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The Spike Orchestra and John Zorn's "The Book Beriah"

The Spike Orchestra and John Zorn's "The Book Beriah"
Phil Barnes By

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Sam Eastmond is the composer, arranger, and trumpet player best known for his work as bandleader and co-founder of the Spike Orchestra. That UK based large ensemble has released two studio albums to date, Ghetto on their own label followed by Cerberus as part of a collaboration with the legendary John Zorn on his Masada Book Two project.

Great though Ghetto was, Cerberus has proved to be the more significant both in terms of creative development to date and the connection to Zorn that has led to their imminent third album Binah. That collection marks another step forward in the development of the Spike Orchestra sound and is due to be released as part of a lavish eleven-CD box set of the great man's third and final book of Masada compositions The Book Beriah. At the time of writing, only a handful of the ninety-two compositions that make up Beriah were available for preview, yet even the most cursory glance at the featured artists confirms that this is shaping up to be a major event. Any collection of new unreleased compositions from John Zorn performed by high-profile contributors that include talents of the level of Bill Frisell, Jon Madof, Craig Taborn and Zorn himself at the very least deserves our attention.

Yet unlike those esteemed artists, Eastmond calls West London home and, unless large ensemble radical Jewish culture pays rather better than I suspect, does not divide his time there with composing in a loft in Brooklyn. Similarly, the floating pool of musicians that make up the Spike Orchestra are also very much UK based, reflecting the often unappreciated and undervalued depth of talent in the national scene at present. So how did the link to New York avant-jazz royalty come about? The answer is almost too straightforward for words—Eastmond simply sent a copy of the Ghetto CD to John Zorn who not only heard it and liked it, but contacted him to say so. One can only guess at the amount of unsolicited music that Mr Zorn must receive, but it is testament to both the importance that he gives to encouraging the like-minded within the musical community, and the quality of the entirely self-financed Ghetto, that it got his attention. Perhaps he also picked up on the deep, multi-layered inspiration and sincere affection that Eastmond has drawn from Zorn's music, as Eastmond explained:

"Ghetto would never have happened without Masada... Ghetto existed in a world where I was a huge Zorn fan but had never spoken to him, never met him. I'd seen him play of course—but Zorn's radical Jewish culture ideas and language made it possible for me to conceptualize an idea of how to link up that sense of Jewish identity in a contemporary way. This is someone who has loomed large over everything I've listened to and written for decades. To even have got this far is amazing. To even have him just send me an e-mail to say 'I really dig Ghetto' is amazing."

Ghetto was the start of a conversation that led to Zorn asking the Spike Orchestra to produce the Cerberus album for Masada Book Two—an album that, if anything, topped Ghetto with its verve, energy and excitement in performance showcasing what we lose when we allow economics to dictate the creative choice of the small ensemble over a modernised big band format. Cerberus was the sound of a great arranger seizing an opportunity, pushing himself to better his previous work and in so doing realising just what was possible, what he was capable of. Three years on, Eastmond, unsurprisingly, reflects on that collection as having been a learning experience:

"Cereberus was tough, flipping between being a fan to being involved in it. Finding that line between the respect and reverence that the music needs and deserves, and also being able to pull things out of it, take it apart a little bit. It was experimentation and also it was collaborative, trying things, trying to make things work... [I learned that] trying to impose control when you'll get a better musical outcome from trusting the people that you have booked is a mistake. There are moments in the scores where I could have just gone 'yeah let's have more space here, let's have these people talk' ."

Jump cut to summer 2017 and Zorn came calling again—this time with both good news and bad. The good—that he wanted the Spike Orchestra to contribute to the Masada Book Three box set, the bad that the contribution had to be arranged and recorded in two and a half months due to the original planned release date of late 2017. Rather than fold, Eastmond and his collaborators rose to the challenge.

"This time round I got nine tunes on the e-mail, then we skyped and he played me a track from everyone else's album and said ..."yours has got to sit with that and it's got to be better than the last thing you did, because if it is not better than the last thing you did then what's the point...." I had a fortnight to arrange the album before I needed to start sending the music out to the players. So I sat at the computer every morning at 7 am, I stopped at 6 pm to make dinner for my wife and then went back to work until at least midnight and pretty much did an arrangement a day."

The deadline, in particular, was a complicating factor because Eastmond prefers to work by writing for the musicians who will play on the session—even with a longer lead time getting the blend of musicians right can be difficult both in terms of the availability of talent but also the emotional intelligence to gel with the rest of the unit. Eastmond explains:

"I'm not an abstract writer I don't write for a concept of a big band. I write for people whose voices excite and inspire me, not only for what they can do musically but who you know how to work with, that you can trust. Composition and arranging is all about solving problems—when I arrange I'm trying to give the musicians that I am working with problems that they can solve with their language. Things to overcome, things to come round. So when I'm writing my two instinctive reactions to any problems are to write more and to add more people and this is not a commercial standpoint!"
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