Review Summary: Yesterday you said tomorrow
How To Get Into John Zorn (You Helpless Schmuck)
Part Zero: Disclaimer for readers already versed in John Zorn
For the love of God, ignore everything else here and skip to Part Three immediately. Blessings and peace.
Part One: John Zorn
is a composer/producer/saxophonist/arranger/conductor/label boss Jewish jazzman from New York and his 300+ album discography covers every single non-electronic style of music worth hearing (and more than a few that aren’t). He runs multiple projects in tandem, each following and focusing on a different strand of whatever-he-wants-to-explore-at-the-time. His work is mostly good, often great and sometimes
exciting - and you are going to listen to it!
This will be easy and good. Do not let your mind wander to places that will make this difficult: you are absolutely by no means ever
to even think of listening to the whole discography. This is a one-way ticket to insanity. Do not ask precocious questions that would ordinarily establish a helpful context for conveniently sized discographies. Do not respect continuity, do not ask yourself where you are or how you got there, do not think too hard about which bits to prioritise.
Just do it! Your best bet is to hop onto as many different arms of his work from as many different decades as you so please - put some dots on that sheet, and then we’ll start to think about making meaningful connections later on. If you’re looking for a Doc #1, then you’re starting right here with Zorn’s relatively unimposing new outing New Masada Quartet, Vol. 2
Ignore every word in that title other than ‘New’.
Infodump incoming - but not now!
Well, uh, if you want to geek over that one, be my guest: this record contains drums (Kenny Wollesen), guitar (Julian Lage), bass (Jorge Roeder) and sax (Zorn himself). Those are the players, they are good.
Press play immediately - first impressions first, context later!
Part Two: What Is A Masada?
Right, so ‘Masada’ is a huge word in the Zornoverse. It’s one of John Zorn’s largest and longest-standing projects and is a) pushing 30 years, b) has sub-projects galore, and c) has crossed the path of every other established Brooklyn-adjacent jazz collective you’ve ever heard of (more on that later). It isn’t worth anybody’s while to even try to tally up how many records lie within its full corpus.
The origin story does bear repeating, though: back in 1992, Zorn released a (sort-of) klezmer-noise record called Krystallnacht
, the Third Reich subject matter of which demands little explanation. This album ended up as the first of many
on which Zorn set about squaring his identity as a maverick composer against his Jewish heritage, going on to explore the two in tandem: he soon founded the original
Masada quartet and played several records’ worth of Ornette Coleman-meets-klezmer with them. Masada was first and foremost a songbook
rather than a definitive project or performance, and so pieces from that time found themselves reinterpreted across a range of satellite ventures, most notably the punishingly dextrous Masada String Trio, the cool-as-all-fuck Bar Kokhba chamber-surf sextet, and the loud
Electric Masada, whose marathon works of noise, riffs, shred and overdrive are perhaps a metalhead’s fastest ticket in. The credit sheets of these projects are laced with musical royalty - Marc Ribot and Trevor Dunn are two names in particular that will likely jump out to this readerbase, but Zorn’s taste in contributors has always been impeccable.
Anyhow, the Masada songbook grew and grew, and Zorn began to outsource it to all kinds of weird and wonderful places. In 2005, he moved the project into a new phase by starting a 32-album series he called the Book Of Angels
, each instalment of which would involve an album’s worth of fresh compositions being handed to a musician or band to be played in whatever style they wanted. The story is roughly the same throughout these: Jewish-inspired motifs afforded fresh identities in often unlikely places. This series wrapped up in 2017; flashforward through 2018’s multi-artist compilation The Book Beri'ah
, and it seemed the Masada franchise was in need of a reboot. Hence New Masada Quartet
Part Three: this fucking record New Masada Quartet, Vol. 2
This record, along with its predecessor New Masada Quartet
(2021) appears to be Zorn’s version of essentially playing the Masada songbook hits with a killer new band - and it really is as simple as that. Four musicians (two old hands, two relatively fresh faces), seven pieces: it’s an instant crash course in the Masada cuts Zorn apparently still thinks are worth hearing, so off you go!
