John Zorn’s Masada Marathon 2011

photo by Scott Irvine

March 30, 2011


City Opera at Lincoln Center, NYC

When I saw this event listed I figured there was no way I was going to be able to go.  I happened across a ticket giveaway contest from Relix magazine and entered, then kinda forgot about it.  Tuesday morning I received an email saying I had won tickets…and there was much rejoicing.  These weren’t just any tickets, these were 5th row orchestra tickets at City Opera.  A perfect vantage point from which to see, hear and feel no less than twelve ensembles/artists perform music from John Zorn’s second book of Masada compositions, the Book Of Angels.

I’ve been a Zorn fan for twenty years or so and was working in the Jazz department of a record store when the original 10 volumes of Masada recordings were released.  It was revelatory for me.  Something about the music clicked in my head right away and I couldn’t get enough of it.  It got even better (if that’s possible) when Zorn started arranging the pieces for other ensembles like the Masada String Trio and Bar Kokhba.  The tunes took on new life in these ensembles.

In 2004 Zorn began work on the second book of Masada compositions dubbed the Book of Angels and rather than record them with the original Masada Quartet (Zorn, Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron) he called upon other groups to interpret them.  Volume One was the Jamie Saft Trio and was followed by The Masada String Trio, Mark Feldman/Sylvie Courvoisier, Koby Israelite and thirteen others.  Each band was free to arrange the songs however they wanted and add their own elements.

In 2010 Masada Marathons were held in Milan and Montreal and in 2009 in San Francisco.  This year Zorn’s hometown of NYC was treated to the musical circus.  Rather than play a small and intimate venue like The Stone, Zorn chose City Opera at Lincoln Center.  A building he has been coming too, “since 1968, when they used to have standing room tickets for $1.25.”  He was able to see, “Rudolf Nureyev dance with Margot Fontaine…right here on this stage!”

In typical Zorn ‘fashion’ this was a no bullshit no pomp and circumstance show.  Dressed in his usual orange camo pants and red t-shirt he announced the original Masada Quartet and got right to the music.  Don’t ask me exactly what tunes they played, I can never keep the Masada names straight.  I can tell you that the band is as tight as ever and still play with an infectious joy.  With a lot to get through each ensemble/artist was limited to about three compositions each and the transitions between groups was fast and seamless.  Drummers and keyboard players shared set ups making this possible.

Again no lengthy introductions from Zorn, this wasn’t about ego or artist, it was about the music.  Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman were up next with an elegant and playful set often echoing each other.  Sylvie more than once reached deep into the piano to extract just the right beautiful noises from it.  Several musicians were to make multiple appearances on stage.  Cyro Baptista was one of them.  He first appeared with his ‘new’ Banquet of the Spirits group, which I believe debuted at last year’s Marathon.  His percussion encampment was right in front of me and it’s a blast to watch him poke, stroke, reach, and grab all of his various instruments like a mad scientist all while keeping a watchful eye on his young band.

One of the more unique performances was by the all female acappella ensemble Mycale.  They used words, sounds and vocal beats to bring the tunes to life.  There’s something pure about a single voice filling a large room like that… it sends chills down my spine.

Judging from the response a lot of people came to see Medeski, Martin and W…I mean Dunn…seems bassist Chris Wood was on tour with his brother so Trevor Dunn filled in.  We saw a lot of Trevor tonight, never a bad thing.  I’m a fan of MMW and have been since before they made the leap(?) to jam band popularity.  I saw them first at The Cooler in NYC with maybe 50 or so people.  Not too long after that I went to see them at the Knitting Factory (when it was on Leonard St.) and the line went all the way around the block.  I guess they had just made an appearance with Phish somewhere and their fan base had expanded exponentially.  Good for them.  Musically I thought they were the least interesting group of the night.  The Masada tunes are all about those six lines of melody and if you miss that you miss the heart.  Medeski mashed out a lot of the parts on the keyboard which muddled things too much to hear what was going on.

As an aside I sat next to two younger guys who were apparently only there to see Medeski & Co.  I don’t have a problem with that, everyone has to start somewhere.  It was amusing to listen to them try to figure out exactly what was going on.  They didn’t seem to know who Zorn was or what Masada was all about.  At one point they Googled ‘Masada’ and read the results out loud, this just added to their confusion.  To their credit they stayed all night and I hope they took something more away with them.

Part one of the evening closed out with Bar Kokhba, strings with a rhythm section and one of the first groups to interpret the original book of Masada tunes.  The music is just gorgeous and Zorn knows exactly how to ‘conduct’ them to get what he wants.  Several times he needed to poke guitarist Marc Ribot on the shoulder to get his attention as his head was down and he was lost in the moment.

During intermission it was fun to look around at the VERY diverse audience.  From City Opera subscribers to long-haired metal fans in their patch covered denim jackets along with hipsters, Jazz fans and jam band kids.  sitting right in front of me was none other than industrial music pioneer Jim Thirlwell AKA Foetus.  I noticed his head bobbing along to the music on more than one occasion.

