By Aaron Stein
John Zorn is not just a musician, a composer, a conductor, a genre full of genres full of genres, a specific point in downtown which makes the Lower East Side proper seem uptown and west by comparison, and a prickly pear of a presence in camouflage pants and an armful of sheet music. He is also the sun around which planets of musicians revolve. It is not clear to me how or why a musician or a band starts to feel the pull of his gravity, but it is quite clear when this has happened and it has happened to Rashanim. There have been plenty of clues to conjecture they’ve made it into orbit, and the surest sign yet is their new album Masada Rock, released on Zorn’s Tzadik label. Masada is the living, breathing songbook of hundreds of Zorn compositions based on traditional “Jewish scales,” which depending on your mood or the time of day, can be transformed into jazz bops, heavy funk fusion fugues, classical concertos, or exquisitely performed chamber pieces. As the title indicates, Rashanim is bringing a little of the old R&R to the songbook, but their approach is anything but conventional.
It's hard to believe, but a good chunk of these songs exist as nothing more than notes on paper - never recorded, never performed. The songs on Masada Rock are virgin compositions, and so the situation is less one of cover-songs and more one of utter discovery. The results are categorically breathtaking. Rashanim is one of those non-traditional renderings of the traditional form – the power trio. Jon Madof leads the group on (mostly) electric guitar, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz plays (mostly) bass, and Mathias Kunzli plays (mostly) drums. As the term “rock and roll” can never truly keep dry all the music under its umbrella, Rashanim utterly soaks their Masada selections. Scintillating heavy metal, deep blues-rock, far-out fusion, gentle acoustic folk – each track is a different style, and yet the thread of Masada flowing from one track to another keeps the focus tight and prevents any unraveling. The playing is, in a word, and a juvenile one at that, awesome. As Zorn-orbiters go, these three are young and green, but they play with an abandon and a confidence that would make guys like Marc Ribot and Greg Cohen proud. Actually, Ribot plays guest on two tracks, sparring with Madof on acoustic guitars, bringing a taste of gravitas to the CD as if sent by Zorn to spy on the kids.
For the rest of the way, though, Rashanim has the keys to Zorn’s car, and they’ve souped it up completely and are drag racing all over town with it. All three musicians are a revelation, and together they are tight, focused, and powerful. Madof shows a wide range of skills from blistering speed with wild, metal licks to mature, soft strokes on the acoustic guitar. Blumenkranz brings a perfect balance of holding down the low end while Madof traipses around the melody and then plunging into the songs himself, beefing up the skeleton of the compositions with a boomeranging bass. Perhaps the secret behind the flexibility across the album is Kunzli. He always brings just the right flavor to each arrangement, so they always sound genuine whether they’re hard rockers, jazzier groove numbers, or subtle, quieter poppier songs.
All three musicians branch out beyond the standard power trio. Madof proves to be just as talented and noteoworthy on the acoustic guitar as he is wailing away at the electric. Kunzli does a masterful job of mixing in a range of percussion to bring even more texture to an already large sound. Blumenkranz also opens up beyond the bass, adding the exotic sounds of the oud to Rashanim’s aesthetic. The disc-closer is almost bluegrass, with the plucky oud sounding mandolinesque, Madof’s sliding guitar feeling like a steel guitar, and Kunzli adding a whisper of percussion. The title of the album is slightly unfortunate because while rocking most of the way through, this album is bigger than just rock renditions of Masada songs. Rashanim proves itself to be a band to keep your eyes and ears on, and Masada Rock is one of my “must buys” for 2005.