John Zorn’s Masada is one of the tightest, wittiest, most energetic, most appealing — simply one of the best — jazz bands to emerge in the past 15 years. So it’s no wonder that Zorn, a man as cleverly entrepreneurial as he is creatively passionate, should turn the name into an infinitely expansive genre.
The band cut its final studio recording eight years ago, but the brand keeps pumping. Just this summer, Zorn’s independent label, Tzadik, has put out four new Masada CDs — one double disc of alternate takes from over the years, and three albums of other bands playing variations on Masada music. All of them are more than worthwhile.
Zorn, an accomplished saxophonist and composer who made his mark during the late 1970s, was one of the few avant-gardists from Manhattan’s downtown music scene to break into the mainstream, later signing with Nonesuch Records and making some of the most innovative albums of the day.
Zorn split from Nonesuch during the 1980s, as his music took a dark, bitter turn. He explored his Jewish roots, at first angrily. His 1992 composition, “Kristallnacht,” was a hair-raising portrait of savage persecution; he sometimes performed it at deafening volumes, physically locking his audience inside the concert hall.
In 1993, as he was approaching his 40th birthday, Zorn realized that the essence of Judaism was precisely its outsider status. He found a paradoxical sense of community and belonging in this insight, and decided to celebrate it by writing joyful music. Over several months, he wrote 100 jazz-like compositions, each built on one of the two “Jewish scales” (a major scale with the second note flat or a minor scale with the fourth note sharp). One night at the Knitting Factory, his jazz club of choice at the time, Zorn played a few of the tunes with three younger musicians — trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron (all of whom have since become prominent on their own). The music turned magical, and thus was born Masada, named for the legendary mountain-fortress where a small band of first-century Jewish zealots fought to their deaths rather than surrender to the Romans.
From 1993 to 1997, Masada recorded 10 studio albums — titled “One,” “Two,” “Three” and so forth, up to “Ten” — each with 10 of the 100 songs. Then Zorn released 10 live-concert albums, which he’d been recording over the years, in the form of five double-disc CDs. He grew so enchanted with the music that, by the time the cycle was finished, he’d written another 105 tunes. Rather than record them the same way, he started experimenting with alternative textures and timbres. He formed Bar Kokhba — consisting of violin, cello, electric guitar, bass, drums and percussion — to emphasize the music’s harmonic colors. He whittled this group down to the Masada String Trio — violin, cello and bass — to get a classical chamber feel. For a rock vibe, he formed Electric Masada — horns, guitars, organs and drums — fusing the music with the spirit of Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew.” A few years ago, in the space of just three months, he sat down and wrote 300 more tunes, and called the collection “Masada Book II.” Conceivably, the cycles will never end.
The best of the four new CDs is “Bar Kokhba Sextet,” recorded live at Tonic, the Lower East Side jazz club in September 2003, as part of a month-long series of concerts to celebrate Zorn’s 50th birthday. (Tzadik has released recordings of several concerts, Masada-related and otherwise, from this series.) It’s a three-disc set — three full sets spread out over two nights — two would have been enough (the third is a bit languorous). Even so, this is vibrant, thrilling music, much more so than “The Circle Maker,” the sextet’s 1998 studio album.
For the record, so to speak, Bar Kokhba consists of Greg Cohen and Joey Baron, from the Masada quartet, on bass and drums; Mark Feldman, violin; Erik Friedlander, cello; Marc Ribot, electric guitars, and Cyro Baptista, percussion. Zorn zestfully conducts. All are virtuosos and they swing hard and soft, as the mood demands.
Ribot also sits in for two tracks on another disc, “Rock Masada,” featuring the rock trio Rashanim, and though the album is fine, it likely would have been terrific had he sat in for the whole session. The opening song, “Bahir,” is a killer, with Ribot plucking a thick, raucous riff reminiscent of the Bollywood theme that Thora Birch frugs and twists to at the start of “Ghost World.”
“Astaroth” has pianist Jamie Saft, backed by Greg Cohen and drummer Ben Perowsky, navigating 10 tunes from Zorn’s “Masada Book II.” The piano-trio format brings out a lithe, lyrical flavor rarely gleaned in this music.
Finally “Sanhedrin” is a two-disc set of previously unreleased recordings from Masada’s original studio sessions, most of them alternate takes. Compared with the released versions, they’re different but generally not worse. My favorite studio album from those years is “Eight.” But for those who want a broader scan without having to buy all 10 discs, “Sanhedrin” is a riveting sampler.
Fred Kaplan is a columnist for Slate magazine and a jazz critic for The Absolute Sound.