June 2006

John Zorn’s Acoustic Masada
at the Toronto Jazz Festival
June 28, 2006Danforth Music HallToronto
A New Fusion
by Joyce Corbett with photo by eLMeR
What, one may ask, is Masada? I had read that John Zorn’s vast repertoire of Masada compositions (200 or so) is based on Jewish scales combined with Ornette Coleman’s unique musical theory; that it is a mix of middle-eastern music, avant-garde jazz, classical and klezmer music, so I thought that masada might be a word containing the idea of mixture. But, I was wrong.

I discovered that Masada is the name of an historical site on the edge of the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea, a site that became famous for its significance in the First Jewish-Roman War (Great Jewish Revolt). Since that discovery, I have learned that John Zorn is one of a number of innovative and historically aware musicians who are creating new expressions of Jewish identity from the fusion of klezmer, jazz, rock and classical. Zorn says “The idea with Masada is to produce a sort of radical Jewish music, a new Jewish music which is not the traditional one in a different arrangement but music for the Jews of today.”

For jazz fans, John Zorn’s Masada “songbook” is probably his most approachable work and it is his acoustic Masada band that first earned him recognition among jazz critics as a serious player, composer and bandleader. In addition to the music itself, the familiar quartet format and the extraordinary players — Dave Douglas (trumpet), Joey Baron (drums), Greg Cohen (bass) and John Zorn (saxophone) — make this acoustic group accessible to the modern jazz ear. They recorded ten studio albums together over four years in the mid to late nineties and a series of live albums in the same period. This is the quartet that played The Danforth Music Hall during Toronto’s Jazz Festival.

Given the enormity and variety of John Zorn’s output, it was not surprising that some of the music-lovers in the lineup on this heavy, storm-pregnant Wednesday night came out of curiosity, having heard about Zorn but unsure of what to expect. Others were avid John Zorn followers who knew all or most of his work. The message passed down the line that the plane was late but the band was in the building. The show was supposed to start at 7:00 but the doors did not open until 7:30.

In the theatre, sporadic clapping erupted as people grew impatient or spotted John Zorn hoisting himself onto the stage or walking across the back of it. In the balcony, the air conditioning was inadequate and by 8:15 I was sweating and getting cranky. No announcement, nothing. Total disregard for the audience. Surely someone (maybe the organizer?) could have said something about the delay. In any case, when the Acoustic Masada Quartet arrived on stage at 8:30 and immediately started to play I was feeling cranky and ready to dislike them — but I couldn’t.

John Zorn’s Acoustic Masada opened with an intense, high-velocity piece featuring frequent fits and starts, high register saxophone squeaks, rising trumpet lines, throaty bursts, exceptional bass technique and precise drumming sometimes directed with a sharp hand movement from John Zorn. I didn’t recognize any Jewish scales here and not much melody. There was some Ornette Coleman, a surprising hint of “Bemsha Swing” and lots of free improvisation. Sounded like the band was letting loose their frustrations, perhaps drawing out my own in the process. It was high energy stuff — and, I had to admit, interesting and exciting.

The second piece started with a melodic, heavily syncopated bass, joined by hands softly drumming the toms. The saxophone and trumpet quietly entered together, then the trumpet took the melody with the saxophone adding punctuation. Countermelodies developed and a middle-eastern flavoured saxophone solo sounded over a bass groove. My irritation forgotten, I surrendered to the beauty, the moods and the rhythms of the music. I heard blues, klezmer, festive music and music of deep tragedy, inexpressible in words. I heard hypnotic bass lines from Greg Cohen and a trumpet solo from Dave Douglas with exquisitely placed and spaced notes. I saw John Zorn lowering the pitch of his saxophone with a strategically-placed knee in the bell. I watched fascinated by Joey Baron circling brushes on the snare, clicking sticks and punching out the rhythm. I listened to original compositions with lots of improvisation played by four gifted, rigorous and vigorous musicians.

"No photos please"
At the end of the concert, walking out into the rainy night with it’s light, cool breeze, I felt refreshed.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
• • • • • •
The Live Music Report
• •

| Home | Archives | CD Reviews | Photo Galleries | Concert Listings | Contact |

Please contact us to secure permission for use of any material found on this website.
© The Live Music Report – 2006