Masada String Trio

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No, I haven’t sampled all of the Book of Angels CDs in John Zorn’s Masada series. Haven’t even come close.

So, despite the players’ pedigrees, I hadn’t yet heard the Masada String Trio.

Then this popped up. Posted to YouTube just last month, it appears to be a French TV broadcast of a live String Trio performance. Greg Cohen on bass, Erik Friedlander on cello, Mark Feldman on violin, and Zorn doing the conducting and grinning ear to ear. There’s some brilliant playing here.

This combination seems dear to Zorn’s heart, because Masada String Trio was granted two entries in the Book of Angels series (wherein each band in succession got to pick from Zorn’s “Masada Book Two” compositions). They also recorded the inaugural CD in Tzadik’s series celebrating Zorn’s 50th birthday in 2003. All of those discs are concerts recorded at the late, lamented Tonic.

Well, why not? Three downtown NYC veterans playing good music at a beyond-expert level — who wouldn’t be game for that? Glad I finally took the time to listen.

A Trip Back Downtown, 1990

Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, Mark Feldman, et. al.Bang! (Ictus, 2011; orig. released 1991)

(UPDATE: Roberto Zorzi is going to be in San Jose on Oct. 12 and Santa Cruz on Oct. 15, as part of the International Live Looping festival. Andrea Centazzo will be in town as well. See Zorzi’s comment, below.)

It happens early in “Dartman,” Bang!‘s opening track. Bobby Previte‘s brisk drumming kicks in, and we’re transported back to 1990, back to the days when the Knitting Factory meant something, with carefree horn/violin unison lines shaping that downtown style of jazz writing. That airy violin sound, adding space to the melody — that’s Mark Feldman! There — there’s the tight curl of Herb Robertson‘s trumpet! That fast, crunchy electric bass that just has to belong to Percy Jones!

It’s like being the jazz equivalent of a Star Trek convention newbie. So much to point at! And that’s without even mentioning Tim Berne!

They’ve all convened at the behest of Roberto Zorzi, a guitarist who today is less well known and less well recorded than his sidemen. This is his septet, apparently called The Bang, which played at the Rocella Jonica Jazz Festival (Italy, I’m guessing?) in 1990 and released an album the following year. It’s now getting a new life on Ictus, and we’re the richer for it.

Yes, there are plenty of other CDs featuring these players from that period, but if you haven’t listened to any of them for a while, as was my case, this album sends the nostalgia flooding back. A smattering of band photos inside shows the players 20 years ago — could it be that distant? — Previte, Berne, and especially Feldman looking so young. What a time it was, and what a band.

You can hear elements of each player’s style in the mix, but the one who stood out the most for me was Feldman. He seems to get the biggest share of front-and-center time, often on electrified violin. Jones’ bass stands out, too. It’s always there, fidgeting restlessly under the currents.

And Zorzi? He’s not trying to be an enigma, but he’ll have to understand if American listeners like me haven’t chanced upon his music before. Plenty of information is on his web site, and sound samples, too. And you have to look for them, but his recordings are around, here and there.

You can quibble about the recording itself — the applause cuts in or out abruptly, and there are some big volume swings in Robertson’s trumpet (probably a function of him wiggling around next to the mic while playing.) But the five tracks here display some terrific playing, compelling compositional suites, and a group-mindedness that allows for intimate solo or duo segments. It all ends with “Calma e Gesso,” a sparse track rich in those soloing spaces.

Best of all? I got my copy at Amoeba SF, finding it through good old-fashioned browsing. Bang! is one of those unearthed treasures that make music shopping fun. And for Ictus owner Andrea Centazzo, I’ll bet it makes owning a label fun, too.

Other Worlds

Axis Trio — The Hand (SNP, 2008 )

source:axistrio.comWith members whose heritages trace to Pakistan, Morocco, and Iran, you can’t help but find political meaning in the band’s name. They don’t play some world/fusion blend, though; this is a jazz piano trio: Amino Belyamani (piano), Sam Minaie (bass), and Qasim Naqvi (drums) — a straight format, but with a long list of varied influences from multiple jazz stripes, multiple cultures, and classical music.

There’s a rainy-day niceness to many of the tracks, an Enrico Pieranunzi kind of feeling. The number of influences and level of sophistication run deeper than that, though, with some avant-garde and modern-classical infusions in the composing and particularly in the soloing. The two-part suite, “Tabacs Compliqués,” gets pulsing and thundering. The title track starts with a clattery, disjoint sound and hits lots of quiet pauses, the kind of silence-savoring you don’t usually find in straight jazz.

The nice stuff is nice, though. “Peacekeeper (for Darfur)” is a sparse but surprisingly snappy (given the title) number that takes its time developing into a good groove. “Olesong” shows similar patience, starting in slow ballad mode and growing into a deeper intensity.

I’m impressed by this album. The trio is headed for the west coast in April, apparently; I wonder if I should hold out hope for them finding a Bay Area gig.

Shakers ‘n’ Bakers — YFZ (“yearning for zion”) (Little (i), 2008 )

source:cdbabyThis one’s crazier. I’m hearing a mix of all kinds of things: soul jazz, raspy near-scat vocalizing, free jazz, grooves, chaotic jams. They had fun putting this together.

Oh, and there’s Jamie Saft on electric harpsichord. Electric harpsichord! You cannot deny the electric harpsichord!

These are apparently Shaker songs and texts, taken from a 18th/19th-century religious sect that seems rather progressive, in that it preached sexual equality going all the way up to the god level. A village still exists in Maine. (The name “Yearning for Zion” comes from a Mormon sect, but there’s no connection between Shakerism and Mormonism.)

It’s with some level of respect that the band has transformed some Shaker writings into a free-jazz party. “In Me Canoe” opens the album with a soulful reggae groove and sets the stage for the vocals: Mary LaRose singing sweeter, high lines, while Miles Griffith preaches in a cartoony growl that suggests the wild abandon of psychedelia. It’s pretty crazy. “Even Shakers Get the Blues” is along similar lines but even further out-there, with music apparently based on John Adams‘ “Road Movies Part 2” (and remember, Adams wrote a famous minimalist piece called “Shaker Loops”).

“Scour and Scrub” and “Chinese!” tap the Albert Ayler well of joyous, march-like horns, although the latter then goes nuts with the electric harpsichord stuff. The harpsichord also shows up on the slow, reverent title track, for a moment of seriousness.

Shakers ‘n’ Bakers get into some pretty jazz, too. “The Roar of G D” might start silly, with rubbery sounds and crazy drumming — not to mention the repeated “I will roar, roar, roar!” monologue — but it’s got an airy, modern sound lifted by special guest Mark Feldman on violin. The album ends with “Limber Zeal,” an 11-minute piece with music derived from Arvo Part‘s “Spiegel im Spiegel.” That makes for a placid, simple backdrop, almost music-box-like, played by violin and piano … atop which you have an over-the-top Shaker sermon that even rhymes. You get weirdly intense vocalizing living in peace with patient, precise musicianship, which sums up the whole album nicely.

The band itself is built of known NYC quantities: Jeff Lederer (sax, and the bandleader responsible for all this), Mary LaRose and Miles Griffith (vocals), Jamie Saft (organ, piano, and did I mention electric harpsichord?), Chris Lightcap (bass), and Allison Miller (drums), with guests Mark Feldman (violin), Matt Wilson (extra drums), and Andrew D’Angelo (sax, especially nutso solos, and check his Web site for an amazing cancer story).