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I recently flew across the country to watch a New York musician play a series of concerts in San Francisco. If that doesn’t seem to make much sense, consider that downtown legend John Zorn, a recent recipient of the half-a-million-bucks Macarthur “Genius” grant, almost never plays live except in New York City and Europe. But last week, he did a six-night residency at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, showcasing a different band each night, all but one playing material from his Masada songbook of tunes based on traditional Jewish scales and melodies.

I caught the last three shows: Bar Kokhba, The Dreamers and Electric Masada. Last Friday was Bar Kokhba, a sextet with violin, cello and guitar doing most of the melodic work with bass, drums and percussion backing. Two sets: the early set contained material from Zorn’s Masada Book 1 – the first 200 songs he wrote in the series – while the late set contained Book 2 material, drawing from some 300 songs Zorn wrote in a more recent burst of insane creativity. On record, I find the Book 1 material incredibly compelling (particularly as represented on the 3-disc set 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 11), while the Book 2 material is much more middle-of-the-road, the kind of the stuff you could play at a dinner party without offending anyone whatsoever. Live, though, it all got flipped.

My (very lengthy) full thoughts after the jump.

The first set of Bar Kokhba’s Book 1 material was great, but hardly transcendent, as if the musicians had played these compositions so many times that it was all becoming a bit rote. The newer pieces played during the second set, on the other hand, came across passionately, with violinist Mark Feldman and cellist Erik Friedlander (who is playing next month at An Die Musik in Baltimore with his own combo) deserving of special mention. Bar Kokhba’s interpretations of Zorn’s songbook are flowingly melodic, thanks largely to the contributions of these two musicians, whose sensitive soloing made the new material – almost soporific on record – come to shimmering life. During one of Feldman’s especially delicate solos, the cavernous club was completely silent except for one awed concertgoer whose amazed, whispered “…fuck…” pretty much summed it all up.

After Bar Kokhba, the black sheep of the residency came to play on Saturday. The Dreamers are an odd ensemble – and the only one of the residency not playing Masada material – whose self-titled 2008 record struck me as a rather unexciting mix of surf, rock and roll, jam-band music and jazz. After Bar Kokhba surprised me so pleasantly with their second set on Friday, I went in hoping that The Dreamers would prove a similar revelation. Sadly, it was not to be – the live set sounded louder and more intense than the album versions (including on some pieces the group did from The Gift, a similar album released on Zorn’s Tzadik label in the late 1990s), but just making the songs louder and more intense didn’t make them any more compelling. My tablemates seemed similarly unimpressed, and from the folks I talked to who attended all six nights, there seemed to be a general consensus that this was the weakest of them.

But Zorn was not to leave on a down note. Sunday night’s closing show was Electric Masada, an eight-piece band whose interpretations of the Masada songbook sound like a cross between Miles Davis post-Bitches Brew, strident free jazz, twitchy avant-rock, and the spacy, psychedelic jams of bands like Circle. Electric Masada weave a dense tapestry of sound, with each instrumentalist usually sticking to a general role: Marc Ribot on guitar, Jamie Saft on keyboards and Zorn on sax provide the main melody lines, Trevor Dunn on bass gives the music its most steady pulse, and Kenny Wolleson and Joey Baron on drums, Cyro Baptista on percussion and Ikue Mori on laptop electronics provide an avalanche of rhythm and miscellaneous noisemaking that ensure that even during the quiet moments there are always several layers of sound for the listener to process.

For all but one of the bands that played during Zorn’s six-night residency, Zorn played the role of conductor, using a diverse array of hand signals to direct his handpicked musicians in their interpretations of his songs. If he seemed a bit control-freakish, especially for a musician most often cubbyholed into the jazz world, the results spoke for themselves. Electric Masada was the clearest example of the effectiveness of his methods: with Zorn gesticulating wildly at his band throughout the performance, the band was fluid when it was supposed to be fluid and tight when it was navigating tricky passages full of free-meter playing and spastic time changes. The most enjoyable pieces were Zorn’s more avant-garde ones, which showed off not only the band’s ability to plow through fiendishly knotty stop-and-go passages but also Zorn’s compositional humor. His juxtaposition of fiercely amelodic, almost show-offy “look how tricky this is” sections with passages of bewitching lyricism, smashed together haphazardly within the confines of a single song, brought appreciative laughter from the audience as well as amazed applause.

The individual highlights of the evening frequently came from Zorn’s own contributions on sax. Of the six nights at Yoshi’s, Zorn played only two of them, conducting three more (he was absent for the opening set, Secret Chiefs 3). His playing with Electric Masada made me deeply regret missing the acoustic Masada quartet, which played the Thursday before. Simply put, Zorn is one of the most powerful saxophonists I have ever heard, possessing a mastery of the instrument that made absurd feats of musicianship seem routine. In fact, even while in the midst of some of his most aggressive blowing of the night, he would take one hand off his instrument to urge other musicians onward, never missing a beat in his own playing.

The tough thing about writing about an ensemble like Electric Masada is that all the musicians deserve individual plaudits; however, I’ll just single out one more contributor: Marc Ribot, whose guitar solos ran the gamut from bluesy to all-out noise to beautifully straightforward interpretations of Zorn’s Jewish melodies. Electric Masada is in many ways built around Ribot’s contributions, and while the whole band was stunningly good, Ribot and Zorn together put Sunday night’s performance over the top.

Masada-related bands have only come to D.C. a few times in the past few years: Masada String Trio (Feldman, Friedlander and Greg Cohen on bass) played here four or five years ago; Rashanim, a young band that released an album of rocked-up Masada tunes, played the Washington Jewish Music Festival in 2006; and Feldman played some Book 2 songs in a duo with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier at Twins Jazz in 2007. Here’s hoping that the deliriously positive reception of Zorn’s residency in San Francisco means he might actually play some more shows in the States soon.