Jon Madof’s Brilliant Corners: Zion80 ‘Adramelech’

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Jon Madof has been making many people—like this fan—happy for over a decade. The scope of his projects, particularly the trio he masterminds, Rashanim, has been a source of ceaseless delight. During the last few years Madof has concentrated his focus on a bigger, more ambitious undertaking: Zion80.

Where their self-titled debut release was an expert mash-up of, as Madof himself describes the band, Shlomo Carlebach meets Fela Kuti, the new release Adramelech has the collective tackling Volume 22 (!) of John Zorn’s epic Book of Angels series. That would be the same John Zorn whose productivity makes Johann Sebastian Bach seem like a slacker. In fact, he released two new albums as I typed that last line. Just kidding, mostly.

Zorn is nothing if not a visionary, but even by the incredibly high standards he’s set for himself, the idea of letting other musicians tackle each new volume of his Book of Angels has been a gift that giveth much. For one, and most obviously, it’s a plethora of new material, itself something—in terms of depth and achievement—that will only accrue import in years ahead. We’re too busy living through his superhuman career in real time to properly appreciate exactly how locked in and, really, untouchable he is.

Jon Madof has already established himself as one of the more sensitive and successful interpreters of Zorn’s material. His recording Masada Rock remains one of this writer’s favorite of the dozens of discs featuring brilliant musicians doing Zorn. It’s a must-have for anyone who is remotely enticed by the notion of klezmer meets surf guitar meets speed metal meets world music with a free jazz sensibility. And who isn’t enticed by that?

Where Zion80 was a raucous but controlled, fiery but focused free-for-all, something you could shake your head and ass to, Adramelech manages to go deeper and be, if possible, more encompassing. It also comes with a welcome edge and, like the previous disc, insists on being grappled with on its own terms. In this regard, it’s quite consistent with much of the work Zorn and Madof have done. But this is not merely a more-is-more celebration of Zorn with Madof at the helm. Rather, it taps into what is most special—and rewarding—about the Radical Jewish Culture that Zorn has been curating at his Tzadik label: music that spans time (we’re talking centuries) and crosses cultures, yet somehow, in ways that are both delirious and delightful, is totally of the here and now. It’s cutting edge history, made by musicians who know and respect tradition, but are dissatisfied with labels and the limitations of genre. Perhaps this is why you won’t hear this music on the radio. It’s also why people will be listening to this album one hundred years from now.

There’s nothing not to recommend about this release, it is further evidence that virtually everything Madof touches turns to sonic gold. The album is stellar from start to finish but picks up steam as it goes along. A few highlights have to include “Shamdan”, which mixes guitar-driven jamming alongside saxophonic frenzy in ways the only debut hinted at. On “Metatron” the groove gradually breaks down into inspired chanting that is equal parts disarming and deep, an authentically felt religious vibe (a la Madof’s masterpiece, The Gathering), Gregorian chants in the mosh pit—with yarmulkes flying every which way. Each player gets an opportunity to stride to the forefront, and those moments are picked wisely and utilized judiciously: there are no wasted notes or indulgent moments; this execution is precise and methodical.

The two tracks that close out the session exemplify everything—on micro and macro levels—that make this project so unique and fulfilling. On the macro level, there is the obvious and absolute realization of Zorn’s compositional objective: dense but accessible notes delivered with distilled emotion; music your mind can dance to. On the micro level, Madof has amassed an impeccable ensemble of players, and each individual acquits himself wonderfully. And herself, in the case of Jessica Lurie, whose flute solo on “Nehinah” is so tasty, filthy and ferocious it would make Ian Anderson wet his knickers. It’s a high point on an album full of them. Brian Marsella makes the most of his moments in the spotlight (his techno-punk intro to “Nehinah” is top shelf stuff), and Shanir Blumenkranz continues to bolster his credentials as one of the most versatile and significant bass players on the scene. His fuzzed-out bass propels “Ielahiah”, setting a brooding, intense, and heavy tone for the entire piece, which circles its way into a guitar dual between Madof and Yoshie Fruchter. As Madof stalks and strikes, Fruchter hammers out a stuttering cascade of stark notes, the brutality escalating into a climax that offers unbelievable, affecting release.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that music today, by virtue of so many streamed services catering to every taste, can be cataloged according to specific genre and style. One problem, of course, is that music is increasingly roped into predetermined corners, and increasingly created with these considerations in mind. Rare, indeed, is an endeavor that might genuinely appeal to listeners who create playlists dedicated to trance, or jam-band, or world music, or jazz, or metal. Zion80 is throwing a lot of styles on the table, but it’s never forced or facile. It is challenging but rewards an adventurous and intelligent audience. It can be enjoyed without obliging analysis (and should be seen live if at all possible), but for the person who brings some measure of cultural awareness and curiosity to the table, the only corners being navigated are the brilliant ones Thelonious Monk imagined, back in the days when your music was as serious as your life.

This review originally appeared at PopMatters on 11/14/14

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John Zorn: Rebel With A Cause

I’ve not had 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 twelve 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 KTVU.com 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, the three releases above, all from The Book of Angels series, come easily and fervently recommended.



Nice short interview with Zorn, here:

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