Pat Metheny’s new album came out last week: Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Vol. 20. As the title suggests, it’s part of a very long series — for composer Zorn, not for jazz guitarist Metheny — and it’s got a twisty story behind it. “Mastema” from it appears below; as on the rest of the album, Metheny is playing everything but the drums (which are played by Antonio Sánchez).
Forty years ago, John Zorn made his earliest recordings; by the mid-’70s, he’d moved to New York City, and started making a name for himself as an experimental composer. His early work included a bunch of “game pieces,” played with rules rather than with a score. The most famous of them is the twelve-player improvisation game “Cobra,” which has been recorded several times and performed many, many times. (The Knitting Factory, in New York, used to have a “Cobra night” every month.) Here’s a fantastic 1992 film of Zorn conducting a round of “Cobra.”
Zorn was fascinated with a whole lot of musical traditions, including the avant-garde jazz tradition — Ornette Coleman was a particular touchstone for him. For reference, have a listen to the Ornette Coleman Quartet’s “Chronology,” from 1959’s album The Shape of Jazz to Come.
In 1989, Zorn and his group Spy Vs. Spy (which included two drummers, Michael Vatcher and Joey Baron) recorded an album of Coleman’s music mostly played at hardcore punk tempos, including this version of “Chronology.” The album concluded with a version of “Mob Job,” from Song X, the album Coleman and Pat Metheny had recorded together several years earlier.
By the early ’90s, Zorn had also gotten interested in what he called “radical Jewish culture.” He took on a project called “Masada,” for which he initially planned to write 100 pieces, each named with a Hebrew word and each in one of the two most familiar “Jewish scales”: major with the second note flat, or minor with the fourth note sharp. Those hadn’t shown up much in jazz, outside of the world of klezmer musicians (and the klezmer revival that started in the ’70s). Naftule Brandwein had been one of the leading artists in American Jewish music in the ’20s; his recording of “Heiser Bulgar,” from 1922, is a terrific example of a piece that uses those modes.
Zorn ultimately wrote more than 200 themes for the first Masada songbook, and during his monthlong 40th birthday celebration at the Knitting Factory in 1993, Zorn assembled an ad hoc quartet — with drummer Joey Baron from Spy Vs. Spy, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and bassist Greg Cohen — to play Masada pieces, more or less in the manner of Ornette Coleman’s early-’60s group. It worked out unbelievably well. The quartet, also called Masada, ultimately recorded ten studio albums’ worth of material, as well as a pile of live albums; more than anything else, they were a live powerhouse, and they toured frequently for well over a decade. Here’s a killer live performance of “Beeroth,” from 1999, filmed at Tonic, the New York club that was more or less Zorn’s headquarters for a few years.
(As it happens, Ornette Coleman is himself a great admirer of old Jewish music. In 2006, he told the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff about the first time he heard early-20th-century cantor Joseph Rosenblatt: “I started crying like a baby. The record … was crying, singing and praying, all in the same breath. I said, wait a minute. You can’t find those notes. Those are not ’notes.’ They don’t exist.” There’s a film of Rosenblatt’s 1927 performance in The Jazz Singer below.)
A handful of other Zorn-affiliated ensembles started recording the Masada pieces as well, and around the time of Zorn’s 50th birthday celebration (at Tonic) in 2003, he formed another group, Electric Masada, which played the Masada repertoire in a style that owed more to Miles Davis’s early-’70s electric music. (See, for instance, this spectacular live performance of “Tekufah.”)
By that point, Zorn had written around 300 more pieces for a second Masada songbook, “The Book of Angels.” The original Masada quartet nominally broke up in 2007, although the Masada Quintet — Douglas, Baron, Cohen, pianist Uri Caine, and saxophonist Joe Lovano — recorded an album of the newer pieces, Stolas (including “Serakel,” below) in 2009. It’s one of a series of albums that have appeared since 2005 of individual artists or groups playing compositions from “The Book of Angels.” Metheny’s Tap is the latest of those, and it’s unlikely to be the last.