Saxophonist/composer/entrepreneur John Zorn continues with his third in a series of releases dedicated to Masada Book Two300 new compositions continuing the tradition established with his first Masada book, first introduced in 1994 with his flagship Masada quartet on Alef
(DIW, 1994). Rather than using any single ensemble to interpret the new music, each album presents a different group. In the case of Malphas, Book of Angels Volume 3
, violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier deliver an interpretation of Zorn's material as different as Jamie Saft Trio's Astaroth, Book of Angels Volume 1
(Tzadik, 2005) and the Masada String Trio's Azazel, Book of Angels, Volume 2
(Tzadik, 2005). Even the most diminutive of musical sketchesnone of Zorn's Masada compositions exceed five lines on a musical pagecan be grist for the broadest possibilities.
Malphas isn't the first time Feldman and Courvoisier have examined Zorn's so-called radical Jewish culture. On Masada 10 Years Volume Four: Masada Recital (Tzadik, 2004), the duo reinterpreted some of Zorn's best music from Masada Book One in a setting that, while resembling a classical chamber recital, revealed considerably more beneath the surface. While both artists are completely comfortable in the classical world, they've proven equally capable as imaginative improvisers. A previous outing, Abaton (ECM, 2003), teamed them with cellist Erik Friedlander for one disc of through-composed contemporary classical compositions by Courvoisier, plus a second disc of free improvisations. But while Masada Recital offered a unique approach to Zorn's music, many of the songs had been previously recordedsome in more than one musical configurationcreating frames of reference that caused familiar listeners to draw inevitable comparisons.
Since the material on Malphas is appearing on record for the first time, preconceptions are irrelevant and, if anything, Courvoisier and Feldman take Zorn's material even farther afield. While the opening tracks"Azriel, with its dervish-like rhythm, and "Basus, with a frenetic theme that opens up into completely free territoryare in context with the existing Masada universe, they really only create a comfort zone, so that by the time you get to "Rigal a lyrical waltz that could easily have come from the pen of Erik Satieyou're inside the duo's aesthetic and ready for anything.
Feldman and Courvoisier often blur the line between what's on the written page and what's in their vivid imaginations. While "Labariel begins in sombre abstraction, they also demonstrate a sense of humour. After quoting Mozart briefly as a device to lead into even bleaker territory broken up by brief rhythmic passages, it's more a vehicle for individual and collective improvisations, ranging from dark delicacy to abstruse majesty.
It's no longer extraordinary for contemporary musicians to be comfortable with both classical and improvised music. But Feldman and Courvoisier are so at ease that the result ceases to fit in either world. Instead, with Malphas they move into new territory thatalong with the Masada string triomay be the most purely evocative and distinctive interpretation of Zorn's music yet.
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Personnel: Mark Feldman: violin; Sylvie Courvoisier: piano.