I'll give John Zorn credit: the man knows how to celebrate a birthday. Oh sure, you might think it can't get better than hanging out with friends and getting shitfaced, but compared to the manner in which Zorn chose to celebrate his 50th birthday that shit is tame. Instead of the usual festivities he book a month-long residence at New York's seminal Knitting Factory club and got together with a wide variety of ensembles to spend the month of his birthday reinventing his catalog in the best possible ways. Now, I haven't heard the rest of the releases that were spawned from this series, probably because the Electric Masada set was so overpoweringly great that i feared the rest of them would only suffer by comparison, but you can't deny that as far as concepts go that's one of the best kinds of celebration you could think up. Self-congratulatory? Sure, but when you're John Zorn you're allowed to be self-congratulatory.
Anyway, I think that outside of a cursory listen to Naked City and The Circle Maker, the Electric Masada set from that series was my first exposure to Zorn's catalogue, and as far as entry points for someone coming into this world from a very rock-centric world I couldn't have asked for a better one. Sure, Naked City was more "rock" in the proper sense, but a good half of the album was made up fo those trademark fragmented bursts of aggression that came from and went nowhere. I've come to appreciate tehm more with time, but when I first listened to 50th Birthday Celebration Vol. 4 it still only struck me as half a good album. This, on the other hand is 70 minutes of absolutely killer jazz-rock hybrids, complete with a 3-man percussion section, Marc Ribot on guitar (sounding nothing like he does on Tom Waits' albums) Trevor Dunn from Mr. Bungle on bass and Zorn letting loose as I'd never heard him do before and well integrated electronics and keyboards from Ikue Morie and Jamie Saft respectively. The performances are fierce, fiery and energetic, the interplay is without comparison, the songs are culled from Zorn's extensive Masada songbook so it's material all the players know well (half of the ensemble is part of the Bar Kokhba Sextet and drummer Joey Baron is part of the original Masada Quartet). The result is the most essential Zorn document I've heard even after a minor immersion in his other work (full immersion would require a lot more time since the dude's prolific enough for three of him).
In fact, I don't think I fully appreciated the quality of this until I familiarized myself with the other versions of these seven numbers. Now that I've listened through the original 10 Masada albums, plus Bar Kokhba, The Circle Maker and a few other Masada-based releases in Zorn's discography, and I can say without much hesitation that the performances of the song on here (and on the unit's subsequent outing At the Mountains of Madness) are my favorites. I can hear the originals shining through, but the intensity of these performances really puts them at the front of the line. "Idalah-Abal" never sounded this dark and menacing, "Tekufeh" never sounded as vital and energized, the closing trio of tracks here never sounded so earth-shatteringly monumental. You could argue that the performance of "Hadasha" is a bit meandering, and it is to some extent, but other than that the whole set is absolutely blistering, without much of a wasted moment in the whole works. And listening to the ridiculously talented percussion trio of Baron, Cyro Baptista and Kenny Wollensen at any point in the ordeal is worth the price of admission on its own.