Masada is a musical group with rotating personnel led by American saxophonist and composer John Zorn since the early 1990s.
Masada is as much a "songbook" as a group, comprising more than 500 relatively brief compositions. Each song is written in accordance with a number of rules, including the maximum number of staves, the modes or scales that are used, and the fact that the songs must be playable by any small group of instruments.
Given the historical associations of the project's name (see Masada), the Hebrew titles of the compositions, and the Jewish imagery on the covers of the associated albums, Zorn was clearly exploring his Jewish roots, stating, "The idea with Masada is to produce a sort of radical Jewish music, a new Jewish music which is not the traditional one in a different arrangement, but music for the Jews of today. The idea is to put Ornette Coleman and the Jewish scales together."
Zorn formed the group Masada in order to record and perform this set of tunes. The first group to use the Masada name was Zorn (alto saxophone), Dave Douglas (trumpet), Greg Cohen (double bass), and Joey Baron (drum set). On occasion, different drummers filled in for Baron - most regularly Kenny Wollesen.
This first edition of Masada had the same instrumental make-up as the pioneering free jazz group led by saxophonist Ornette Coleman in the late 1950s and early '60s, and earned frequent comparisons to Coleman's music. Masada recorded the music on a series of ten CDs on the Japanese DIW label and a number of live recordings on Zorn's Tzadik label.
By the last few months of 2004, Zorn wrote over 300 new tunes for the Masada songbook. Some of the new tunes were debuted at Tonic in December 2004, as a mini festival. Tzadik has released a series of CDs of these songs played by various ensembles, including the Masada String Trio, Marc Ribot, Koby Israelite, Erik Friedlander and others as the "Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels" collection.
As of early 2007, according to the Tzadik website, "Together for close to fifteen years, John Zorn's Masada Quartet is officially breaking up and will be performing two of their last live concerts ever at Lincoln Center March 9th and 10th on a double bill with Cecil Taylor's New AHA 3." Nevertheless they were scheduled to perform as the original quartet on a concert in Antwerp in Cultural Center Luchtbal on June 22, 2008 - the bill later changed with the addition of pianist Uri Caine, who performed with them the entire set, except for one song. Baron, Cohen and Douglas also joined the duo of Mike Patton and John Zorn the evening before, at the same venue, and the quartet also performed one song as an encore.
The quartet performed together at Yoshi's San Francisco jazz club on March 12, 2008. The 8pm show featured music from the original Masada songbook and the 10pm performance featured songs from Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels.
Since the middle '90s a number of new projects have arisen under the Masada banner.
Masada String Trio:
The Masada String Trio performs selections from the Masada songbook in a classical-chamber jazz form. Personnel include Mark Feldman (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), and Cohen, bass. With the addition of Marc Ribot (guitar), Cyro Baptista (percussion) and Joey Baron (drums), this same group has performed as the "Bar Kokhba Sextet".
The performing style of both groups is characterised by the use of improvisation (sometimes conducted by Zorn himself) and its use of the inflections of Jewish music that are part of the compositional language of Zorn's "Masada" themes.
Two different projects in the Masada family share this name. A decade prior to the creation of the Bar Kokhba Sextet, the Bar Kokhba album was released, featuring a cast of regular Zorn collaborators performing Masada material in a variety of different small ensemble configurations.
One of Zorn's most active Masada projects of recent years is Electric Masada. Drawing on Zorn's wide ranging stylistic influences, the band takes the Masada songbook into a whole new direction, reminiscent of jazz fusion and noise rock. The group, which includes Baron, Ribot, Wollesen, and Cyro Baptista, from previous Masada groups, as well as Trevor Dunn on bass, Jamie Saft on keyboards and Ikue Mori on laptop/electronics, continue to take the Masada themes and transform them into something entirely new.
Zorn uses hand signals to conduct the band, allowing for him to make up different arrangements on the spot. During Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration at Tonic in September 2003, Electric Masada was recorded live. Released in May 2004, 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 4 became the group's first official recording. This was followed by At the Mountains of Madness recorded in 2004 in Moscow and Ljubljana.
2003 saw the 10th Anniversary of Masada and Tzadik released five new CD sets in commemoration. The first release, Masada Guitars, has three guitarists, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Tim Sparks, playing the tunes, mainly acoustically. Volume 2, Voices in the Wilderness, has a huge range of groups and individuals playing and Volume 3, The Unknown Masada, has yet more new groups, together with some familiar faces playing Masada tunes never before performed in public. A fourth volume, Masada Recital, performed by Sylvie Courvoisier on piano and Mark Feldman on violin, followed in 2004. The fifth and final volume Masada Rock features the band Rashanim and was released in August 2005.
Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels:
From 2003 Zorn has written a range of new Masada compositions which have been released on a series of albums under the banner of Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Musicians contributing to the series include Jamie Saft, Masada String Trio, Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier, Koby Israelite, The Cracow Klezmer Band, Uri Caine, Marc Ribot, Erik Friedlander, the Secret Chiefs 3 the Bar Kokhba Sextet, Medeski Martin & Wood, and Pat Metheny.
Masada Book 3: The Book Beriah:
On March 19th, 2014, the first 20 compositions of a third Masada book were performed live at The Town Hall in New York. The total number of compositions in the third book are 92, which brings the total number of Masada compositions at 613, the same as the number of mitsvah or commandments in the Torah. Musical group compositions range from loud avant-garde rock to string quartet.