By Matthew Tabaka
Electric Masada :: 02.17.06 :: Walker Art Center :: Minneapolis, MN
The anticipation for this show could not have been higher. This was an extremely rare North American performance outside of New York City for Zorn. Electric Masada's set was part of a presentation by the Walker Art Center that included a conversation between John Zorn and curator Phillip Bither as well as a live film scoring after Electric Masada's performance.
On an extremely cold day in Minneapolis, Zorn's Electric Masada arrived at the Walker Art Center and took no prisoners. During the conversation segment of the evening, Zorn was interrupted by a phone call from laptop wizard Ikue Mori. Zorn proceeded to converse in Japanese, finally explaining to the audience that Ikue and the rest of the band had just arrived at the airport. It was 6:15 p.m., and Electric Masada was scheduled to go on at 7:00 p.m. Zorn laughed off any suggestion that this might be a cause of stress. I was one of the first to be seated in the McGuire Theatre while the band was still sound checking. After the final adjustments were made to Cyro Baptista's percussion set up, the lights went down and Electric Masada took the stage.
Drummers Joey Baron and Kenny Wollesen pounded their kits, and the rest of the band made noise as if creating an invocation. They launched into "Tekufah," a rocking, funky tune dominated by keyboardist Jamie Saft. Saft's only keyboard was a Fender Rhodes augmented with a handful of effects pedals. In the jam scene, keyboardists often have multiple options, and it is rare to see someone playing just one instrument. His playing and soloing were some of the most inspired I've heard. The sound he achieves is reminiscent of Keith Jarret and Chick Corea during their tenure with Miles Davis's electric groups. The interplay throughout this set was mind-blowing. John Zorn's role as alto saxophonist is often dominated by his direction of his players. Songs start with him pointing at a member, and changes occur throughout the songs by hand signals. This was demonstrated clearly during the second song, "Hath-Arob." This song is the closest example to one of Zorn's game pieces, where there are structured rules for the improvisation, including starts, stops, and turning on a dime all by the rapid-fire hand directions from Zorn. "Karaim" was the next song, and this Masada classic formed out of intro chaos by slowing sinking into Trevor Dunn's groove.
The rhythm section of this band is unsurpassed in contemporary music. Bassist Trevor Dunn, rocking back and forth all night locked in a slinky groove, was the focal point of all the songs. Without him, the music would completely deconstruct. The Naked City tune "Metal-Tov" was next, and it rocked harder then most metal groups on their best days. The atmospheric "Yatzar" was after that, and it showcased Cyro Baptista. Perhaps the most familiar member to JamBase readers, Cyro never ceased to amaze with his almost telepathic timing with Zorn. Ikue Mori's laptop effects and samples provided texture and color to the improvisation. Taking her cues from John Zorn's facial expressions, she added a truly unique element to this band. Zorn himself deconstructed his alto sax to just the mouthpiece, which he used like a duck call. The drummers Joey Baron and Kenny Wollesen made very convincing arguments that they are among the best in the world today. Pieces of wood were flying in the air as Wollesen's drumstick disintegrated from the relentless banging during set closer "Idalah-Abal." Guitarist Marc Ribot's playing was perhaps the highlight of the evening. The sounds that he coaxed from his guitar were completely unprecedented in my experience. He can play very soulful music with his distinct western surf tone, and is truly one of the most original voices on guitar today. Zorn himself as a sax player might be known for his shrieking outbursts, but he possesses a beautiful, spiritual quality when he plays the passages of the Masada tunes.
For the encore, the band came out and performed a song that I did not recognize; however, it proved to be the highlight of the evening. It is possible that this tune came from the Masada Book Two and is one of those studio releases. It was perhaps the funkiest and sexiest tune of the evening. Trevor Dunn's smile was as wide as his amp as he bounced along blissfully as this song opened up. John Zorn was also visibly delighted as he grooved and danced around. A final song, "Lilin," closed Electric Masada's performance. This hard-rocking song, dominated again by Dunn's bass and Ribot's mind-blowing guitar work, blew the roof off the McGuire Theatre and left the audience speechless. This show was illuminating, mind-blowing, and transcendent.
I had the privilege of meeting several of the band members after the show, and all were extremely nice, approachable, even humble people. Kenny Wollesen joined my friends and me at a local jazz club for happy hour after the show and shed some insight into the group. He explained that arriving late like they did without doing an elaborate sound check often results in better performances because there is no time to wait around and think, only time to play and do. He left us with this quote that Zorn tells the band, "Magic is the knowledge that you are free."
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