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Masada: Live at Tonic 1999

John Kelman By

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Masada
Live at Tonic 1999
Tzadik
2004

With the growth of saxophonist/composer/bandleader/producer John Zorn's Masada project into a veritable cottage industry that includes Masada Recital , Masada String Trio , Masada Guitars , Electric Masada and The Unknown Masada , it may be easy to forget how, ten years ago, his Masada Quartet, with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron burst onto the scene with a series of ten rapidly-released studio records that combined a Jewish music sensibility with the improvisational edge and sense of adventure of Ornette Coleman. And while, in the ensuing years, we've been treated to a variety of live recordings including the recently-released 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 7 , nothing ever really comes close to actually being there, to seeing the incredible communication between the players and the amazing direction that Zorn is able to give, all the while blowing his horn with complete abandon.

With the release of Masada Live at Tonic 1999 Zorn and director Antonio Ferrera aim to rectify that by releasing one particularly hot set from one particularly hot night at one of Zorn's main stomping grounds, Tonic in New York City. One of the appeals of Tonic is its small size. Amplification is completely unnecessary, and while there are no technical details listed on the artfully-packaged DVD, the suspicion is that this was a very bare bones recording - a number of strategically placed room mikes above the stage and three cameras from which Ferrera captures as much as possible of the live energy that is Masada.

Filmed in a verité fashion, with no fades or cutaways between tunes - you get to see Baron, with his perennial grin, joking with Zorn and Cohen throughout the course of the 70-minute set - this is as close as possible to being there. There's no editing out when towels are passed around and the group gets to wipe down after a dynamic rendition of "Ne'eman." Everything is there to see and hear, just as it would be if you were in the room.

As Masada performances go, this is easily on par with 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 7 , although it is interesting to see how differently the band can pace a set from night to night. Opening with the intense and frenetic "Hath-Arob," the live experience of watching Zorn direct the group with the subtlest of hand motions helps explain how they manage to circumnavigate seemingly impossible feats of starts and stops, and rapid changes of feel. While everyone is clearly having a lot of fun, there is no question that the concentration level is high. Baron, in particular, seems to be particularly attuned to his surroundings.

And while the impressive capabilities of Baron, Douglas and Zorn are always evident on record, it is only when given the opportunity to watch the band that Cohen, the seemingly quiet member, emerges as an inarguable equal. Not that any of the group would ever think of him as being anything less, but when the opportunity arises to watch his interaction with Baron, and witness some of his unusual performance techniques, one realizes just how significant a player he truly is.

But as much of a revelation as Cohen is, this is really a group of equals. Baron manages to coax more sound out of a small kit than would be thought possible; Douglas uses extended concepts to elicit odd sonorities from his trumpet; and Zorn's position as one of the premier alto players of his generation becomes all the more clear, extending the sonic possibilities of his instrument through circular breathing, an incredible diversity of embouchure, muting the open end of his horn with his knee and other remarkable techniques.

Still, at the end of the day technical wizardry means naught if the music doesn't compel. From the up-tempo "Kochot," where Baron is virtually on fire, to the more relaxed "Sippur" and "Paran," to the somewhat schizophrenic bonus track "Ashnah," Zorn and the group understand how to pace a set, raising levels of excitement only to give the audience a chance to breathe when things have reached an unimaginable fever pitch.

With everyone in the group off to other interests, and Zorn seemingly more interested in widening the breadth of interpretation of his now significantly large Masada songbook, the opportunity to catch this original quartet in concert is rare indeed. Thanks to Zorn, Douglas, Cohen, Baron and director Antonio Ferrera, for capturing a particularly vibrant set, and leaving a permanent document of a band that truly needs to be seen to be believed.

Track Listing: Hath-Arob; Sippur; Jair; Ne'eman; Kedushah; Beeroth; Kochot; Shechem; Paran

Bonus Tracks: Ashnah; Katzatz


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