John Zorn: Rebel with a Cause

I’ve not said much to say, in print, to this point about John Zorn for a variety of reasons, but it ultimately boils down to two very simple issues. First, there is so much to say it’s both exhausting and intimidating to consider; how to even grapple with an output like this? Second, and perhaps more significant, I’m not at all certain my best efforts would sufficiently convey how important his music is (to me, for starters) and how truly all-encompassing his sensibility has become. And that’s just in the last 12 months…

Consider his Masada songbook: 100 compositions he wrote in the early ’90s, and then recorded over the course of ten albums with the (then acoustic) Masada band, including Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums. The klezmer-meets classic Ornette Coleman Quartet vibe, too often and easily invoked as a way of describing what this music sounds like, nevertheless is an acceptably succinct summation. These tunes were covered by another working band, Bar Kokhba (which brought in Cyro Baptista on percussion, Marc Ribot on guitar, Mark Feldman on violin and Eric Friedlander on cello–all mainstays in the NYC downtown music scene), giving the compositions an augmented grandeur that keeps the material challenging (mostly for the players) and always accessible. The Masada String Trio (Cohen, Feldman and Friedlander) also recorded and performed this material live.

In the early 2000’s Electric Masada, a semi-rotating cast of characters including Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Ikue Mori (laptop and electronics/effects), began to tackle the catalog. The live performances were incendiary (trust me) and all this time, Zorn continued to make other music (tons and tons of it), particularly his always-compelling series of film soundtracks (currently at Volume 23, and counting…). Then, roughly ten years after he completed the first Masada songbook, Zorn challenged himself to compose new material, and quickly found himself with another 100 (!!) compositions, which he christened Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book, all recorded by the (acoustic) quartet, this series has been handled by a variety of bands in and outside the NYC jazz circuit, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Koby Israelite and The Cracow Klezmer Band. It can be said, without the slightest hint of (intentional) hyperbole that this is by far some of the more moving music recorded so far this century: it is not comparable, really, to anything being created by anyone around at this time.

Earlier this month Zorn made a very atypical trip to the west coast to hold down a six-day residency at the legendary jazz club Yoshi’s (in San Francisco), and the focus was on the new (and old) Masada material. Zorn, who is notoriously allergic to journalists and conducts formal interviews in much the same way men schedule colonoscopies, sat down with David Pehling from for a fascinating and in-depth discussion( It is highly recommended. A few money quotes, below:

The project for Masada was to create something positive in the Jewish tradition something that maybe takes the idea of Jewish music into the 21st century the way jazz developed from the teens and 1920s into the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s and on. That was something that was very inspiring. My idea was ‘Well, can that happen with Jewish music as well?’ Why is Jewish music only considered cantorial and klezmer? Let’s see if we can make some modern statements using new ideas and young imagination and new inst and create something positive.

I’ve got a lot on my plate, and I’m not one of these guys who wants to relive my days of beatnik glory. That’s not my modus operandi. I want to keep moving forward come up w/ new ideas and try things out. I think my role in this society — on the planet — is to take some chances and to make some music and ask some questions. Some of what I do is entertaining and fun for people to listen to, but entertainment is not why I’m doing this. This is art music. This is music that in some ways can raise questions and can deal with consciousness and — I honestly believe — can make the world a better place.

This music is for the world to enjoy. It’s not elitist in any way. I want everyone to enjoy it. But I understand the reality that it’s challenging music and not everybody can enjoy it or appreciate it. Not everybody has the time to do the thinking and do the work to unravel the mysteries that are being presented in these concerts and on these CDs. It’s not an easy thing. And people have enough problems in their lives that they don’t need further problems. But I do champion the fact that this music is important and that the world is better for its existence and that, in some small way, it represents a cry of freedom in the dark ages.

For anyone not familiar with Zorn and interested in more, there are several DVDs, available via Zorn’s site Tzadik (the label Zorn runs, which puts out his work and a great deal of the more confrontational and uncategorizable music currently being made): Claudia Heuermann’s documentary Sabbath in Paradise should be part of any Jazz aficionado’s inventory. For anyone else similarly inclined, virtually any release from The Book of Angels series comes easily and fervently recommended (guitar shredding fans go straight for the Ribot; more melodic and mellow fans check out the Medeski, Martin and Wood; for a bit of both, step up to Secret Chiefs 3).

John Zorn’s Masada, 2006