John Zorn’s Masada was originally formed by the famed saxophonist and composer for two very different reasons; one, to create a group capable of playing a collection of self-composed Hebrew-titled songs of Jewish imagery, and two, to satisfy an itch of creating a group in the style Ornette Colemans classic quartet. While it may in theory sound a disparate mix, in fact together what was created in these highly capable hands was a uniquely distinct hot and intense musical blend.
‘Alef’ is step one to what would become a highly prolific and incredibly rewarding endeavour, featuring not only Zorn on his trademark alto saxophone, but also the excellent Dave Douglas on trumpet. And even though these two great players make a winning front-line, it is the rhythm section that really powers this group with such feiry dynamism – the always strong Joey Baron on drums, and Greg Cohen on bass, that though acoustic, possesses power, thrust and groove that only few players can ever aspire to own.
‘Jair’ kicks things off explosively, perfectly fusing Coleman with Zorn’s love of punk’s immediacy and drive, while the group are careful to then show another side of their playing with the comparitvely smoother ‘Bith Aneth’ that benefits from a very different but very good Latin-esque rhythm, that does need to be heard to be understood.
The whole recording is stunning from beginning to end, showcasing thrilling drive, rewarding melody and harmony, and simply outstanding musicianship. The tunes here are varied in emotion too, taking in moving balladry, almost standard swing jazz and of course, as you’d expect from Zorn, manic musical explosions of sound. Somehow throughout it all though, from pieces of just under two minutes to those of almost ten, it maintains a distinct and unique atmosphere and tension, all its own.
John Zorn is frequently the artist that always gets dragged into the “Is he jazz?” argument. And Zorn has always quite plainly stated that he considers himself not, but jazz gigs are what he gets to be able to play and showcase his many different outlets. However in truth Masada is probably his most near-to-jazz outfit and almost certainly some of the easier music to listen to that he’s ever laid down. Everyone gets to solo, but it is a strongly cohesive showcase, and everyone shines, playing to their fullest. Simply ‘Alef’ is a great recording, but for evidence of John Zorn the horn player and musician, it’s brilliant.
Also for those curious, ‘Alef’ is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – with each subsequent volume release being titled after each following letter.