Concert review: John Zorn’s Masada Book Three: Book of Beriah – part one (3/19/2014)

When John Zorn announced back in January that he was doing a live premiere of a third Masada book, I was… excited. I was very excited. I immediately booked a train and hotel and started trying to convince everyone I know to come with me. I had my browser refreshing to get a ticket the second they went on sale (sadly, that turned out to be kind of a bust since all the best seats were reserved for the musicians and their plus-ones – oh well). Zorn’s Masada compositions were my introduction to his work and they opened up a whole new world of music to me that I’d never been exposed to before. The second book of Masada, the Book of Angels, contains some of my absolute favorite music, and I’ve religiously collected all twenty volumes to date. We’ve been hearing rumors for the last couple of years that the Book of Angels was drawing to a close, so the announcement of a third book was thrilling for me. A temporary reprieve, as it were.

It’s unclear what form the third book will take – Zorn told us early in the show that the book would consist of “92 tunes which will be played by 92 different ensembles,” which is pretty amazing in and of itself. I don’t know if they’re planning to record them in the studio and release them (maybe in a box set?) or just to do concerts; hopefully both, and hopefully I’ll be able to see them all! He also mentioned one final piece to close the book, which would be a longer piece that he would do in the studio after book three is finished.

Wednesday night’s concert premiered 20 of the 92 tunes, with 20 different ensembles or soloists – most of them were either pre-existing bands (Zion80, Secret Chiefs 3, Cleric, etc.) or variations on existing ensembles (e.g., the Merkaba Quartet, the Aleph Quartet, Mephisto). Quite a few of them have already created albums for the Book of Angels series, so they were no strangers to the Masada universe (or working with Zorn, which I imagine is a rather unique experience for most musicians).

Usually for a show with so many bands I would just pick a few favorites, but I think I have to go against my better blogger instincts and write up most of them – I’m only skipping a couple that just weren’t my style. Nothing against the few bands I’m passing over, some of them were just not my scene at all (on both ends of the spectrum – too aggressive, or not aggressive enough…).

It’s possible that the very first piece was my favorite one out of the whole night. The arrangement was by violist Eyvind Kang, and the performers were Eyvind Kang (viola); Mark Feldman (violin); Timba Harris (violin); Erik Friedlander (cello); Shanir Blumenkranz (bass); Hidayat Honari (tar); Ches Smith (drums) and Frank London (trumpet). It was melodic and beautiful, with lots of drama and emotion. Lots of klezmer influence from Frank London’s trumpet playing, and the strings just sounded incredible. I actually wish they hadn’t put this band on first, because it was so good and I wasn’t ready for it to be that good yet – I needed them to ease me into things a bit more. (Although this probably was Zorn’s idea of easing us into the show, now that I think about it.) Kang’s Book of Angels album, Alastor, is being released in a few weeks, and after hearing this ensemble I can’t wait to hear it. I’m not sure if the same ensemble is on the album, but he clearly has some affinity with this music and I’m sure he has done a great job with it.

Mark-kang(Eyvind Kang’s ensemble. Photo courtesy of Mark Kirschbaum)

The next piece was a quick three-minute hit from a quartet of Zorn, Marc Ribot (guitar), Ches Smith (drums), and Shanir Blumenkranz (bass). Zorn described it – a little tongue in cheek, maybe – as “organic like a waterfall.” It was about the noisefest you would expect from a Zorn-led group, with a squealing sax, quick stabs from the guitar, and raging drums. It was a loud smack in the face and a sharp contrast to the previous piece. The contrast reminded me a little of my insomniac school days where I was perpetually getting four hours of sleep a night and would have a wretched combination of lemonade and Cocoa Puffs for breakfast in an attempt to shock my body into being more awake. (I guess I was too young for coffee.) Sometimes two things that are fine when taken separately make your eyes water a little when combined. But sometimes that’s just what you need.

The third ensemble was a Book of Angels alumni, Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits, with Cyro on percussion, Brian Marsella on keyboards (always a favorite of mine!), Shanir Blumenkranz on bass (again!), and Tim Keiper on drums. They took things down a step from the previous quartet, still on the wild side, but a little more sane. Brian Marsella was taking the lead quite a bit on piano, which suited me just fine since I love listening to him play – I’ve seen him in four or five different bands and he’s always a standout.