Part two opened with the band I was most looking forward to seeing, Secret Chiefs 3.  Founded by guitarist Trey Spruance following the break up of Mr. Bungle SC3 blends rock, metal, surf and ‘World’ music into something truly wonderful.  Their Book of Angels title Xaphan (Vol. 9 if you’re keeping track) is probably my favorite.  It seems like their style lends itself perfectly to these songs.  Easily the loudest part of the evening so far I think some folks were taken aback by the sheer volume…either that or violinist Timb Harris’ mohawk.  This was one of the bands that I wished could play a longer set.  As it is I’m glad they made the trek to NYC from California for this one gig.

photo by Dan Temmesfeld

From the cacophonous to the sublime with Erik Friedlander’s solo cello.  I could easily run out of adjectives to describe his playing…fluid, effortless, mesmerizing, haunting, beautiful…  The music flowed through him and we all bore witness.  Erik said it was, “a fun night for sure” and agreed that there was “a lot of talent on display.”

The Dreamers marks the addition of two new artists to the stage in Kenny Wollesen on vibes and the bearded Jamie Saft on keyboards.  What started out as a quiet retro lounge act type of thing changed drastically when Marc Ribot reared his head and let out the skronk.  Again Zorn carefully conducting the players and coaxing an amazing performance out of them.  Stopping on a dime and changing directions with lightning speed and efficiency.

The second solo performance was Uri Caine on piano.  Much like Erik Friendlander the stark atmosphere created by a single instrument was hypnotizing.  Every artist on this night sounds so at home with these compositions.  Zorn has created a language that speaks so clearly to such a wide array of musicians that you can’t help but feel good about the state of the World.  Music may save us after all.

Back on stage as a trio are Mark Feldman, Greg Cohen and Erik Friedlander.  The interplay between these three is extra sensory…of course it doesn’t hurt that Zorn is sitting on the floor amongst them waving his finger just to see how fast he can get them to switch parts.  This music looks as fun to play as it is to listen to.

Three hours of music have gone by in the blink of an eye and we’ve almost made it to the end, but no one is leaving until Electric Masada does their thing.  With Zorn bookending the night on alto the band kicks into a full-blown frenzy.  Dual drummers long with percussion and Ikue Mori’s pop and click electronics threaten to shake the building to its foundation.  I wonder if this is the loudest event ever held at City Opera?  As crazy as it got we knew that at any moment it could escalate because Mike Patton was waiting in the wings.

Mike is widely recognized as the voice of Mr. Bungle and Faith No More but he has been performing with Zorn for years and in many ways sees Zorn as his mentor.  They each cross over into multiple genres of music without thinking twice and each has their own label.  Patton is in many ways the Zorn of the rock world…while both men owe a lot to dear Uncle Frank Zappa of course.

If you are familiar with Mike Patton you know that he can be hard on audiences, scathing in fact.  But tonight he is beaming, the joy is visible on his face as he watches Cyro Baptista play.  Rocking back on his heels like a puma and waiting for the cue to attack.  His initial vocal forrays are tame and melodic, but it’s not long before he’s going full-bore like a vocal terrorist screeching and chattering along with the rest of the band.  A quick wave of Zorn’s hand brings him back to earth while the other artists take their shots.  Ikue requires some encouragement but son her laptop is crackling like some kind of musical alien.

After reading through the head one more time the band comes to a halt and the audience erupts into applause.  As Cyro Baptista said this, ” was a special night.” If you were there consider yourself lucky.  If you weren’t, then make plans to be there next year.

Here’s a rundown of the currently available Book Of Angels titles:

Vol. 1 – Astaroth by Jamie Saft

Vol. 2 – Azazel by The Masada String Trio

Vol. 3 – Malphas by Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier

Vol. 4 – Orobas by Koby Israelite

Vol. 5 – Balan by The Cracow Klezmer Band

Vol. 6 – Moloch by Uri Caine

Vol. 7 – Asmodeus by Marc Ribot

Vol. 8 – Volac by Erik Friedlander

Vol. 9 – Xaphan by Secret Chiefs 3

Vol. 10 – Lucifer by Bar Kokhba

Vol. 11 – Zaebos by Medeski, Martin and Wood

Vol. 12 – Stolas by The Masada Quintet with Joe Lovano

Vol. 13 – Mycale by Mycale

Vol. 14 – Ipos by The Dreamers

Vol 15 – Baal by Ben Goldberg

Vol 16 – Haborym by The Masada String Trio

Vol 17 – Caym by Cyro Baptista‘s Banquet of the Spirits

All of the above titles are available on John Zorn’s own Tzadik label.



About J

I am a happily married Father of three living in Westchester County New York.
This entry was posted in Bungle, Folk Music, Jazz, Metal, music, NYC, Zappa, Zorn and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to John Zorn’s Masada Marathon 2011

  1. Pingback: John Zorn’s Masada Marathon 2011 (via Aural Addict) « mainly music meanderings

  2. zpf says:

    awesome story & review! thanks you for making me feel like i was almost there!

    fyi- i think you might have Cyro confused with William Winant for who toured with mr bungle. 🙂

  3. salad girl says:

    Thanks for the great review. I have been to three other Masada Marathons…..all absolutely amazing….but this one was special. Thank you to JZ and all the musicians who so freely shared their energy with the audience. It was quite a night!

  4. Devin Newman says:

    I liked this review, Xaphan is also my favorite book of angels album.

    Spruance’s arrangements and structure takes Zorn’s melodies to the next level.

    Do you have any other video from this? I would kill for it, or do something reasonable as well. I was able to get a video of the 2nd song Masada played but then I was busted.

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