When alto saxophonist/composer John Zorn brought trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron together for a series of sessions dedicated to bringing the harmonic roots of traditional Jewish music into a new improvisational context, little did he know that his songbook, ultimately growing to include over two hundred compositions, would grow into what has proven to be his most enduring and endearing work.
The Masada songbook, and the original Masada quartet, would be the starting point for interpretations by groups including the chamber-like Masada String Trio, the aggressive Electric Masada, and the austere Masada Recital. But while the different projects would prove just how malleable Zorn's sketch-like but clearly focused material could be, it's the flagship Masada quartet that has defined not only Zorn's repertoire, but provided the basis for the Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture movement, a growing body of work on his Tzadik label.
Ten studio albums and numerous live recordings documented the quartet's incredible chemistry, from their first sessions in '94 through to the end of the decade, after which they would only sporadically reconvene for live performances. Anyone with the good fortune of seeing the band live has witnessed the true potential of orchestrated freedom. Shifting effortlessly from reckless abandon to staggering rapid-fire arrangements, all directed by Zorn's hand movements, if ever a band has spoken with a single voice, it has been Masada.
Now, a decade after the first sessions in February, '94, Zorn has chosen to release Sanhedrin: Unreleased Studio recordings 1994-1997, a generous two-CD set packaged as a gorgeous hardcover book containing reminiscences by the band, and if it's a release that Masada fans won't want to miss, it's also outstanding introduction to those unfamiliar with the project.
Thinking "Ornette Coleman meets klezmer is only the beginning. The material ranges from energetic yet lyrical pieces like "Meholalot to the brooding inflections of "Idalah Abal ; from the fast-swing of "Zelah to the melancholy "Abidan. Many of the 29 pieces have appeared elsewhere, but given the interpretive freedom built into Zorn's compositions, these alternate performances are as vital as the originals.
While each member of the group was already known on the Downtown New York scene, Masada catapulted Zorn, Douglas, Cohen, and Baron to greater degrees of famemost notably Douglas, who has gone on to a personal body of work as varied and eclectic as Zorn's. Baron and Cohen continue to be in-demand players, and Zorn's oeuvre seems to grow almost exponentially.
That Zorn has composed a new book of over three hundred Masada tunes is exciting news. That this new repertoire will be interpreted by groups other than the Masada quartet leads to anticipation of how the project will evolve. But in the meantime, Sanhedrin shows where it all beganwith four players clearly excited by a new musical prospect and the elation of total empathy.