JOHN ZORN'S BOOK OF ANGELS
Hanging in The Cosmic Tree
by Benjamin Malkin
The man could have sat on his laurels after the '90's. After any of the past few decades (between The Game Pieces, The Big Gundown, Spillane and Naked City), in terms of one of the incredible accomplishments of Jewish Music, in the '90's Masada (the original acoustic line-up) was just about as good as it gets. Joey Baron, Greg Cohen, Dave Douglas, and John Zorn created as definitive and awe inspiring a Jewish body of music as has ever existed, truly pushing the tradition into the 21st Century.
"For me it was just the beginning of something. It was really, it felt really good, it made a lot of sense. And the idea of taking Jewish music into the 21st century, trying to give it some kind of sense of direction, trying to explore what its possibilities were, the same way that jazz musicians had taken Dixieland and moved it towards swing and then moved it towards bop and then moved it towards the avant garde in the sixties; [that it] could go from Jelly Roll Morton to Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor in a mere forty years; it made me think, ‘well, couldn't that be possible with Jewish music?' And it was as simple as that. It was as simple as continuing the project, and the idea of instilling curiosity and adventure into this music, and into musicians who would explore it." - John Zorn in Claudia Heuermann's movie Following Eden (the addendum film to Sabbath in Paradise).
Yet Acoustic Masada was not enough. Two hundred Jewish tunes across a decade was not enough for the man, so he wrote another three hundred in three months in 2004- this would become The Book of Angels. Just this past year (2014) came the premiere of Masada Book 3 at Town Hall in NYC. When all is said and done, there will be 613 tunes in The Masada Song Book, corresponding to the 613 commandments in the Torah (and you thought Stephen Merritt was ambitious when he wrote 69 Love Songs). This article is going to concentrate on that second three hundred tunes that began to come to fruition about half a decade into the twenty first century (with the Jamie Saft Trio's Astaroth: The Book Of Angels, Vol. 1) , and is still bearing fruit to this day, with new releases in the series every few months, almost a decade on. This past year alone, three new books were released on Tzadik: Eyvind Kang's Alastor: Book Of Angels Volume 21, Zion80's Adramelech: Book Of Angels Volume 22 and Roberto Rodriguez Aguares: Book Of Angels Volume 23. Another one [by Klezmerson] is due out in February 2015.
John Zorn's refusal to sit still, his constant musical RENEWAL is "AN EPIPHANY" which, in the words of the great 20th Century Kabbalist Abraham Isaac Kook, "enables you to sense creation not as something completed, but as constantly becoming, evolving, ascending. This transports you from a place where there is nothing new to a place where there is nothing old, where everything renews itself, where heaven and earth rejoice as at the moment of Creation."
The beauty in how Zorn achieved this gorgeous alchemy is though golden collaboration. In the '90's, The Masada songbook was primarily a one band affair. Yes, there were offshoots like the occasional Bar Kokhba album or The Circle Maker (whose double album included the first full album by Masada String Trio), but on the whole, it was like ten studio albums and half a dozen live albums from Acoustic Masada. It's true the original Masada are one of the greatest musical units of all time (and perhaps the best live band I've ever seen), but Zorn, ever restless, had to keep moving, had to take the music somewhere else.
Thus the '90's Masada Book One resembled the opening chapter of Genesis, which "...appears to describe the creation of the world, but it alludes to a more primal beginning--the emanation of the sefirot, their emergence from the Infinite, or Ein Sof (literally, "Endless")" (Daniel C. Matt, The essential Kabbalah The Heart Of Jewish Mysticism). And so, in the 2000's Masada morphs into Book Two, The Book of Angels, and like "... Ein Sof emanated its sefirot, through which its actions are performed. They serve as vessels for the actions deriving from Ein Sof in the world of separation and below. In fact, its existence and essence spread through them" (Moses Cordovero, Introduction to Kabbalah: An Annotated Translation of His or Ne'Erav).
