brni (brni) wrote,

Book Review Time, Part Z

I've only heard a few slices from John Zorn's career – the Naked City stuff, some of his soundtrack work (mostly for films you've never seen) – so while I figured I knew what I was getting myself into, I barely had a clue of the scope of it.

The opening group (The Jamie Saft Trio – piano, bass, drums) was impressive, without being interesting. Their more laid-back songs were really good, but they alternated that with Ornette Coleman-esque free jazz sounding stuff that sounded like improvisation but looked scripted. Gordon leaned over and said, “They're sort of a jazz version of Dream Theater, aren't they?” As I said, impressive, without being interesting. Imagine our dismay when John Zorn's band came out, and the first three people out were these three guys. More on that later.

The second opening act was Erik Friedlander. He came out with his cello, bowed, sat, and began to play. Three songs in and it was my turn to comment: “Well, this is worth the price of admission all by itself.” He played, bowing slow, emotive phrases and frantic ones. He plucked. He strummed and fingerpicked, playing the cello like a spanish guitar. He even played it touch-style. The music combined classical, klezmer, gypsy, spanish, rock and jazz, flowing between the styles or intermingling them. Later I discovered that all these songs were part of the Masada Songbook, and that these songs migrate and morph and get reinterpreted in all manner of ways.

In 2004, John Zorn wrote over 300 new tunes for his popular Masada Project, and he now initiates a new series of recordings featuring the best players out of the burgeoning Masada family in dynamic units performing compositions from Masada Book Two – The Book of Angels.

The Masada Project is an expression of something Zorn calls “Radical Jewish Culture.”

As the jewish people continue to grow into the 21st century, they carry their culture along with them. Tradition, history and the past have always played a strong role in the life of the jews but it is also important to think about the future. As we grow as a people, it seems natural that our culture should grow along with us. Just as jazz music has progressed from dixieland to free jazz and beyond in a few short decades, and classical music went from tonality to chromaticism, noise and back again, it has occurred to me that the same kind of growth should be possible—and is perhaps essential—for jewish music. Questions arose, as did the need to address them. The cds on the Radical Jewish Culture series is a first attempt at addressing some of these issues.

After Erik Friedlander had completed his set, the headlining band, John Zorn's Electric Masada, made their way to the stage. The man sitting next to me, a fifty-somethingish man with a youngish face, a ratty shirt and orange camo pants stood up and went up to the stage and picked up a saxophone. The lineup that night was John Zorn on sax and band, Marc Ribot (Lounge Lizards, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello) on guitar, Jamie Saft on electric piano and devices, Trevor Dun on bass, three drummers (Joey Baron and Kenny Wollesen with full drum kits and Cyro Baptista with a partial drum kit and all manner of other devices, ranging from bongoes to japanese drums to triangles to a gong to a megaphone – oh, also duck calls), and Ikue Mori on Macbook Pro). Zorn sat on the stage facing the band, away from the audience, lifted his arm, and they began to play.

In 1987, Zorn developed a game called Cobra. This was a musician's game with consisted of a leader and musicians. Everyone had cards which could be held up, and which, with corresponding hand gestures, generated music. The cards and gestures were used by the leader to indicate who was to play, who was to be soloing, the tempo, the volume, the style, the key, etc. So one combination would be a mid-tempo rhumba in 6/4 with piano, bass and drums, and with a few hand-signals, that could change abruptly to a 4/4 heavy metal thrash with the guitarist soloing. The musicians weren't simply pawns in this. They could counter-signal, saying, in effect, no, I think that we should be moving to a country-western swing and that the pianist should be soloing.

For Electric Masada, this interplay was at work, though without the cards. Rather than wholly improvised music, there were songs from the Masada Songbook, and these generated the loose framework within which this interplay took place. Zorn would express with hand signals who played when, how loud or soft, how fast, who would be soloing and who'd be supporting. He'd bounce things between players, using a swooping gesture to indicate that one musician was to pick up where another left off, and this was done flawlessly, drummers never missing a beat, solos migrating from player to player. A hard rock beat would devolve into complete cacophony at Zorn's urging, louder and harder and more brutal than the hardest death-metal thrash I've ever heard and then, with a single gesture, everyone was playing a Mancini-like Swing Noir. It was truly was one of the most amazing things I have seen on a stage.

The great showman of the night was the Baptista, with his bright red spectacles and his propensity to bring out something completely weird that worked perfectly. At one point, he was playing this long, yellow thing that he was blowing into and twisting around, creating strangely compelling bird-like sounds, but using them to play a melody. After the show, I asked him what the yellow thing was.

“It is a gas pipe,” he said in a heavy Brazilian accent. “From the Home Depot.” He held it up for me to see. “This way, I can play it and also commit suicide, you know, if it is a bad gig.”
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