Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Review: Masada - Live In Middleheim 1999

Masada’s ‘Live In Middleheim’ gives us the band possibly at the peak of their powers, in 1999, where the quartet had developed such an interplay together that anything they would play live would be bound to guarantee a high level of excellence.

The group absolutely explodes into action with the thrilling ‘Nevuah’, with John Zorn and Dave Douglas playing a dual solo lead that has a thunderous backing courtesy of Greg Cohen’s bass and Joey Baron’s storming drums. If you ever doubted Baron’s potential as best contemporary jazz drummer then this alone should convince you otherwise. ‘Sippur’ too maintains the intense nature of the music, albeit in a slightly quieter fashion, while after this things tend to ease off a little bit.

‘Kochot’ showcases Dave Douglas playing with a highly understated, yet enormously beautiful trumpet, that shows exactly why he’s been in so much demand for his entire career, while ‘Kedushah’ is Greg Cohen’s biggest moment in the sun, perfectly blending yearning beauty with full-blooded aggression.

Everywhere on here shows us a perfect melding of Eastern sounds and the avant jazz world, with the best pieces here being a very fine and deep-grooved ‘Ne’eman’, highlighting Zorn at his restrained and more-minimal best, and the stunningly gorgeous ‘Ashnah’ that surely is one of the very best group performance pieces by this quartet.

‘Live In Middelheim’ is without doubt one of the strongest, if shorter, of the Masada live albums (possessing just the one set/disc, as opposed to the usual two), and is a clear example of the musical telepathy displayed by the four men – all the more breathtaking given that this performance was their first appearance together in almost a whole half year. The recording quality too is pristine, giving us some deeply inspired solo and group playing with a full rich palette of sound. An ideal starting point for anyone interested in some Masada, live or otherwise, this is essential for anyone who counts themselves a fan of any of the musicians here, and even godfather of free-jazz Ornette Coleman. It’s that good.


Review: Masada - Live In Taipei 1995

Masada possesses a rich catalogue of live albums, that in size almost rivals that of the studio works, but in quality is just something else. Like the studio sets however the live collections also suffer from having a dud here and there. ‘Live In Taipei 1995’ then is that dud.

The quartet is playing on top form throughout, delivering blistering takes on material from the studio albums volume 5 through to 7. And the highlights here are both exhilarating and enchanting, with typically brilliant interplay between the four men.

However it, surprisingly given Masada’s usual quality standards, is a substantially below-par sound recording. The acoustics are all wrong, and noticeably distorts Dave Douglas’ trumpet, while the bass is swampy and blurred. And that’s what effectively knackers the album for most, especially when a good number of the performances here exist in better recorded versions on other live sets. The sound is not terrible, but it is a deal below what you would expect – especially from an official release.

Not a terrible album, just a lesser quality one, and any fan would do well to get hold of every other live effort before this one, but for the dedicated many, once you have everything else, this isn’t a bad completion to the live collection.


Review: Masada - Live In Jerusalem 1994

‘Live In Jerusalem 1994’ is a double-disc set documenting and celebrating Masada’s trip to Israel and highly raved-about appearance at the Jerusalem Festival, having in that year only just appeared on the scene and also laid down material for their first four albums (‘Alef’, ‘Beit’, ‘Gimel’ and ‘Dalet’). The occasion is obviously an important one, to both the band and the audience, and a sense of this is palpable in the atmosphere throughout. So whilst much of this music can be easily found on Masada’s studio albums, the numbers here, and the feeling of each, is powerfully different, and perhaps even more compelling.

As with the best Masada, the key here is the tension in the music, and the way it can build, pushing higher and higher, further and further, with second piece ‘Bith-Aneth’ being a strong example of this. Beginning subtley and quietly, with the rhythm team of Greg Cohen and Joey Baron suitably hushed, before Zorn and Douglas play the main theme, and then start soloing, playing together, and interlocking with each other, and Zorn continuing to egg Douglas on just that little bit more.

‘Live In Jerusalem 1994’ is a superb live recording of a momentous performance that throughout it’s two hour running time sounds like an exhilarating blend of celebration and catharsis. Musically faultless and oozing raw power, you also benefit from a genuine feel of the connection between the band and audience – indeed the reception and response from the crowd is absolutely ecstatic.

If there is too be one complaint made, it is that Greg Cohen’s normally full, deep, rich and rounded bass is just a little too quiet in the mix – something that normally would not be too big an issue with most other groups, but given Cohen’s skill and sound on the instrument, it is slightly disappointing. Barring this however, the album is a fantastic document, perhaps the best live recording from their earlier days, and is a must have. Highly recommended.