And so, in the spirit of numerology and Zorn's writing 613 tunes in the Masada Song Book, I'll take 10 tunes from The Book of Angels and correspond them to the 10 Sefirot from the Cosmic Tree. "From above to below, the sefirot depict the drama of emanation, the transition from Ein Sof to creation. In the words of Azriel of Gerona, "They constitute the process by which all things come into being and pass away"" (Daniel C. Matt, The essential Kabbalah The Heart Of Jewish Mysticism). People connect the sefirot to body parts, colors, angels, and psychological states, so why not tunes? "From above to below," the collaboration between these musicians and Zorn like "the sefirot depict the drama of emanation, the transition from Ein Sof to creation," ~a collaboration that made and is still making The Book of Angels come into being.
Daniel C. Matt's The essential Kabbalah The Heart Of Jewish Mysticism is quoted below and was instrumental for me in mapping out an understanding of the ten sefirot. Sometimes this map is quite abstract. In terms of translating some of these mystical concepts into modern concrete terms that make them more relatable, the YouTube video Kabbala with Rabbi Yitz Wyne - Ten Sefirot was invaluable to me. Thus below I quote both these men for almost every sefirot. In terms of Rabbi Wyne, he uses the metaphor of building a house, which I think is excellent in showing how this movement of the psychology of the soul reflects planning that leads to action, which leads to completion. For me, the house being built in this article is 21st Century Jewish Music, and the completion it leads to is The Book of Angels.
(Side-note: All these musicians are artists in their own right, so in addition to the track comparisons to sefirot below, I place a track of the musicians' own that I think is the bee's knees, having nothing to do with Zorn that you should check out. The tunes alluded to below are Zorn's. He gives the canvases to paint on. That said, as a great deal of these tunes are improvisation, interpretation, and arrangement, it is most definitely a collaboration with the musicians, therefore these additional tracks are just to hip you further to the artist in points work.)
I'm going to cheat right off the bat here but only because Keter is the root of roots, the crown. Thus I'm going back to the 90's, away from The Book of Angels, back to the original lineup who laid the blue-print.
1. "Tahah" by Masada, Live in Middleheim, 1999; Personnel: John Zorn: Saxophone, Composer; Joey Baron: Drums; Greg Cohen: Bass; Dave Douglas: Trumpeta. Ten Sefirot Chart: Keter – CROWN, Will, Ayin, (Nothingness)2. "Rigal" by Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier from Malphas: Book Of Angels Vol. 3 : Personnel: John Zorn: Composer; Sylvie Courvoisier: Piano; Mark Feldman: Violin
b. Matt states: "Another depiction of the sefirot is that of a cosmic tree growing downwards from its roots above, from Keter, "the root of roots."
c. Rabbi Wyne translates: Trait of will or desire. The beginning of any action: a thought of a house. It's in your mind.
d. The music does: The ultimate Masada song, this version (unlike earlier slow funky ones) is like Jewish Punk Rock Dixieland: the idea of the house, "what if we took Jewish Music into the 21st Century: what would it look like?" This lays out a blue print, off to the races and flying. This is the beginning. From thrilling noise to bebop klezmer insanity, Zorn and Douglas solo simultaneously like there's no tomorrow, trading leads and interweaving (lifting up one another) on fire about to explode. Baron and Cohen are one of the hottest rhythm sections in the solar system. The OG's phrygian dominant insanity who pushed the tradition into the next millennia. This is the umbrella from which all the other Book of Angels take off. They wrote the template in the '90's. However it was later morphed, these guys literally wrote the book (at least Book One). The thought of what Jewish Music could be is encompassed here in total. Just phenomenal: Game Changer.
e. Alternate track by Personnel: "Charms of the Night Sky" by Dave Douglasa. Ten Sefirot Chart: Hokhmah – WISDOM, Point, Beginning3. "Balam" by John Zorn & Mycale: The Book of Angels Volume 13 : Personnel: Ayelet Rose Gottlieb: Voice; Sofia Rei Koutsovitis: Voice; Basya Schecter: Voice; Malika Zarra: Voice
b. Rabbi Wyne translates: The broader idea - 4 bedrooms, a big living room: the details, the beginning of the action.
