Almost 10 years ago, in the early, pre-DIW days of Masada, there
was something exciting about Zorn's project, which came on the
heels of the dissolution of his Naked City. It wasn't about hearing
familiar compositions played by one of the best working jazz bands
around (as the Zorn/Dave Douglas/Joey Baron/Greg Cohen quartet
has become), or about hearing those same pieces played by a
string trio of string-and-percussion sextet. It was about a feeling of
The original idea, that Masada was a songbook, not a band, was in
practice for less than a year before gelling into a group with a month
of open rehearsals at an East Village restaurant. Initially, a Masada
show might be any of a number of assemblages of Zorn cohorts
(one show even featured the twin sax front line of Zorn and John
Lurie), and fans assigned point-of-reference nicknames like "Electric
Masada" and "West Coast Masada" to the various line-ups.
For Masada's tin anniversary, Zorn is returning to the song-not-the-
singer approach. The first in a series of "Masada 10 Years" releases
is a setting of the now familiar heads for solo guitar, to be followed
in March by a double cd with two dozen bands performing from the
songbook (presumably Zorn won't be releasing this as "Great
Jewish Music: John Zorn," although it's the thought that counts).
Volume 1 of the self-styled tribute is simply beautiful. The 21 tracks
alternate between longtime Zorn collaborator Marc Ribot (who is
also a part of the "Chamber Masada" sextet), Naked City guitarist
Bill Frisell and Tim Sparks, whose fingerpicking has been
showcased on three previous Tzadik releases. The themes are, of
course, recognizable, but the takes on the songs are utterly f resh.
Masada Guitars is easily the most exciting Masada release
since 1996's Bar Khoba.
The disc opens with a lovely acoustic reading of "Abidan" by Frisell.
It's a straight read, and he seems the least likely of the three to
have played it. On his second piece "Bikkurim," his effect pedals do
begin to twinkle and by track seven, "Katzatz," his familiar,
disjointed phrasing and barely-harnessed electrical waves are in full
Some of Marc Ribot's most purely beautiful playing has been on the
Chamber Masada recordings. Like Frisell, he starts pretty and
works his way out as the disc progresses, the two creating small
bursts of energy as the track selection round-robins around them.
Tim Sparks, meanwhile, delivers gorgeous, non-ironic, never clever
interpretations. He's a talented traditionalist who was weighed down
by weaker material on previous releases. Here he shines.
For three very different guitarists recording in different places with
different engineers, the sound is clear and remarkably consistent.
The players themselves, however, would have been better served
by presenting each of their seven tracks in blocks rather than in
rotation. But then, that's why G-d made cd players programmable.
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