John Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration
50th Birthday Celebration: Volume 1
For the entire month of September 2003, multi-instrumentalist/composer John Zorn celebrated his 50th birthday with a series of concerts at Tonic in New York City. For thirty days he looked at groups past and present, for one of the most exciting live series in recent times. Fortunately, for those of us unable to attend these landmark concerts, he has decided to issue a series of sets from these performances. The first, with the Masada String Trio, 50th Birthday Celebration: Volume 1 is as good a place as any to start when looking back over one of the many projects that has been occupying Zorn for the past ten years: the Masada songbook.
The Masada songbook has now been interpreted by groups as wide ranging as the original Masada Quartet with Zorn, Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron; the Bar Kokhba group, which is a larger ensemble; Electric Masada, the most recent incarnation that puts a more aggressive spin on the two-hundred-plus piece songbook; and the Masada String Trio, which started as a single recording project and has since expanded to include some of Zorn's best Filmworks recordings in recent times.
Violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander and bassist Greg Cohen first convened as the Masada String Trio for Zorn's hauntingly beautiful double CD, The Circle Maker ; on the first disk the trio was on its own and on the second they were augmented by guitarist Mark Ribot, drummer Joey Baron and percussionist Cyro Baptista. The trio also appeared on another recording that year, Zorn's Filmworks VIII. What was immediately apparent, aside from the obvious strength of Zorn's material and vision, was that this trio was somehow larger than life. The three string players managed to create a huge sound, as much through implication as execution; while they worked well with additional players, it was clear that they had all they needed to create a cogent group sound, one that managed to incorporate a broad harmonic sense and remarkable sense of rhythm.
Since their inception in 1998, the trio has performed on other Zorn Filmworks projects but this is the first time that they have been recorded in a concert setting What becomes immediately clear is that there was no studio trickery involved in making them sound so big on record. Here they are completely exposed, and yet they manage to create a huge sound that blurs the boundaries between scored work and collective improvisation. Without being able to see Zorn conduct them, it is almost impossible to discern when they are playing the score and when they are experimenting with all the sounds that can be drawn from their respective instruments.
The set list draws heavily from the first disk of The Circle Maker , but what is equally revealing is when they tackle material originally covered by the Zorn/Douglas/Cohen/Baron Masada Quartet. 'Abidan,' a case in point, proves that Zorn's compositions are fully capable of being interpreted in a wide variety of contexts. While Feldman, Friedlander and Cohen are, quite simply, all musicians who are at the top of their game, bringing staggering technique and strong individuality to the set, Friedlander does deserve special mention as a musician who is rapidly expanding the preconceived boundaries of his instrument, proving that it is as capable as any in an improvising context.
From the lyrical 'Tahah' to the frenetic freedom of 'Lachish,' from the up-tempo 'Meholalot' to the cinematic 'Kedushah,' Zorn's material provides the trio with a remarkable breadth of feel, texture, rhythm and ambience; and in the hands of Feldman, Friedlander and Cohen these pieces are brought to life in a way that completely re-examines and redefines the role of the string ensemble.
Zorn is, of course, an adventurous artist who knows no boundaries, accepts no limitations and constantly searches for new means of expression. It is likely that the Masada songbook, and the variety of groups he has formed to interpret it, will be one of his most remembered projects in an incredibly large and diverse body of work. Likewise, the Masada String Trio, along with the original Masada Quartet, will likely be remembered as the most exciting and adventurous interpreters of that songbook.
This first volume of Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration is but another landmark along a very long road; another chapter in a very large volume. But it proves that Zorn is more than just a composer and performer of consequence; he is an orchestrator who is capable of seeing past preconception, instead viewing the wide range of possibilities available to him, and with a mind that is truly open, constantly finding new means of expression. On the strength of 50th Birthday Celebration: Volume 1 the Masada String Trio is one of his longest-lasting ones, and, without a doubt, one of his most important.
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Tracks: 1. Kinyan 2. Olamim 3. Vehuel 4. Shofetim 5. Partzuf 6. Zarach 7. Shagal 8. Herem 9. Kadmut 10. Zemaraim 11. Demai 12. Belimah.
Personnel: Mark Feldman: violin; Erik Friedlander: cello; Greg Cohen: bass.