Koby Israelite – Orobas: Book of Angels, Vol. 4

Koby Israelite
Orobas: Book of Angels, Vol. 4

The chance to record songs taken from the Masada songbook is like a badge of honor in certain musical cliques. Penned by John Zorn, Masada songs are often hugely complex, beautifully lyrical, and a nightmare to play for an inexperienced musician. Based on both traditional Jewish scales and the reckless abandon of Coleman-style free-jazz, the songs from the Masada songbooks are used as semi-improvisational templates and are a testament to Zorn’s prolific composition skills and to the talent of those he keeps in his close circles. Originally written for the Masada quartet, pages from the songbooks soon found places on the music stands of countless side projects and undertakings: Electric Masada, Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba Sextet, Masada Guitars, The Unknown Masada, etc.

Toward the end of 2004, Zorn penned nearly 300 new tracks for the Masada song series, and, rather than unleashing them using one of his innumerable ensembles, Zorn decided to hand them over to select Tzadik artists to interpret in their own individual ways. The first three volumes of this Book of Angels series found the Jamie Saft Trio, Masada String Trio, and Mark Feldman all trying their hand at Zorn’s compositions. For the fourth installation, Zorn turned things over to Tel Aviv-born and UK-based Koby Israelite, hand picking eight tunes for the young multi-instrumentalist to tackle. Israelite was prepared for the task, and with Orobas: Book of Angels, Vol. 4, he has summoned the height of his abilities to answer Zorn’s call.

Having previously released two albums on Tzadik, it is impressive how much the songs on Orobas are steeped in Israelite’s signature accordion-heavy sound. It seems as though Zorn’s musical genius is just what Israelite needed to fully come out of his shell. Though Israelite’s own work is by no means sub-par, the intense and complex nature of Zorn’s compositions test his musical abilities in a way he perhaps has been afraid to test himself. Never before have Israelite’s performances on any one of the slew of instruments in his arsenal been so breathtaking and spellbinding, and never before have all of Israelite’s favorite influences and genres meshed into such a cohesive and consistently entertaining album. Israelite brings all of the usual constituents of his unique musical brew to Orobas: classical piano, jazz drumming, metal riffage, and a dash of klezmer chutzpa.

The klezmer descriptor is perhaps the most important. It is this traditional Jewish influence that calls for the dusting off of the accordion, one of the key instruments in Israelite’s sound. Though originally a pianist and next a drummer, the man is a god on the accordion. Perhaps one of the most universally awkward instruments aside from the bagpipes, it’s a little humbling to hear how beautiful Israelite’s accordion solos are. That’s right: accordion solos. Lots of them, and in true Zorn-inspired fashion: spiraling, twirling, nightmarish sequences of notes that must be nearly impossible to remember, let alone play without flaw. Tracks like “Zafiel” and “Nisroc” feature marathon runs on the accordion like one wouldn’t think was possible, revealing the instrument to be both commanding and beautiful in the hands of someone who truly understands its strengths and limitations and is willing to push it into musical realms usually thought to be outside its range.

Elsewhere, Israelite injects his love for another genre: metal. The aforementioned “Zafiel” and songs such as “Khabiel” feature crunching guitar and rapid-fire blastbeats, oscillating between delicate piano and accordion musings and huge, Devin Townsend-style guitar riffing. It’s actually amazing how well Israelite can jump between the two in the same song, the transitions rarely jarring and usually with just enough flair to incite sharp exhalations and slowly spreading grins. While all of the songs don’t break out into balls-to-the-wall rocking, each has its own particularly intense or upbeat moments, and this constant swaying from loud to soft, hamfisted to fingerpicked, creates a consistent level of excitement throughout the album’s duration. It is only at the very end, with closing track “Rachmiel,” that Israelite seems to lose steam, locking into a mellow groove that doesn’t seem to fully develop and is, dare I say, almost boring.

Orobas proves that Koby Israelite deserves whatever piece of the Zorn legacy he can grab for himself. By making Zorn’s songs sound so much like his own, Israelite has illustrated his masterful command over his own musical vision as well as his ability to use his talents when tackling some of the most difficult music written by another musician. Any fans of Zorn’s Masada series, or even his infamous Naked City line-up, would be doing themselves a disfavor by ignoring Orobas. It may say John Zorn’s name on the spine on the album, but once Israelite plugs in/straps on/sits down, you’ll be hard pressed to utter anything other than: “Koby…holy shit.”