Tzadik has already culled ten widely varied live releases from saxophonist/composer John Zorn's month-long 50th birthday celebration two years ago at Tonic in New York. Surprisingly enough, there are still more than a few to come. It should be testament enough that a single artist has created such a broad spectrum of work and equally diverse musical contexts in which to present it. But the consistently high quality of these releases really hammers home just how much of a cottage industry Zorn has become, especially with his Masada project over the past ten years.
The fact that previous 50th Birthday Celebration releases have all been single discs representing complete individual sets makes the three-CD release by the Bar Kokhba Sextet all the more significant, given that it comprises three of the four sets performed over two nights by the groupwhich features guitarist Marc Ribot, violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Greg Cohen, drummer Joey Baron, and percussionist Cyro Baptista, with Zorn conducting.
While over three hours of music might seem like a lot to absorb, the time seems to go by in an instant, despite more than the occasional challenge. Along with the Masada String Trio (Feldman/Friedlander/Cohen) and the flagship Masada quartet (Zorn, Cohen, Baron and trumpeter Dave Douglas), the Bar Kokhba Sextet that recorded half of '98's The Circle Maker has proven to be one of Zorn's most enduring ensembles. The jagged-edged "Karet and "Lachish provide effective contrast to more accessible, yet no less substantive material like the hauntingly dark-tinged "Kisofim and the hypnotically propulsive "Jachin, making all three sets compelling from start to finish.
And while some material is repeated throughout the three discs, the improvisational acumen of the players makes each tune worth revisiting. The basic arrangements may be fixed, but the soloists are not. Ribot takes an extended blues- and surf-inflected solo on the disc two version of "Lilin alongside an in-tandem improvisation by Feldman and Friedlander; on the version that opens disc one, Feldman and Friedlander each take clearly delineated solos, with Ribot in strictly a supporting role.
While Ribot, Friedman, and Friedlander are the dominant solo voices, the contributions of Cohen, Baron, and Baptista are equally vital. On tunes like "Lilin, where a long vamp leads up to the theme, they're absolutely key in setting the tone for what is to follow. With Baron involved in more subdued projects in recent yearslike guitarist John Abercrombie's quartet and pianist John Taylor's trioit's great to hear the kind of joyful abandon that established his reputation in the first place.
There's nary a weak spot on this 50th Birthday Celebration. For fans of Zorn's Masada project, this is essential listening; for newcomers, it's a great entry point.
Personnel: Marc Ribot: guitar; Mark Feldman: violin; Erik Friedlander: cello; Greg Cohen: bass; Joey
Baron: drums; Cyro Baptista: percussion; John Zorn: conductor.