The release of The Book Beri’ah is exciting for fans of John Zorn’s Masada series, with 92 new compositions. An amalgam of various elements ranging from klezmer to free jazz, I’ve always found Masada’s music difficult to describe except to say that you know it when you hear it. A common theme in Masada is a sense of urgency and intent; even when there is exploratory improvisation, it feels like it’s purposeful and driven. Getting an entire box set of Masada released all at once has been sensory overload for me in the best way possible. Below are my takes from my first listen through the Book Beri’ah.
Book Beri’ah 1 – Keter – Sofia Rei & JC Maillard
I can see why Zorn chose this to start Book 3; for Masada it’s a somewhat unique group- vocals and something that sounds like an acoustic guitar called a “bass saz”. Some very Middle Eastern feels throughout, and Sofia Rei’s voice is perfect. I’m curious what the lyrics mean (I think she’s singing in French) and if Zorn wrote the lyrics, and if so if he had her voice in mind. Hearing only one instrument play Masada evokes memories of albums like Masada Guitars, and even Masada String Trio. Great album, will not scare the elderly.
Book Beri’ah 2 – Chokhma – Cleric
This album will scare the elderly. And most people. It is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. You know when real metal fans laugh at people who are into a band like Motley Crue or Metallica and say that’s not really metal? I think they’d listen to this and say that it’s legit metal. Some incredibly aggressive vocals, and in between the vocals is incredibly technical and great playing. This band has Matt Hollenberg on guitar, who I’ve seen shred Bagatelles and other Masada songs before. The keys and vocals are Nick Shellenberger. Interesting to me that the first two albums in Book 3 have vocals, which is unique in the Masada catalog.
Book Beri’ah 3 – Binah – Spike Orchestra
Beautiful. An orchestra that has 11 horns, guitar, keys, accordion (which adds this kind of French bistro feel), double bass, and drums/percussion. There is a lot going on here- a lot of layers to music that on its surface is already complex. There are other big bands in this Masada set (e.g. Zion80, Secret Chiefs 3), but this really feels like orchestral, swinging big band Masada, with a dose of klezmer every now and then. The track Kalim (which was released ahead of the album) is a pretty perfect embodiment of Masada.
Book Beri’ah 4 – Chesed – Julian Lage & Gyan Riley
These are two of the greatest (and without hyperbole, may be THE greatest) guitarists out there and they compliment each other perfectly. This album is just the two of them, each on acoustic guitar. They have this ability to be playing two completely different things at the same time that find ways to sync up. I guess that’s common in Masada music (especially with original compositions featuring Zorn on sax and Dave Douglas on trumpet), but without other instruments it’s easy to tune into what each of them are doing individually as well as together. The music is light, but it’s also relentless in that it’s always moving. It’s heavily composed- it’s not like they take crazy solos here and go off. I think that’s what makes this one so great.
Book Beri’ah 5 – Gevurah – Abraxas
With this album we finally get to the first of four albums in the Book Beri’ah that has Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz on it; on this album he plays gimbri, bass, and percussion. This was one of the albums in the set that I was most looking forward to after catching Abraxas a couple of times at The Stone and the Village Vanguard in NYC. Abraxas is guitar heavy and in your face; Shanir on gimbri/bass and Kenny Grohowski on drums create this pulsating rhythm that Eyal Maoz and Aram Bajakian just slaughter with their guitars. Lots of overdrive and distortion here; this group is “jamming” friendly IMO- the guitar playing can rage and get out there. That being said, it never loses the Masada focus- the composition is what drives everything. What really makes this group unique is Shanir- the gimbri (which looks like someone made a three-string bass out of a bathmat) keeps coming at you, and in a few instances is what starts off a track, almost challenging the other players to find their space.
Book Beri’ah 6 – Tiferet – Klezmerson
The overdrive and urgency of Abraxas is somewhat gone here, swapped out for a large Klezmer band with (from what I can gather) South American / Mexican influences. One of the things that makes this box set great is the variedness of the artists, and no album has that more than this one. The composition was there, but felt more in the background than the other albums so far. There is big sound coming from a plethora of instruments, and in some ways may be the most “upbeat” of the Book Beri’ah so far.