c. Sarah V.: "In the Masada canon, there is a type of piece that Zorn refers to as an "event piece." Specifically, in an event piece, the score calls for periods of guided improvisational playing that lasts for a certain amount of time. A score might indicate a melodic phrase, followed by a period of frenetic playing, which cuts off into a period of drones, which segues into another melody." - From the website Concert Maniac! (from a preview of Zorn's Village Vanguard residency).
d. The music does: In this event piece, Feldman and Courvoisier map out what happens when traditional instrumentation and musical innovation (futuristic elements) mix and match: a little skronk and squeal here sleeping with graceful elegant beauty there (in her bed, so more of the later). One pictures a theatre piece of improv and classical, the beauty of Jewish emotion mixing with modern classical, free jazz, improv chamber soul. Master musicians and master improvisers. There are few in music who express more grace as a single unit, together, than Mark Feldman & Sylvie Courvoisier. Even if you didn't know they were married, you would hear the two are one in their music.
e. Alternate track by Personnel: "Shifting Roll" from the Mephista album Entomological Reflections (Sylvie on piano joined by Susie Ibarra: Drums and Ikue Mori: Electronics)a. Ten Sefirot Chart: Binah – UNDERSTANDING, Palace, Womb4. "Ifafi" by Ben Goldberg Quartet: Baal: The Book Of Angels vol. 15 : Personnel: Greg Cohen: Bass; Ben Goldberg: Clarinet; Jamie Saft: Piano; Kenny Wollesen: Drums
b. Matt States: "Binah is the womb, the Divine Mother. Receiving the seed, the point of Hokhmah, she conceives the seven lower sefirot. Created being, too, has its source in her; she is "the totality of all individuation."
c. Rabbi Wyne translates: The detailed plan: "going to need seven hundred thousand dollars, a line of credit; have to hire a general contractor; can I actually follow through the idea of building the home?"
d. Basya Schechter: "I think I'm rooted ultimately in the music that I grew up with; there's like a kind of foundation of the Jewish music I grew up with. It's a kind of genre that nobody really knows because it's a girl singing genre and it's very energetically different than the Jewish music you hear on CD's because you'll never hear girls singing together on CD's because it's not allowed. So I think on a foundational level it's coming from there." - from a Vox Tablet interview with Sara Ivry
e. The music does: This is what I think a sophisticated version of these little girls would sound like. And nonverbal sounds, the voice as pure voice. This is going to need to record the vocal sounds of Jews and Hebrew at some point in this Book of Angels. To give a broader picture of Jewish Music, we're going to have to tap into the literal language, not just instrumental. And the voice we're going to put the notes to is the voice that was ostracized. The Little Orthodox Girls who sang to each other (all finding their own harmonies) or to themselves but were never recorded. Now all grown up. An acapella female quartet that uses phrases from prayer but the music so much more/beyond words: pure bird song (thank you, Sofia's solo). Music of the human voice, and more specifically the female voice, mapping out a land that is very strange and childlike (but sophisticated) and wonderful and tight as nails in its building blocks and insanely gorgeous harmonies. f. Alternate track by Personnel: Pharaoh's Daughter (which is Basya Schecter's band): "Ka Ribon" off the album Haran. One of the best albums I've ever heard.a. Ten Sefirot Chart: Hesed – LOVE, Grace, White, Right Arm
b. Matt states: "Hesed and Gevurah are the right and left arms of God two poles of the divine Personality: free flowing love and strict judgment, grace and limitation. For the world to function properly, both are essential." (For Gevurah see next track below)
c. Rabbi Wyne translates: From the intellect into the emotion: loving kindness, giving without limits. I want hard wood floors and reflector walls; spending and spending. Gods giving the openness of blessing. I just want them to have.
