Concert Review: John Zorn’s Masada Marathon (9/15/2013)

On Sunday I went to the Skirball Center at NYU for one of John Zorn’s spectacular Masada Marathons. I’ve seen a number of them before (five, IIRC) and every one has been both different and wonderful in its own way. This one featured more bands than any I’d seen before, a total of thirteen – including a couple I hadn’t seen before. In order of performance: Bar Kokhba, Banquet of the Spirits, Mycale, David Krakauer & his band (billed on the program as simply “Krakauer”), Erik Friedlander solo, Secret Chiefs 3, the Dreamers, Malphas, Roberto Rodriguez Octeto Masada, Uri Caine solo, Abraxas, Masada String Trio, and the grand finale, Electric Masada.

If you’re not familiar with Zorn’s Masada music, it’s basically a songbook of tunes that he wrote based on certain rules – they are all short (and meant to be improvised/expanded upon by the musicians interpreting the tunes) and are based on certain scales/modes that have a Judaic feel to them. He’s released dozens of albums based on the hundreds of tunes in the Masada songbooks, and in recent years he has put together a number of Masada Marathon concerts where he gets together a large number of bands to play Masada material.

For this article, I’m going to write about the bands I thought were particular highlights, instead of trying to be completist – thirteen bands in one post is a bit overkill even for me. I really thought all 13 of the bands were at the very least good and/or interesting, but sometimes a blogger has to make tough choices…

Bar Kokhba was first up, and they are always a favorite of mine. It’s a real all-star band: Marc Ribot on guitar, Joey Baron on drums, Cyro Baptista on percussion, and the Masada String Trio (Erik Friedlander, Mark Feldman, and Greg Cohen) on cello, violin, and bass, respectively. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better band, and they’ve been playing together for about fifteen years as a group (some of them have been working together since the 80s) and they are always really tight and throw down a fantastic groove. I thought the first piece was a bit tame, understandable when they’re warming up the crowd. But in the second piece they really knocked it out of the park – especially Marc Ribot, with a few fiery solos. He just flipped that “It’s Time To Be Awesome Now” switch somewhere in his brain and cranked out some crazy, fun stuff. Bar Kokhba is a band that can be pretty laid back – surfy and groovy – but it’s a slow burn that can really go over the top when they have a chance to stretch out on stage. I think sometimes the limited time they get in these Masada Marathons works against them, since they have to stop playing almost as soon as they really get going.

I had terribly unfortunate camera problems on the night of the show (and me sitting front row center, too! What a wasted opportunity) so you’ll have to settle for audio with no picture:

Banquet of the Spirits was up next, and their set was a lot of fun. They are pretty much a band designed for fun: Cyro Baptista, the Brazilian percussionist who seems like he must have rhythm flowing through his veins; Brian Marsella, a fantastic and wild keyboard player (who you can also hear playing in Zion80, a band I’ve mentioned before); Shanir Blumenkranz, a talented multi-instrumentalist who played in several bands throughout the evening; and Tim Keiper on drums… I always feel a little bad for someone playing drums in Cyro’s band, how can you keep up with him?! But Keiper manages to do just that. The band only played a few tunes, but they changed the tone considerably, from Bar Kokhba’s sunny surfy grooves to something darker, weirder, and more exotic. The very beginning of the set started with some deep rumbling, strange and difficult-to-identify percussion noises, and some slightly creepy piano. Very atmospheric, and totally different from the band we’d just seen. But after that eerie introduction they launched into some faster, more rhythm-focused music, featuring a lot of interesting bass textures and some wonderful work on the keyboards from Brian Marsella. It’s a bit hard to pin them down into a genre, I guess you could call it “world jazz.” I’ve seen them 4-5 times and they are always exciting and fun.

Another favorite from the first half of the night was Erik Friedlander – I’ve always been impressed with his solo performances, but he’s taken these Masada pieces so far beyond the studio album (“Volac”) that I’m starting to wonder who I need to petition to get him to record a live album of this material. Or at least let him play longer sets at Masada marathons! His set felt so short, just three or four pieces, including my two favorites, “Harhaziel” and “Sannul.” “Harhaziel,” which he played first, was just breathtakingly beautiful. He would have gotten a standing ovation at any other concert, but they were moving things along as quickly as they could to keep the concert under four and a half hours (!) and finish up by curfew.

The last band before the intermission was Secret Chiefs 3. I’ve seen them a few times and have had experiences anywhere from “this is one of the best nights of my life” to “this is so loud I can’t feel my toes” to “I think I might sneak out early and go home.” This was one of the better ones. Every time I’ve seen them, they’ve had a slightly different lineup, and this one was particularly fun, including Toby Driver, Gyan Riley, and Ches Smith. Shanir Blumenkranz also came back out for one song and played the oud. Their set of material from their album “Xaphan” was very exciting and very exotic – I really loved it. I especially liked the second-to-last piece they played (again with no video to accompany the audio, sorry!):

After a short intermission featuring extremely long bathroom lines, everyone scurried back to their seats when John Zorn announced that they were going to start playing again whether or not we’d had a chance to pee. (I am heavily paraphrasing…)

