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John Zorn's Masada

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A dozen years ago composer and saxophonist John Zorn set out to create his own songbook--a cohesive, self-contained body of work akin to the output of great jazz writers like Thelonious Monk or Benny Golson. He went on to write 205 tunes, many of which were recorded by this excellent quartet--Zorn, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron--over the course of nine albums and one EP. The group's crackerjack renditions mixed postbop swing, dynamic improvised interplay, and forlorn melodies in Middle Eastern scales, earning it the somewhat glib thumbnail description "Ornette Coleman + klezmer." A number of other ensembles, recording for Zorn's Tzadik label, have also delivered unusual and often rewarding readings of tunes from that book: the 1996 double disc Bar Kokhba was a series of intimate small-group performances by 11 instrumentalists in varying combinations, and subsequent releases included versions by solo guitarists, a string trio, the gorgeously austere duo of pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, and even the Jewish rock band Rashanim. In 2004 Zorn got started on the second book of Masada tunes--he claims to have written 300 in just three months--and since this fall he's been rolling them out on new Tzadik releases, among them a new collection by Courvoisier and Feldman and a lovely piano-trio set led by Jamie Saft. But the original quartet has always been the group that plays his music best, and last year's double disc Sanhedrin--which consists of previously unreleased alternate takes--proves it once again. The band doesn't tour often these days--this is its first Chicago gig in nearly four years--and a chance to see it fully loaded with 300 new songs certainly shouldn't be missed. A talk by Zorn precedes the concert. Thu 2/16, 7 PM, Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, 1131 E. 57th, 773-702-8069, $15. All ages.

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