d. The music does: I want the floating triplet feel of jazz wrapped in a Jewish melody (of questions and answers), floating effortlessly (light and breezy), endlessly - just all luscious sound providing absolute pleasure. Swinging forward motion, all just floating and flying over the Jewish Metropolis. The brushes of Wollesen and Cohen's light as a feather bass help create this feel. Goldberg's Jewish soul clarinet tone like a funky swan down on the corner: so giving you don't even know he's soloing. And Saft the perfect foil, Tyner to Goldberg's Coltrane. "My Favorite Things" not in melody but gravitas.
e. Alternate track by Personnel: New Klezmer Trio's "Freylekhs Fun Der Kupe" from Short For Something
5. "Asbeel" by The Cracow Klezmer Band: Balan: Book of Angels Vol.5 : Core Personnel: Jaroslaw Bester: Bayan; Oleg Dyyak: Percussion; Wojciech Front: Double Bass; Jaroslaw Tyrala: Violin.a. Ten Sefirot Chart: Geyurah – POWER, Din, (Judgement), Rigor, Red, Left Arm6. "Sother" by John Zorn - Bar Kokhba: Lucifer: Book of Angels Volume 10 : Personnel: Cyro Baptista: Percussion; Joey Baron: Drums; Greg Cohen: Bass; Mark Feldman: Violin; Erik Friedlander: Cello; Marc Ribot: Guitar
b. Rabbi Wyne translates: Gevurah - strength that holds back, that gives borders, justice, not a penny more. Only one, the holding back of, limited.
c. The music does: This song is all holding back descending force and strength that drops on a dime to insane bayan pyrotechnics and is burning but so fierce and tight like a comet, like a great gypsy dancer fighting against the air: this is the opposite of swing. It is militant and overwhelming (wonderfully so). It overtakes you. The dynamics are misleadingly relaxed one second, pummeling the next. Bester's bayan solo (a Soviet Accordion slightly more sophisticated in certain ways) is badass but off the cuff in that restaurant on the Seine way. Then it comes back in that orchestra pummeling. And now the violin gets a turn to pull at your heart strings. It is showing you what you cannot have. Back to nothingness. The idea: what if Jewish Music was tight and constrained drop on a dime dynamics with an orchestra heavier than Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and not on Ludes, but rather in the words of Suicide's Alan Vega, speeding through the sky zone
d. Alternate track by Personnel: Cracow Klezmer Band's "Balkan Dance" from the album De Profundisa. Ten Sefirot Chart: Tif'eret – BEAUTY, Rahamim, (Compassion), Blessed holy One, Heaven, Sun, Harmony, King, Green7. "Zaphiel" by Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz: Abraxas, Vol. 19: Personnel: Aram Bajakian: Guitar; Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz: Gimbri; Kevin Grohowski: Drums; Eyal Maoz: Guitar
b. Matt states: "Tif'eret is the trunk of the sefirotic body... He is the son of Hokhmah and Binah." ... "Ideally a balance is achieved, symbolized by the central sefirah, Tif'eret (Beauty), also called Rahamim (Compassion). If judgment is not softened by love, it lashes out and threatens to destroy life."
c. Rabbi Wyne translates: Balance of emotion; beauty - I want to give, but if I give too much I'm going to ruin my children. That balance where I can give and there's a limit, so they know I love them but I don't spoil them. A very difficult balance
d. Tzadik: "Sephardic exotica for young moderns."