Review: Masada - Volume 10 - Yod

Exploding into life with manic fury, Masada’s tenth volume ‘Yod’ shows no sign of ending their studio catalogue run with a graceful retirement, instead choosing to play some of the most wild and free music the quartet have ever recorded. And while perhaps ‘Yod’ ranks as one of the more accessible of Masada’s works, it certainly is nowhere near an easy listen.

There’s a strong ‘go for broke’ feel to these final studio dates, but also a highly notable overt klezmer influence. Whereas before it was a sound that added to the melting pot, here instead it’s a more dominant factor, with pieces like ‘Tevel’ and ‘Zevul’ sounding almost like a traditional Jewish number filtered through free-jazz.

A darker feel too rules the album, whether on the yearning yet mournful ‘Yechida’, or the more in-your-face ‘Ruach’ that ranks as probably the most powerful number Masada have ever laid to tape. The centre of the album does possess a gentler pace than its bookends, but still maintains its distinct atmosphere, and also crucially some great solos from the front-line duo of John Zorn and Dave Douglas.

The last of Masada’s studio run, it’s a great album in its own right as well as being a good way to end the ‘songbook’. But crucially this would not be the end to Masada, with some brilliant live albums to come and Zorn reconfiguring the project in part with Bar Kokhba (and the Bar Kokhba Sextet), The Masada String Trio and Electric Masada, many of which would feature Masada alumni. Additionally Zorn would go on to write hundred more tunes for the Masada songbook under the title ‘Book Of Angels’ to be played by other musicians. All of which are very much worth investigating.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Review: Masada - Volume 9 - Tet

Masada Volume 9 is at first glance exactly what you’d expect from John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron, with the Middle Eastern sounding Ornette quartet cooking up a brew and rising to a storm in fine style. It is though surprisingly the first real Masada effort where everyone involved gets to contribute as equal members.

It’s a two-way effect, with Cohen and Baron really pushing forward, but also with Zorn and Douglas being careful to create more space and ease off the accererator a little bit too. The effect created is that there are a significantly greater number of slower more bluesy pieces than expected – the winningly sad‘Kedushah’ being a great example, while ‘Moshav’ benefits both from being yearningly melancholich and possessing a superior opening solo from Cohen that ranks alongside his finest contributions to the quartet.

Baron plays at a new peak too, with his powerful tom-toms making a welcome return, and creating a powerful riot on the excellent ‘Meholalot’, which also gets a great Latinesque bass and drums break down. He cooks up a riot on ‘Leshem’ too, which also gets a new career highlight solo from Douglas’ trumpet.

In fact the most notable contribution here is that of Zorn, in an inverse kind of way, who creates a less dominant presence than usual. Not to say he’s not good here – he is – but the four men here create a distinctly different type of Masada than before. Not necessarily a better or worse group, but perhaps a more unified and cohesive yet moe varied one, that creates arguably one of the most unique entries in the quartets catalogue.


Review: Masada - Volume 8 - Het

Masada’s eighth volume of free-jazz meets klezmer Jewish music gets very much back on track after the relative mixed bag that was the seventh volume ‘Zayin’. Also somewhat striking is that ‘Het’ is a much easier ride than before; the sometimes aggressive drive and dramatic changes are here given a notably smoother (though ‘smoother’ by John Zorn standards) sound, and we even have ballads!

Opener ‘Shechem’ starts almost as a standard jazz-with-middle-eastern-inflections stroller before gradually building into some very Ornette style free sounds, but Joey Baron’s deft tom-toms driving everything skillfully and even catchily. Zorn and Douglas get some good solos in too, and the eleven minutes passes in no time. ‘Eliliah’ though then reigns things in with a fairly rare Masada ballad, that over just four minutes weaves a spell of dual melodies, before moving nicely into a second slower number ‘Kodashim’, where Greg Cohen gets to deploy a warmly welcome bass solo.

And just as you think Masada may be getting a bit too comfortable ‘Halom’ throws in two minutes of free and wild playing, seemingly almost just to act as a palette cleanser. It works too, with the strikingly eastern sounding groove piece ‘Ne’erman’ that follows positioning the quartet as late-night smoky jazz players, and Greg Cohen’s bass leading with some relaxed noir drive. Infectious and gorgeous, it’s probably the strongest thing here, and again shows Zorn and Douglas at their very best – both as soloists, but also when cross-cutting and interweaving with each other.

‘Abed-Nego’ and ‘Tohort’ display some typical Masada-like mid-way changes, though in very different ways, and ‘Mochim’ again eases on the pace for perhaps the groups most ‘standard’ ballad piece, which features some nicely woozy sounding lead sax work from Zorn.

