While documenting the approaching release of The Book Beriah, the third and final installment in John Zorn’s enduring and industry-changing Masada songbook, I’ve had many fascinating and revelatory moments. None, however, have been more inspirational or rewarding than receiving an advance copy of Keter, the first volume in the highly anticipated eleven-album collection.
After years of studying and contemplating Masada, I could finally browse the first pages of its new chapter and it felt magical. My curiosity and enjoyment were enhanced also by the fact that this was the album I was looking forward to the most.
More than three years in the making, Keter features the combined talent of spectacular vocalist and songwriter Sofia Rei – who is no stranger to Zorn ensembles or Masada – and her longtime collaborator, JC Maillard, a captivating multi-instrumentalist, composer and songwriter of incontestable virtuosity. Together, they arranged the tunes, with the singer providing the lyrics in Spanish.
My enthusiasm for Sofia Rei is well-documented and I’ve been following JC’s career with interest over the last few years. Their pairing on this particular album is one of historic significance for the Masada oeuvre. In the project’s twenty-five-year history, vocal contributions have been few and far between, appearing sporadically in places like Voices in the Wilderness or The Unknown Masada. Meanwhile, the reputable Mycale a cappella quartet – of which Sofia is also part – is indeed a wholly and fundamentally vocal project, but one where the voice is used to create structure and texture. In Keter, the singer’s voice is the storyteller – the conveyor of meaning and message. That being said, Zorn could not have chosen a better messenger.
Sofia’s voice is a force of nature; an instrument of seemingly endless range that never fails to take her wherever her imagination desires to go. But it’s precisely this imagination that makes her such an inspiring presence in the world of adventurous music. A lyricist and songwriter of remarkable talent, Sofia’s primary strength is her ability to internalize her source material. Whether she’s singing her own daring compositions, reinventing folk anthems like “La Llorona” or paying tribute to iconic Chilean artist Violeta Parra, Sofia is never overwhelmed by the magnitude of her material. Always in control and always in stellar form, this untiring artist is one of modern music’s leading storytellers.
Meanwhile, Masada newcomer JC Maillard feels like he’s been plucked straight out of Zorn’s ideation. A composer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist of eclectic talent, Maillard plays the saz bass, an eight-stringed electroacoustic instrument designed upon his own request by French Luthier Herve Prudent and almost preternaturally fitted to express the mystical quality of these compositions. On Keter, which the musician promises will be “the reference album for the saz bass”, his instrument is just as integral to the narrative as the singer’s voice, making the record essentially a duet – one of fascinating synergy. Evocative and enigmatic, JC’s instrument is always in direct communication with the vocalist, shadowing, questioning, teasing and comforting the singer’s voice.
The album starts in quintessential Masada fashion with “Ge’ulah”, the most candid and dynamic of the tunes. The saz bass introduces Sofia’s distinctive scat which immediately fills the space with its force and vigor.
“A door has closed/ Key or door did not matter/(Take what can be played)”* she sings with a pronounced trace of sarcasm.
Love, loss and solitude are closely connected in Sofia’s verse. Vulnerable but undaunted, the songwriter explores the theme of love in all its febrile, irrational, delicate and torturous manifestations, contemplating the tragic consequences of its dissolution. In “Ge’ulah”, exhausted from the emotional tumult, she concludes, “You are in control.”**
An impactful element throughout, JC’s ghostly background vocals mirror the content of the lyrics, stalking and haunting the singer’s voice, “lightly, without a pulse or limit”***.
This tendency for the musical arrangements to mimic the lyrics is an important element throughout the deeply introspective album.
In “Setumah”, the vocalist passionately recounts the journey of an ill-fated love story, giving little time to the “perfect days” as if intentionally hurrying towards the seemingly unavoidable demise. This progression is again reflected in the song’s structure.
It starts off slow and gentle, before the increasing tempo leading to its melodic theme announces the “death of love”. Towards the midpoint, a superb section of scatting over saz bass intensifies prophetically. With an “avalanche of adrenaline in the voice”, the vocalist finds her cathartic release in a bone-chilling shriek, followed by a saz solo of profound musicality, making for one of the record’s most beautiful moments.
