The Washington Jewish Music Festival takes a catholic -- with a small "c" -- approach to its week-long celebration of culture. It encompasses music and musicians from the Middle East to Rockville, exploring jazz, Gypsy and pop with integrated programs that include film, panel discussions and parties.
The Masada String Trio, an ensemble billed as "chamber jazz," kicked off the sixth annual festival Tuesday night. Playing compositions from John Zorn's "Masada Songbook," the trio engaged the audience at the D.C. Jewish Community Center with a 90-minute set of 11 tightly knit tunes.
The trio -- violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander and bassist Greg Cohen -- were virtuoso without being flashy. Composer Zorn, in yellow T-shirt and camouflage pants, sat at the foot of the stage and conducted in a unique style, cuing the players at sporadic points in the performance. His presence at the podium would have seemed superfluous: Great musicians individually, the three formed a tight ensemble and the structure of the pieces was standard jazz.
Zorn, an experimental saxophonist, improviser and composer on the "downtown" music scene since the 1970s, began his Masada project in 1993. An exploration of his Jewish roots -- and a departure from his trademark free-associative style -- "Masada Songbook" consists of more than 500 songs, more than half dashed off in prestissimo speed within just a few months.
And it shows: By design the jazz tunes are all built on the same harmonic minor scale (the so-called "Jewish" scale) and after you hear four or five they begin to sound the same. Halfway through Tuesday's set, after a melodic Arabic song, a cartoonlike chaotic melee, a contemplative ballad and a fast dance tune, you had pretty much heard it all.
The Masada String Trio was impressive and riveting. Each member showed off sheer technique as well as musicality in his bowing, pizzicato, harmonics and improvisation, rock-solid ensemble playing in the unison passages and sensitivity in improvisatory sections. As an acoustic string ensemble playing jazz, the Masada compared favorably with groups such as the Turtle Island String Quartet and the Kronos Quartet.
The Washington Jewish Music Festival continues tonight with a concert by Queen's Dominion, a band that explores new music for the oud and other Eastern instruments, and Saturday with the New York "lit rock" band One Ring Zero. The festival concludes Wednesday with music of Eastern Europe featuring Harmonia, a sextet modeled after Gypsy bands of a century ago.