It's hard to imagine that ten years have passed since John Zorn introduced his Masada project. A decade later, with a collective songbook of over two hundred pieces and a range of contexts that include the original Ornette Coleman-inflected Masada Quartet, the chamber-approach of Bar Kokhba and Masada String Trio, and the wilder, more aggressive stance of Electric Masada, the Masada project has taken on a life of its own, arguably becoming Zorn's most defining and enduring work. As part of a series celebrating the tenth anniversary of the project, that has included guitar interpretations and voice interpretations, Zorn takes his interest in new music one step further for Masada 10 Years Volume Four: Masada Recital, placing some of the songbook's finer works in a contemporary classical context with violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, last heard together with cellist Erik Friedlander on the challenging and satisfying ECM recording, Abaton .
What is truly wonderful about the Masada songbook is how fluid and adaptable it is. "Abidan," one of the more popular pieces in the book, has been interpreted by the original quartet, solo guitar, voice, and string trio. With Courvoisier and Feldman at the helm it takes on, as does the entire programme, the feeling of a classical recital. But the difference is that while there is a distinct new music feel about the approach the duo takes, there is still plenty of room for improvisation; with Zorn a fundamental for Masada has always been collective improvisation within a somewhat structured foundation. The context may change, but the face remains the same.
Like all Masada recordings the emotional range is far-reaching and diverse. The pieces range from the playful yet melancholic "Kanah" to the more dramatic "Socoh," with its chordal crashes and delicate passages countered with complex rapid-fire movements. "Mahshav" is tender and lyrical, with Courvoisier elegantly developing the theme before Feldman enters for poignant interplay. "Karet" comes from a freer place, with a short and intense theme setting the space for a spirited collective improvisation that is all the more remarkable for the way in which Courvoisier effortlessly shifts between the keyboard and the strings of the piano.
What makes this interpretation of the Masada songbook so appealing, much like many other recordings in the project, is its uncompromising blend of elegance and fire, lyricism and more abstract expressionism. Feldman and Courvoisier make the perfect duo for the concept, able to navigate complex written passages with aplomb while working hand-in-glove during the improvised sections with unfailing empathy. As good as the other entries in the Masada 10 Years series have been, Volume Four: Masada Recital may be the most compelling yet, a completely organic blend of passion and intellect that continues to assert the Masada project as the most significant work of John Zorn's long and varied career.