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Although composer and alto saxophonist John Zorn is well-known for juggling styles within a single band–Naked City’s raucous melange of hardcore, surf music, and film sound tracks, for example–one of the keys to his success is the way he compartmentalizes his musical interests, simultaneously pursuing several disparate and intensely focused projects. Over the last two decades, these projects–the organized free improvisation of game pieces like “Cobra,” the jacked-up Ornette Coleman homage of Spy vs Spy, concept-driven long-form compositions like Spillane and Kristallnacht–have inspired other meta-jazz musicians, from clarinetist Don Byron to trumpeter Dave Douglas to pianist Uri Caine, to follow in his footsteps. Perhaps the purest of Zorn’s enterprises–essentially his straight-ahead jazz group–is the quartet Masada, with Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron. Between 1994 and 1997 the band recorded nine albums and an EP, forging a repertoire of over 100 songs; early on its sound was tagged as a mixture of classic Ornette Coleman and Hebraic music, and while there’s some truth to that description–Masada shares the instrumentation and harmonic freedom of Coleman’s most famous quartet, and often uses keening, minor-key melodies reminiscent of Jewish songs–it’s also a bit reductive. Still, the group’s range isn’t too broad: on one hand there are its slow, mournful tunes, unfolding over leisurely Latin-flavored grooves or coolly percolating dance rhythms and opening the way for lengthy, wide-ranging solos; on the other are its more deliberately Coleman-esque compositions, which careen from one rapid-fire phrase to another, often sandwiching a few calm melodic riffs in between. Despite the limitations of these forms, Masada imbues them with joy, vitality, and surprise–as documented on an excellent series of live recordings issued by Zorn’s own Tzadik label over the past few years. Cohen and Baron groove ferociously, swaying from insistent ostinatos to complicating digressions, and Zorn and Douglas have a remarkable rapport, conversing in counterpoint like old friends kibitzing over coffee. When either horn man takes off on an extended solo, it’s just as satisfying, thanks to Douglas’s soup-to-nuts vocabulary and Zorn’s ability to turn on a dime from bebop sass to primal scream. Masada shares the bill with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Friday, April 19, 8 PM, Grainger Ballroom, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.