Behold the great and glorious wonder of music and its neverending mindbend. Behold works of greatness trailblazing and incomprehensible. Behold Electric Masada last night at Yoshi’s.
Last night, Zorn ended his five-day residency at Yoshi’s with an explosive band that made everyone in the San Francisco audience feel giddy and made his famous hardcore-jazz albums Naked City and Torture Garden seem like mere novelties in comparison. Electric Masada, an 8-piece grouping of John Zorn, Jamie Saft, Trevor Dunn, Kenny Wollensen, Joey Baron, Cyro Baptista, Ikue Mori and Marc Ribot is not something that can be easily described in words.
Here’s some: Celestial roadkill. Controlled chaos. Blatant intensity. Eruptive slaughter. Unbridled jubilation.
The hyper-prolific Zorn, aged 55 with no trace of mellowing out, spent the evening with his back to the crowd, “playing” the seven other musicians like instruments with a series of complex hand signals. He’d point to Saft to play a solo, then wiggle his outstretched fingers to Baron, who’d rattle on the cymbals; he’d pull his hands apart and chop the air, whereupon the band would fall on a series of whole notes; he’d shake his finger up and down for Ribot to trill two notes, swing his arms up to increase Wollensen’s volume or point rapidly to individual members in succession to create a stereo ping-pong effect before pointing at his head to take everyone back to the top.
It was an full-body galvanizing experience, somewhere between Alan Silva’s Seasons, Black Sabbath’s Masters of Reality and Andy Statman’s Jewish Klezmer Music. On Thursday, while watching the Masada Quartet, the crowd was enveloped inside Zorn’s music, trying to place its brain inside of his and meditating on how it might be mentally constructed. Last night there was no choice but to sit in the chair and let the waves of sound rush by.
Electric Masada is the great and ferocious culmination of jazz’s goal toward spontaneous composition in action. During the third song, Ribot took a solo, in fits and starts. After nothing really gelled he gazed up at Zorn with a look that said, “Well, I’m done.” Zorn ignored him, and kept working the rest of the band, pulling his hand at Ribot for him to keep going.
There’s a certain frustrated freedom that comes with doing something you’ve indicated that you don’t want to do, and it was with such freedom that Ribot’s solo immediately transformed from a standard-issue blues-rock housing to the totally unique Marc Ribot that Zorn well knows looms right under the surface.
Suddenly wailing, Ribot held it down while Zorn motioned around the room for certain sections to fall apart, to go half-time, to stop entirely for a few seconds. Each twist brought out even more invention and snake-like tenacity in Ribot, and soon he didn’t want to stop. Zorn bit his reed, leaned into the mic and growled his approval.
Baptista swung a plastic tube over his head. Zorn and Mori traded high-pitched saxophone and laptop tweets. Wollensen and Baron thundered in and out of time on two drum kits. Saft and Dunn held down what shards of groove were left on a vintage keyboard and bass. And then, Zorn banging his hand against Ribot’s shoulder, he swirled his palm around and brought the whole thing to a forceful, sudden, distorted end.
No one in the standing ovation that followed is likely to ever forget it.
How in the hell to describe the show I saw last night?
I could start by explaining that John Zorn plays “radical Jewish culture” jazz, though no socio-psychological theory applies. Not, at least, on the surface. What John Zorn has done with his Masada quartet is to essentially cohere the souls of four musicians and thrust them up as one giant, overwhelming force.
Intellectualizing it is about as useless as humping a flagpole.
John Zorn is not a very imposing man, nor a particularly recognizable one. A friend at Amoeba tells the story of his being denied a sale for not having ID to go along with his credit card (another employee recognized him, and intervened). He arrived on stage last night in camouflage pants, a red T-shirt, a black sweatshirt and tassels. He barely spoke to the crowd, other than to introduce the band, and to field a shouted “Thank you!” by shouting back “No, thank you! The worst part is, we’re not getting paid to do this. We’re getting paid to travel.”
Indeed, the $50 ticket price went largely toward the cost of flying 21 different musicians and instruments from the East Coast who are taking part in Zorn’s historic five-day residency here at Yoshi’s. Every night features a different band, with a different concept and approach. $50 might seem steep to some, unless one considers the rarity of his Bay Area performances. (Masada last played in Oakland ten years ago.) Here’s my advice. Beg, borrow or steal. Raise the $50. Go see John Zorn at Yoshi’s.
Yes, it sounds like a spiel from one of Zorn’s many diehard followers, who are glossy-eyed in their reverence for the man to the point of extreme narrow-mindedness. We’ve all known people who preach the gospel of Zorn, listen only to Zorn, and eschew other musics as lacking sufficient Zorniness. Do you want to join Heaven’s Gate, they ask? Zorn, Zorn, Zorn, they chant.
But the truth is that to see Masada last night was to be baptized in the blood. The opening: a slow, simple melody. A little flourish here and there, basic all around. It grew, slowly. The control and restraint, the fluid incremental rise into exhortation, the climbing atop of each other until the song’s peak with everything before it laid visible and small. Gliding, and out, and holy shit.
The songs, fine and modal as they are, didn’t matter; it’s what this band did with them. We caught the 10pm set, which featured compositions from Book II of the Masada songbook—songs that the group is not nearly as familiar with as Book I. Rather than an obstacle, this was a blessing of innocence and discovery.
Joey Baron smiles widely while playing incredibly, and his solos were among the most lyrical drum solos ever. Greg Cohen’s interplay with Baron couldn’t have been more prescient, as he’d anticipate where Baron’s playing stopped to slide into his own incisive solos. Dave Douglas and Zorn were just as in step with each other, listening for the slightest fluctuation to capitalize upon in each other’s eruptive bursts, with Douglas at times running around the stage.
And Zorn. Does he have an endless reservoir of tone? Does he carry the history of every saxophone player before him and take that history to new places of imagination? Does he play with his mouthpiece upside down? He bogglingly unleashed his circular breathing, rabidly dancing lines and his trademark growl throughout the hour-and-a-half with just a tiny sampling from his hundreds of compositions. Is he a genius, or merely possessed?
On the way out, we bought tickets for Sunday. Euphoria carried me home.