The chief point of attraction here for a returning audience will be the band - and damn, they are
killer! Kenny Wollesen and obviously Zorn himself are Masada veterans, so their adroitness with these pieces should come as no surprise, but Julian Lage’s electric guitar performance adds a new dimension to these pieces and equips the quartet with a thoroughly impressive versatility. He recalls a large part of the surf flair that Marc Ribot once brought so memorably to this project, but his style goes further still in its malleability, soloing with greater speed and fluidity than Ribot’s ultra-deliberate style would allow for (see the first few minutes of “Abidan”), often integrating a nod to classical techniques and - this is particularly neat! - muting himself to craftily recall the kind of pizzicato antics the Masada String Trio used to dish out back when they held the baton. Listen through “Ne’eman” without paying close attention and you’ll end up convincing yourself there are an extra one-to-two musicians in that quartet. Good stuff. Jorge Roeder’s performance is every inch the sound of competent jazz bass, but by and large, he plays a more restrained role than his bandmates. Too many cooks, etc.. Catch the bass solo around the midsection of “Rahtiel” if you want to hear his showcase; otherwise, just tap your foot.
Within the pieces themselves, “Idalah-Abal” is both the standout (alongside “Ne’eman”) and, perhaps disappointingly, the most immediate-nod-of-recognition inclusion; anyone who’s heard even a handful of Zorn albums will have a good chance of having heard this already. It’s one of the most frequently performed pieces in the series for good reason - its motif is an absolute monster (cue Electric Masada-induced shivers), while its winding introduction and sly dynamic push-pull make for an excellent showcase of chemistry for any band. This new version is one of the most accessible I’ve heard, in part for its comparatively upbeat tempo, in part for its delicious oscillation between Zorn’s trademark sax skronk and Lage’s impeccable surf-rock slink,, and admittedly in part because it followers the opener “Katzatz” (perhaps the most dissonant and certainly the most fragmentary piece on the album) - but above all because the band as a whole are seemingly hell-bent to bring fresh life to it through every means at their disposal.
This is part of why I think this record makes for a worthwhile introduction to John Zorn as a whole: its brisk, improvisationally oriented treatment of Masada staples has much more to do with the ease with which strong band chemistry can transport a track than with anything more laborious or conceptual. The basic architecture of how Zorn constructs a piece is evident throughout the record, but the main attraction is its wealth of individual moment-to-moment flourishes, whether in how Zorn and Lage will occasionally play a motif in anticipatory unison as though sizing each other up (“Ne’eman” 1:20 if you please) or in the way that band will occasionally nail a groove so deftly that Wollesen’s dazzling hi-hat work ends up overriding the entire mix and taking centre stage.
As a basis for a first impression or band showcase, this is excellent. As the foundation for something more (tour guide mask off; critic cap on) definitive, however, I have my reservations that New Masada Quartet, Vol. 2
will go down as much more than a particularly colourful reenactment of pieces that, songbook be praised, already command prestigious histories of their own. There’s something impressive, yes, but perhaps a little too
fluid, too sinuous about the way the band weave through these tracks; this album is every inch about its performance, so much so that the those timeless Masada motifs take the backseat perhaps more often that opportune. Even in the mayhem of Electric Masada, these songs have a pensive, cyclical quality to them that I feel has been somewhat lost here. There’s also the occasional structural decision I take issue with (“Jair”’s rockabilly pastiche makes for one particular what if
we might have been spared), but by and large the deal here is that the performances suggest a range of exciting new possibilities on the periphery each piece while investing relatively little in their essential phrasings. These have admittedly all been nailed elsewhere, but in the absence of new compositions it's hard to credit this new stage of the Masada project with gravity equal to their intimidating level of style.
Part Four: what you should do with this fucking record once you have finished bloody listening to it (yes Milo I shall write a shitting conclusion)
Well, uh, that depends. If you’re just checking in with the songbook/the Zornoverse in general, then the chances are your work here is done. Give it an extra spin if you’re feeling the moment, and then either tap out or follow through with another hitherto unheard Masada project according to your whim. If (apprehensive gesticulation) this record and these performances/pieces have opened doors to you, then you have options aplenty - chase them! Dive in! See the recommended section for Masada albums I’ve particularly enjoyed, but more than anything else, open that door to that sense of a wider context that you now have a highly pertinent foothold on - everything you’ve heard here sits in reference to an older recording somewhere else, and if you’ve heard even just one of those, then wham
, odds are you’ve got a salient contribution to make to any conversation about John Zorn. New Masada Quartet, Vol. 2
is the best way into Zorn available right now because it offers the most relevant and accessible
dialogue between different eras of his work - and if my main critique is that this record is ultimately unremarkable because the songs are more performance than song, then shit damn those are some fine performances.