If one has raised a child who became a fan of the Naked City avant-garde band because he or she thought the members performed in the buff, a debut recording by the Naked Orchestra of New Orleans might be greeted with excitement bordering on lust. Skeptics might chime in that in the conservative state of Louisiana, strippers are required to wear "g-strings" and there is no such thing as naked. However, once the listener gets through the lengthy liner notes that accompany this release, the intended meaning of the word "naked" should be clear. While Naked City lazily lifted its name from a film noir, the New Orleans group wants to present a kind of music performance that is free of the restrictions of stylistic or commercial music's clothing. This is an ambitious task. So is getting an expanded group together to play any sort of music, improvised or composed, naked or clothed. This group should be praised for effort, for setting difficult goals, and for coming up with a recording that is enjoyable to listen to, even if it is really wearing a lot more than just a g-string. Speaking of strings, guitarist and composer Jonathan Freilich is the main force behind this group, which he put together to perform his original compositions in 1997. He is best-known as a member of the smaller New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, a talented group who has been making the rounds of jam band festivals and whatever events it can get in on since the '90s. The title of this release might give an impression of pretty far-out music, but that really isn't the case. With touches of mambo, funk, Latin, bebop, and rock, this comes out as a fairly accessible affair that is reminiscent of some of the albums the Blue Note label let its better artists make in the early '70s. No specific record is intended by this comparison, just a general vibe in which there is an expanded group that is very well-recorded, with a bottom to the music that is practically booming. Philosophically and technically, Charles Mingus and Sun Ra are very potent influences in this group's music. One element of both these masters' musics that Freilich captures is the way thick textures can be washed aside effortlessly, like a wave that comes in and removes debris from a beach. There is a level of complexity in big band music that neither Mingus nor this group reaches, however. As Freilich explains, the practical necessity of substitutes and a shifting group of players as the Naked Orchestra attempted to rehearse wound up inspiring him as a composer. Mingus' own attempts to do big band projects were so full of this type of chaos that it inevitably just frustrated him. Even the sound of the fine Mingus album Let My Children Hear Music cannot approach what could be done by classic big bands who played together night after night for extended periods. This is a sad fact about any modern-day improvising orchestra, simply due to economic conditions on the jazz scene, the umbrella under which this kind of activity falls. Part of what limits the Naked Orchestra also seems to be musical philosophy. It being New Orleans, the players tend to wear the funk and the groove as if they were lapel badges at a conference meeting. Some of these tracks will be more than just appealing to fans of this type of music. The group gets a nice stripped-down feeling despite its size, leaning into the music energetically as it moves and often handing over space to instruments such as baritone sax, sousaphone, and trombone. The music tends to falter when moving in other directions, however, the writing and performances stiff and unimaginative, with a strong sense that Freilich is hitting some kind of barrier that neither the group nor its players were capable of getting through at this stage. Is the idea of "naked" music reasonable, or just another one of these pipe dreams musicians come up with in order to stay interested? The innovative British guitarist Derek Bailey, in trying to create a music free of any recognizable idiomatic influences, wound up with a style that although brilliant, is both easy to identify and hardly impossible to imitate. The music of the Naked Orchestra is good, despite the fact that it seems to be dominated by the same stylistic influences that it tries to reject. Freilich's liner notes are dominated by the complexities of the issues at hand. In complaining about musical labels, he writes about the "horror of music as a commodity...Classical music equals pomp, money, European society gatherings. Rap equals lower class, impoverished, poor folk, struggling." But what about the musicians who play classical music -- hard-working, intellectually astute, and hardly making ends meet most of the time? Rap also equals white teenagers with plenty of money to spend, giving this music lots of airplay on high-priced car stereo systems during days and nights that are naked of struggle whatsoever. Perhaps the first step in realizing the dream of a "naked" music would be ignoring cultural associations with music, but that would sure take a lot of the fun out of it. Freilich and his associates -- which include fellow composer and conductor Dr. James "Jimbo" P. Walsh and former Sun Ra Arkestra trumpeter Michael Ray -- would no doubt be the first to admit that this recording is only a first step. It is worth checking out and establishes that the future course of Freilich's project will be well-worth following.
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AllMusic Review by Eugene Chadbourne