"I tell you, the dances of a Jew are prayers and the purpose of dancing is to lift up the holy sparks. In a sacred dance, the lower rung of spirituality is raised up to the higher." - The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, by Yitzhak Buxbaum
Masada String Trio: straight out the gate all excitement, blood boiling, flying through the desert, diving headfirst into another genius John Zorn melody, all old world majesty, first bowed, then plucked, very middle eastern, very Ashkenazi tear the roof off the sucker, take off for the stratospheres. For those of us who've loved crazy jazz improv flights of fancy, classical chamber ensemble instrumentation, and klezmer (freygish scales in freylekh time), in equal measure there could no more perfect band than Masada String Trio. The old country pointing towards home, rippling out into the ocean of the twenty first century, made new by mixing & matching innovations in the postmodern pastiche. Only out of NYC could such a mutant hybrid be born: Jewish + Jazz + Classical = Klezmazzical.
There have been jazz combos who improvised lyrical dialogues akin to this (albeit with horns); chamber ensembles who have played with this level of virtuosity and gorgeous lyricism; and old world Klezmer outfits that played with this much feeling and made weddings dance for days on end, but never have the three, in conjunction with a penchant for avant garde experimental Lower East Side bombast, combined so perfectly in a trifecta. That trifecta is Erik Friedlander on cello, Mark Feldman on violin, and Greg Cohen on double bass. Brought together simply to express one aspect (of many, many, many) of one of the greatest composers of the last hundred years (John Zorn) discovering his religious identity (Judaism) and expressing it through music (the Ahava Rabboh melodic mode), while simultaneously doing what he always does: combining it via his postmodern transformation dance into something wholly new, combining elements of things that shouldn't go together, and somehow making something not only new, but incredibly beautiful.
One aspect of Zorn's genius resides in mixing and matching. That's what makes this now. That's what makes him such a towering figure in the postmodern playground. He doesn't draw distinctions. He's not high culture or low culture. He's just Zorn. And part of the Zorn Parthenon is Masada String Trio. And to me, this particular part is the sound I'd been waiting to hear. At my son's bris, this is what we played. On Shabbat and Hanukkah this is what we play. As family and tradition move to the fore, this is home. A new home for a new age, which is our age, which isn't blind to the innovations that have occurred the last few centuries.
What makes New Jewish music Jewish? It comes out of a tradition, acknowledges that tradition, nods to it and then takes it a few steps forward into the 21st century. This isn't new for Zorn, he was mixing and matching through the '80's. His old band Naked City is the ultimate in this, though albums of his like The Big Gundown, Spillane and his improvisational game pieces all mixed and matched like there was no tomorrow. What's new is how masterful this particular group of musicians, Masada String Trio, have become at combining these particular three elements to create a sound that's never been heard before.
What's the major innovation here? Improvising like the greatest jazz players in the world in the Jewish scale (Phrygian dominant, flat 2nd, flat 6th, flat 7th, augmented second interval [between the second and third note], which are the Jewish notes [that third note to flat second, think 'Nagila hava' in 'Hava Nagila']) and time signatures (for example: the Freylekh circle dance, counted 123-123-12, Sher in 2/4, Hora in 3/8, etc.), with chamber ensemble instrumentation (and the improvisations dynamics and arrangements of the tunes conducted by Zorn himself). That drop on a dime telepathic interplay of the melodies soaring in and out like molecules jumping orbit in no small part due to Zorn conducting, pulling instruments in and out of the proceedings, rising higher and higher to dizzying heights, crescendo then glissando, searing dynamic peaks that fall and back to the head (of the chart) effortlessly: The crazed impassioned dance of ecstasy which is entwining strings rising to the heavens. Not jazz, not classical- some beautiful mutant hybrid out of the old country, the Middle East, the Lower East Side, wholly unique music. Radical Jewish Culture.
