The question of what Zorn calls "Radical Jewish Culture" has been on my mind for many years. To some degree, it informs the decision to make my online music pages focus on klezmer, and a particular type of klezmer. What does it mean when you are determined to live a life informed by Jewish roots, and yet, have rejected the medieval ritual of your great grandparents and their parents for generations before them. How do you define yourself as a Jew in a way that you could, or would pass on to your children (should there be children)? Could you be satisfied with stripping everything down to a veneer of culture and music and dance as, say, the cultures of other ethnic groups who have come to America? How do you account for the unique spiritual legacy that is entwined in that culture? How do you embrace as your own, or integrate into your own, the cultural instincts of people who share your faith and ancient history, yet whose immediate culture is radically different--for me, for instance, as an Ashkenazic Jew, I am thinking of Yemenite and North African and Ethiopian, and Jews of the Balkans, and ....
The question becomes one with the music about which I write when I consider the many albums by people whose music resonates with me, but who have moved beyond, or away from, or have incorporated too much of the "other" for me to consider them "klez." Since that constitutes most of the albums that I am currently reviewing for these pages, perhaps the thought of Zorn's Masada albums is a good excuse to think this out a bit further.
The first Jewish-inspired Zorn recording of which I was aware was the harsh, Kristallnacht, an album that seemed to dwell on and in the cacophony of the beginning of the Holocaust. It's not an easy album to listen to, yet one that has become part of my private remembrance of that event, because of, or in spite of the ways in which the music on this occasion seems not to transcend the event.
Masada appears to be an attempt to fuse more consciously Jewish sources, and a wide variety of same, into the experimental, perhaps even slightly less experimental than usual for Zorn. Interestingly, and sadly, the albums have been available in this country only as Japanese imports, at Japanese import prices. This has limited access to those who can afford to toss twenty bucks on a chance. I keep waiting to see them appear on Zorn's new "tzadik" label, but they appear to be far back in queue, waiting for him to finish with other earlier, nothing to do with Jewish, albums. In fact, the only Jewish-relevant album to appear on that label with Zorn is a mystifying series of duets on which the most apparent characteristic is the strength of the hiss, snap, and crackle on the 78s with which Zorn and his partner are improvising. Phooey.
Which is to go a long way to go without discussion the actual music of Masada and what it's like. Avoidance, I guess. I mean, I like it a lot. In fact, this particular album, live, thrusts the music with an urgency and an impact that was lacking on the "Aleph" Masada recording--the only other one with which I am currently familiar. Although I take heart from, and am somewhat inspired by the dedication of that album ["For Asher Ginzberg (1856-1927), founding father of Cultural Zionism, who in the late 1880's, under the pen name of Ahad Ha'am--"one of the people", passionately called out for a New Jewish Cultural Renaissance--one in which all Jews everywhere could find pride and meaning." I could note that Ahad Ha'am was also one of the first, if not the first, of the Zionist writers (other than Herzl in his rather silly "OldNewLand") to note that there were already people living in Israel with whom the Zionists would have to make peace. I could even ignore the Zionism championed by Ahad Ha'am in favor of that statement, that to which I think Zorn finds most appealing, for a New Jewish Cultural Renaissance.
Now, it seems fairly clear from the song titles, and from the themes that infilitrate some of these songs that either Zorn is more of a Zionist than I (which could be anywhere back from my own rejectionism), but the point is more important, and even I find much that resonates in Middle Eastern voices. The choice of "Masada" as an image, the kabalistic underpinnings in the minor writings about the music, all imply some attempt to cleave to something proto-Jewish that fits the experimentation of Zorn's music in general. In short, somehow to derive from Jewish history, experience, and culture some essence, some being, that drives this edge of experimental music.
And I guess, if I have trouble when I'm not enjoying straightforward, somewhat experimental, intensely well-played jazz, it is wondering why or how Zorn feels that this is Jewish. What, as I have mused on other recordings, makes this music more "Jewish" than, or even as "Jewish" as, say, Benny Goodman? And, at the same time, if we accept klez as that point of fusion where Jewish celebration and music meet the world and influence and are influenced by each other, is not this music profoundly klezmer?
And I guess I just don't know. I find myself searching for a way to define a Jewish path with a future for myself, rushing away from a stifling, misogynistic, medieval Jewish halachah, and treading around the colonialism of Zionism. But that's me, in person, not me the amateur music reviewer. And this music really speaks. I can dance to this almost as easily as to Finjan, or to Joel Rubin. Does that make for a connection? Is it just fortunate coincidence that both Zorn and I, he clearly more talented and focused than I, manage to coincide in the manner in which I, Jew in search of meaning enjoy the music played by Zorn, Jew also claiming to be in search of ways to express Jewish soul in a New Jewish Cultural Renaissance?
In any event, this album kicks butt. There's a touch of Coltrane, perhaps. The occasional clear hasidic motif, as in Bithaiveth or Karaim, is integral, but not definitive. Maybe the point is that Jewish culture is one of the starting points of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and which transcends for a particular place and time, just as these places and times have transcended the medieval shtetl culture that defined that part of the Jewish people whence Zorn derived. It helps explain why to such a high percentage of my correspondents from the web pages (see top of this review for example), Zorn is a clear and positive symbol of the avant garde side of klez, but clearly a part of it.
Kenny Wolleson's drumming (he formerly of the Klezmorim, and then the New Klezmer Trio) is superb, as are Zorn on alto sax, Dave Douglas on trumpet, and Greg Cohen, bass. (Other than Wolleson, who replaces the original drummer, Joey Baron, this is the original Masada quartet.) This is a good, inspired, driving introduction to Masada. Need I have said more?
Reviewed by Ari Davidow 11/23/95
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John Zorn / Masada / Live
Personnel, this recording:
John Zorn: alto saxophone
Dave Douglas: trumpet
Greg Cohen: bass
Kenny Wollesen: drums
- Piram 8:05
- Karaim 11:31
- Lachish 2:32
- Ashnah 7:17
- Tahah 7:01
- Katzaz 3:14
- Ravayah 4:01
- Hobah 10:14
- Bithaiveth 13:48
- Sheloshim 3:57