One of the fringe benefits of living in New York City is the occasional open invitation into John Zorn's woodshed. Naked City and Masada were both borne of monthlong stints wherein the formative bands swelled and gelled before the audiences' eyes.
The Electric Masada woodshed has been of a different sort - so different that I didn't at first notice I was in it. Over a couple of weeklong stings at Tonic, Electric Masada has sounded more or less like Bar Kokhba plugged in, with John Medeski leading the jams from his organ. But Zorn has been working the band, and the first set they played on the last night in January was huge. They broke out with all the energy and fast-cut intricacy of the first Naked City album, the familiar themes no longer standing in the way of the band.
Zorn has moved from giving the group heads to play to arranging the pieces anew for the electric sextet. The first set showed much of the greatness Zorn has shown as an arranger in the past: the quick shifts, the noir settings, the overlay and construction of pieces like Spillaine and The Big Gundown that put Zorn on the international map in the 1980s and '90s. (Friday's second set marked a return to jammyland, hopefully a direction away from which he's steering the band.)
This version of Masada, at least as presented for the first set, is now tightly arranged, dynamic and exciting. Bassist Trevor Dunn is rock solid. Marc Ribot's guitar blisters. The twin keyboards of Medeski on Hammond B3 and Jamie Saft on Fender Rhodes are carefully sculpted, providing the surf-Mancini grooves and taking the group deep into Miles mode. Kenny Wollenson and Cyro Baptista are a tight but surprisingly light percussion team, and Zorn rides the wave, his horn sounding as good as ever.
Part of Zorn's genius (and no, I don't use the term lightly) is finding players with chops enough to subm e rge into any number of styles and then surface forsolos. That's what made Naked City able to move from hardcore to Morricone to ambient drone to Charles Ives songs (although the Ives was never quite convincing). And that's what Zorn in instilling into Electric Masada - the ability to be greater than the sum of their parts.
Rumor has it the group is playing this year's Le Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, and with Zorn's series of recordings marking Masada's 10th anniversary underway this year, an Electric Masada disc (hopefully a live one) will no doubt be out by December. Without even hearing it, without even knowing it's in the works, I'm willing to say it'll be worth the money.
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