Friday, June 30, 2006

The Zorn zone

The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is on!

Last night we took in John Zorn's Acoustic Masada, an event I'd been looking forward to for half a year.

Phenomenal. I don't know how to begin to describe this music. It's deeply familiar, even while it's strange and I encounter parts of Zorn's project for the first time.

It reminds me of... everything.

His sax sounds like ducks and sick cows, and street traffic, hordes of forgotten people, there's a noise he sustains that sounds like a violin when you draw the bow across the strings on the wrong side of the bridge. I sat with my mouth open, watching a trumpet play percussion, and a bass sound like a piano, and drums like an intricate tap dance transforming into butter-leather butterflies and dipping into gritty 1950s movies set in New York. All the while, nostalgic melodies hover.

All this noise so clean and precise, each of the musicians completely in control, creating this energy, stealing it from everyone in the room, a palpable tension that suddenly breathed a collective breath, felt peace and calm, before again the collective soul filled with anger and melancholia and the adrenaline of building something wholly new out of something so very old.

From Wikipedia:
Masada is not so much a band as a musical project that John Zorn embarked upon in the early '90s. It is a collection of more than 200 short tunes that have been written in accordance with a number of rules. These include the maximum number of staves, the modes or scales that are used and the fact that they must be playable by any small group of instruments. Given the historical associations of the project's name (see Masada), the Hebrew titles of the compositions, and the Jewish imagery on the covers of the associated albums, Zorn was clearly exploring his Jewish roots. "The idea with Masada is to produce a sort of radical Jewish music, a new Jewish music which is not the traditional one in a different arrangement, but music for the Jews of today. The idea is to put Ornette Coleman and the Jewish scales together."

As for those historical associations, the Romans breached the wall of the fortress Masada in 73 CE:
When they entered the fortress, however, the Romans discovered that its approximately 1000 defenders had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and committed mass suicide rather than face certain capture or defeat by their enemies (which would probably have led to slavery or execution). Because the Judaism strongly discourages suicide, however, the defenders were reported to have drawn lots and slain each other in turn, down to the last man, who would be the only one to actually take his own life. The storerooms were apparently left standing to show that the defenders retained the ability to live and chose the time of their death.

I'm not sure what any of it means, and frankly for the timebeing I'd rather not consider its political implications — I don't think I'm mature enough to not let it spoil the music for me. The words, the titles are sufficiently vague, and Zorn is silent on any intent other than musical, that I'm comfortable with what meaning this music has for me.

One recommendation for this show recognizes that:
It recalls the collective suicide of the Masada community in biblical Israel, but is more about music that gets to your gut. Zorn's original Masada quartet combines individual prowess in a collective spirit of creative renewal: trumpeter Dave Douglas, drummer Joey Baron and bassist Greg Cohen.

They're tight as a group, with Zorn obviously directing them, raising a leg (camouflage cargo pants) or jerking his head to adust their volumes, shift their tempos. The setting, at Place des Arts, was a bit formal for my liking, but I'm almost scared to consider what energy might be drawn and released elsewhere.

Two encores, refusing a third only, I think, out of sheer exhaustion.

The performance was recorded for Radio-Canada and will be broadcast July 16, 20:00 EST.

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