e. The music does: Bar Kokhba hit that perfect balance of Jewish music that combines the Goldberg Quartet's airy beauty and the Cracow Klezmer Band's brute strength. Its Cyro Baptista fueled Latin tinged Phrygian dominant super tight Sephardi swing. The string section a postmodern cartoon Talmudic commentary caught between plucking and bowing. Feldman again soaring: discipline unhinged. So together losing it. Ribot that crazy desert swing bebop back to the swamp of the fifties and here come those strings again like a dream swaying in the breeze. Oh those strings! The soul of a Jew flying through the desert. f. Alternate track by Personnel: Erik Friedlander's "Block Ice and Propane" from the album Block Ice and Propanea. Ten Sefirot Chart: Netsah – ETERNITY, Prophecy, Right Leg8. "Armaros" by Marc Ribot: Asmodeus: Book of Angels Volume 7 : Personnel: John Zorn: Composer, Conductor; Trevor Dunn: Bass; Marc Ribot: Guitar; G. Calvin Weston: Drums
b. Matt states: "They [Netsah (Eternity) and Hod (Splendor)] form the right and left legs of the body and are the source of prophecy." (For Hod, see next track below.)
c. Rabbi Wyne translates: Victory: the action of dominance or assertion. Time to build the house, plow the field, and taking the beams and the workers and contractors. Actual action, ~where many people fall short in their test in life.
d. The music does: This is where it all comes together: the dream of Jewish music made actual and displayed perfectly, modernized where kids into alternative rock and jazz heads and the religious can meet and all see a thousand years ago clearly reflected through today's modern lenses. Electric Guitars whisper back and forth Sonic Youth-like but the melodies all Middle Eastern and Blumenkranzs Gimbri like a prophetic herder leading his flock to the top of the mountain to attain revelation (The Gimbri providing bass tones brings us inside/connects us to our ancestors).
e. Alternate track by Personnel: "Anima Mundi" from Abraxas' Psychomagiaa. Ten Sefirot Chart: Hod – SPLENDOR, Prophecy, Left Leg9. "Shamden" by Zion 80: Adramelech: The Book of Angels vol. 22 : Personnel: Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz: Bass; Matt Darriau: Alto Sax, Kaval, Clarinet; Yoshie Fruchter: Guitar; Frank London: Trumpet; Jessica Lurie: Bari Sax, Flute; Jon Madof: Guitar¬; Brian Marsella: Keyboard; Greg Wall: Tenor Sax; Yuval Lion: Drums; Zach Mayer: Bari Sax; Mauro Refosco: Percussion; Marlon Sobol: Percussion
b. Rabbi Wyne translates: The action of limitation: the almighty is giving physicality in a way that it's covering up his presence, but he can only give so much physicality 'cause we can only accept so much.
c. The music does: Just as violent as prophecy. Falling apart and coming back together. You can feel the almighty bursting through, ripping into free jazz bursts of fury than back into a Jewish bebop metal riff. This song is like volcanic activity where the lava comes together in gorgeous scrumptious sculptures of sound/melody momentarily, then falls back into molten free flowing rock. Also, interestingly, it appears to be an event piece like the Feldman & Courvesoire event piece earlier, only with rock instrumentation free jazz frenzy this time around.
d. Alternate track by Personnel: "Delancy Waltz" from Marc Ribot's Silent Movies (the complete antithesis to this track: delicate, beautiful and touching)a. Ten Sefirot Chart: Yesod – FOUNDATION, Tsaddiq, (Righteous One), Covenant, Phallus10. "Lelahel" (Astaroth) by Jamie Saft & John Zorn: Astaroth: Book of Angels Vol. 1 Jamie Saft Trio Plays Masada Book Two : Personnel: Greg Cohen: Bass; Ben Perowsky: Drums; Jamie Saft: Piano
b. Matt states: "Yesod (Foundation) is the ninth sefirah and represents the phallus, the procreative life force of the universe... Yesod is the axis mundi, the cosmic pillar. The light and power of the preceding sefirot are channeled through him to the last sefirah, Malkhut."