Next up were Sylvie Courvoisier (piano) and Mark Feldman (violin), who did one of my absolute favorite Book of Angels albums (Malphas). It’s been years and I can still remember listening to it for the first time, it made such an impression on me. The piece they did from the third book was, to my ears, very much in the same style as some of the tracks on that album, weaving chamber music in with extended techniques on both instruments, dissonance, sudden starts and stops, but still managing to hang on to a certain delicate beauty.

Vocalist Sofia Rei was next, accompanied by Jean-Christophe Maillard on saz bass (one of several exotic instruments we saw that night). Rei was part of the 13th volume of the Book of Angels, Mycale, but this piece was fairly different – Mycale is a cappella and relies heavily on wordless vocal percussion techniques, and this featured a more conventional singing technique with instrumental accompaniment. I thought it was excellent, really beautiful and a perfect sparse arrangement. There aren’t a lot of vocals in the Masada pantheon, but this was a worthy addition.

Cleric is a band that almost landed on my short “skipped” list because the style of music they play is firmly outside of what I usually listen to. Very heavy, very metal, kinda screamy. But I have to say I liked it a lot more than I was expecting to. They were doing some really interesting stuff and it’s clear that they are a great band even if I’m not into that genre. If you do like avant metal they are a definite recommendation. Bonus points for getting to see a nice-looking young man dressed like he walked in from a middle-management office job somewhere screaming his face off into the mic:


The next two bands in the first set were much more in my comfort zone as a music fan – Gyan Riley’s trio, with Riley on guitar, Timba Harris on violin and Ches Smith on drums was definitely a highlight of the night for me. This was one of the bands that, when I read the lineup online, I got really excited just seeing the musicians. I knew it was going to be a great one, and indeed, I loved it. It reminded me (unsurprisingly, since they are all SC3 members) a little of the Secret Chiefs 3 Book of Angels album, Xaphan. That amazing balance of complexity, power, delicacy and exoticism, with a dancing, weaving melody. All three musicians were excellent, but I especially liked Timba Harris’s playing on this one.

The last band before the intermission was Jon Madof’s Zion80, a band I’ve recommended on this blog before – their debut album came out last year and it was one of my favorites of 2014. Their lineup at this concert was pretty staggering: Jon Madof, Aram Bajakian, and Yoshie Fruchter on guitars; Matt Darriau on alto sax; Greg Wall on tenor sax; Zach Mayer on baritone sax; Frank London on trumpet; Brian Marsella on keyboards; Marlon Sobol and Yonadav Halevy on percussion; and Shanir Blumenkranz on bass (for the fourth time, if you’re counting). It’s a completely outrageous lineup.

mark-zion(Zion80. Photo courtesy of Mark Kirschbaum)

They are a damn fun band full of great musicians, and this piece was no exception. I tried really hard to take a video of this one, but my seat was in a terrible spot to film and I had to trash it for the sake of not blaspheming against art. (It was about 40% Jon Madof’s back, 30% out of focus and 30% the head of the guy in front of me. Not my finest piece of cinematography.) They have a few shows lined up in New York during the next couple of months, so you might be able to hear the piece for yourself – check out their tour page here.

I’m going to break the blog off here at the intermission – stay tuned for part two of the Book of Beriah review in the next day or two. (Edit: click here for part two!) And keep an eye on the Concert Manic Facebook page in case I manage to get some halfway decent video footage together for some Facebook-exclusive bonus material.

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2 Responses to Concert review: John Zorn’s Masada Book Three: Book of Beriah – part one (3/19/2014)

  1. Pete says:

    Sounds like it was as amazing as the Book of Angels usually is – really interesting diversity of musicians too. I’ve been wondering what Mephista would do with BoA tunes. Have you heard Erik Friedlander’s incredible Claws and Wings with Ikue and Sylvie? That would be an ensemble to take on the BoA!

    Thanks for keeping those of us on the wrong side of the pond informed about this stuff.

    • Sarah V. says:

      Mephista (aka “Mephisto” since they had a different drummer) was in the second half and they did a really nice piece… one of the better ones, I thought. Claws & Wings is indeed an incredible ensemble, one of my favorite albums from last year – I’d listen to anything they wanted to play, Masada included!

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