Sometimes not playing together on an ongoing basis can be a good thing. While there is no question that there are clear advantages to working regularly, distance can also yield unexpected benefits. Most jazz musicians who make any kind of living at their craft work in a variety of contexts, so there is always a certain amount of cross-pollination, as lessons learned in one setting inform all. And while long stretches of continuous playing create a comfort level and degree of trust, once that rapport has been established, then periods of separation can often actually increase the energy of discovery and bring an increased freshness to the table.
Such is the case with alto saxophonist/composer John Zorn's Jewish music-meets-freedom Masada Quartet. While trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron are so busy with other projects including, in Douglas' case, a full schedule as a leader in his own right, when they do get together for the occasional performance, sparks are bound to fly. When Zorn held a month's residence at Tonic in New York City in September of '03 to celebrate his 50th birthday, it came as no surprise that the Masada Quartet occupied a position of prominence, performing two sets a night for three consecutive evenings. The Quartet is, after all, the flagship group of Zorn's most popular and enduring project, and it was the first vehicle for an ever-expanding book of music and musical environments that now include the Bar Kokhba Project, Masada String Trio and Electric Masada.
To some degree it should come as no surprise that the set Zorn has chosen to release comes from the first night that Masada played. There is an incredible energy to the set, which includes a number of tunes that are now reaching the category of "classic," including a burning version of "Piram," which has been recorded by the group more than any other piece in the Masada songbook. The communication among the four players is nothing short of miraculous. While Zorn and Douglas always seem to operate in each others' pockets, on this night they sound especially in synch. This may well be the most musically animated that Cohen, normally the rock that anchors the group, has ever been. Never less than solid, there is an energy that makes his playing seem to jump out of the speakers, in particular on the frenetic reading of "Acharei Mot." Baron is simply on fire, his ability to intuit what is coming from the other players almost supernatural.
As always, a Masada set traverses a range of dynamics, managing to combine moments of reckless abandon with staggering ensemble passages, often within a few short moments. The only thing better than hearing Masada live is watching them do it, and the perfect companion piece to 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 7 will be the DVD Live at Tonic , due out on November 9. Both assert that Masada is indeed alive and well as it enters its second decade.