"There is a life of tradition
that does not merely consist of conservative preservation of the spiritual
and cultural possessions of the community. There is such a thing as a treasure
hunt within tradition, which creates a living relationship to tradition
and to which much of what is best in current Jewish consciousness is indebted
even where it was--and is--expressed outside the framework of orthodoxy."
in 1994, Masada has quickly become one of John Zorn's most popular and
adventurous musical projects. The Masada songbook is Zorn's attempt at forging
a new form of Jewish music, one consciously rooted in the past and with an eye
to the future of Jewish culture. Zorn's two hundred or so Masada compositions
integrate elements of klezmer, Eastern and Middle music with jazz, avant-garde,
and classical, to produce this new form of Jewish music.It does not emphasize the unity and permanence of the Jewish experience, but rather its many facets and aspects. Zorn doesn't draw on one tradition, but on many. Like Zorn's "Great Jewish Music" series on Tzadik, he identifies Jewish music as not just klezmer, but all kinds of music that Jews of the ages have lived with, composed and performed. All these types of music, from Mahler's symphonies to Burt Bacharach's pop melodies and Lou Reed's dissonant rock are echoed in the Masada songbook.
The project seems to indicate a major shift in Zorn's output and intent for his
music. Compositionally, it was an opportunity for him to explore more
traditional jazz influenced song writing with melodies and changes. Although not
all of the Masada songs reflect this more conventional approach to composing,
most seem to fit squarely within the jazz tradition of two repetitions of the
melody seperated by a solo section. The standards he set for himself were that
the songs should be played by any group of instruments, and none of them should
exceed three stave lines.
The music also seems to represent a shift in Zorn's relationship to the listener.
While much of his earlier projects like Naked City and Spy vs. Spy initially
confront the listener, daring them to sit through the performance, Masada is a
very appealing project. It seems to be more of a contemplation of issues of
Jewish identity and heritage as opposed to an attack on the listener's perception
of music. Like many earlier Zorn projects, it contains a political, as well as a
musical, message. News For Lulu and The Big Gundown both championed music that
Zorn felt had been unfairly ignored by the conventional music establishment.
Masada's aggressive and solid sound seems to reflect a new self assertive Jewish
identity that seeks to understand the many triumphs and tribulations of the
Jewish diaspora over the centuries.
The music is being performed by several Masada groups. The original Masada
quartet (John Zorn: alto sax, Dave Douglas: trumpet, Greg Cohen: bass
and Joey Baron: drums)
draws heavy influence from Ornette Coleman quartet from the 60's and the
Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker piano-less quartets of the 50's. Masada
is improvisation at its best, with the horns weaving complex lines around
each other, and the rhythm section is one of the most fluid and flexible
I have ever heard. This band has recorded nine albums and one EP for DIW,
and three live albums for Tzadik since 1994. They still occasionally tour
Europe and play New York City two or three times a year.
Masada is a once in a lifetime ensemble akin to the John Coltrane Quartet
with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones or the Miles Davis Quintet of the late
60's. Their performances are a clear example of why they are such an unusual
jazz group. The band typically receives the response you would expect at
a rock concert, not an avant-garde jazz performance. Hard-core fans rush
for good seats with crazed abandon, tapers go to great lengths to smuggle
in recording equipment, and encores are the rule, not the exception.
In addition to the original Masada group, Zorn has released three albums
of Masada Chamber Ensembles, Bar
Circle Maker, and the soundtrack to The Port of Last Resort
VIII, all on Tzadik.
These albums feature the Masada compositions being played by a variety
of Zorn's favorite improvisors: Anthony Coleman, Marc
Ribot, John Medeski, Erik
Friedlander and others. The
first disc of Circle Maker features the Masada String Trio (Mark Feldman:
violin, Erik Friedlander: cello, Greg Cohen: bass). The
second disc finds the string trio joined by Marc
Ribot, Joey Baron
and Cyro Baptista.
is my favorite project by Zorn; I never get tired of listening to the quartet
with Dave Douglas, Joey Baron and Greg Cohen. If you ever have a chance
to see them live, do so. Seeing them in September of 1997 changed the way
I think about music. They
also influenced Penn State graduate Zack Furness, as he explains in his senior
thesis on some spiritual interpretations of Masada.
From what I know, this project of cultural Zionism is different from nationalist Zionism, which seeks to create a state defined by Jewish ethnicity. While I have very strong feelings about the state of Israel, I believe the project of cultural Zionism to be a healthy and positive project that celebrates Jewish culture accomplishments across the millenia. Masada celebrates the diversity of Jewish identity and spirit that has come from the Jewish diaspora around the globe. Jewish identity should not be exclusively centered in a specific location, it is changed and bound up in the places Jews have lived and settled.
below for my comments and recomendations regarding Masada related albums.
1: Alef * Masada
2 * Masada
4: Dalet * Masada
5: Hei Masada
6: Vav * Masada
7: Zayin * Masada
8: Het *Masada
9: Tet Masada
In Jerusalem 1994 * Live
in Taipei 1995 * Live
Kokhba Project/Masada String Trio/Bar Kokhba Sextet
Kokhba * Circle
* Filmworks IX: Trembling
City // Masada