Occasionally, however, he takes on a project that makes him . . . well, nearly accessible. This might be disappointing to some people who enjoy his more experimental works, but when it came to Masada, the jazz quartet that existed for about fifteen or so years, he and his cohorts created one of great ensembles of that form of music to be found anywhere in recent decades. In this remarkable quarter, Zorn also gets to show that he is a truly great alto sax player, above and beyond the notoriety he receives for his experimentalism (and upper register pyrotechnics.)
Zorn has always professed openly his admiration for the great Ornette Coleman and especially his amazing quartets of the late 1950s and early 1960s and demonstrated this with his Spy vs. Spy recording of Coleman tunes done in speed-metal-like tempos! Consequently, the alto sax player formed Masada with that structure, including Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass, and drummer Joey Baron.
As with the classic Coleman quartets, the interplay between the frontline alto sax and trumpet get plenty of attention, as it should. To hear Zorn and Douglas harmonize and then play off each other's inventive and stunning lines is a wonder to behold. However, ears should also be focused, as with the Coleman rhythm section of bassist Charlie Haden and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, on Masada's remarkable pairing of Cohen and Baron, who keep the propulsion going at the highest levels during the faster tunes, but also show great sensitivity and support on the ballads and slower pieces.
What makes Masada further intriguing is the concept of melding that Coleman-inspired format with the emphasis of Jewish folk melodies but with an emphasis on what Zorn calls "radical Jewish culture" where he explores the traditions of his heritage infused with the modernism that has been his forte. Because of the stellar improvisational skills of the band, the many live albums can sound as fresh and distinctive as the versions from the studio recordings and, as a truly awesome outfit in concert, Masada is likely at its best on these live recordings.
Probably, Live in Sevilla, recorded in that venerable Spanish city in 2000 and released on Zorn's label Tzadik with typically beautiful packaging, is the most impressive from the standpoint of sound quality. The clarity, crispness and separation are tremendous and each instrument can be heard with phenomenal richness. As noted above, the telepathy between the four members is a wonder, especially with Cohen and Baron being as "front line" as a rhythm section can be, and then Zorn and Douglas are a formidable improvisatory duo whose work complements and balances one another. Indeed, Masada is a truly balanced ensemble, as remarkable for the slower-tempo and balladic pieces as the faster, powerful and propulsive workouts.
It is also intriguing to hear Zorn's Klezmer-inspired melodies as launching pads for these excursions into group interplay and otherwordly soloing. It is hard to imagine that anything could be done to further expand the Masada sound, and Zorn ended the jazz ensemble's fantastic run a few years back, but there are other ensembles, including Electric Masada, the Masada String Trio and the awesome Bar Kokhba Sextet, that bring the songbook into different formulations and give new dimensions that show that Zorn has created a project that will almost certainly stand as his greatest achievement.
Masada: Live in Sevilla (Tzadik, 2000)
1. Ne'eman 12:36
2. Katzatz 4:56
3. Hadasha 10:53
4. Beeroth 7:06
5. Yoreh 9:49
6. Hazor 6:27
7. Nashon 10:08
8. Lakom 5:06
9. Bith Aneth 9:33