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

(If you missed the first half of this review, you can find it by clicking here!)

After stretching our legs during the 15-minute intermission, I settled back in my seat for the next ten bands. Well, I say “my” seat, but technically I was sitting in someone else’s seat, because my friend M. tipped me off to a no-show empty seat, front row dead center. Yeah, I’ll take advantage of that, thank you! It was a very nice change of pace seeing everything except the keyboards, instead of nothing but the keyboards.

The first band in the second set that really wowed me was the trio of Loren Sklamberg (vocals, accordion), Frank London (trumpet) and Uri Caine (piano). Out of all the bands we heard that night, this one had the most klezmer at its heart. (This seems relevant as the Book of Beriah concert was part of the Newish Jewish Music Festival.) Frank London gave us a bit of an explanation before the beginning of the piece, saying the name of the piece, “Kelim,” which is “part of the kabbalistic-mystic concept of how the world was created” inspired them to use this particular text, which I think he said was Yiddish. Even without being able to understand the lyrics, I thought the piece was hauntingly beautiful with a very Old World feel. Really loved London’s trumpet on this piece.

Next up was Abraxas, a band that regular readers of my blog will be familiar with. Shanir Blumenkranz is the bandleader and gimbri player, accompanied by Kenny Grohowski on drums, and two electric guitar players: Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz. While the band was setting up and getting plugged in, some joker in the audience yelled out “What IS that thing?” This prompted John Zorn to grab the mic and retort, “A gimbri, you fool!” which got a laugh out of the audience. I especially liked the intro to their piece which had some really cool atmospheric guitar work over a melodic bass line (well, gimbri line).

mark-abraxas(Abraxas. Photo courtesy of Mark Kirschbaum.)

After Abraxas, we got to hear Mephisto – which (as Zorn explained) is usually called “Mephista,” but apparently the substitution of a male drummer (Jim Black) made them decide to alter the gender of the name. The trio was completed by Sylvie Courvoisier on piano and Ikue Mori on electronics. I really enjoyed this piece, with the deep, dramatic piano and Mori’s fascinating electronic textures. (Although there was one odd moment where I never did figure out if someone’s cell phone went off, or if that was just Ikue Mori’s electronics… kind of makes me want to sample some of her work and use it as a cell phone ring, now that I think about it.) A couple of my friends commented later that this was one of the best pieces all night, and I’m inclined to agree.

Erik Friedlander’s Volac is one of my favorite Book of Angels albums, so I was very much looking forward to his solo cello contribution to the Book of Beriah, entitled “Teshovah.” It was an entirely pizzicato piece, like many on Volac, and it was very beautifully played – strong and delicate all at the same time. (I really wish I could have snagged a video, but I was feeling very wary of pulling out a camera now that I was somewhat illicitly sitting in the “friends of Zorn” comped ticket section.) It was a lovely piece and the audience seemed to applaud with extra enthusiasm for this one.

Jamie Saft and the New Zion Trio was up next, a band I was looking forward to seeing for the first time since I’ve heard good things about them (and who doesn’t love Jamie Saft?!). Saft played the piano and was accompanied by a rhythm section of Brad Jones (bass) and Craig Santiago (drums). This was one of the more laid-back and jazzy pieces we heard all night – and while it wasn’t anything that would surprise you if you’ve heard Saft’s Book of Angels album (the very first release in the series back in 2005), I actually think this piece was a step up from that CD – it really sucked me in, very interesting with a lot of depth.

The newly-formed Merkaba Quartet (clearly formed for this piece, as they were playing a song called “Merkaba”) was one of my very, very favorite pieces of the night. I had a feeling it would be, just because of the lineup – Marc Ribot on guitar, Mark Feldman on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, and Shanir Blumenkranz on bass. It was also (if my memory serves me correctly) the only ensemble of the night was was conducted by Zorn (although I couldn’t see him from my seat because he was right behind Erik Friedlander). It was, as you might expect, a sort of hybrid of the Masada String Trio and Bar Kokhba. I was looking forward to this one so much – and it was getting late enough in the show that it wouldn’t kill me if I got thrown out, ha! – that I decided to be brave and make an attempt at stealth-filming it. It’s not the best camerawork, since I shot it totally blind, but the sound came out quite well.