Book Beri’ah 7 – Netzach – Gnostic Trio
The Gnostic Trio album at points is deceptively mellow and it’s glorious. Bill Frisell on guitar, Kenny Wolleson on vibes, and Carol Emanuel on harp create some of the airiest music that I’ve heard. Kind of like a Dreamers “light” lineup, this album creates some space for your mind to relax with ease. Frisell is utilizing all his toys here to create a spacey feel. All three of them take lead; sometimes one at a time and sometimes simultaneously. If John Zorn opened a spa, this album would be playing while you’re receiving treatment. There is one track (Re’cha- track 6) that has Frisell turning on the effects to produce some crunch in his tone, but other than that everything is light and blissful. The Masada composition style really comes through. In fact, it’s almost all composed- very little (if any) solos here. Great album.
Book Beri’ah 8 – Hod – Zion80
In my opinion, this is the most accessible album in the Book Beri’ah for people who may not know Masada. Zion80’s album is like if a band such as Galactic or maybe Lettuce was asked to do a Masada album. Led by Jon Madof on guitar, this is a big band. Four piece horn section, two guitars, percussion, drums, bass (Shanir!), and keys (Brian Marsella!); this band is making big sound. At times incredibly funky, and always groove focused, this may be one of the more danceable Masada albums that I’m aware of. The Masada composition is mostly represented through the horns, but in contrast to some of the other albums where a lot of things may be happening at the same time, this album has a coalition to the theme that punches through. It also has the distinction of being the only album in the Book Beri’ah that has John Zorn playing on it; he appears on track 5 (Tahor) and his spot has become one of my favorite moments on this set. When Zorn is playing, you know it- that frenzied Masada pace that I mentioned before was created by him. What’s great is that Zion80 continues to be Zion80 while Zorn is being Zorn, and it works great. Every now and then I know Zion80 plays together in the city; I hope they can get in front of a crowd in a space with a big open floor.
Book Beri’ah 9 – Yesod – Banquet of the Spirits
We continue with more Brian Marsella and Shanir Blumenkranz for Cyro Batista’s Banquet of the Spirits (with Tim Keiper on drums). My “gripe” with this album is that you can’t see Cyro. This past April at the Book Beri’ah show on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Cyro was a sight to behold. I’ve seen him in many groups doing his thing, but this was something else for me- he had his whole arsenal of sound producing devices into a 45 minute set. Equally enthralling was Brian Marsella on the other end of the stage, attacking the baby grand at a fever pace; the piano is pretty much the only “lead” instrument here. So despite not being able to see it when I listen to the album, I can imagine it- especially Cyro waving some tube over his head to create a wah sound that joins the rhythm. This is a great piano led album, and some of the later tracks have some real intense moments. Some of my favorite Masada moments are when the music has built to high levels of intensity that you get trapped in, and then abruptly stops…. like you’re Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff and you won’t fall until you realize there’s no ground underneath you. This album gets there- the track Dim Yoni in particular comes to mind. Shanir also gets some time on the double bass that is well worth your attention.
Book Beri’ah 10 – Malkhut – Secret Chiefs 3
This album has everything. The first couple of tracks sound like they could be scoring an art house horror film. And then elements of Mahavishnu Orchestra creep in, with a heavy synth presence. At times it’s very prog rock. I don’t know if a more insane drums/percussion duo of Kenny Grohowski and Ches Smith exists- having one of them in a band is an embarrassment of riches; both is an attack on your senses. The other instruments are two guitars, violin (Eyvind Kang!), keys, and the least busy bassist in Masada-land, Shanir Blumenkranz. In some ways, this is like if Electric Masada had different instrumentation and tones. It’s a varied band of musicians, and before you can get too used to one thing you get hit in the face with something else. It’s almost made for people with ADD, as it’s rare one instrument or phrase gets more than 16 consecutive bars. The level of detail in this music is amazing.
Book Beri’ah 11 – Da’at – Craig Taborn & Vadim Neselovskyi
Technically a bonus disc, the final part of the third book of Masada are compositions that appear on the Sofia Rei & J.C. Maillard album (with the exception of one that’s on the Lage/Riley album). The first nine tracks are solo piano. either Craig Taborn or Vadim Neslovskyi playing the composition. This is as stripped down as you’re going to get- this is Masada classical piano. Not much to say beyond that…. it’s great, and deserves a listen, but I’m curious about the context of this one. Was it supposed to be the album that became Sofia Rei’s album, or was this just a good recording that Zorn decided to include as a bonus? After track nine there are a few jazzier tracks where there are bass and drums. At least online the personnel for these tracks are unlisted, so I’m guessing that it might be Vadim Neseloyvskyi with Dan Loomis and Ronen Itzik (this trio played during Masada week at the Vanguard last November). It’s interesting to hear the same tracks as classical piano and then in a piano jazz setting- one piece of music with countless ways to represent it.