John Zorn's Masada is arguably the project for which he has received the most recognition and found success. Conceptually, its quite simple, an exploration of his roots in Judaism and jazz and an attempt at composing a songbook like Monk and other musicians had, with the restrictions that the pieces had to use the "Jewish" scales. With such a strong limitation, its quite amazing that Zorn manages to capture such a great level of diversity in the writing, and he composed somewhere around 200 pieces, performed originally by this quartet of master musicians (Zorn on alto, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums) but later expanded to performance by other ensembles. The original Masada band has released ten studio albums, with a further host of live records. This is the band's debut, and one of four albums recorded on February 20, 1994.
Musically, Masada is a bit more than Ornette Coleman Quartet meets klezmer, though its often reduced to that by lazy critiques. Its strength lies in the simplicity of the themes and the ability of the musicians to really get behind them and intertwine their parts-- Douglas and Zorn will often simultaneously solo, and it seems that whenever anyone is soloing independently, someone behind them is doing something more interesting-- Baron's drum fills behind the duo-leads on "Zebdi" is probably the best of example of this-- Zorn and Douglas are ferocious, covering a ton of ground, but behind it all, Baron is stealing the show.
The album opens in an aggressive mode-- "Jair" features some fantastic soloing from Zorn, but quickly settles into the dark and meditative "Bith Aneth". This is really the strength of the Masada ensemble, the ability to express in such diversity of forms, and the piece's opening cries and squeals give way to the hypnotic theme. If you're not sold by this point on the record, you're never going to be sold on Masada.
The remainder of the album maintains this high quality, with more aggressive material including a piece with monster drum solo ("Tzofeh"), a haunting, and dark piece that three minutes in deconstructs into quiet screeches ("Ashnah") and an early classic in the Masada catalog and one of the endearing themes, the forceful and swinging "Tahah". The problem is, all these pieces I point out are on the firswt half of the record, and the material on the second half, while its certainly quite good, isn't nearly as strong (bass feature "Idalah-Abal" being the exception-- with Cohen all over the place and Baron supporting him brilliantly and gently before the horns enter, wrapping themselves way up in a theme filled with such longing as to almost be hard to listen to). The album really sort of loses steam halfway through.
Nonetheless, Masada having lost steam is quite a bit superior to almost anything else out there. While I think the live albums make a better introduction to the project, this is certainly as good a place to any to dive into the studio material. Its a fine album and well worth the investment, recommended.