Apparently his early Spy Vs. Spy homage with Tim Berne wasn't enough to satiate John Zorn's Ornette Coleman jones. Masada, Vol. 1: Alef is the jumping-off point for his prolific quartet, clearly modeled on Coleman's groundbreaking acoustic unit, and it's the first sighting of trumpeter Dave Douglas, too. The rhythm section is equally crucial, with Greg Cohen ably tackling the thankless task of bass anchor and Joey Baron the unsung hero for maintaining the fierce, high-energy pulse dictated by Zorn's punk sensibilities. The frenetic "Jair" sets a very Coleman-ish tone before the more measured "Bith Aneth" finds Douglas showing his range with muted squawks, growls, and broad lower-register tones that almost sound like a trombone. Douglas has to be consistently agile to handle the demands of foil for Zorn because the Masada norm doesn't call for many solos with just the rhythm section. The second lead instrument is almost always playing countermelodies behind the principal soloist, which makes for densely packed music with lots and lots of notes. Luckily, Masada is a savvy crew, not just rip-and-run raiders, so those notes create an ample spectrum of moods and flavors. "Bith Aneth" works off kind of a mutant tango rhythm and Cohen throws in a nice change of pace with a midsong switch to old-fashioned, near-slap bass on "Tahah." If the intense "Tzofeh" finds Zorn and Douglas playing tag over Baron's backbeat drive, they can also weave meandering harmonies through the lovely melody to "Kanah." "Delin" whoops exuberantly, the mysterious "Idalah-Abal" is pervasively melancholy, and the nine-and-a-half-minute "Janohah" is straight-up jazz with walking bass and Baron riding his cymbals before taking over as the lead instrument during the closing section. Hardly anyone outside of Coleman's immediate family of musicians has taken the plunge to delve deeply into his way of making music, so Masada fills quite a void. Alef is full of thrilling, varied music and just may remind some people who are put off by John Zorn's constant stream of conceptual projects how good a musician he is in a straight-ahead jazz context.
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AllMusic Review by Don Snowden