Interviews Masada Marathon

Almost like folk songs – Jon Madof talks The Book Beriah, Zion80, Rashanim and Zorn’s alto sax scream

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The Masada Marathon Interview Series continues with a special look at an established member of the Masada family.

Guitarist and composer Jon Madof is part of Masada with two projects, Rashanim and Zion80. With the latter, he is currently preparing to release Hod, the eight volume in The Book Beriah.

I was really excited to talk to Jon, not only because he is one of my favorite guitarists, but because he is a man who is dedicated to supporting and promoting adventurous music. Together with Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, he runs Chant Records, a label that – in his own words – seeks to continue the mission of record labels such as Tzadik and Dischord.

We talked via Skype a week ago and, as usual, I tried to keep the conversation almost verbatim, in order to reflect the personality of the artist.

How did you get involved in Masada?

When we moved to New York, I was already a huge fan of Zorn’s. The first record I’d heard was Naked City. I think that, when I heard that record, the Masada project was just getting started, but I wasn’t aware of it. A friend of mine played me the Naked City album  – the one with the Weegee cover – and I was totally blown away by that. So I got into his other stuff, including Masada.

When I was moving to New York, I was determined to work with him. I gave him a demo of our trio, Rashanim, at the suggestion of Shanir Blumenkranz and he wanted to work with us.

The first record we did was Masada Rock. I think he had some tunes that hadn’t made it on to the other records and he asked us to do some with Rashanim. I was obviously super-honored. That was the beginning of our direct involvement.

Then, when Book 2 was first happening, he gave me a copy of it and Rashanim played a few shows doing that music. But we didn’t do a Masada Book 2 record. When I formed Zion80 much later, we ended up doing Book 2 and now Book 3. So that, in short, is my story with Masada.

One thing that I was really looking forward to asking you was about your creative process. You’ve played Masada tunes with two very different bands – Rashanim, a trio, and Zion80, which is a much larger ensemble. What are the creative differences that arise when writing music for two projects that are so different?

Honestly, the thing Zorn always stresses is, “Play the tune.” Which is a simple instruction but it’s deceptively simple, because in adventurous music you can do a lot with a song. Sometimes you can play a song and it doesn’t sound so much like when the composer wrote it. Which is fine – it’s just one approach. But, to me, the beautiful thing about Zorn’s music is his melodic sense. If a note is there, it’s there for a reason! That kind of framed my thinking with the trio, or with Zion80 – a much larger band.

I imagine them being almost like folk songs. I want the melodies to be familiar. So if I tell you I’m playing “Greesleeves”, youn want to hear “Greensleeves”. Then, how do you innovate? How do you make something interesting while still playing the song?

With Rashanim, a lot of it is geared towards improvisation and having open sections and allowing more to happen spontaneously. In Zion80 that’s fine, but if you just let things happen it’s chaos (laughs). Which is fine, if that’s what I want. We’ve had that a few times on the tunes, but it’s way more orchestrated and structured in Zion80. Especially on this record, because the band has been around long enough that, when I hear a certain section, I’m not writing it for saxophone, I’m writing something for Greg Wall, or Jessica Lurie or whoever else in the band. I want something that’s going to bring their artistry out. I’m writing for the particular musicians and I find myself naturally doing it.

Do you find it easier to write for Zion80 or Rashanim?

It’s hard to remember, because it was twelve or thirteen years ago, but the Rashanim stuff was easier because it was only melody, bass line, chord structure, rhtym and tempo.

Just structurally easier, I guess.

Yeah, structurally easier. The Zion 80 thing takes me a lot longer.

With Hod, Zorn was encouraging me to go forward, to do more, don’t make the same record again with new tunes. Go out of the afrobeat conventions. It’s not like the band stays within the afrobeat conventions to begin with, but just go further out. That was the mandate that he gave me. So it ended up being really challenging and really satisfying and rewarding and the band killed it, so I was really happy with it. I don’t want to to say it was more work, but it was a bigger mountain to climb to do this Zion80 record.

I think that a great part of Zion80’s sound is geared towards the vibe and the energy of every tune. There’s just a feel-good vibe to the music that translates to a great listening experience. Its’ really interesting within the context of Masada. I’ve recently been watching your latest video for “Pardes” and it’s become my all-time favorite video. The song is great and the message is fantastically uplifting.

It’s good that you mentioned that, because, coming from the avant-garde jazz thing, it’s sometimes a certain… like… “You know what? The music can be fun!” (laughs). Like Conference of the Birds. I’m really happy when I listen to that record. I’m just thinking that I love the rhythm, the groove and the vibe.

With the video, I had a certain kind of resistance when working with the filmmaker, but I was like, “No! It’s fun! I want to make people feel good!” It can still be great musically – hopefully – while being fun and engaging and danceable.

Most of the music that I find myself gravitating towards is often described as dark. And I guess I never articulated it like that, but I remember playing the first Rashanim record years ago for my closest friends from college and they were like, “You sound like you’re depressed!”

And I thought, “Am I depressed? I don’t know. Maybe I am.” (laughs) People talk about Radiohead – which is one of my favorite bands – and say their music is depressing, but when I listen to it, it makes me feel good. Yes, there’s a certain darkness but it makes me feel good.

Can you talk to me a bit about Hod in general? What was it like working on that record? Do you have a favorite track?

There are some sections of tunes where I personally feel I went to a place I’ve never been before. One is “Reiah”. There’s a section in there that really has this rhythmic layering that was a sound I’d been hearing in my head for a long time. I was able to put it into the structure of Zorn’s tune and make it work. And it’s only because it worked naturally. I knew that I couldn’t force it.

