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 (more…)

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 (more…)

Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/2013) – Part 2: Masada

(Click here to read part one of this series.)

The second concert of the John Zorn event at the Walker Art Center was a trio of Masada performances, mostly focused on the Book of Angels material. (The Book of Angels is a collection of Zorn’s compositions with a Judaic theme that have been recorded by a number of different bands and soloists.) Zorn’s Masada work is my favorite of his vast output, both live and on record, so I was particularly looking forward to this set, even though I’ve seen all of the performers many times before.

First up was a solo performance by cellist Erik Friedlander, playing material from the eighth volume of the Book of Angels, Volac. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen him play this material – off the top of my head I can think of eight – but I never get tired of it, and I swear he just gets better and better. He began with Harhaziel, which has always been one of my favorite pieces from the Book of Angels series. The studio version is beautiful, but hearing it live just takes my breath away – the intensity evokes such a visceral emotional response in me. The fourth piece he played was one of my favorites of the whole day/night – an intricate, contemplative pizzicato piece played with absolute delicacy and enormous depth of feeling. The kind of thing you can just close your eyes and get lost in.

His fifth and final piece was Sannul, which is another of my favorites from the album. Completely different from the previous piece, this one is played at approximately Mach 3. It’s the sort of impressive piece that makes audiences leap to their feet for a standing ovation. I was able to sneak a little video footage:

After that piece, they took a moment to rearrange the stage and the Masada String Trio walked out: Erik Friedlander on cello again, Mark Feldman on violin, and Greg Cohen on bass. They all faced each other in a tight circle, with John Zorn conducting from a seat on the floor.

The Masada String Trio is one of the oldest Masada bands, going back about fifteen years. The result of such a long collaboration is (more…)