John Zorn's Acoustic Masada
Page Auditorium, Duke University
Friday, Nov. 17
John Zorn first jutted out of modern jazz's bubbling infrastructure by mashing disparate styles and musicians together—especially in his Masada project, which played Friday night in Durham. Jewish traditional music and free jazz united, undulating in turns both lulling and pyrotechnic.
The quartet Masada, here in its acoustic mode, embodies the core spirit of Zorn's work. Dave Douglas (trumpet), Greg Cohen (bass) and Joey Baron (drums) have been with Zorn since the early days, performing their first concert in 1993. Zorn and his creative partners now enjoy a fanatical fandom, as evidenced by an excited man down front who bolted upright for a standing ovation as the group first entered the stage.
As they rigorously tore through pieces owing to the harmolodics jazz theory of Ornette Coleman, and relaxed into passages echoing the rich celebratory music of Klezmer, Zorn seemed to be omnipresent.
He stood at center stage when playing his worn alto sax, decidedly casual in baggy yellow and black camouflage pants. After Zorn finished one of his dizzying runs, hopping through time changes like a rabbit going from hole to hole, it was easy to continue watching him, especially his right hand. He often lorded over the proceedings in concise gestures: the flutter, often directed at Baron's rhythmic control; the wave, which seemed to indicate changing to another segment of the piece; or the saucer, when Zorn sliced his hand through the air, for the performer to stop play.
Though this type of controlled play is atypical for jazz, where performers are considered on equal footing—Masada still shared solos, the tradition for jazz groups, throughout the show—Zorn as conductor makes his approach distinct from other new music, like a shock of his hair that shot up mid-set. He's the main idea guy here, and it just happens everyone involved is OK with that, evidenced by group's mutual warmth onstage. —Chris Toenes
Gail Brower Huggins Performance Center, Greensboro College
Saturday, Nov. 18
Joanna Newsom's sophomore album, Ys, boasts engineering by the notoriously finicky Steve Albini, mixing by distinguished experimentalist Jim O'Rourke and the lavishly grandiose orchestration of celebrated Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks. It's likely to top numerous "Best of 2006" lists and formally establish the auspicious young harpist's career, but as proven by Saturday night's Greensboro College performance, the triumph of Ys barely relies on its illustrious contributors.
Selling out the 787-seat Gail Brower Huggins Performance Center to a crowd dominated by ebullient, voracious and particularly well-groomed 18- to 30-year-olds, Newsom served as pied piper—or harper—to her awed peers, luring them into eloquent epics of the meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree.
After an adept, Reinhardt-evocative opening from former Sun City Girl Sir Richard Bishop, Newsom walked into view. The crowd gleamed as its bohemian-chic princess made her way to the middle of the stage, beaming right back at it. She sat alone, dwarfed behind the 6-foot pedal harp under the theater's towering proscenium arch, and began plucking the opening track to 2004's The Milk-Eyed Mender, "Bridges and Balloons." She was flawless from the first note.
Newsom played two more songs by herself, "The Book of Right-On" and an unnamed traditional Scottish folk ballad, before inviting her current band on stage. With accordion, glockenspiel, guitar, tambura, bouzouki, Jew's harp and drums, Newsom's four-piece assemblage was quite a departure from the orchestra presented on record, but it achieved a gorgeous stripped-down interpretation of Ys from start to finish.
The presentation of extant instruments almost seemed more effective than Parks' album arrangements as the critical accents of percussionist Neal Morgan and glockenspiel player Katie Hardin jumped to the foreground and Ryan Francesconi's strings and Dan Cantrell's accordion acted in a stable manner similar to Parks' 32-piece orchestra. The performance's only extremely apparent absentee was the baritone accompaniment of Smog's Bill Callahan on "Only Skin," but thankfully, no member attempted to imitate his input.
The evening was Newsom's. She personified her songs in movement—naive but enlightened, common but brilliant, meticulous but graceful—while plucking every right string and singing every right note. —Rich Ivey