Masada, Vol. 9: Tet gives off a first impression of being a totally in-the-pocket Masada disc and exactly what you want and expect from the group (that's not a criticism). All the trademark touches -- the Ornette Coleman and Middle Eastern tinges, the high-intensity sonic blitzes, the skyrocketing John Zorn/Dave Douglas exchanges -- are there and sounding just fine. But deep down, this volume in the Masada saga revolves around a pretty exceptional surprise and it's all the better for it.
This is probably the most democratic Masada disc, the best one for hearing the quartet with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron on equal terms with the front line. Whether by design or not, Zorn and Douglas scale back their twin-comet-trails-shooting-through-the-stars-playing-tag game enough to leave extra space that permits the contributions of Cohen and Baron to the group sound clearly shine through. There are more slow pieces with pervasively bluesy feels (the mournful "Kedushah," the very soft "Kochot") and overt Coleman references here, and it's Cohen's tone and touch that really define and shape them. The opening bass solo to the quietly haunting "Moshav" create a marked "Lonely Woman" atmosphere and there's a duet section during the fractured melody of the mid-tempo "Ner Tamid" where Zorn and Cohen sound like nothing so much as Coleman playing with Charlie Haden. The ensemble to "Acharie Mot" is pure Coleman triumphant, with Cohen strumming chords like Haden and Zorn totally Coleman in his solo, while Baron washes around the kit and does cymbal tricks. The drummer plays up a storm -- his thunderous explosions on "Leshem" play with time and silence before heading to the outside races, he works his romping tom-tom routine on the superb, relaxed opener "Chayah" and happily clomps along on the fine finale "Jachin." On "Meholalot," he works some serious crashes into his tom-toms and then gets a close-to-timbales sound that, with Cohen locked down in riff foundation, adds a Spanish/Latin tinge, especially when the music breaks down to just bass and drums.
All four players on "Meholalot" really push and comment on each other's phrases, while Douglas' solo on "Leshem," with Cohen walking and Baron racing underneath, inspires Zorn to squawk his way into the fray. "Chayah" drops a new twist with Douglas in an intriguing, half-comping role behind Zorn's sparer solo, who returns the favor before they go off on one of their patented intertwined line forays. It's not like Zorn and Douglas are way off their game -- they're in top form here and normally you expect that on a typical Masada disc. But they're the obvious front-line marquee guys and what distinguishes Nine/Tet is the ability to clearly hear and focus on what Cohen and Baron bring to the sound. It makes the music more varied, more capable of springing surprises, and an enormously valuable volume in the Masada catalog.