, I can hear their interpretations peeling back the layers of the onion, while simultaneously putting more back on the top. There's so much going on -- the clashing tonalities and meters, the timbres and partials of altos' upper register, the fury of it all. The language of each improvisation is so unique. It's like lightning in a bottle. And yet in all its abrasive, assertive, uncompromising glory, it exudes an inescapable beauty. I like "C & D," "Broadway Blues," "Feet Music," or "Zig Zag" the best, but this is one album I must always start from the beginning.