‘Amarim’ then jumps in with some winding melodies powered by a very strong bassline that leads into Cohen being given his second big moment of the album, almost funkily pushing everything forward, before Baron gets to show his stuff, percussively dancing on top of the strutting groove. And things then round off nicely with ‘Khebar’, a mid-tempo stroll providing a nice bed for the two winding horns, and then coming to a perfect close.

Het is an interesting Masada record then, choosing to forgo the usual kinetic fireworks frenzy that can at times typify both Zorn and the group. Here the four players try a slightly different tact, and create something equally satisfying, and perhaps even more mesmerizing – a great disc stuffed with intriguing and strong material, played to perfection and all guided by an outstanding rhythm. Perhaps not the finest Masada around, but certainly one that offers something a bit different and on the strength of that, and on the actual music here itself, this is certainly one of the must-check releases from this most impressive of groups.


Monday, 2 June 2014

Review: Masada - Volume 7 - Zayin

Impressively going from strength to strength, Masada hit a notable bump in the road with part 7, ‘Zayin’, a recording that surprisingly seems to be very disjointed and lacks flow, but like similar earlier bump ‘Dalet’ (AKA volume 4), there is still some beautiful music to recommend.

‘Hath-Arob’ is John Zorn and Dave Douglas blowing hard in their best Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry style, and Greg Cohen gets a deserved bass showcase on ‘Otiot’, seemingly written just for him. Joey Baron by contrast seems perhaps more restrained with his drums this time around, somewhat disappointingly.

But the playing here is not the issue. Too much here seems schizophrenic, with ‘Shamor’ swinging between melodic beauty and angry roars that don’t quite gel, while ‘Kadem’ is an almost polar opposite, boasting a nice ‘low ‘n’ slow’ atmosphere that then doesn’t do anything of interest. Were it five minutes, perhaps this would be less of a problem. As it stands though, it’s ten minutes that go nowhere interesting, before slumping to a tired finish.

And that’s how ‘Zayin’ stands up. There is still much joy and winning Eastern European and Middle Eastern melody, harmony and atmosphere all over the album, but the hugely mixed bag effect is jarring, at times to the extreme. Masada has been described as being equally a songbook as it is a group, however you get the feeling that perhaps a few of those in the songbook should have fallen by the wayside. As it happens, it instead it feels like part 7 is an odds-and-sods collection of the groups more out-there testing ground efforts that didn’t feel right on the other much better volumes. And for that reason this should really be considered one of this otherwise stellar groups very least records.


Review: Masada - Volume 6 - Vav

After Masada’s fifth and best volume, ‘Hei’, it seemed unlikely that the Zorn-lead quartet could maintain that peak of Eastern melodies against a strong jazz spirit, and yet entry number six in the Jewish free jazz catalogue is arguably just as good.

A good variety of the different sides of Masada is present on ‘Vav’, with a welcome number of quieter numbers lining up alongside the more intense, knotty and sometimes dissonant personality; but whatever the group play here, their playing is uniformly excellent and their best yet. Better still is Zorn’s writing. Of course, being his songbook, all of the pieces are again written by him alone (although with improvisational aid from his group here), but for some reason on ‘Vav’ the compositions just seem to be that much more well-formed than perhaps his earlier efforts.

Another winning element to the blend this time around is that Greg Cohen has seemingly been able to step up yet another gear. ‘Shebuah’ is brilliantly introduced by the bassist in style, while on ‘Avelut’ he gets a very good solo into the mix, and yet this is all just in the shadow of his superb supporting of the whole quartet – in particular drummer Joey Baron. On a number of occasions Cohen holds the pace (and pulse) whilst Baron gets to flex with typical aplomb, such as on the excellent ‘Nevalah’ which gives us one of Baron’s potentially career-best solos.

But what of the two leads – Zorn himself and trumpeter Dave Douglas? Again there is some more career-peak work from an already superb team, with the two soloing stunningly, playing dual leads, interweaving, improvising together and Douglas in particular displaying some very fine heart and soul on the slower more openly moving pieces.

‘Beer Sheba’ ends the album with something quite different, sounding more like a Jewish take on Zorns more hardcore rock pursuits. It comes as a surprise, and it won’t be for everyone, but it makes for a thrillingly visceral finale that brings everything to a close with a strong punch.

Masada continue to dazzle, with compelling music equally entwined with an incredible quartet that are probably one of the most exciting and muscular to ever play on record. Quite simply, you need to hear this.


Review: Masada - Volume 5 - Hei

After a relatively disappointing volume 4, John Zorn and Masada decided to reconvene and show their best hand yet with volume 5, ‘Hei’.