(Side-note: I'd absolutely love to write an entire book on solely the 500 songs which make up Zorn's Masada song book. All the chapter titles would be the different incarnations and line-ups which perform this wholly Jewish songbook, from Acoustic Masada to Mycale and the Bar Kokbah Sextet, all of whom have moved me eternally.)
Top Ten Masada String Trio songs (w/ever so slight personal impressions)
1. "Tufiel" (from Masada String Trio - Azazel Book of Angels Vol. 2) - The dance of Masada String Trio is often the dance of Greg Cohen's double bass. He is the one running, all his own funk, twisting and turning round the beat like a one man sand storm straight out the desert.
2. "Turel" (from Masada String Trio - Haborym: Book of Angels Vol. 16) - Pizzicato dreams. I've never heard a cello player pluck this much feeling out of his instrument. Erik Friedlander has made plucking cool. No small feat. Revolutionary in fact.
3. "Tahah" (from Masada String Trio - 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 1) - You can have your Ramones It's Alive, your Great Concert of Charles Mingus and Meditations on Integration, your Who Live at Leeds, your Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard. I'll take Masada String Trio live at Tonic any day.
4. "Yesoma (Cello)" (from John Zorn - Filmworks XI) - Erik Friedlander is our John Coltrane. Not in terms of how they sound, but how their virtuosity transcends technical playing rising into the realm of pure feeling in each of their respective fields. His virtuosity allows for just pure improvisational genius to effortlessly express itself as if it were the most natural voice on the planet.
5. "Mispar" (from John Zorn - The Circle Maker) - Cat (cello) and mouse (violin) chase each other's tails, and when they solo together, it's like heaven descending.
6. "Khebar" (from Masada String Trio - 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 1) - Khebar is just ridiculous joy. Byron Coley once said Zorn "seems as restive as a hummingbird on meth." If you wrapped that idea in a freylekh and gave it a melody it would sound like this.
7. "Shabbos Noir" (from John Zorn - Filmworks XI) - When plucked, it's the space between notes that creates the noir. The rests as breathes that create the sigh. Then the sobbing strings, like old world klezmer, sobbing that noir melody.
8. "Sippur" (from John Zorn - The Circle Maker') - My supper time melody. Perfect Jewish dining music.
9. "Tabaet" (from Masada String Trio - Azazel, Book of Angels, Volume 2) - This song is all tip toe at nightsneaking around the house (shhhh). Go stretch out into another gorgeous melody, go ahead, wake up the baby.
10. "Garzanal" (from Masada String Trio - Azazel, Book of Angels, Volume 2) - Looking out across the barren fields, a cold desolate morning that taps you into the mystical tune which is life. Mark Feldman performs a rough ballet in a poor peasant village, and makes some damn beautiful noise doing it.
To understand the Ahava Rabboh melodic mode is to understand the soul of a Jew. A Jew is inundated with this scale from the moment they set foot in a temple, in every prayer, through the streets of Israel, through any movie about any Jew, any wedding, from "Hava Nagila" to "Dayenu" to "If I Were a Rich Man." This is the scale that sings to us. It is considered minor in Western music, which in Western music also connotes sad and dark, but to us, it is neither sad nor dark. It contains just as much joy and tradition as anything that ever was. It is Middle Eastern in general, though achieved a full flowering in Eastern Europe of all places, or rather, evolved, and it is evolving yet again, mixed this time with that great melting pot experiment which is America.
Zorn's Masada song book in the hands of Masada String Trio is so awe inspiringly Jewish: whenever I play this for another Jewish person, any Jew, it stirs something in their blood that they instantly understand. It's in their blood. Old Jews especially understand, even if they have no love of music. The scales are their scales and the rhythms are their rhythms and they feel their power written into their DNA. What is it about an augmented second interval that so hits home? Why is it written into our DNA? Non-Jews I play this for don't normally get why this music makes me so excited. It's not a slight, it's just an observation. Every Jew I play this for gets it instantly. Must be something in the scales.