In Masada, alto saxophonist John Zorn has found three top-drawer collaborators and a simple but inspirational concept, equal parts Jewish klezmer and early Ornette. Yet Het, their eighth album on DIW, is not significantly different from their first or points between.
Those of us who loved Masada Alef and enjoyed its successor may now be wondering how much longer Zorn is going to keep mining this vein. The sheer flow of ideas suggests that they could happily work their way through the rest of the Hebrew alphabet, but will anyone be left listening?
Greg Cohen (bass) and Joey Baron (drums) alone make every Masada album worth owning. Baron's light-fingered bounce propels even the more arhythmic tracks, while most revel in a boppish swing with which he is more than at home. A brittle sense of timbre on the toms and cymbals replaces the hiss of the ride and crack of snare of his forefathers, giving him an ultra-modern sound which perhaps belies his faultless sense of beat placement and density. Cohen, meanwhile, keeps to conventional technique and a bebop sensibility, and fits with Baron like a leg in a hip joint.
Masada's Het is at least as good as the rest of the series in terms of both playing and composition. It remains a mixture of Jewish song, spikey freebop and, in "Halom," a Tim Berne-like tongue-twister. Zorn seems as in love with this invented genre as at the beginning, and his composition has some slightly more tricksy moments than the head arrangements which dominate Masada's repertoire. He and Dave Douglas (trumpet) are as committed and virtuosic soloists as you could hope to hear in the old-school free jazz idiom, of course, although in this group the playing is usually pretty conservative in terms of contemporary ideas about the avant garde.
In reality, Zorn's music is almost always about genre, whether in the obvious stylistic juxtapositions of his rockier band Naked City or in his conceptualist reworkings of Ennio Morricone, and genre is the key to understanding Masada. Zorn's indebtedness to Ornette Coleman, most forcefully expressed on his paint-stripping Spy vs Spy album, is here in spades, and Douglas makes a wonderfully irreverent Don Cherry. From this foundation, they move freely between bebop and no-wave figurations and, yes, klezmer, in the way that Zorn attacks his more melodic phrases and, of course, in his composition.
The listening is certainly worth it, even if it is exhausting -- and with Zorn involved, should we really expect any different? He has always had confidence in pursuing extremes, particularly those imposed by the mainstream music industry, and the Masada project, while superficially his most "accessible" work to date, is no exception. Perhaps it is no surprise that Zorn has taken this music down this particular route; a single album may have shared a whiff of novelty with so many other "Jewish Melodies in Jazztime" projects, but to draw from this project more than 21 hours of music will, at least, function as a statement of serious intent. Those who own nothing by the group are urged to get one of their albums -- and this one is as good a start as any -- although whether even the faithful really need more than a couple on their shelves is another question.
[ by Richard Cochrane ]