JUDEA, CIRCA A.D. 66. The Roman legions are crushing Jewish resistance to imperial rule. By capturing the Masada fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, a tiny cadre of Jewish rebels manages to defend their settlement against the Romans. Less than a decade later, the exasperated Romans build a massive ramp and scale the fortress walls, only to learn that its inhabitants have chosen suicide over submitting to the empire's rule.
New York, A.D. 1997. Smooth jazz and its champion Kenny G. are systematically blanketing popular jazz radio stations--which once played the more challenging compositions of Bird and Coltrane--with the kind of background music appropriate to an orthodontist's office. Alienated from the mainstream jazz scene, experimental musician John Zorn and his Masada quartet find refuge at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan. Zorn stops one concert there to instruct an audience that includes Czech President Václav Havel and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright to "shut the fuck up and listen." And after these celebrity chatterboxes finally obey, Masada plays an astounding set of their avant-garde jazz with Jewish roots.
Since the early Nineties, Judaism has been a constant source of defiance and inspiration for composer/saxophonist/indie-label impresario Zorn. His strenuously eclectic label Tzadik--which roughly translates from the Hebrew as "a righteous person"--releases unconventional albums from a wide range of artists influenced by Jewish culture. Zorn's surf-and-soundtrack-influenced chamber ensemble Bar Kokhba was named after the Jewish guerrilla leader who kicked Caesar butt on a Russell Crowe scale before the revolutionary's forces were annihilated by a massive Roman army. (See a pattern here?) When Zorn and Masada bring their distinct brand of Jewish jazz to the Northrop Auditorium on Saturday, April 14--a rare visit to Minneapolis --audiences can only be cautioned to be on their most accommodating behavior.
It is through Masada that Zorn really wears his Star of David proudly. Masada's compositions are written largely using one of the two modal scales traditionally associated with Jewish music: a major scale with a diminished second or a minor scale with an augmented fourth. The group's studio recordings have Hebrew numbers and letters for titles. Likewise, its songs have Hebrew titles that are filled with references to Jewish history.
Masada's definition of "Jewish music" relies substantially upon the history of klezmer, the Yiddish fusion-folk that seems to remain in a constant state of evolution. Klezmer first took root in the Moldavanka district of Odessa, but during a paroxysm of local anti-Semitism, many of Odessa's musicians fled to New York, where jazz and klezmer began to fuse together. Gershwin employed both styles in Rhapsody in Blue. Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw used klezmer in "And the Angels Sing," and "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume."
Still, Masada doesn't address these influences in quite the same way as these other musicians. Zorn uses Masada to progress beyond more traditional forms of klezmer--as well as beyond his own history as a skronk musician. The result is music that fuses improvisation with meticulous composition. Along with Zorn, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron effectively marry the elements of the two idioms into a unified whole that exists simultaneously as jazz and klezmer. The scale content is klezmer, while the style is unmistakably jazz. It's like neo-modern Moldavanka in Manhattan.
Beyond its ability to merge musical styles, Masada has been meaningful to Zorn in a deeper, cultural sense--as suggested in a comment from a New Yorker profile several years ago. "I wanted to create something positive," Zorn explained. "Something that celebrated all the things [Jews have] accomplished, instead of always complaining about 'the terrible things that have happened,' and saying, 'Oh, why are we always treated this way?'"
One can only speculate what this optimistic agenda will sound like when Masada takes the stage. But judging by the growing sophistication of Zorn's ideology and his music, sitting through this show should be no Roman holiday. Consider it a new chapter in history: Minneapolis, A.D. 2001--Zorn is becoming a tzadik in his own right.