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Published: 2003/10/05
by Mike Greenhaus

John Zorn’s Electric Masada, Tonic, New York, NY- 9/25

John Zorn's storied career is often described in the future tense. So when the free-form saxophonist decided to celebrate his half-centennial, it's fitting that he turned a traditional moment of reflection into a showcase of his most futuristic music.

Using his frequent lower-Manhattan stomping ground Tonic as a home-base, Zorn celebrated his 50th birthday this September with a month long musical trip down memory lane: inviting former band mates to perform, unearthing scarcely played songs, and trying to recap and rework his vast repertoire. A self-proclaimed compulsive list-maker, Zorn divided his compositions into four weekly "theme nights" (bands, improvisation, classical compositions, and game pieces) in order to properly guide visitors through his varied work. Self-serving, sure, but Zorn's decision to catalogue his work helped direct the musician's meandering output and fit each of his movements into a greater cultural context. Whether scoring a film or collecting dissonant sounds for free-jazz compositions, Zorn has striven to make intellectual music. Like the best academic lectures, his short, high-intensity, performances pack a remarkable amount of information into a short, succinct period.

A Thursday night, falling during the Jewish High Holidays period, September 25th's installment in Zorn's residency revisited a unique, and controversial, period in the artists' career: his "klezmor" influenced free-jazz work. Recruiting several long-term collaborators, and Tonic denizens in their own right, Zorn undusted the Masada moniker he used when recording his Jewish music in the early nineteen-nineties and reset his work against a static, electronic background. Featuring guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Trevor Dunn, keyboardist Jamie Saft, percussionist Cyro Baptisa, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and electronics wizard Ikue Mori, Zorn's all-star lineup interjected their avant-garde minimalism into Masada's Jewish and Yiddish inspired canon. With one foot firmly placed in the past and another in the present, the newly dubbed Electric Masada boasted a new roster of musicians, yet it focused on songs Zorn initially recorded and performed over a decade ago.
By its very nature, the term Masada connotes images of martyrs, willing to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs. Often misunderstood by mainstream audiences, Zorn's revealing, yet self-indulgent, moniker exposes the saxophonist's commitment to creating alternative and strangely inspired music. Building off Ornette Coleman's methods, Electric Massada is noisy and democratic, like a communal army fighting to protect their beliefs. Using religious music to create almost nihilistic chords, Electric Masada is built around contrasting ideas and sounds. On display in the stark, dark Tonic club, Zorn played for himself, yet hoped his audience would enjoy what he had to present.
Clocking in at just over an hour, Zorn's September 25th performance was divided into seven instrumental movements, loosely described as "songs." Short, layered bursts of energy, Zorn's Jewish-inspired jazz nuggets aren't built around solos and jams; instead, they're instrumental workouts that use similar rhythms and patterns to tie various themes together. Except for a brief band introduction, Zorn remained silent throughout the evening, relying on an information-packed pamphlet to act as his residency's playbill. With Zorn conducting his featured players, the septet slowly released "Tekufah", a track featured on Zorn's live Masada albums. With a heavy emphasis on melody and repeated notes, "Tekufah" slowly inflated the group's performance, one note at a time. After his ensemble laid a fertile noise-heavy mix of jazz and electronics, Zorn began to play his instrument, blowing quick bursts of energy over the septet's sound.

Without acknowledging the audience, Zorn then dove into "Gevurah," another selection that showcased his Yiddish influence. With Ribot taking a few, short clean jazz guitar licks, the song eminated like chained fusion, struggling to emerge from beneath Zorn's industrial layering. Saft and Mori's mixture of electric and computer-programmed sounds furthered this futuristic motif, which accented Zorn's deep saxophone without making it domineering. Contrasting remarkable with Ribot's choppy fusion, "Idalah" was a work of underground metal; a charted piece of music that featured abrasive riffs and emphasized electronics from Mori's laptop computer. As if to play around with his audience's ears, Zorn seemed to throw in teases from traditional Jewish songs, riffing on a theme reminiscent of "Hava Nagila." Yet the grit of his saxophone and Baptista's odd percussion toys created themes too unsettling to dance along with. At one point Baptista even used a strange, test tube looking object, to throw ambient sounds into the group's mix; a futuristic jazz-scat that added to the controlled confusion which characterizes Zorn's compositions.

Closing his brief-set with "Otiot" and "Kedem," Zorn refused to allow his music to climax. Instead, each song built on minimalist themes, allowing Wollesen room to play small jazz fills and Ribot to unleash brief bits of ear candy. Like the best downtown New York jazz music, Zorn's work was totally original. Yet with this originality, Zorn brought struggling sounds and hard to digest ear images.

After his set was over, Zorn once again introduced his band and slowly stepped off Tonic's small stage. Perhaps symbolically, his sheet music fell as he walked, like a mad scientist who managed create an original beast.

Perhaps the best curator of his own work, Zorn properly summed up the evening's musical context in his pamphlet preceding the show: "This new version of Masada brings together several elements from the past twenty years, with the power of naked city, the improvisational spontaneity of cobra, and the spiritual modes of the Masada songbook, this band could be my best yet."

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