Masada: 50th Birthday Celebration Vols. 1 & 4

Sean Patrick Fitzell By

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Masada String Trio
50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 1

A year after his month-long residency at Tonic, saxophonist/composer John Zorn continues the revelry with the 50th Birthday Celebration series. Volumes One and Four coincide with the ten-year anniversary of Zorn's Masada songbook: the former features one of the most revered ensembles, the Masada String Trio; the latter, the latest incarnation, Electric Masada. Under Zorn's direction, violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander and bassist Greg Cohen wind through the idiosyncratic tunes, switching between roles as soloists and accompanists with mesmerizing grace. On quick-cutting pieces like "Lachish," "Malkut," and "Karet," the three swirl around each other, threatening to spin out of control, but always land together for the unison passages. The introspective compositions, such as "Abidan" and "Moshav," find the trio exploring emotive lyricism. Whether playing tight ensemble lines or feverishly exchanging improvised statements, Feldman and Friedlander are stunningly empathetic, for instance on "Khebar," which boasts a plucked melody and swelling dynamics. But, as is often the case in the Masada quartet, it is Cohen's unselfish, steady playing that provides the structure and context for his partners' solo flights, particularly on "Sippur" and "Meholalot," where he tenaciously locks into the unrelenting groove.

Electric Masada
50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 4

Contrasting the minimalist elegance of the trio, the heavier Electric Masada pushes the songs' threshold, alluding to the written music with extended introductions and solo sections before stating the themes. Zorn arranges/conducts the larger ensemble on the fly, introducing different sonic colors as he sees fit. On "Tekufah," dynamic percussionist Cyro Baptista and drummers Kenny Wollesen and Joey Baron get a workout, opening the song and adding transitional punch between soloists. On the dirge-like "Idalah-Abal," the leader unleashes a frenzied solo, a welcome reminder of his unique sound. Zorn's music elicits some of guitarist Marc Ribot's best playing, especially his wah-wah-infused runs on "Hadasha" and the blues-drenched turn on "Yatzar." Laptop/electronica artist Ikue Mori stamps her signature on the kinetic flurry of "Hath-Arob" and adds watery-sounding samples to the introduction of "Yatzar," heightening its mystery along with Baptista's vocalizations. Keyboardist Jamie Saft is strong throughout, matching the unison lines and offering compelling solos, particularly an organ run during "Lilin." The tune also confirms bassist Trevor Dunn's ability to hold the bottom with a buoyant line.

The pliability of the Masada songbook is evident on these two recordings. Yet as far as the tunes are stretched, they retain their unmistakable sound—an exploration of the Jewish scales. The results testify to Zorn's compositional strength and his vision to write music that could be played by any instrumentation.

50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 1

Tracks: 1. Tahah (7:53); 2. Abidan (5:25); 3. Lachish (3:29); 4. Sippur (3:27); 5. Malkut (5:02); 6. Meholalot (6:30); 7. Kedushah (8:31); 8. Ner Tamid (3:37); 9. Karet (4:12); 10. Moshav (8:07); 11. Khebar (6:50).
Personnel: Greg Cohen: Bass; Mark Feldman: Violin; Erik Friedlander: Cello.

50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 4

Tracks: 1. Tekufah (14:33); 2. Idalah-Abal (6:18); 3. Hadasha (13:48); 4. Hath-Arob (4:07); 5. Yatzar (9:20); 6. Lilin (15:41); 7. Kisofim (8:41).
Personnel: Cyro Baptista: Percussion; Joey Baron: Drums; Trevor Dunn: Bass; Ikue Mori: Computers; Marc Ribot: Guitar; Jamie Saft: Keyboards; Kenny Wollesen: Drums; John Zorn: Alto Saxophone.


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