c. Rabbi Wyne translates: A balance between thought emotion and action so that they're working together in unison; so that somehow all these things work together
d. The music does: Let's talk about when horns get sexy. Like snake charmers swirling round the harem in the old city. I mean, there's no denying Jessica Lurie's flute. Nor Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz's sinuous solid watery bass. Again six beats to a bar but this time slow and funky, horns and a heavy rhythm extend time as people float away. The sound of Zion 80 is so massive, so at the top of the tower overlooking their minions, King David in the Old City. The beats may hint at Fela heaviosity (foundation) but the horns are from the Middle East: the music constantly losing the ground beneath its feet as guitar flutters in and out… like floating in the Dead Sea, everything slows down and gathers steam in, to quote Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy, Pelvic Sorcery. That's what this is. Jon Madof can wave his flaming guitar sword and try and slash us down, but in the end, it's the horns that will have their way with us. They always do.
e. Alternate track by Personnel: Rashanim's "Yosefa" from the album Shalosha. Ten Sefirot Chart: Shekhinah – PRESENCE, Malkhut, (Kingdom), Communion of Israel, Earth, Moon, Queen, Apple Orchard, Rainbow
b. Matt states: "One who enters must enter through this gate." "…daughter of Binah, bride of Tif'eret, the feminine half of God. Shekinah is ‘the secret of the possible,' receiving the emanation from above and engendering the varieties of life below."
c. Rabbi Wyne translates: When the spiritual is actualized within the physical. When finally something comes together in the physical form (this table, you, everything physical): a reflection of God.
d. The music does: Jamie Saft tells it like it is. The way this man uses space is a revelation. He creates the spiritual in the physical by leaving so much openness to the timpani, to a long loping piano melody drifting its way above a beautiful bass drone extending the length of the verse: Saft is opening the door to The Book of Angels. In the midst of this comes a divine solo that encapsulates all that is Holy and Awesome about this Body of Music. This is taking Israel into the future. What a gorgeous place to be.
e. Alternate track by Personnel: New Zion Trio's "Niceness" from Fight Against Babylon.
The Book of Angels is the result of getting other musicians interested in exploring Jewish Music. Giving them a palette completely open to interpretation, and as a result expanding the colors and giving them enough to work with, but not too much, so there's places to explore their own ideas (primarily through improvisation and arrangement). Some of these musicians prior to this ensemble explored their own Jewish Music and Heritage heavily. Others came to this having never done so. In fact, many of the musicians in this series aren't even Jewish (though I'd say the vast majority are). The challenge here was, given the palette, given tunes to work with, what would your Jewish Music look like? What Zorn did was help inspire a generation of musicians to make serious modern Jewish Music quite different from the klezmer revival. This is not a revival but a pushing of the music to the future.
Zorn is famously very community driven and no project in his oeuvre is more about community than The Book of Angels. His generosity is boundless and recently, when given a week long residency at the legendary Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, NYC, he shared it with eleven artists from The Book of Angels, most of whom had never played there before (he is doing so again in February, 2015). His Masada Marathons (featuring about twelve different acts per marathon) are becoming the stuff of legend and have been performed at Lincoln Center, in Australia, at The Met, at numerous Jazz Festivals throughout the world, and usually, the groups involved in the Masada Song Book project appear at his own club, The Stone on Ave. C & Houston in NYC. Suffice it to say, Zorn is a very strong proponent of community.
And where many in the Kalmar revival felt the need to be 'authentic' to the original music, Radical Jewish Culture threw off the self-imposed shackles of revivalists and dove head first into the future. The Book of Angels forms a new chapter in Radical Jewish Culture, and its particular flavor of Jewish Music is neither Klezmer nor Cantorial, neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazi. It is all of these things and so much more. Zion 80 are very different musically than The Cracow Klezmer Band, who are very different from Marc Ribot, who is very different from Mycale, and on and on. What all these acts share in common is they are performing Zorn's compositions, which do have a very specific Zorn voice, and at their best, these collaborations alchemically transform notes into 21st Century Jewish Sacred Music, relating back in time thousands of years to a rich Jewish tradition whose phyrigian dominant scales reflect our people and reverberate in our bones, but also (and perhaps more importantly) relate forward in time and take this tradition into the future.
Also see our article on Masada String Trio
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