A few years ago, the news that John Zorn was ending his piano-less quartet called Masada came as little surprise. For its members had all, since the founding in the early 1990's, gone on to jazz stardom (is there is such a creature in jazz). Trumpeter Dave Douglas has been raised to the top of the jazz polls for his composing, trumpet playing, and innovative small groups including Charms of the Night Sky, Tiny Bell Trio, and various Quintets, Quartets, and Sextets. Bassist Greg Cohen, besides recording two of the hippest sessions as leader for the Japanese Label DIW Way Low and Moment To Moment, has kept the pulse for musicians as diverse as Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Laurie Anderson. Drummer Joey Baron's playing has been a model for every Downtown-influenced percussionist of the last 15 years. He can move with ease from post-bop to avant and post-punk without missing as they say "a beat."
For a while it appeared that Masada was just another step on John Zorn's eclectic career path. He first grabbed our attention with his reconfigurations of film music from Ennio Morricone to Carl Stalling. Then went on to a rapid-fire hardcore punk esthetic with his bands Naked City and Painkiller, only to turn that energy into the music of Ornette Coleman. He has moved freely between semi-classical avant-garde music and free jazz playing with and producing new artists from the US and Japan. Since 1994, his identity has been most strongly identified with Masada, an assimilation of his love of Ornette Coleman's openness to jazz time and composition and a Hebrew folk music.
While there are ten studio recordings of this band, their live shows reveal the energy and passion both Zorn and his audiences feel for this music. While the prior live recordings from Taipei, Jerusalem, Sevilla, and Middleheim (all on Zorn's Tzadik label) showcase this popular band, none reaches the level of energy this live date at New York's Tonic club. The small room yields an intimate sound and the band feeds off the crowd's energy, not unlike the Ramones did in the heyday of CBGB's.
While Zorn and Douglas are the frontline stars, Joey Baron's drumming drives the audience into a frenzied response and his bandmates to higher heights. The two-disc set is an exhausting two hours of music. Repeated in both sets is "Malkhut," the closest the band treads into Naked City's jump-cut styles. Stop-starting this classical/punk/Masada/surf/bebop tune, Dave Douglas plays a bit of a tribute to Don Cherry within the context of the song as Baron addresses Billy Higgins cymbal work. The remaining compositions are satisfying workouts with Zorn's biting signature honk and flutter tossed in throughout.
Just when this reviewer believed Masada had indeed run its natural course, this live date leaves me wanting much more.
Personnel: John Zorn: Alto Saxophone; Dave Douglas: Trumpet; Joey Baron: Drums; Greg Cohen: Bass.