Get our free newsletter
John Zorn’s Masada draws on elements of Jewish folk-music tradition and early harmonically freed jazz (the quartet’s instrumentation is identical to that of Ornette Coleman’s group of the late ’50s and early ’60s) to create a strong and powerful new music. A refreshing alternative to the nostalgic klezmer that dominates so much of the contemporary Jewish-music market, Masada is bold, innovative, and also rooted in the Jewish blues. For Bar Kochba, Zorn has arranged two CDs’ worth of Masada material for various “chamber ensembles.” The results fall somewhere between the avant-garde experimentalism of the majority of Zorn’s past projects and the traditional Jewish music one might hear in a synagogue. Among the varied selections, different combinations of musicians effectively explore the disjointed and noisy “Nozikim” (“Damages” in Hebrew) alongside two versions of “Mashav,” both conventionally orchestrated and played as beautiful spirituals. The most successful tracks come from the musicians who have some familiarity with the music as well as with one another’s playing (the string trio of Greg Cohen, Mark Feldman, and Erik Friedlander works particularly well), but the unique organ and piano playing of John Medeski (of Medeski Martin and Wood and the Either/Orchestra), a performer not usually associated with Zorn, is also noteworthy. But despite Bar Kochba’s strong performances and interesting arrangements, the overwhelming energy and subtle interplay of Zorn’s Masada quartet are markedly absent.