“Kayam” speaks of the frustrating and emotionally exhausting nature of long-distance relationships. Reflecting the intensely bipolar nature of long-distance love, the singer starts from a place of youthful naiveté, as the claps and background vocals almost seem to ridicule her hopefulness. Discouraged by the unfulfilled anticipation and the numbing feeling of absence, the voice collapses into a state of confusion, desperation and near-dissonance, as the singer cries:
I play deaf and fall back into monosyllables/ That invade the entire space until they shatter/ And I come out free****
That freedom is fleeting, however, and her voice quickly returns to its delusive hope, continuing the vicious cycle while lamenting, “Why does everything have to be so specific?”
The candid and extroverted “Rachamim” draws from South American aesthetic and Middle-Eastern-infused urgency, culminating in a beautiful, emotionally liberating explosion of charango and scatting.
Though it’s difficult to pick from the extremely polished selection, the following two songs, “Penimi” and “Orot” are, to me, the highlight of the album. From a thematic and narrative perspective, it feels like the entirety of Keter has been building up to “Penimi”. Up to this point, even when expressing loss and loneliness, the singer’s tone remained combative and animated, never mournful.
Yet in “Penimi” – a boundless, transcendental tune with a fluctuating structure – Sofia’s voice seems trapped in an existential crisis, sinking to abysmal lows before rising to soaring heights as if searching for an unchanging essence of itself that may or may not exist. Tonally and thematically a microcosm of all that Masada can be, this song is a disarmingly gorgeous moment for the vocalist. With some of the most thoughtful and beautiful lyrics in the songwriter’s repertoire, “Penimi” speaks of grief, solitude and closure.
Don’t think any more
And embrace the fire that blazes
And erase all your inner pain
Passion is the sentence and the cure to live in loneliness.*****
With this conclusion, the song is seemingly brought full-circle, before breaking out into an eerie, incongruous, chant-like scat that leaves the listener feeling uneasy.
As a writer of fiction, perhaps this is a professional habit, but I couldn’t help noticing that “Penimi” also marks a symbolic shift in the way the record deals with the topic of love. An overwhelming presence so far, love is mentioned only once more, in “Tikkun”, where its restless, kaleidoscopic nature is described in a playful manner. To me, this adds even more gravitas to “Penimi’s” transformative message. Whether this was intended or simply a fortunate coincidence, it adds a lot of depth when listening to the record in sequence.
An eloquent recount of a childhood spent under dictatorship in Argentina, “Orot” displays the quintessential image of Sofia’s artistic persona at the current moment – studious, adventurous, philosophical, melancholic. Empowered by her experimentation with layering and her lately indispensable looper, her voice becomes a house of mirrors, reflecting the innocence and confusion in a child’s mind during a time of turmoil. From a point of view of pacing and storytelling, this song is absolutely flawless, centered around an intense, memorable chorus and the evocative range of JC’s instrument.
The fact that such a contemplative and profoundly personal record closes with a song summoning the ghost of Frida Kahlo is important. A particular fierceness takes over this extremely empathetic vocalist whenever she sings about those who inspire and fascinate her. If “El Gavilan” was an exorcism, “Ketarim” feels like an ethereal maze, with JC’s instrument appearing, at times measured and ominous, then hurried, as if pushing the voice along. And yet, with its spectral repetition and unanswered questions, both the song and the record’s finale bear an aura of permanence.
With exquisite poetry and elegant, spellbinding arrangements from two musicians with established chemistry, Keter ventures into previously unexplored Masada territory, providing one of the most tender and beautiful moments in the project’s history.
** Eres dueño
*** Sin pulso, sin límite y sin talón
**** Hago oídos sordos y recaigo en monosílabos/ Que invaden todo el aire hasta estallar/ Y quedo en libertad…
***** No pienses mas/ Y abraza el fuego que da lumbre/ Y borra todo el mal de tu interior/ Condena y cura es la pasión/ Para habitar la soledad