The other one is “Tahor” which is kind of this doom metal thing. It’s a running gag between me and Zorn now. That’s because the thing that originally got me about Zorn’s playing was that scream he does on the alto sax which, to me, was everything I love about jazz and punk and rock and metal all in one sound. With this record, I went, “You have to do a tune with us and you have to make that sound!” (laughs) So I just wrote the song around what would be the best setting for that. It’s this ten minute doom metal thing with really slow drums and the guitar thing and I just had to have that.

We’re doing a show at Symphony Space in New York in a few weeks. I said to Zorn, “We have to play that tune!” He said, “Well, your set is not that long… maybe we could keep it a bit lighter.” (laughs) That’s the darkest song on the record and it’s ten minutes long.

What are some of your favorite records from Book of Angels?   

The one I was most excited about and find myself going back to over and over again is Tap, the Pat Metheny record. Being a guitar player and being into him for 20 years the fact that he put his sound together with John Zorn was excellent for me.

The first one, Jamie Saft’s Astaroth, is one I always go back to, because it’s the first one I’ve heard. I love The Spike Orchestra record, Cerberus, that’s great. And the Ribot-Dunn-Weston one, Asmodeus… it blew me away.

It’s funny because Zorn sent me that a little bit before it was out. And there was a show that we did, a Masada show we played because they couldn’t make it or Ribot couldn’t make it. So Rashanim played those tunes before the record was out. That was a big task also.

Rashanim didn’t do a Book 2 record. We were talking about it and when Shanir heard Asmodeus he said, “I was thinking that Rashanim should do a Book 2 record, but Ribot did it and he did it better than we would.” (laughs) And he’s right. That thing Rashanim goes for, especially when we play Masada… it’s that record. And with those three players…

And, obviously, Xaphan, the Secret Chiefs record. That’s huge – I love that!

Tell me about Chant. How does your label relate to Tzadik?

That’s a really good question. In a way, Tzadik is one of the biggest inspiration for the label to begin with. I run it together with Shanir Blumenkranz. We really wanted to embody what these very important indie labels have done. Things like Discord Records and other independent labels like that that have been around and are really artist-focused, artist-run. As far as our mission is concerned, we’re focusing on the digital space for releasing an album. It’s obviously a very different reality than when Zorn started with Tzadik. In a way, that allows us to release a lot of music with very low overhead.

Obviously there’s a big financial investment that Zorn takes when he puts the money in these records. We don’t really have the means to do that right now. But, in the current climate, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s about what we have at our disposal and what we can do. We want to put the music out as widely as possible and we want to release music by this very varied community of musicians.

We’re still honestly working to define exactly what it is that we do particularly that other labels don’t. Since Zorn is such a huge inspiration in our lives, it’s sometimes hard to do that. We’re kind of continuing the mission in our own way. You know, Zorn doesn’t do streaming for the most part – which I understand and respect and honor – but I wanted to do it a little bit differently.

That being said, if an artist who works with us doesn’t want to do all the streaming services, they have some choices as far as what they do. But my default is to get the music out as widely as possible and then use things like Pledgemusic to allow the artist to further themselves and be able to do the work.

 What does Masada mean to you personally?   

The whole thing of doing Jewish music is kind of a complicated topic to me. A lot of times, because off how I look – I’m an observant Jew… whatever… – a lot of people assume that Chant is a Jewish record label. Just like people say that about Tzadik. And Tzadik is not… it’s just not. Although that’s an important part of it. And this is not what you’re asking, but in a way it’s the answer. Being Jewish is very important to me, but it’s not about staying in a box. It’s about coming from a certain place and reaching out. To me, that was what I first heard in Zorn’s music. It’s coming from a deeply rooted place of culture and identity and ethnicity and reaching outward. It’s not self-referential or only for a limited group of people. That’s what I love about Masada – its take on Jewish music as much as inheriting the mantle of Ornette Coleman and bringing that into new places.

The biggest thing that’s missing from the discussion of avant-garde or avant-garde jazz is its relationship to folk music. To me, a lot of Ornette is folk melodies. But that’s not what you hear, it’s always “Ornette is this crazy crazy music, whatever.”

Yes, it’s also the melody and where he comes from and what he grew up with. How can that not be in there? To me, that’s what the whole thing is about and that’s what I heard in Masada. It’s this beautiful way of dealing with that, but in a really deep way, in a new way and one that made reference to other things that I understood. Because I grew up listening to rock music. At first, classic rock  – Hendrix and Zeppelin and all of that – but eventually I got into punk and what now would be indie music: Fugazi, The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction. That’s where I come from as far as my music and it made reference to that stuff.

So, with Masada closing, what’s next for Zion 80?

We recorded Warriors and Hod in the same week and in the same block of time. Just because it’s so hard to get all the musicians in a room, because they’re all very busy.  And I was like, “Okay, what do I want to do with this record?”

I knew what I wanted to do with Hod because I had been working on it for about a year and going back and forth with Zorn about what the record was going to be. I always thought of Warriors as a contrast to Hod. It was like, “We’re going to take it as far out as we can go and then we’re going to come in a few days layer and make a party record.” (laughs)

I didn’t think of it like that, but in the Zion80 space… that’s a  party record. I feel like, in a word, the music that I’ve been writing more recently – the new stuff that Zion80 hasn’t even seen yet – is straddling these two things of, like, the simpler structures and a segment that could be danceable. So I want to bring those together that we haven’t before. And I have a whole album or two worth of material ready to go. It’s funny because Warriors came out a while ago and Hod is not out yet, but Warriors was kind of like a reaction to Hod.

You poured all your anxiety and darkness into Hod and then just went out and had fun. 

(Laughs) Like a superhero video.

 

Check out Jon’s website here: https://www.jonmadof.com/

Here’s where you can read about Zion80: https://zion80.com/

Check out Chant Record here: https://chantrecords.com/

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