The second to last act of the night was Uri Caine, solo piano. Thanks to my new-and-improved seat I now had zero view of him at the piano, so I was in pure sound mode, listening without seeing. I’ve seen a lot of Masada Marathons and I think Uri Caine has done a solo piece in every one of them; I sometimes think he gets lost in the shuffle a bit in a marathon, but this time was an exception even though he ended up being sandwiched between two of the best and most exciting pieces of the night. Instead of being lost between them, it felt more like a palate cleanser, which my ears needed after hearing eighteen bands in a row. The sound of a piano alone is very austere and clean when contrasted to the strings, electric guitars and basses of the bands before and after. Like Jamie Saft’s piece, it wouldn’t surprise anyone who had heard Caine’s Book of Angels album, but I thought it was a cut above – a really nice, dynamic and interesting piece. Beautiful.

The last band of the night was Secret Chiefs 3 – they did (I know I keep saying this, but there are a lot of them!) one of my very very favorite Book of Angels albums, Xaphan, so I was especially looking forward to this piece. Zorn gave them a grand introduction, calling them “one of the great bands of our time” and saying they had done “one of the most remarkable” Book of Angels albums. I have seen SC3 a good five or six times and every time there’s been a slightly different lineup – this time included. The lineup for Book of Beriah was Trey Spruance and Gyan Riley on guitars; Timba Harris on violin; Matt Lebofsky on keyboards; Ches Smith on drums; and Shanir Blumenkranz putting in his seventh (!) performance of the night, this time on electric bass.

We had to wait a couple of minutes as they tried to sort out an amp which had apparently decided to spontaneously die somewhere between Abraxas and SC3, but after they reshuffled the amps they launched into a magnificent finale to cap the night. Usually Zorn likes to finish the marathons with a bang – often with Electric Masada (because no one should ever be asked to follow that band!) – and this was a fitting end to the show. It was only about four minutes long, and could have easily fit into Xaphan – but it was exciting and crazy and ended with a big crescendo – great stuff! One of my favorite pieces of the night. (If you know where to look for these sort of things, there’s a really nice audience recording of them doing a live set of all-Masada material from Oakland in February… highly recommended.)

Instead of an encore, Zorn brought all the musicians on stage (referring to them as “Fifty swingin’ cats!”) and had them all take a bow. There was a well-deserved standing ovation. We all basked in the glow for a few minutes before slowly filtering out the theater. It was a greatly successful night. I have to admit that, secretly, I’d been a little dubious about the whole “shuffle concert” concept, with a different band doing every song. I was picturing a high ratio of waiting to music, I was picturing bands not having a chance to really get into a good groove, I was picturing inevitable technical malfunctions. (Oh ye of little faith!) But it turned out great – there was much less time between pieces than I expected (subtracting the intermission it worked out to eight minutes per piece including setup time, introductions and performance). And there was really only one technical problem with that dead amp, which was sorted out in about two minutes. It was very impressive. I will probably always pine for the days when a Masada Marathon was three days long instead of three hours, but that’s because I’m in the “more is better” camp when it comes to live music!

Now that it has premiered so successfully, I guess we have to sit back and wait and see what happens with the next 72 pieces from the Book of Beriah. Luckily, with Zorn at the helm we probably won’t have to wait very long!

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

  1. JZ suggested he’d do two more shows to debut the next 72. If this was ~3 hours for 20 pieces, does that imply the next shows will be ~5.5 hours each?

    • Sarah V. says:

      3 x 24 or 4 x 18 pieces would make a lot more sense than 2 x 36.

      18 or 36 would be good for the whole numerology angle….

  2. jordan says:

    if theyre anything like the last masada marathon then maybe

  3. Roddus says:

    Green with envy

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