Were I in New York City on March 19, I’d head to Town Hall for the world premiere of John Zorn’s “Masada Book Three: The Book Beriah.” It’s the final installment in a 20-year project, bringing Zorn’s total number of Masada compositions to 613 (the number of mitzvot, or commandments, contained in the Jewish Torah).
Masada is just one element of Zorn’s musical identity, one frame within his composite portrait. Taken as a whole, it has made profound suggestions about both Jewish identity and musical possibility. Zorn will present this third book in a marathon “shuffle” concert at Town Hall, featuring 20 different bands and more than 50 musicians from wildly divergent backgrounds.
Here are some relevant excerpts from a feature story I did for The Saturday Paper, an Australian newsweekly, pegged to the last of Zorn’s 60th-birthday events, and his first-ever trip Down Under.
(You can find that story, which includes some of Zorn’s reflections on turning 60, on inane interview questions, and on General George S. Patton, here.)
….By the time Mike Patton’s trademark screams punctuated the high-voltage tremors of John Zorn’s Electric Masada group at Lincoln Centre’s David H. Koch Theater in Manhattan, it was past 11pm. A Masada Marathon, drawn from Zorn’s immense body of compositions employing the often-mournful sounding scales characteristic of Jewish music, had lasted more than three hours, with 12 bands delivering an equal number of musical styles and ensemble configurations. Among other things, we’d heard the Bar Kokhba sextet’s singular blend of violin, cello and guitar; surf-rock grooves as conjured by the guitar, vibraphone and electric keyboard of The Dreamers; a devastatingly elegant String Trio; and the Masada Quartet, which includes Zorn on his customary alto saxophone, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, and stands among the most expressive and cohesive small ensembles in modern jazz. That was 2011, when Zorn, an American composer of restless energy, had just completed his second book of Masada works. He recently finished Book Three, bringing the total of these compositions alone to more than 600, and culminating some 20 years of musical and personal discovery. And the Masada project is just one strand of Zorn’s story….
The massive Masada project began as simply “an attempt to write new tunes that I could play”. Yet it was also his “personal answer to what new Jewish music is”. At that 2011 Masada Marathon, I felt a genuine sense of ritual enacted. When Zorn sat onstage directing (conducting isn’t quite the right word), his hand movements fleetingly reminded me of my grandmother kindling Sabbath candles on Friday evenings. It dawned on me that each half of the concert presented six bands playing three pieces each: That’s 18, a number that, in Jewish tradition, carries life-affirming mystical properties.
Zorn addressed his audience: “So what are these tunes? A book of 316 pieces that musicians have made beautiful. They take six lines of melody and turn it into magic.”
Zorn hinted to me that there will likely be one more Masada piece, on a grand scale (some believe in a 614th commandment). But for now, we get “Masada Book Three: The Book Beriah.” Book One gave rise to a new chapter in Zorn’s career, and to several group’s including the Masada Quartet. Book Two spawned 20 recordings by 20 musicians and bands, including last year’s wonderful “Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Vol. 20,” (Nonesuch/Tzadik).
I what wonder secrets this new book will hold.