Overcoming Irony, John Zorn Goes For the Heart, Not For the Easy Kill

With its combination of Hebraisms and Ornette Coleman, John Zorn's Masada was one of the boldest jazz ensembles of the 1990s, but Zorn himself was the weak link—no match for frontline partner Dave Douglas as a technician or improviser. Masada String Trio, the first in a series of CDs recorded live during Zorn's extended 50th birthday celebration last year, throws the focus back on Zorn the composer, where it belongs. Given the personnel, it figures that the 11 pieces are played superbly. You'd have to go back to Eddie South or pre-fusion Jean-Luc Ponty to find a violinist with Mark Feldman's astonishing combination of true pitch and improvisational smarts, and there has never been another cellist quite like Erik Friedlander. As always, bassist Greg Cohen is a pillar. Zorn conducts, and you can hear his mind going in every diminuendo and swell. "Lachish" is like improvised Elliott Carter and "Kedushah" the sort of thing Goebbels had in mind in describing jazz as "Jewishly gloomy," but "Tahah," the bracing opener, is more typical of this music's irresistible sweep. It wins you over with its lyricism and emotional directness, two qualities that once were just about the last things you expected from this master of pastiche, more conceptualist than composer. At 50, Zorn has finally gotten over irony. Though he's probably still a brat, he's grown up musically, and that's all that counts.

 
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