AMN Reviews: John Zorn – The Book Beri’ah (2018; Tzadik)

I find boxed sets daunting, mainly due to the time commitment involved not only to listen but to absorb the material therein. John Zorn’s The Book Beri’ah consists of 11 albums, which is lengthy even as these things go. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of gems on this varied set, which makes it essential for Zorn fans.

The Book Beri’ah marks the end of Zorn’s 25-year Masada series. Not a group anymore as it was in its early days, Masada is instead three books of songs and tunes composed or roughed out by Zorn and filled in and performed by musicians with a broad set of backgrounds and styles. Here, he surrounds himself with long-time collaborators as well as some new faces. This capstone project took three years to put together, and represent Zorn’s works being played in a broad variety of ways.

With all of that in mind, let’s get down to the music.

The set begins with Keter, featuring Argentinian vocalist Sofia Rei and Carribean-born JC Maillard on saz bass. The latter is an 8-stringed guitar-like instrument capable of producing both lead and bass lines, and is a perfect fit for Zorn’s Middle-Eastern and Eastern European themed Masada collection. In these duets, Rei sings in Spanish with folk inflections. The result is a pleasant set of songs and one of Zorn’s more accessible efforts.

The next release, Chokhma, is an abrupt shift. It is performed by the metal band Cleric, gruffly shouted vocals and all. Unless you listen closely, the fact that the band is playing Zorn’s music might be lost. Nonetheless, the album is far more than just riffing and pounding rhythms (though there are plenty of those elements). Cleric is an unusually creative group (think Meshuggah or Fantomas), and playing Zorn’s compositions pushes them in a more melodic direction. Nonetheless, the instrumental breaks shine with unconventional structure, featuring the occasional dose of oud, keyboards, violin, and accordion.

Binah is performed by the 16-piece Spike Orchestra. Instrumentally, the majority of the group uses wind and brass, which gives the recording a thick wall of sound character. But this big-band jazz approach is tempered by keyboards, guitar, and drum kit. Think Gil Evans and Frank Zappa meet Darcy James Argue to collectively arrange pieces by Zorn for a James Bond film. These tunes also obscure their Masada source material under shifting layers of horns, as well as an overall groove.

Acoustic guitarists Julian Lage and Gyan Riley team up for Chesed, duets exploring Masada’s Mediterranean roots. Those who have followed Zorn’s works over the last couple of decades will find familiar motifs here and there, but Lage and Riley expand upon these with improvisation and a handful of extended techniques (speed picking, body work, etc.). Thus, these pieces vary from being quaint and charming to going slightly outside.

While many of the collaborations on Beri’ah might be considered “supergroups” in any other setting, Zorn’s legacy of putting together interesting combinations of stellar musicians makes this term less meaningful. Nonetheless, Abraxas, the progenitors of Gevurah, consists of nothing short of an all-star lineup. Featuring the dual guitar attack of Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz with Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz on bass and Kenny Grohowski on drums, this quartet launches itself through nine offerings of twisted hard rock and metal with distorted overtones of free improv and heavy blues. Of course, Zorn’s signature melodies take center stage as well, but the group works through them at a feverish pace supported by Blumenkranz and Grohowski’s non-stop, hectic rhythms. Needless to say, Gevurah is a high point of this set for me.

Klezmerson is a somewhat self-descriptive name for a Mexican Klezmer group with eight main members (three percussionists) and an even larger number of guests.  Their style is truly a hybrid on Tiferet, with rock, jazz, funk, and even prog influences along with the aforementioned Klezmer and Mexican musics – a bit retro as well, but in a good way. The flute and horns combine with guitar riffs as the group wends through complex melodies and themes. This one was a grower and ended up being a favorite.

Netzach features The Gnostic Trio, which consists of longtime Zorn collaborators Bill Frisell and Kenny Wollesen on electric guitar and vibes, respectively, as well as Carol Emanuel on harp. This group takes things down a notch or two, with deliberately paced, introspective readings. While the melodic approach is familiar, Netzach is a different animal atmospherically. Aside from a Frisell solo or two, the pieces are more subdued featuring interwoven themes and an occassional western ambient feel.

Hod is performed by the 10-person Zion80, another bluesy big band ensemble. More overtly retro than Klezmerson, this group also features afrobeat tendencies. Additionally, Hod is the only album of the entire set that includes a performance from Zorn. Though he only appears on one track, it is a burner with heavy riffing and wailing sax. Otherwise, the three sax players and guitarist take a prominent role, while keyboards and flute add texture as well as a solo or two. While varying in intensity from track to track (with the Zorn track at the high end of the spectrum), there is a soulful and organic ingredient to Zion80’s contribution that gives it an unusual appeal.

The closest thing to a traditional jazz approach in the set comes from percussionist Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits. Joined by Brian Marsella on piano and vibes, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz on bass, and Tim Keiper on drums, Yesod explores the more upbeat side of the Masada books. Marsella’s jagged piano work includes slight echoes of Brubeck with a Latin flair. The pace remains energetic throughout most of the album’s 9 tracks.

Malkhut is performed by Secret Chiefs 3, a long-standing avant-rock group led by guitarist Trey Spruance. Here, it is expanded into an 8-piece lineup with an additional guitarist, keyboards, violin, kaval (Turkish flute) bass, drums, and percussion. Stylistically, the group moves deftly about between metal, jazz, twisted folk, Middle Eastern, and cinematic music from moment to moment. The sheer variety of styles and the speed at which Spruance et al. shifts from genre to genre to a genre-less approach is remarkable. Another high point.

Da’at completes the set with a series of solo piano, piano duo and piano trio (piano, bass, drums) pieces performed by Craig Taborn, Vadim Neselovskyi, and the latter’s trio. This is a “bonus” album and is the only one that includes multiple takes of the same piece. The most engaging of these recordings are the piano duos which feature intricate interplay between Taborn and Neselovskyi, as well as Neselovskyi’s trio work.

Overall, The Book Beri’ah reflects the flexibility of Zorn’s compositions and material – it can be performed by any number of musicians in any configuration, and the performers can follow Zorn’s framework or set forth on their own paths using his source material as a guide. The diversity of styles in this set is staggering especially given that all 11 discs worth of music is derived from the same family of tunes. Intimidating, but so worthwhile.