The scene outside the Somerville Theatre Saturday night -- with hazy-eyed, dread-headed white boys commingling openly with pasty-skinned, bespectacled math majors -- looked like the Further Festival landed at a computer trade show. The draw for these two social subsets was a rare (for Boston) double bill featuring John Zorn's Masada and Don Byron's Music for 6 Musicians.
The Zorn-Byron show was the highlight of Boston's abbreviated Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival, which stopped off in Philadelphia and D.C. earlier in the month. The festival, which for the last decade has been run by the Knitting Factory's Michael Dorf, grew exponentially this year: For the first time, the festival is traveling outside of Manhattan and has corporate sponsorship. While other shows in Boston sold more tickets -- both Dave Brubeck and the Medeski, Martin & Wood with DJ Logic shows filled more seats, to say nothing of the huge crowd Bela Fleck drew at a free outdoor show on a gorgeous Sunday -- Zorn was the highlight of the week.
Coming on after a lackluster set by the increasingly frustrating Byron, who seems determined to squander away the bulk of his considerable talent beneath a perpetually pissed-off, hipper-than-thou attitude, Zorn's quartet was truly majestic. Masada is nominally a klezmer outfit, but more accurately it's a free-jazz combo with a Hebraic tinge. On Saturday, playing with drummer Joey Baron, bassist Greg Cohen and trumpeter Dave Douglas, Zorn nibbled around the edges of an Ornette Coleman, "Shape of Jazz to Come" vibe. Masada captivated the audience, playing unamplified save a bass hookup, alternating between frenetic squalls of sound and lush melodic explorations. Baron, switching among mallets, sticks, brushes and his hands, was a wonder to behold, especially during his solos.
After the show, a hippie said to a friend that he had fallen asleep during Masada's set. "But in a good way," he said. "It was, like, good for the soul."