‘Live At Tonic’ is perhaps Masada’s greatest live album, benefitting from being not only one of the later, tighter and more muscular live entries, but also crucially being recorded in front of a home crowd, who really add to the atmosphere and excitement levels.
Featuring two complete sets from the same night, we have here more than two total hours of music that takes in everything (almost) from the Masada arsenal. And as with all of the quartets live recordings, the music reaches even higher levels than the already excellent studio works.
Throughout we get beautiful balladry with sultry atmospheres, and languid solos, and also furious frenzies with pounding rhythms and the front-line of John Zorn’s saxophone and Dave Douglas’ trumpet playing interwining and mult-layering dual melody lines.
Disc one even touches on early 70’s era Miles Davis, in the heady brew and thick atmosphere generated, especially the driving pacy rhythms created by the winning combination of Greg Cohen’s bass finesse and Joey Baron’s incredibly multi-faceted drumming (whose hand drums in particular are one hell of a secret weapon). A seventeen minute epic ‘Karaim’ makes for a beautiful yet blistering opener, carried the whole way throughout by an undulating desert wind-swept sounding hypnotic bass that anchors everything else here, be the unified or split horns, or Baron’s mix of hand and drumstick percussion playing. ‘Ner Tamid’ that follows manages to be distinctly different, with a more straight-ahead bop style (comparatively) that winds to a close in a relatively succinct five minutes.
‘Acharai Mot’ is John Zorn does Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’, and throwing in some Ornette for good measure, with everyone playing full-force, and cooking up a storming maelstrom of sound. ‘Kisofim’ returns us to a desert-at-midnight’ pulse, with typical dual playing from Zorn and Douglas, but Zorn just edging it with a wistful yet focused and melodic solo that should hopefully silence any still curmudgenly critics out there. ‘Jachin’ opens up with a fast paced yet soulful bass groove, with Baron’s drum skittering over the top that becomes more insistent as it goes on.
The second set here is even better, with the focus being on the more intense and the more dramatic. Cohen shines throughout; standing strong and providng a driving yet anchored pulse that impressively never wavers, even in the face of the storm of horns and Barons thunderous drumming reaches new levels of power.
Over two sets you could be forgiven for expecting repeats of certain tunes, but of course, this being Zorn and Masada, with a catalogue of hundreds of pieces, there is just the one. ‘Malkhut’ is perhaps Masada’s take on Zorn’s other most famous group Naked City, possessing the same stop-start surf-punk-jazz feel as that outfit, but filtered through Masada’s own distinctive lense. Sadly both versions are perhaps the weakest things on the sets, but then, you can’t have everything.
Even if you have every studio recording Masada ever made, you would be well recommended to invest in some of the live albums, given the full strength of playing, occasion and excitement that each is able to generate, and just how much more full-bodied Greg Cohen’s bass is in a live context. But even if you already own every other live recording, ‘Live At Tonic 2001’ still offers something more - when the final piece here comes to an end you can feel the palpable euphoria emenating from the stage. And that is something you want to experience.