A Personal Statement Turned Ritual Music
John Zorn’s ‘The Book Beriah’ brings together many groups across 11 CDs in a work that serves as the culmination of a 25-year project.
June 5, 2018 12:19 p.m. ET
In 1992, alto saxophonist and composer John Zorn, then a singular fixture of New York’s Downtown scene, set out to explore his Jewish heritage. He composed and recorded “Kristallnacht,” a searching suite named for a horrifying historical event. Then he began writing more compact compositions based on the scales characteristic of Jewish music and meant to satisfy contemporary improvising musicians.
Saxophonist and composer John Zorn Photo: Scott Irvine
“It began as my personal answer to what new Jewish music is,” Mr. Zorn told me years ago in an interview. And it was a musical challenge. “After writing so much conceptual music, I wanted to just write a book of tunes—the way Irving Berlin had a book of tunes, the way Thelonious Monk had a book of tunes.” He called that book Masada, for an ancient Judean fortress that was subjected to a deadly siege by troops of the Roman Empire, and which now serves as a symbol of Jewish defiance and pride.
In 1993, almost on a whim, he performed some of these new pieces with a group including trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron. That quartet became known as Masada, and it grew to be among the signal small jazz ensembles of late 20th-century jazz. Meanwhile, Mr. Zorn kept performing his Masada book, creating other bands as well for its presentation. And he kept writing. By 1996, he had more than 200 Masada compositions.
In 2004, while wrestling with an orchestral commission, he returned to the Masada project. He wrote a second collection at a furious pace, more than 300 songs in three months, this time distributing the music to other musicians to interpret. That second Masada collection, “Book of Angels,” led to more than 30 recordings by more than two dozen different ensembles on his Tzadik label. Mr. Zorn wasn’t done. A few years later, he composed a third collection, “The Book Beriah.” Its 92 compositions brought Masada’s total to 613, the number of commandments Jews are required by the Torah to observe.
Now 64, Mr. Zorn, who received a MacArthur grant in 2006, commands a deep and broad following. His music is played at symphony halls and music festivals, jazz and rocks clubs, art museums and film houses, as well as at The Stone, the music venue he founded in 2005, where musicians share booking duties, and which is now housed at the New School’s Glass Box Theater in Manhattan.
For this third Masada book, rather than release a series of recordings, Mr. Zorn packed these compositions into a limited-edition set of 11 CDs, each featuring a different ensemble (available through the Pledgemusic website). “The Book Beriah” begins with singer Sofia Rei, who was born in Argentina, singing her original lyrics, in Spanish, to Mr. Zorn’s compositions, in duet with J.C. Maillard, who plays bass and saz, a long-necked lute. It ends with another duo, of pianists Craig Taborn and Vadim Neselovskyi, improvising in sometimes starkly contrasting fashions on Mr. Zorn’s themes. In between, the music ranges wildly in style and feeling.
Gnostic Trio—guitarist Bill Frisell, vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen and harpist Carol Emanuel —creates an ethereal, nearly otherworldly sound. Cleric, a quartet that bills itself as “avant metal,” plays ferociously at times. The Spike Orchestra, a 16-piece ensemble, evokes many things, including Charles Mingus’s large-group jazz, surf-rock, and klezmer music. One group, Klezmerson, filters Mr. Zorn’s music through Mexican and gypsy influences to fascinating effect. A few musicians especially shine in multiple contexts: Shanir Blumenkranz, who plays bass, Moroccan gimbri and percussion, is featured in several bands including Abraxas, a quartet he assembled at Mr. Zorn’s urging; Brian Marsella, who plays piano or keyboards with two ensembles, seems to have a special affinity for Mr. Zorn’s work and its harmonic potential. Moods shift from disc to disc, each powerfully conjured: propulsive and with an air of mystery on tracks from Secret Chiefs 3, which blends electric guitars and violin; precise and lovely, with the music’s structural complexity veiled by an overriding sense of ease, on duet tracks from guitarists Julian Lage and Gyan Riley.
For all its variety, “The Book Beriah” sounds cohesive due to the sturdiness of Mr. Zorn’s compositions. There’s some wild and woolly improvisation, some daring interpretation, but also a clear sense of fidelity to these themes. (“At some point in your arrangement,” Mr. Zorn told each band, “I want to hear every note and every rhythm exactly as written.”) These are Mr. Zorn’s stories, based on his understanding of ancient scales and modern-day composition, and rendered here as both complex and accessible. Decades ago, Mr. Zorn was known for a jump-cut aesthetic. His work of late, and especially here, reveals a melodist at heart. Masada, which began 25 years ago as a personal statement and a frame for Mr. Zorn’s own playing, has turned into ritual music for a gathering of tribes whose connections appear less than obvious but who share a sturdy aesthetic faith.
—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal.