Review Summary: A fantastic jazz album with incredible musicianship, perfect atmosphere and just the right mix of vicious heavy sections and calm melodic sections.
Electric Masada is an offshoot of saxophonist John Zorn’s group ‘Masada’, which blends traditional Jewish klezmer music with free jazz. Keeping mainly the same members (including the hugely talented guitarist Marc Ribot who has played with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and many others) and two drummers, they combined the experimental free jazz of Masada with noise, rock and metal influences to create some of the most ferocious and exciting free jazz ever recorded.
All of the songs on the album are live recordings taken from a collection of Zorn’s klezmer-based compositions called the ‘Masada Songbook’. With over 200 songs in the songbook it could be criticised for only containing a few and even repeating some of them on the album, but this really shows the huge talent of the band members in improvising - the same song sounds almost completely different each time so you probably wouldn’t even notice you’ve heard it before.
The music here goes from slow spacey jazz to vicious noise and everything in between, often switching between them suddenly. For most of the album it is perhaps best comparable to Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ but sounds much more modern. Because of the heavy drumming and electronics the album always has a very rich textured sound. As previously mentioned, a lot of it is improvised but it always works well, keeping the album unpredictable but never meandering pointlessly like a lot of improvised music does.
One of Zorn’s other bands, Naked City, plays grindcore, and this obviously influences some of the heavier parts. One of the songs is actually a Naked City cover. These are usually the weaker points of the album however. There’s one part especially in ‘Metal Tov’ with a horrible piercing whistle that seems to have been placed there just for the sake of it that ruins the whole song. The whole album is so gripping these points are hardly noticeable though.
The musicianship is absolutely incredible throughout. Guitarist Marc Ribot and keyboardist Jamie Saft play some beautiful memorable melodies but are capable of being much more aggressive when needed. John Zorn’s saxophone playing is amazingly varied, ranging from having a smooth and warm tone to frantic high-pitched shrieks. Ikue Mori is in charge of the vague sounding ‘electronics’, meaning that she is adding different random sounds in through her laptop. This actually works quite well, never getting in the way of the music but adding to it by removing the moments of empty spaces.
The rhythm section in particular is incredible. The very complex and precise drumming of Joey Baron and Kenny Wollesen with some fantastic bass-lines from Trevor Dunn drive the album forward, keeping it constantly interesting and hold it together when the other members go off improvising in completely different directions.
As a double album lasting over 2 and a half hours it may be too overwhelming to listen to it all in one go, but it is easily gripping enough to listen to one disk at a time. Recommended not just to jazz fans, but because of the fusion/rock influence, rock fans also.