First up after the break was another Ribot-fueled excursion into some surfy grooves with the Dreamers, featuring a fangirl’s-dream percussion section of Joey Baron, Cyro Baptista, and Kenny Wollesen, along with Jamie Saft on keys, Trevor Dunn on bass, and of course Marc Ribot on electric guitar again. They remind me a bit of Bar Kokhba (a compliment of the highest order), with the fantastic groove and smoking guitar solos, but they have a more exotic flavor; and of course the keys and vibes add a different dimension as compared to the string section of BK. I really enjoyed their set a lot. My favorite piece was the last one they did, “Galizur,” from their “Ipos” album, featuring a particularly hot guitar solo which the crowd couldn’t resist cheering for mid-song:

I was particularly interested to see the Roberto Rodriguez Octeto Masada, who were the ninth band of the night, partly because I don’t believe they’ve performed a Masada set before, and partly because it seemed like it would be a totally new kind of interpretation of the Masada book. The band had two percussionists, a pianist, clarinet, flute, violin, bass, and an accordion. The result was a sort of possibly-danceable Latin-klezmer-jazz fusion (which sounds like a horrible idea, but really, it was fun!). After hearing their set, I’m looking forward to hearing their forthcoming Book of Angels album. (Actually, I am just assuming they are recording a BoA album since they played at the marathon… not sure if it’s been mentioned anywhere else.)

I was starting to flag a bit by the time Abraxas came on stage, the 11th band of the night, about four hours after we’d arrived at the venue. They had some technical difficulties at first but managed to get everything working pretty quickly (I’m frankly impressed that with 40+ performers playing in rapid succession, they only had a couple of technical problems all night). I have seen them several times before and I thought they were really stepping up their game for the marathon. It’s an interesting band, with Shanir Blumenkranz once again on bass (and/or gimbri? like I said, I was getting a bit tired by then), Kenny Grohowski on drums, and a fantastic pair of electric guitarists, Eyal Maoz and Aram Bajakian. I love me some electric guitar, so this is a band I can really get behind. They were easily among the heaviest and hardest-rocking bands of the night, along with Secret Chiefs 3 and Electric Masada. Their last piece was a real standout – great performances all around, but a special nod to Grohowski playing some excellent, excellent, heavy drums:

The last band of the night was the legendary Electric Masada. I think they always play last in these marathons because it would just be cruel to make anyone play after them. They are completely over the top! The lineup is the same as the Dreamers, except adding John Zorn on saxophone, Ikue Mori on electronics, and moving Kenny Wollesen to drums from vibes. (Yeah, double drums AND a percussionist! It’s heavy stuff.) It was the first time we got to hear Zorn play all night, although he had been on stage before while conducting several bands (Bar Kokhba, the Dreamers, and Masada String Trio). It was great to hear his voice added to the mix via his saxophone. It can be a chaotic band with three percussionists and several potentially lead instruments all played by top-notch players, any one of whom could easily run away with the show if they chose to.

They played an extra long set compared to the rest of the bands, probably around 30-40 minutes. Out of all the Masada bands, Electric Masada was the closest they came all night to one of Zorn’s game pieces – where he uses various signs and signals to conduct and communicate with the band. (Sometimes when hand signals just weren’t enough, he resorted to simply shouting, “GO! GO! GO!” or “Come on, come on!”) It can be almost overwhelming to watch or listen to – I still remember how blown away I was the first time I saw them, back in 2006 at my very first Zorn concert. (It was also my first live jazz experience! Quite a night.) At the end of a 4-5 hour night of music, their set was absolutely brilliant; but it also finished off my last reserves of mental energy. (I’ll spare you more of my broken-camera videos and just say that if you want to hear some of their stuff, there are some great pro-shot videos on Youtube.)

At the end of the night, Mr. Zorn chided us a bit for not cheering as loud as they did in Paris the previous week. I tried my best! On my feet and cheering. I was hoarse this morning after cheering so much at concerts the last couple of nights. But I think we were all pretty worn out by that point, and people were ready to go home. There are very few concerts which are both fantastic and leave me feeling like I’ve really, truly had enough… but this was one of them. I am now resting up for the other nine Zorn concerts I’m planning to see this month. (And when I say “resting,” I mean “seeing four other concerts in the meantime”. This was the first night in my quest to see 16 concerts in 16 days.)

Check back soon for my next review: Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo at City Winery on 9/16/2013. I got my camera working again!

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5 Responses to Concert Review: John Zorn’s Masada Marathon (9/15/2013)

  1. I was there. It was all amazing. And this is a great write up. Your sound is pretty good.

  2. Pingback: Latest activities | Appreciation of Trevor Dunn

  3. Ste says:

    Hi! Awesome web site! Congratulations! Just wanted to say I was there too, was perhaps behind you :-) (second row center, orchestra pit). I’m a Zorn fan too, and I saw Masada-related concerts in Italy, France and Netherlands over the years. Great review!

    • Sarah V. says:

      Hi, thanks for your comment! You must have been sitting pretty close to me. My friends and I were four of the center seats in the front row in the pit!

      I bet you and I went to the same Masada Marathon in Rome… the three-night one, yes?

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