Friday, November 17, 2006

John Zorn's Acoustic Masada, Page Auditorium, 11/17/06



In the 1960s, soul jazz and hard bop were the thing. It was arguably reductionist and non-progressive, but it sure does feel good--basic jazz crammed with gospel and blues. It was undeniably black music. Saxophonist John Zorn--who has played with some veterans of that era, like organist Big John Patton--is doing something similar with his Masada project. It's real visceral, gut-bucket stuff infused with tradition. But to his credit, Zorn doesn't try to imitate a culture that isn't his: Masada celebrates his own Jewish heritage, using parallel cultural elements to what Horace Silver used. (If Blue Note was the leader of the soul jazz crowd, can we call Zorn's Tzadik label Jew Note?)

Acoustic Masada, which played at Duke this evening, consists of at least two Jews (Zorn and drummer Joey Baron) and at least one other guy who may be (bassist Greg Cohen--I'm stereotyping based on the name). Trumpeter Dave Douglas rounds out the quartet. The band actually functions on two planes--Douglas and Zorn tend to be the more Jewy part of the band, blowing over Sephardic scales, while Baron and Cohen are in many ways a conventional rhythm section.

Friday's performance was excellent, but not quite worth the standing ovation it got. The set fell too easily into a pattern. First, they'd play a ridiculously intense, high-speed, free number, then a melodic, modal tune. The latter are remarkable tours-de-force, running a wide gamut of speeds and dynamics, but the larger pattern was just too strong.

I especially enjoyed watching Baron, who's like Gene Krupa on cocaine. He was unmiked and still was exceptionally loud; I have several tapes where he plays and the drums are always too loud and distorting on the recording. It wasn't that way where I was sitting, but I can imagine it's damn near impossible for a taper to get a good mix. If Max Roach and Connie Kaye "dropped bombs," Joey carpet-bombs you with daisy cutters. Zorn was occasionally conducting him--on some of the best numbers, he conducted the hits on certain sections, even during his solos. As a result, it became a meta-solo, consisting of not only him but drums also. Baron was fun to watch, too--he was so amused by all the interplay and was having such a blast, laughing as he played. All that said, there were a couple tunes where I could have done with a little less out of the kit.

Douglas was also good; haters (me included) tend to attack him for his chilliness and remove. Zorn helped to loosen him up a bit, I think, but he still plays with this sort of dry, ironic tone, a musical smirk, and I don't like it (too much like me, probably). A couple times, it seemed like Baron was playfully jabbing and sparring; but Douglas remained aloof, raising his voice as necessary but never really throwing himself into it.

Zorn's just the opposite--he's totally into it. His compositions are great, intricate and passionate, and his writing for two horns (another similarity to the front lines like Lee Morgan and Joe Henderson or Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook on those Blue Note sides). The free stuff is fun, too, and the combination of rhythmicality (rhytmicism?) and strong rapport between all four players means it works well. He does a lot of crazy fluttering stuff, which sounds a lot like noise but takes on a special meaning in the context. I don't pretend to understand what the hell he's doing (I'm only half-convinced he does) , but almost everyone else did: in one solo, after a weird thang, he went back to a tonality and people all erupted in applause, even though he was still playing the solo. This strikes me as pseudo-artsy bullshit on their part. They don't know what it means either. (I should have asked him about, but I froze up when I met him. Oh, well.) Even the onstage banter was weird and unintelligible. I don't get it all, but it makes me feel good, which works for me. I give the show 7 or 8 out of 10 overall.

A note on the band's appearance: they play really close together, and all four look so different. The tousled-haired Zorn came out in a t-shirt and camo cargo pants with tortoise-shell glasses. Douglas, true to his image, had chunky black glasses, black pants and a black shirt (and a black leather jacket, too). Cohen is a tall, gangly, professorial type, grey-haired and dressed in a far-too-large button-down shirt. Joey was t-shirted and shaved bald. A hilarious sight, altogether.

95 comments:

rghubbard said...

Hey,I liked this writing even though I didn't connect with some of the descriptions. I did like the Jew Note comment, pretty much right on the mark with all that led up to that idea, I thought. If Zorn's style and label was so specialized to a "creative Klez-Jazz" sound, this may be a real possibility. However his musical projects differ so greatly from each other he will be remembered in music history as one of our great composers and improvisers,not just limited to a great Jazz or Klezmer Innovator, which he most certainly is.
Classification has been and always will be a problem in modern creative sound, I think it has seen its end when it can be classified comfortably. With that statement, I would also like to add Masada is also a soul band, not the way traditionally thought of, but in a literal way. The sounds are down right moving.It's music for music lovers and hits us where we live.

I wasn't at the Duke show, however I wish I was. I have seen Masada several times and never once have I ever left feeling as described in this review, which didn't necessarily indicate "moved". I always leave the shows feeling like I was victimized by a hypnotherapist, because the performances(that I've experienced)are hypnotic at their worst. The complexity and seemingly literal explosive spontaneity in the playing of all the improvisers, in my mind are absolutely from the highest order of musicianship. They are at one with the tune and each other. The communication that I have witnessed in this group on many occasions could only be compared to the folkloric communication that we hear about in the performances of the classic Coltrane quartet(Bold Statement...I know, no apologies).

My favorite gig ever was the one from the picture in the review, (same group, except Kenny Wollensen on the drums) it was at the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts. That space complimented Masada's sound in a way I had never heard. Yes, I have gushed here a bit, but the opportunity to talk about this group is not something I get very often. I am a music lover and a drummer of 30+ years with only respect for these fella's. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

pretty sure they are all jewish

Anonymous said...

For me, I think the review hits it pretty much right on the head. I can't say that I agree with the Douglas comments though. I like the way the is a counter balance to Zorn. I thought is was funny as well with the alternating of song types. I wrote it off to the vibe coming from the audience. Lot's of scenesters IMO, and the applause discussed was a prime example. When that happened I also thought WTF it's still going on.

Glad to know that I am not the only one who didn't always get the fluttering and squaking. It added nice texture, esp. with the drums. Sometimes it just seemed to break the direction everything was going.

I think I would have given it a point or so higher rating, but this was my first live Zorn show.

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