Whereas the first four volumes came from two recording sessions (with one session providing material for a whole three and half of those),  ‘Hei’ comes from two entirely new fresh sessions, and it shows, with the band now having developed a much stronger and tighter sound, and arguably more confidence.

Zorn and trumpeter Dave Douglas shine even brighter than previously, referencing Ornette Coleman and also touching more on plenty of Middle Eastern melody and harmony, beautifully subtly on the opening ‘Paran’ but much more obviously as the album goes on.

‘Hobah’ returns the quartet to their more aggressive identity, shaking things up, but also crucially keeping things fresh. It is on album highlight ‘Beeroth’ though that bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron really get to play like men possessed, propelling the music forward with such power that Zorn and Douglas almost sound like they might need to reassert themselves.

A gloriously thrilling album, and arguably the pinnacle of Masada’s studio work (although there are easily a good number of potential rivals) it is also without doubt one of Zorn’s most melodic recordings, and for any fan of each of the men here, free jazz, Middle Eastern fusion, or even just new and exciting music, this is a great collection worth investing some serious time in.


Sunday, 1 June 2014

Review: Masada - Volume 4 - Dalet

‘Dalet’ is the fourth volume in John Zorn’s Masada group and songbook collection cycle, and the first not to generate raw excitement but instead pangs of disappointment.

Not that this has much to do with the music, more with the fact that there is very little music here for an alleged full-length album. 18 minutes in total make up what is a effectively a compiling of three pieces recorded for volumes 1, 2 and 3, that could have been added on to the first three volumes, or left in the vault, rather than just being thrown together in a not-even 20 minutes left-overs package.

That complaint aside, the music here is good. As always each of the group play like it’s their last gig on Earth, and their ability to generate musical tension remains peerless, with ‘Midbar’ opening and sounding like a ‘Big Fun’ era 70’s Miles Davis, and then coming over like a Jewish Free Jazz R&B Blues number, with Joey Baron in particular providing some superbly stomping rhythms, before ‘Mahlah’ slows everything down to a sultry prowl that though quite fine goes on too long for its own good, and then ‘Zenan’ comes blasting in with Joey Baron’s finest big thumping drums.

And then it’s over.

It’s over, just as it feels like it’s about to get going – especially when you hear Baron’s fantastic drum solo at the end of ‘Zenan’. Which essentially makes it just one for the completists who already own all the great volumes but need to plug the gap between the genuinely brilliant volumes 3 and 5.


Review: Masada - Volume 3 - Gimel

Volume number three for John Zorn’s Masada, and ‘Gimel’ though recorded at the same sessions as ‘Alef’ and ‘Beit’ raises the bar to near-perfection. Of course the outfit of Zorn, Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron are as excellent as ever and together form arguably the finest twin-horn inspired quartet this side of Ornette Coleman.

‘Gimel’ is a notably more diverse and experimental record than before, though not necessarily toward the avant garde. Aside from the assumed dense ‘Masada sound’ of some pieces here, a good few numbers possess a stunningly meditative vibe. ‘Abidan’ in particular, featuring some superb Zorn and Douglas teamwork, is a real gem, not just on this album, but also in the entire Masada discography. ‘Karaim’ too benefits from some incredible playing courtesy of Douglas, while ‘Tannaim’ chooses a more spacious and clear sound than is usual, and with its sumptuous Eastern leanings it works to great effect. ‘Sheloshim’ is perhaps an odd mix, starting with a simmering tension that is pure brilliance, before exploding into something both passionate and aggressive, that though also strong, doesn’t quite gel with how it starts. It is however by no means a weak track.

A very strong slice of the hefty Masada catalogue, ‘Gimel’ with the first two volumes forms a genuinely great opening trilogy that should all definitely be investigated. Zorn obviously loved it a great deal too as he would go on to rework some of the material here for his equally great Bar Kokhba.


Review: Masada - Volume 2 - Beit

After a winning debut recording with new outfit Masada, John Zorn followed up quickly with another recording from the same one-day session that generated the first volume.

And it continues to be a great musical melting pot, mixing up Jewish musical themes with avant garde jazz, creating a a fantastically unique genre of music that perhaps only a few other people if any at all have ever come close to.

Zorn plays with fire and aggression, Dave Douglas once again inspires with skill and raw power, and Joey Baron and Greg Cohen continue to supply a thundering driving rhythm that few in acoustic jazz can hope to aspire to.

‘Beit’ though does not quite reach the highs of ‘Alef’. A personal favourite group of mine, ‘Beit’ comes up just a little short compared to the debut, with an intensity that doesn’t let up and an almost bloodlust-like energy that rarely comes off the boil. However while the slight lack of variety is a downside, it really is just nit-picking on what is still a highly accomplished and viscerally exciting musical trip that you need to hear.