I only got to attend the first of two Barcelona concerts by John Zorn's travelling circus. After all the controversy of David Hajdu's article (cf. Pat Donaher, Peter Breslin and Armen Nalbandian, twice), I was looking forward to some "assaultive noise crafted with meticulous care," to quote David Hajdu, but I got a whole lot more meticulous care than assaultive noise. Each of the three sets provided a distinct view into the Masada songbook, but all seemed to carry formal concerns and stylistic mash-ups nearer to their hearts than the expression of Jewishness.
Bar Kokhba mostly used gently-swaying Latin rhythms and more vigorous free-jazz-inflected ones to underpin the typical Masada minor-key Jewish themes, with a few side-rips into tango and surf music. Zorn kept a firm, if discrete, grasp of the situation from the conductor's chair. The music was both surprisingly easy listening and satisfyingly well-written. Marc Ribot was the standout soloist, for me. On one tune, he created a time-stopping junction between Cuban and cowboy movie soundtrack guitar styles; elsewhere he followed up a driving Mark Feldman solo with floating, distended notes. So soon after seeing him in action with Sean Noonan, it was fascinating to watch him in a completely different context, still managing to bring a vast array of styles together in a completely logical, integrated way.
It's unfair of me to single Ribot out, though. Joey Baron, Cyro Baptista (who I came across outside before the show and thought "Who's that interesting-looking guy in the gray-flecked goatee and red glasses?"), Greg Cohen, Erik Friedlander and Feldman are all exceptional and sensitive musicians. Feldman managed to maintain a strong drive even when he broke away from strict adherence to the band's propulsion and displayed an astounding range of timbres on the last piece, when he went from a very high whistle to half-voiced low-register rumbles.
Despite his massive beard and the "Reggae/Metal/Blues" description on his MySpace page, Jamie Saft's trio (with Greg Cohen and Kenny Wollenson) was the most classically jazz of the three ensembles: it adhered to the usual soloist-accompanist division of labour and head-solos-head shape. Bar Kokhba's attention to form was probably no greater, but in the piano trio context, it was all the more evident: the Jewish themes appeared, dissolved into bluesy solos or furious cascades that emerged from moody fragments, then resolidified. The piano might have been scurrying over a free rumble, but a few unison hits or a collective wax and wane showed that everything was tightly controlled and delimited.
Despite the obvious stylistic differences, this trio didn't work all that differently from, say, Bill Charlap's. This was a little frustrating, but also provided opportunities for a few tunes that actually sounded like real songs rather than the mere running of a scale that some of the Masada compositions seem to be. A couple of tunes reached a "Gymnopédie"-like intimacy on which Saft seemed to hold back each note a tiny bit, to poignant effect. Another combined funky hard bop, a Latin beat and a Jewish tonality to end up sounding like some kind of weird throwback '50s exotica.
Asmodeus provided a radical change to the previous two sets from its very first notes, as Ribot, Trevor Dunn and Calvin Weston simultaneously erupted into an electric roar. Ribot showed that he could play all-out noise and classic rock just as well as all-out melody (along with, I'm sure, all-out changes, though he didn't do it here). Dunn tore into lines derived from metal. Weston was like a man possessed, playing hard-hitting thrash-funk. Despite the volume and my distance from the stage, the drummer could be clearly heard screaming - unmiked - from behind his kit. For those members of the audience who might have missed it, though, he continued screaming as the trio took its bows, after having ended the set with a loud smash of the gigantic gong at the back of the stage. Zorn conducted again, which made plain that despite the energy and volume, conditions were still very much controlled. Indeed, an unaccompanied introduction of Weston's felt like extreme skiing: an adrenaline rush wrapped in pinpoint control.
Despite the high quality of and enjoyment I'd gotten from everything I'd just heard, that last point nagged at me a little. Would a little more looseness have enhanced or weakened the performances? Also, I couldn't help but wonder if the whole Jewish angle really mattered: did it go deeper than those zigzagging minor-key melodies, to serve as compositional focus, perhaps? If they were merely a veneer to loosely unify a wide stylistic range, does that make Hajdu's interpretation of the Brubeck anecdote stronger, or weaker? Because, if Zorn's Masada repertoire isn't really about Jewishness, then why couldn't it include Brubeck? Maybe these questions all have obvious answers that I'm not familiar enough with Zorn's music to answer.
More opinions: Jazzman on days one and two.