Secret Chiefs 3 Kick Off John Zorn Yoshi's SF Residency

Prolific experimental jazz composer and saxophonist brings Masada to Yoshi's for six nights.

New York saxophonist and composer John Zorn is in San Francisco this week for a dozen shows at Yoshi's on Fillmore Street.

This historic residency is something Zorn has never done before on the West Coast, and somewhat surprisingly, he was absent from the stage on opening night.

Instead, Bay Area locals Secret Chiefs 3 heeded the call for two shows Tuesday night playing music written by Zorn under the title Masada.

Masada is a band that came together in 1993 as Zorn wrote and recorded a soundtrack for a low-budget movie (Thieves Quartet) with musicians Joey Baron (drums), Greg Cohen (bass), and Dave Douglas (trumpet) joining Zorn's saxophone for the compositions.

What started as something small quickly ballooned into hundreds of songs and lots of albums under the "Book of Masada" moniker with the original songs Book I being played in the early shows this week at Yoshi's and the new pieces Book of Angels (Book II) being played in the late shows.

I first head of John Zorn in 1990 when I was living up in Humboldt County, where I grew up.

I was 15 years old and my hometown band Mr. Bungle had just released their first major label album on Warner Bros. and Zorn produced it with the band.

To be honest, I didn't like those songs as much as the Mr. Bungle demo tapes my brother and I had worn out playing on our boombox, and I attributed a certain amount of blame to Zorn. 

Looking back on it, I think I was just so used to hearing tracks like Girls of Porn, Squeeze Me Macaroni, and Love Is a Fist the way I first heard them on those tapes that I was reluctant to accept change, but now I'd like to think that I've evolved.

So, it seemed especially fitting to me to watch Trey Spruance, guitarist of Mr. Bungle and fellow Eureka High alumni, lead his band Secret Chiefs 3 through two packed house shows on Tuesday night, with Zorn and Mike Patton, lead singer of Mr. Bungle, and recently reunited Faith No More, watching from the crowd.

I overheard someone during the show say that drummer Ches Smith was one of the best drummers they'd ever seen, and I can see why they'd say that with Zorn's challenging compositions filled with musical changes, mid-song genera bending, and start-stop timing that Smith and bassist Shahzad Ismaily fearlessly powering through all night.

Spruance, who let his 9-string baritone guitar rest for most of the night instead playing a black six-string,  stood in the back of the stage facing Smith, Ismaily, and guitarist Jason Schimmel while frequently looking over to keyboardist Jai Young Kim, and once or twice jumping in on the keyboards himself.

The string section included violinist Timb Harris (who like Schimmel are in Estradasphere, a Santa Cruz band on Spruance's label Web of Mimicry) Rich Doucette, and Wu Fei.

Doucette played a sarangi, a stringed instrument that sits in your lap and when played with a bow sounds like a person singing a creepy-ish whine, while Wu Fei, the only woman on stage, plucked away at a 6-foot long Chinese instrument called a guzheng

Fei had only one real solo in the show which was mesmerizing, while Doucette was mostly in background aside from a few instances where I was looking around to see who was singing, only to realize it was Doucette's sarangi.

While watching the show, I started to realize the roll reversal Trey Spruance was experiencing.

Maybe it was the streaking gray hair now visible in his beard that initially drove my mind down the path of Sir Alec Guinness, but thoughts of the student now being the teacher were flooding into my head, which led me to think about the people in the room and the history they'd had together as well as what the future now holds.

Think of how Yoda first mentored Obi-Wan Kenobi, who then took that knowledge and went on to mentor Luke Skywalker.

Trey Spruance has I'm sure learned a thing or two from playing with John Zorn over the last two decades, not only as a musician, but also as a producer and label head.

Now it is Spruance playing the roll Zorn once played with him as mentor and collaborator only this time Trey is the old guy on stage leading a bunch of hungry youngsters.

Secret Chiefs 3 have left the area for a two-week tour with North Bay resident Les Claypool, but fortunately for us here in the Bay Area, we've still got John Zorn out from New York for a few more nights so check out the schedule, selections and players, and don't miss this chance to see the Yoda of experimental jazz.

Josh Keppel is up writing this at 3 a.m. and in a sleep deprived flash of titillation thought for a second that he'd worked out a scenario where Mike Patton is Darth Vader, but it just wasn't in the cards.

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