Nothing ages faster than the avant-garde. In music, in dance and in the visual arts, yesterday’s innovation quickly becomes today’s commonplace — all of which makes saxophonist and composer John Zorn’s achievements in Jewish music all the more remarkable.
Zorn began his explorations of radical Jewish culture in the early 1990s. By mid-decade, he had formed his Masada quartet and had begun writing pieces for a constellation of groups known as the Masada Chamber Ensembles. Masada quickly became a movement unto itself. And at the time, there was nothing like it under the sun. Zorn’s compositions, and the people who played them, were as likely to draw on jazz, punk and classical music as on Jewish music itself.
Today, you can’t toss a latke in a downtown club without hitting a musician who has worked with Zorn or recorded for his Tzadik label. Zorn’s eclecticism, his refusal to acknowledge hierarchies among musical genres, and his urge to explore every possible setting and permutation of Jewish-inflected material have become the defining features of experimental Jewish music. It is only a slight exaggeration to claim that the most adventurous efforts being made nowadays are simply extensions of the work that Zorn began more than a decade ago. In short, the man has become a case study in the transition from avant-garde to status quo.
Yet Zorn continues to surprise. This past December he premiered a fresh collection of Masada pieces at Tonic, a nightclub in downtown Manhattan. “Masada Book Two” comprises more than 200 new compositions, a fraction of which were performed by a revolving cast of musicians arranged in various configurations. “Bahir” was assigned to Rashanim, a trio led by guitarist Jon Madof that includes drummer Mathias Künzli and bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz. It was not their lucky night: Dissatisfied with the group’s first attempt at rendering the piece, Zorn made the musicians repeat it immediately and then had them play it again during the next set.
Apparently, practice makes perfect. “Bahir” is the first track on “Masada Rock,” Rashanim’s sophomore release for Tzadik. And while I, too, find myself playing the tune over and over again, that’s only because I can’t quite get enough of it. The introduction has the jerky, stop-and-start feel of Johnny Rivers’s “Secret Agent Man,” while the principal theme — played in twangy, reverb-heavy style by Madof and guest guitarist Marc Ribot over a driving go-go bassline — sounds like vintage surf rock.
Zorn always has been among the most ecumenical of composers. While he is capable of writing what sound like classic Ashkenazic folk melodies, his pieces more often feel vaguely Near or Middle Eastern. His fondness for groovy bass ostinatos and subtle polyrhythms conjures aural images of North Africa. On a tune like “Zidon,” there are even hints of the curious rhythmic spirals that swirl through Balkan folk music. So, when Zorn borrows, the sources are neither obvious nor easily identified. More than anything, the material on “Masada Rock” simply sounds like Zorn — a man who, despite his proven knack for pastiche, has developed as distinctive a voice as any composer of his generation.
However, a composer needs interpreters to bring his work to life — and in Rashanim, Zorn has found his ideal match. There’s little in the realm of rock, jazz or world music that lies outside the group’s collective vocabulary, and all three musicians hop effortlessly from funk to punk and everywhere in between. On “Chorek,” Madof opens in heavy-metal mode, churning out chunky power chords, flinty shards of melody, and glorious streams of noise before getting all loose and rubbery. On “Zemanim,” the intensity never flags for a moment: Think three-and-a-half minutes of over-the-top stadium rock, played without so much as a hint of irony. “Arad” is even more relentless, a funk-rock onslaught worthy of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The group is also capable of taking things down a notch. “Shadrakh,” in particular, is a low-key showstopper — a rhapsodic duo for acoustic guitar (Ribot joins in again) girded by a Latin bassline and by Künzli’s shimmering brushwork. The piece begins with a lovely Andalusian introduction before segueing into what could be your favorite Sephardic liturgical tune, lightly starched with just a touch of counterpoint. And then there’s the darkly atmospheric “Ahava,” featuring Blumenkranz on the oud. The work sounds as though it could be the soundtrack to a David Lynch film set in Algiers. And we also have the enigmatic “Terumah,” which sets yet more oud against North African shaker rhythms, a tripping bass ostinato and something that sounds suspiciously like a jaw harp.
“Masada Rock” is essentially a series of surprises, each one ingeniously crafted and superbly executed. It is also a rare showcase for both composer and performers: It may be hard to imagine anyone other than Zorn producing such a diverse and quirkily appealing set of miniatures, but after listening to the album even once, it’s equally hard to imagine anyone but Rashanim playing them.
Alexander Gelfand is a writer and musician living in New York.