Concert Review

John Zorn directing Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba & Masada at The Barbican Centre, 25 January 2000

It was evident from the names of the three overlapping ensembles that this was to be a concert in which Zorn would be drawing on his Jewish heritage. Nor was it surprising to anyone present at his 1988 concert, 'Modern Chamber Music', that he would be presenting us with an altogether 'cooler' persona than that of the spiky postmodernist of Naked City - the enfant terrible of New York's Knitting Factory having turned, for the present at least, into a benignly laid-back figure with long hair, a baggy tee-shirt & camouflage pants.

The first set of the evening featured the Masada String Trio: Mark Feldman (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello) & Greg Cohen (bass). Anyone expecting the challenging & often screechy sound of Zorn's work for string quartet - Forbidden Fruit, for string quartet & turntables, for example, or Cat O'Nine Tails (Tex Avery Directs the Marquis de Sade) - [Kronos Quartet Short Stories, Elektra Nonesuch 7559-79310-2] - was in for a disappointment. What was offered was a series of short dance-like pieces, with explicit references to the Yiddish traditions of Eastern Europe, & with each of the three musicians called upon to play long stretches of pizzicato. This was an opener of considerable charm, directed by the composer, who sat huddled on the floor at the front of the stage. The brevity of the pieces, each typically three to four minutes long, made for a somewhat fragmented first set: charming, but including nothing that would frighten the horses.

The second ensemble, Bar Kokhba, takes its name from the Jewish freedom fighter Simeon Bar Kokhba, hailed by some as the Messiah, who launched a revolt against the Romans in 132 AD. This was a six-piece group in which the earlier trio was expanded by Zorn's old side-kick Joey Baron on drums, Cyro Baptista, percussion & Marc Ribot, electric guitar. The presence of the two percussion players & Ribot's solid, quite spare guitar work gave the group a very pleasing density of texture. The music they performed very much recalled Zorn's Film Works of the late 80's. Again Zorn conducted, this time from a chair at the side of the stage, with a minimal gestural range - a 'gimme, gimme' hand movement, alternating with a palms-outward instruction to 'cool it'. And coolness, along with a lush, slightly cloying lyricism, was what we got. The cheerfully bouncy Baron seemed throughout to be held in check, though his interplay with the (to my ear) over-slick Baptista was impeccable; in the same way Ribot's performance, on an instrument actually designed to be played pizzicato, offered a needed counterweight to the rather oversweet plucking of the other string players. As in the first set, the music was faultless in its execution, but left one longing for the playful anarchy which characterises Zorn's own performances on saxophone. It was disappointing that (contrary to the note on the flyer) the composer did not himself play with the larger ensemble.

The third set was the first UK outing, so far as I'm aware, of Masada, the jazz quartet which Zorn has been leading since the mid 90's, & which has to date released no fewer than ten CD's. [The name 'Masada', is derived from the Jewish garrison in which the besieged defenders committed mass suicide rather than sacrifice themselves to the Romans.] The music again had a Jewish flavour, with occasional hints in the composer's own reed playing of Kletzmer, but the presiding genius was clearly Zorn's long-time hero Ornette Coleman. Tightly grouped in the centre of the stage, the quartet (Zorn on alto, Cohen & Baron on bass & drums) also featured Dave Douglas on trumpet. The set was highly energised & exhilaratingly free - Coleman-like 'harmolodic' pieces full of twists & turns, with Baron given a chance to demonstrate his characteristic exuberance & with a fine & inventive interplay between the the two wind instruments, Douglas offering a strong, flurrying performance slightly reminiscent of the young Don Cherry. Zorn himself was on excellent form, pleasing the audience by interspersing his solos with his trademark honks & duck-calls. The final section of the concert was in every respect a more red-blooded affair than the first two.

Anyone wishing to hear the Masada quartet playing similar repertoire could safely buy any of the handsomely (& near identically) packaged CD's on the DIW label. To start at the beginning, try 'Alef', 'Beit' & 'Gimel' [DIW 888/889/890].

To any one unfamiliar with Zorn's work I would unhesitatingly recommend the two CD's he recorded in the late 80's with George Lewis on trombone & Bill Frisell on guitar, 'News for Lulu' & 'More News for Lulu'; [hat Art 6005/6055]; these, in my view, are among the finest jazz recordings of recent years.


[Seen&Heard has dipped a toe into jazz, a musical field considered widely to be as serious and important as many other 'serious' musics. I Saw & Heard John Zorn at The Barbican with my friend Colin Still, documentary film maker and aspiring saxophonist, to whose wide knowledge and expertise I gladly defer.

I enjoyed especially the string trio's expertise, directed by John Zorn with precise gestures, sitting self-effacingly cross-legged on the floor, rather than dominating proceedings from a podium and drawing attention away from the instrumentalists.

Readers' comments about a continuing jazz input would be welcomed? Editor]

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