John Zorn’s Joyful Jazz

Why does the great composer sound so satisfied these days?

Zorn free: Jazzman rediscovers joy of sax

Nobody could have guessed 10 years ago that, through the decade and into the millennium, John Zorn would emerge as the Pied Piper of a new joyful jazz. In the ‘80s, his journalistic profilers couldn’t resist noting that Zorn is the German word for anger, and the man fit his moniker like a character in a Martin Amis novel. Zorn was an inventive composer, and he could play the alto saxophone with astonishing fluency, but he often preferred to blow it like a banshee, howling, screeching, and eking from its keys and mouthpiece a vast assortment of explosive special effects. He was an angry man, a perpetual outsider, and his music reflected that.

Then, around 1993, he started exploring his Jewish roots and came to realize that the essence of Judaism is precisely its outsider status. He found a paradoxical sense of belonging and community in this realization, decided to celebrate it in his music, and thus was born the band he called Masada—named after the mountain-fortress where a group of 1st-century Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than surrender to the Roman conquerors.

All last month, Zorn celebrated his 50th birthday by playing every night—leading one or another of his dozen or so bands—at Tonic, a club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that serves as the showcase for the “downtown“music scene, of which Zorn is the main impresario. But all this year, Zorn has also been celebrating the 10th anniversary of Masada, and it seems clear that—while he’ll still squawk and squeal on occasion, as well as compose more elaborate music for solo piano, string quartet, and symphony orchestra—Masada is the life-soundtrack that most compels him.

Before he conceived Masada, Zorn, though generally considered a jazz musician, had never written jazz compositions—pieces with a melody, chord changes, and a swing beat. In a fit of inspiration, he wrote 100 such compositions (over the following five years, he would write 105 more), all of them following this rule: They had to be written in one of the two “Jewish scales“—a major scale with the second note flat or a minor scale with the fourth note sharp.

He wrote this music without specifying instrumentation, wanting it to be playable by any type of ensemble. But the group that came to be called Masada—which was formed pretty much by accident in September 1993, while Zorn was playing at the Knitting Factory every night for a month to celebrate his 40th birthday—consists of Zorn on alto sax and three musicians, then unknown but now at the top of the field in their own right: Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass, and Joey Baron on drums.

A Masada tune often begins with Cohen walking a bass line that wouldn’t sound out of place at a ‘50s Blue Note session, backed by Baron pounding out conga polyrhythms like Max Roach crossed with Sly and the Family Stone, followed by Zorn and Douglas coming in with the melody, sometimes lilting, sometimes frantic, always hoisting a bluesy swing, at once intense and insouciant.

It’s this last quality—the combination of expressive rapture and unruffled virtuosity—that makes Masada joyful, even in the darker tunes. Some critics have described Masada as Ornette Coleman crossed with klezmer, but this is lazy shorthand. Coleman eschews conventional harmonies in his music, while Masada is structured entirely on chords. And klezmer lacks the fiery, free-style blues that Zorn unfurls in an improvised Masada solo.

Zorn, a quirkily methodical artist, devised a plan, back in 1993, to produce 10 Masada albums—titled One, Two, and so forth, up to Ten—followed by 10 live recordings (in the form of five double-disc CDs). Along the way, he grew so enchanted with the music’s untried possibilities that he formed several chamber groups, most notably the Masada String Trio (Cohen with Mark Feldman on violin and Erik Friedlander on cello) and Bar Kokhba (those three plus Baron, Marc Ribot on guitar, and Cyro Baptista on percussion), which resulted in a double-CD called The Circle Maker.

Finally, this year, in honor of the anniversary, he produced three more Masada albums: Masada Guitars (featuring guitarists Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Tim Sparks); Voices in the Wilderness (with a dozen different downtown ensembles); and The Unknown Masada (more ensembles still, playing some of the Masada tunes that had, somehow, not yet been recorded). Soon to come: an album by Electric Masada, an adventurous fusion band that has played at Tonic a few times and sounds less like klezmer than late-’60s Miles Davis. (Shiksas Brew?)

There are, counting the multiple discs, 28 Masada CDs in the bins, not including Zorn’s 14-volume Filmworks series, a few of which draw on the Masada songbook. Is this too much Masada? Yes, probably (though, I must confess, I own all of them). There is a compulsion toward “compleatism” in many subcultures, particularly those that have a slightly subversive bent, and the tendency is heightened in jazz because of its improvisational core: At least when the musicians are inventive (and all of Masada’s are), no two versions of a tune are alike.

But the appeal of multiple Masadas stems from more than cultish esoterica. Not many compositions—in whatever musical genre—could sustain renderings by jazz quartet, string trio, string sextet, solo guitar, and so forth. Yet these Zorn compositions do. And the different versions reveal different aspects of a tune. Playing a song called “Khebar,” for instance, the Masada quartet emphasizes its rhythm. The string sextet brings out the harmonic colors. On the Voices album, the downtown rock musician Kramer treats it, wittily, as electronica. They’re subtle heads, these Masada tunes, richer and more complex than they seem at first hearing.

All this would be geeky gamesmanship, were it not for the artistry of the musicians—most of whom have played together for years, forming similar sensibilities, learning each other’s moves, and developing reflexes to match. Even then, the music might be merely interesting, were it not for the passion of Zorn himself.

The authors of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD write that the whole Masada project “raises questions about opportunism” and wonder whether Zorn’s sudden “interest in Hebrew culture” reflects “an eye to the market strategy.” Apart from the anti-Semitic undertones (I doubt that the authors would attribute money-grubbing motives to, say, Randy Weston’s African ventures or Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road project), the suspicion is way off. To a degree unmatched by nearly any other contemporary artist, Zorn is his music: the good, the bad, and the ugly (and, yes, that includes his tribute to the movies of Sergio Leone). Expansive, fastidious, mournful, mirthful, giddy, angry, but always serious (to paraphrase Son House, the Sephardic blues is not a plaything)—Zorn and his music are all these and more, alternately or simultaneously, but always finely, joyfully honed.

(Recommended John Zorn CDs for starters: Masada 8, Masada Live at Tonic 2001, The Circle Maker, Masada Guitars. All CDs are on Tzadik, except for Masada 8, which is on the Japanese label DIW.)