In terms of identity politics and fierce musicality, John Zorn's Masada was arguably one of the most vital working jazz groups of the '90s. A world-class combo of New York composer/improvisers — trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, drummer Joey Barron, and Zorn on alto sax — the quartet fused the melodic and rhythmic liquidity of Ornette Coleman's harmolodics with the leader's own “Radical Jewish Culture” matrix. But what at first seemed a revelation now comes across, in some ways, as an opportunistic ploy to placate the cult-of-Zorn junkies.
To be fair, it's kind of a setup for the pioneering saxophonist and aural terrorist, who has cemented an outsized rep among fans with a bloodlust for novel (and often excruciatingly loud) soundscapes. His infamous confrontational escapades include the cartoonlike volatility of Naked City, the noisy excess of Painkiller, and the sadistic Kristallnacht performance. But contrary to popular stereotypes, Zorn's rabid following seems to respect his wide-roving vision, relishing everything he has to offer, from evocative film soundtracks to his most “jazz”-like band Masada.
About three years ago, after recording a dozen albums of Masada material, Zorn disbanded the group to explore other projects and to free up Dave Douglas, who has since become a legitimate player in commercial jazz. Yet the band reunites every once in a while to feed the insatiable appetite of Zorn's people (and to cash in on higher-profile gigs). In recent months, the saxophonist's homegrown label Tzadik has issued no less than three “archival” Masada performances, including Live in Middleheim, recorded last year. For the most part, the Middleheim concert sounds almost as if the group is just going through the motions — until the encore when artifice turns into exhilarating, raw emotion. While admittedly a somewhat sad deal for the hapless addict, the truth is that even a less-than-inspired Masada blows away most of what passes for jazz these days. And this weekend's Yoshi's appearance could very well be the last chance to catch this band before the imminent final dissolution.
Masada performs on Friday and Saturday, May 26 and 27, at 8 and 10 p.m. at Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West (at Jack London Square), Oakland. Tickets are $30; call (510) 238-9200.