John Zorn & Masada
Le Ciminiere Amphitheatre, Catania, Italy
July 10, 2006

About two years after the concert by the big line-up called Electric Masada, the Etnafest Festival gives us an "almost-present" (only 8/10 euros) in the form of a concert by John Zorn with the line-up that for the last few years has been one of the most successful little groups in today's jazz panorama: the Masada acoustic quartet, where Dave Douglas's trumpet, Greg Cohen's double bass and Joey Baron's drums play alongside the leader's alto sax, performing a repertory that - using a definition that maybe makes things appear a bit too simple, but really not that much - has been defined as combining Hebrew folk music and Ornette Coleman's free jazz.

I've always considered the fact that with the passing of time Zorn's name has become a kind of brand as quite bizarre; the same thing has happened with the label he founded, Tzadik (which has been able to give extra credibility to many a recording project); also with difficult to pin down concepts such as "Jewish Music"; and with related sub-brands, such as, for instance, Masada. There is obviously nothing wrong with that (and this says nothing about the music). I've often had the impression that quite a few of the musicians that appear to find fault with Zorn's music would rather be in his shoes (but surely not in the pants he wore on the night of the concert I attended: a retina-threatening combination of colours that was quite something). But I have to say that I've often found the response of Zorn's fans (both in their "written" and their "oral" versions) to be quite on the uncritical side, the prevailing attitude being that of easily accepting anything.

I immediately buy my ticket. The real surprise being that - it's a cold night, and what if it rains? - the concert will not be held in the open amphitheatre but in the Auditorium of the Le Ciminiere center. Which is OK: nice acoustics, a very clear P.A., air conditioning, nice chairs... ideal conditions to forget the fact that for about an hour we had to queue like beasts, in hot air, easy prey for hungry mosquitoes.

Of course, using easy-to-whistle material as a starting point is nothing new in jazz - just think of Sonny Rollins and Albert Ayler. What is certain is that Zorn's quartet is really post-Ornette: the excellent rhythm section plays with a sense of independence (often from the charts) that other line-ups that are said to be similar don't possess at all. Joey Baron has a "big" sound that to an inattentive ear could signify a certain lack of subtlety; on the contrary, he plays with a lot of finesse (and I have the impression that his drums appear as sounding big because the sound of the front line is quite weak). Nice double bass performance by Greg Cohen, who at times read from really difficult charts (also while soloing) under Zorn's proud eyes. My two main perplexities are about the two winds instruments: on record and in concert, Dave Douglas has always sounded to me as being a good, mature musician, but maybe one that doesn't possess those qualities that make a musician sound like a master; it's entirely possible that in today's jazz he's the best there is, but this would speak more "cons" the state of jazz than "pro" Douglas. About Zorn the instrumentalist, one could maybe say that he is an acquired taste. But his timbre - so flat and "neutral" - while working to perfection in certain contexts, doesn't sound as being the most appropriate for the "melodic avant-garde" material that the group plays tonight. Zorn's emotional feelings are apparent; that the listener gets those feelings I'm not so sure.

Zorn's physical stance is the same we've seen in countless pictures: left leg up in the air, bent neck, squashed tone. There's sometimes a hint of show-biz, like when some left-hand signals are given to the rhythm section while the right hand plays the instrument, all so "in the moment" (but both King Crimson and Gentle Giant played similar things without that air of self-importance); final announcements are quite absurd, with Zorn shouting the names of the players while staying a few feet away from the microphone he had used up to a few moments before. Minor points. Two big ones: every time the sax and trumpet start playing, the energy level goes down, to go up again as soon as the rhythm section is left alone (this is the first time i see something like this); then, especially when he soloes, Zorn appears as if he's putting together some disparate elements by brute force, with "squeak" and "honk" coming off one catalogue and that melodic phrase coming off another. "Problems in composition" is the last of the problems in the minds of those attending the concert (about 1.200?): they clap after every solo and every vivacious climate, just like a TV studio audience is supposed to.

An embarrassing moment awaits us at the end, when a guy (I was told he's the Artistic Director of the Festival, this being the last concert) embraces Zorn inside the space of a door kept ajar, and then points to the clapping audience, inviting the quartet to perform an encore.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006 | July 26, 2006