Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Review: Masada - Sanhedrin – 1994-1997 Unreleased Studio Recordings

Masada have hardly been a slouch in recording terms, creating ten studio works and releasing a strong fistful of live albums, with most coming from just one seven-year stretch. And yet here, you would have thought impossibly, we have an out-takes selection.

Made up of pieces taken from eight separate sessions over a four year period, ‘Sanhedrin’ actually features pieces that for the most part have been released before, but in a different take; and this being John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron, none of the takes here sound like the perhaps more familiar versions. Rather each serves as a springboard for a very different improvisation.

And that’s where the fun lies; hearing how each of the players and the group as a whole vary in each of their solos and interactions, even though they probably only just laid down a different version only minutes before (or later).

It is in truth though not an essential Masada work, due to the partially mish-mash feel that this mix of different sessions over different times can give. It can feel like a collection of off-cuts, but does work better than one or two of the ‘official’ Masada studio albums that themselves felt like albums of scraps.

Whether this is for you depends on just how much Masada you already have and how much more you want. If you absolutely must have everything, then this is a good compilation that sits nicely alongside everything else. For anyone else it’s probably preferable to ‘Dalet’ and ‘Zayin’, the fourth and seventh studio volumes, but you would easily be better served by getting every other studio and live release by this stellar group before you invest in ‘Sanhedrin’. As a collection of its type though, its standard is very high and should not be dismissed as just a barrel-scraping exercise like many similar recordings of this ilk frequently, yet justifiably, are.


Review: Masada - Live At Tonic 2001

‘Live At Tonic’ is perhaps Masada’s greatest live album, benefitting from being not only one of the later, tighter and more muscular live entries, but also crucially being recorded in front of a home crowd, who really add to the atmosphere and excitement levels.

Featuring two complete sets from the same night, we have here more than two total hours of music that takes in everything (almost) from the Masada arsenal. And as with all of the quartets live recordings, the music reaches even higher levels than the already excellent studio works.

Throughout we get beautiful balladry with sultry atmospheres, and languid solos, and also furious frenzies with pounding rhythms and the front-line of John Zorn’s saxophone and Dave Douglas’ trumpet playing interwining and mult-layering dual melody lines.

Disc  one even touches on early 70’s era Miles Davis, in the heady brew and thick atmosphere generated, especially the driving pacy rhythms created by the winning combination of Greg Cohen’s bass finesse and Joey Baron’s incredibly multi-faceted drumming (whose hand drums in particular are one hell of a secret weapon). A seventeen minute epic ‘Karaim’ makes for a beautiful yet blistering opener, carried the whole way throughout by an undulating desert wind-swept sounding hypnotic bass that anchors everything else here, be the unified or split horns, or Baron’s mix of hand and drumstick percussion playing. ‘Ner Tamid’ that follows manages to be distinctly different, with a more straight-ahead bop style (comparatively) that winds to a close in a relatively succinct five minutes.

‘Acharai Mot’ is John Zorn does Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’, and throwing in some Ornette for good measure, with everyone playing full-force, and cooking up a storming maelstrom of sound. ‘Kisofim’ returns us to a desert-at-midnight’ pulse, with typical dual playing from Zorn and Douglas, but Zorn just edging it with a wistful yet focused and melodic solo that should hopefully silence any still curmudgenly critics out there. ‘Jachin’ opens up with a fast paced yet soulful bass groove, with Baron’s drum skittering over the top that becomes more insistent as it goes on.

The second set here is even better, with the focus being on the more intense and the more dramatic. Cohen shines throughout; standing strong and providng a driving yet anchored pulse that impressively never wavers, even in the face of the storm of horns and Barons thunderous drumming reaches new levels of power.

Over two sets you could be forgiven for expecting repeats of certain tunes, but of course, this being Zorn and Masada, with a catalogue of hundreds of pieces, there is just the one. ‘Malkhut’ is perhaps Masada’s take on Zorn’s other most famous group Naked City, possessing the same stop-start surf-punk-jazz feel as that outfit, but filtered through Masada’s own distinctive lense. Sadly both versions are perhaps the weakest things on the sets, but then, you can’t have everything.

Even if you have every studio recording Masada ever made, you would be well recommended to invest in some of the live albums, given the full strength of playing, occasion and excitement that each is able to generate, and just how much more full-bodied Greg Cohen’s bass is in a live context. But even if you already own every other live recording, ‘Live At Tonic 2001’ still offers something more - when the final piece here comes to an end you can feel the palpable euphoria emenating from the stage. And that is something you want to experience.


Review: Masada - Live In Sevilla 2000

‘Live In Sevilla’, recorded in 2000, is another stellar live effort from one of the then most-recorded quartets in modern jazz. Live Masada albums of course are far from being short in supply, but Sevilla is perhaps a strong contender for first port of call for anyone who wants to look into the group, live or otherwise.

Notably the sound is absolutely pristine, with excellent sonics, and superb clearly defined instruments. But most of all the band on the night and the recording itself just crackles; with energy, with spontanaeity and with incredible intensity.

The band play at a personal peak here, with John Zorn having upped his more lyrical side, and trumpeter Dave Douglas having become simultaneously one of the most distinctive players on the scene and also Zorn’s perfect counter soloist. The rhythm section here however are exemplary, with a strong groove feeling throughout, and Joey Baron providing some soulful yet driving drumming, entirely with his hands in place of the sticks (which most often works best in this group), whilst Greg Cohen provides deep and resonant pulsing bass everywhere.

So, the best sound, of one of the best recorded nights of a band playing at their very best; ‘Live In Sevilla’ is a first rate album from a group that continues to make a distinctive Eastern free jazz that both goes more out there, yet is also incredibly accessible. Richly ethnically infused jazz, this is a fantastic recording.