Why is Pat Metheny’s New Album Subtitled “The Book of Angels vol. 20”?

Tap - Book of Angels Vol. 20

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If you want to understand why Pat Metheny’s upcoming album is called “The Book of Angels, vol. 20,” follow me to downtown New York. Our story begins in the early 1990’s.

Tap - Book of Angels Vol. 20
Tap – Book of Angels Vol. 20

That’s when avant-garde composer John Zorn unknowingly started one of the most ambitious musical projects of our time by challenging himself to write 100 new tunes using traditional Jewish scales and rhythms. These hundred songs were done within a year, and Zorn went on to write an additional 100 melodies over the next two years. Just for fun.

He put together a band: drums, bass, trumpet, sax. This band—Masada—toured all over the world for years, using Zorn’s tunes as a base to improvise on.

Then, ten years later, Zorn decided to write another 100 tunes. This time, he’d write them in a single month.

Exactly according to plan, he wrote an average of three tunes per day. That in itself is amazing.

But once you start ripping out reams of original music like that, apparently it’s hard to slow down. Zorn didn’t plan to write 100 more tunes the next month, it just kinda… happened. Zorn also didn’t plan to write 100 more the month after that. Oops! You know how that goes. Try to write a mere 100 tunes, and you end up writing 300. What can ya do?

The Book of Angels

Zorn called this later batch of 300 songs “Masada Book Two,” also known as “The Book of Angels.” He’s been recruiting bands and ensembles to interpret, perform, and record these Masada songs for almost a decade now. Zorn’s Tzadik label has released nineteen Book of Angels entries from a variety of artists, including noise guitarist Marc Ribot and Medeski, Martin, & Wood.

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Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny has followed the Book of Angels series from the very beginning, and struck up an email correspondence with Zorn, who enthusiastically agreed that Pat should record a collection of Masada tunes.

So that’s why Metheny’s album Tap is subtitled “The Book of Angels vol. 20”. Metheny recorded the songs in his home studio over the course of a year, bringing in drummer Antonio Sanchez and playing all other instruments–including sitar, bandoneon, and flugelhorn–himself.

Metheny playing Zorn promises to be a devastating collision between two great musical minds. Pat’s no slouch himself—he’s racked up some twenty Grammy awards. Over the years, Pat’s creative restlessness and relentless focus have led him to mimic Wes Montgomery (as a teenager), pioneer alternate tunings for 12-string electric guitar in jazz, play 42-string harp guitars, and embrace guitar synths at a time when guitar synths weren’t embraced.

Tap drops on May 21st, released simultaneously through Tzadik records and Nonesuch. Don’t miss it.

In case you’re hungry to hear a page or two from the Book of Angels right now, check out any of the recordings listed below.

Ipos by The Dreamers (volume 14). Marc Ribot plays a mean surf guitar.
At the Mountains of Madness by Electric Masada. Noisy avant-garde improvisation. Warning: this album is not for the faint of heart.
Orobas, volume 4. Koby Israelite enters the fray with snarling guitars and blistering accordion. There’s also a recorder solo (?!) that will mess you up. I’m not joking.
Masada Guitars. Tim Sparks, Marc Ribot, and Bill Frisell play fingerstyle guitar arrangements of Masada tunes.
Asmodeus by Marc Ribot. Power trio! Noise guitar!

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Nicholas Tozier

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.

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Le Zornographe
9 years ago

At the Mountain of Madness and Masada Guitars ar not part of the Book of Angels serie. Unfortunately, Electric Masada didn’t record for that second book.

Reply to  Le Zornographe
9 years ago

You are right about that. What a shame, too–maybe it’s because Zorn sees Electric Masada as more of a live band?

Really liked the Masada Guitars album too. I’d love to hear more solo guitar interpretations of Zorn’s tunes.

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