'Masada Songbook': Zorn Redefines Jewish Music Ten years after he began building his Masada Songbook, composer and saxophonist John Zorn has forever changed the definition of Jewish music.
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'Masada Songbook': Zorn Redefines Jewish Music

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'Masada Songbook': Zorn Redefines Jewish Music

'Masada Songbook': Zorn Redefines Jewish Music

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Just over a decade ago, renegade composer John Zorn set out to redefine Jewish music with an ambitious set of pieces he calls the "Masada Songbook." There are now over 200 titles in the catalog that take their inspiration from klezmer, Middle Eastern and classical music and were designed to be played by any group of instruments. In his original group, John Zorn played saxophone alongside a trumpeter, bass player and drummer. Since then, the discography has expanded to include renditions by klezmer bands, jazz combos and vocalists.

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HANSEN: Now for the 10th anniversary of the songbook, John Zorn's Tzadik label has released "Masada Rock," featuring the Jewish power trio Rashanim led by guitarist Jon Madof.

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HANSEN: John Zorn and Jon Madof join us from our New York bureau.

First of all, welcome, John Zorn.

Mr. JOHN ZORN ("Masada Rock"): Yo, what it is.

HANSEN: What it is. And hi to you, Jon Madof.

Mr. JON MADOF (Rashanim): Hi. Thanks for having us.

HANSEN: John Zorn, I wanted you to tell us just a little bit about the catalog, because it's been 10 years since you started. Now what exactly is it that makes music Jewish?

Mr. ZORN: Well, you know, I've been doing this for quite a while and I don't think I can honestly answer that question very accurately. It could be a lot of things. It could be just an intention of it wanting to be that. It could be a scale. It could be some dramatic subject or theme. It could be something historical. It could be something that's just emotional. It could be a lot of things; it could be nothing. I don't know.


Mr. ZORN: I started the label Tzadik to support an entire community of musicians, not just Jewish musicians. But the radical Jewish culture movement was begun in a lot of ways because I wanted to take the idea that Jewish music equals klezmer and expand it to, `Well, Jewish music could be a lot more than that.' And it might be fun at somebody's bar mitzvah to have something like Rashanim play instead of the same klezmer band with clarinet, bass, drums, accordion.

HANSEN: Yeah. Listening to this, I was remarking that it was a little bit like you've invited Dick Dale to do the music at your bar mitzvah.

Mr. ZORN: Man, Dick Dale shreds. He's welcomed to anybody's bar mitzvah.

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Mr. ZORN: You know, just the guitar itself, the instrument itself has a sound and you can do a lot with that sound. And Dick Dale, Link Wray, a lot of the really great players of the early '60s that did a lot of groundbreaking stuff with creating effects and pedals and reverb - that's still alive in a lot of the guitarists that you hear today from Bill Frisell to John Scofield to Joe Beck, you name it. And I think Madof is one of those people who really gets to the inside of what the guitar is doing. I mean, it's just wood, a little bit of electrics and some metal strings, but there's some magic there. And the magic that you find in surf music, I think, is really timeless. You know, when I was very young, I was in a surf band. Surf music is an instrumental music that still means a lot to me, not in an nostalgic way, but as something that really gets to the heart of the guitar itself. And I think that's what you're hearing on the Rashanim record.

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HANSEN: Jon Madof, there are some very hard-edged performances here, but there are also some...

Mr. MADOF: Sure.

HANSEN: ...very gentle pieces, "Shadrakh," for example.

Mr. MADOF: Yeah.

HANSEN: This is a duet you do with Marc Ribot.

Mr. MADOF: Well, it's Marc and I on guitars, and then the rest of the band as well, yeah.

HANSEN: Right. Tell us a little bit about the tune.

Mr. MADOF: Well, on this tune in particular, I actually got to the studio and saw a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar on the wall. And I don't remember if Marc Ribot used a guitar that he had brought or another one and we thought how great would it be to do a nylon-stringed classical guitar duet with bass and drums, which--and it ended up being really fun.


Mr. MADOF: But I didn't necessarily expect to do that when I walked in the studio.

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Mr. MADOF: You know, for all the tunes, I just--having been familiar with John's work for a long time--I mean, I've been listening to him since I was--you know, before I was a teen-ager, which he may not know that.

Mr. ZORN: I don't know that. Help.

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Mr. MADOF: I used to--I'll tell you this as a little aside, but I used to--there's a punk rock magazine called Maximum Rock 'n' Roll. It comes out every month and it's like a book, and it's just everything a kid into punk rock would want to know about everything all over the world. And I started trading tapes with a kid in Connecticut, and he sent me some Naked City...

Mr. ZORN: Wow.

Mr. MADOF: ...and then we kept trading, and, you know, eventually I heard some of the "Masada" stuff when it came out. By then, I think I was in college and just, you know, absolutely loved it. So I feel like John's sound has been in my head for a long time. So when I got these tunes, I just kind of sat down with them and started playing through them.

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Mr. MADOF: And the whole book to me, I mean, works amaz--it's so beautiful just as a melody. And then I just kind of, like, tried to let the song determine what the arrangement was.

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HANSEN: What kind of reaction are you getting to this whole idea of stretching Jewish music into these forms? Let me start with you, John Zorn. What's been the reaction?

Mr. ZORN: Well, to be honest, I don't pay much attention to the reaction. I think you better ask Jon. I mean, there's people that are confused and there are people that are stimulated and excited and there are people that get angry, and, you know, as with anything that's new, you get a great deal of different reactions.

HANSEN: Sure. Jon Madof, what kind of reaction have you been getting?

Mr. MADOF: Well, I can't tell you how many times, no matter how much I try, wherever we play, to describe the music, to play it for people, to tell them that we're not a klezmer band, that that word always comes up because people associate it with that, like John said before, Jewish music equals klezmer. And I'm not blaming them, but you know, that's the kind of...

Mr. ZORN: Ignorance.

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Mr. MADOF: It is ignorance. It really...

Mr. ZORN: It is ignorance.

Mr. MADOF: ...is. It really is ignorance. It's--you know, like, I mean, first of all, that's the music that the Ashkenazi Jews in eastern Europe made...

Mr. ZORN: A hundred and fifty years ago.

Mr. MADOF: Yeah. And there's music that's just as old if not older from Yemen. There's amazing Jewish music from Yemen, from Egypt, from Syria. So even if you're going to look at that, just saying--just, you know, relegating Jewish music to klezmer is really, really pigeonholing it. So I find that people are a little slow to warm up to it, but you know, when they hear it, end up kind of saying, `Oh, there is something kind of Jewish to it, but it's not klezmer.'

HANSEN: Jon Madof, thank you.

Mr. MADOF: Thank you.

HANSEN: John Zorn, thanks a lot.

Mr. ZORN: Yeah. Peace.

HANSEN: John Zorn's "Masada Rock," featuring Rashanim with guitarist Jon Madof, is on the Tzadik label. There are music cuts and more on our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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