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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!"

Fortunately, the musicians selected for the Binah sessions are a showcase of some of the best UK talent around—doing Zorn's music and Eastmond's arrangement justice. Alongside trusted long-term Eastmond collaborators like Moss Freed on guitar, are players like Noel Langley and Yazz Ahmed (whose collaboration on the latter's La Saboteuse deservedly made many best of 2017 lists) on trumpet and rising star Elliot Galvin on piano. Eastmond described the rhythm section of Galvin, Freed, Mark Lewandowski (double bass) and Will Glaser on drums as being "instantly like a family" and its clear that he genuinely values the contributions of all those involved. Indeed Galvin, Glaser and Freed are currently working with Eastmond on a quartet project that will also feature Otto Willberg who played bass on Cerberus. Eastmond's rationale for the approach is simple:

"As a trumpet player I am dealing with an instrument that most of the time you can only play one note on. When I've got a big band I can have all of the notes happening at the same time! How do I solve a problem that I would usually add three trumpet parts to, if I can only ask one trumpet player to do it? A lot of the time the answer to that is to get players like Noel, Yazz and George Hogg. The intensity of that many people in a room together who all have a common purpose but don't necessarily agree on how to get there, that's where it is interesting for me. We have to finish here but we can have a big argument about how we get there..."

Inevitably the large ensemble approach makes studio time even more precious and requires a borderline obsessional attention to detail if a budget is to be lived within:

"When you turn up to play on my records I have been working on this for months. I send the music out at least a month in advance. There cannot be a question from anyone at any point that I don't have the answer to—when you have three people and you're not sure then you can walk round there, when you have sixteen... Every day after a session I go back through the parts that musicians have had and where they have written stuff in pencil I put it in the score and I print out a new set of parts for the next day so that everything that they think is helpful that wasn't on their part IS on their part for next time. I do that with pieces that we are not going to play the next day, pieces that are finished that we have recorded. If you give me a budget I can be the most organised guy, I can deal with money, people, logistics—that's where I feel that I have the talent—as the leader of the group. But give me a shopping list and a list of jobs to do that aren't connected to music and I'm hopeless!"

To work like this with this level of intensity, the motivation needs to be deep and heartfelt. For Eastmond this comes from a spiritual realm and feeling of making connections to a cultural tradition from modern perspectives. He elaborates:

"The first note of the album has the shofar in the chord which was me making some connections—that journey from some little guy 3,000 years ago playing a shofar to me now playing trumpet. I play shofar in synagogue. Masada is radical new Jewish language, you're dealing with something that is very present in terms of Zorn's exploration of it, but it is Jewish music and Jewish music goes back 3,000 years. The scales and the modes that we use to do it, while not unique to Jewish culture they are ours without not being anyone elses, if that makes sense. It's all about making those connections and in music if you don't know what has gone before how can you ever have anything to say? It's like all those moments in Charles Mingus when he sounds like Jelly Roll Morton—this is not an accident, this is a connection to a tradition."

Yet it remains important to add to the tradition, to have a conversation with it at a macro level, in the same way that at micro level the ensemble works out a way to speak to each other within the parameters of the score. These conversations and connections add the unexpected, pushing the music further still. "My whole concept with the big band is to make a big band that isn't a big band. To take the big band beyond points where you think big bands can go—very much the conceptual approach that Zorn had for Naked City. Was it Stravinsky who said that 'everyone steals, steal from the best'? I like things that contrast, I like juxtapositions so with Masada when you are arranging something that melodically and structurally is all there it's about 'how can I treat this—how can I put this through seven or eight different things.' The way I approach arranging Zorn's stuff is that if I have used enough ideas that in most other situations would give me enough material for an album on one tune then I'm doing what I want to do with it... I like things that go from one thing to the next—there's nothing worse for me than when you go and see a concert or you get an album to listen to when you feel that you learned everything you needed to know in the first track."

Yet in the context of Masada continuing that dialogue the work needs to be balanced with the need to reflect Zorn's artistic vision, and not betray the evident trust that he has placed in Eastmond and his collaborators:

"Zorn is about community he's about family and he works with people that he knows and trusts. That space between sending him the tracks when they were finished and him listening to them are the most anxiety ridden hours or days of my life! The only review I care about is his, because this is his music. If I was sending him an album of my stuff that's a different thing, you've got to find ways to deal with that! He gives me trust and I try and repay that with not messing it up!"

If the three of Binah's nine tracks available at the time of our conversation are indicative of the quality of the full album then Eastmond and the Spike Orchestra have emphatically not messed up and repaid Zorn's trust with interest. Album opener "Levushim" is as audacious a blend of surf guitar, spy theme and jazz trumpet as has been heard in many a long year. Not only does it have the zip and filmic quality of, say, prime period Duke Ellington but there are also elements of late period Talkin' Loud stalwarts United Future Organisation, Eastmond's beloved surf guitar band the Astronauts and just a soupcon of John Zorn's Naked City. The difference to the genre playfulness of say United Future Organisation is that while both make unexpected connections between great yet diverse musics, Eastmond accomplishes this within the framework of big band jazz, not a sample collage lovingly stitched together with Ableton. In short the standard of the musicians assembled under the Spike Orchestra moniker lifts things to a new, higher, level.

"I try not to use the word jazz because it feels so constrictive and people put their own pre-conceptions on it. It's like when people say 'who are your influences' and they mean 'who do you sound like?.' The people who influence me are people that don't sound like the sound I make because everything that influences me goes in and comes out altogether."

If "Levushim" and "Damam" were a combination of boxing punches the listener would be on the floor—the latter providing a second exuberant high tempo punch straight after the first fades from earshot. The tempo drops on the more reflective "Shamayim" but if the quality of these three pieces is maintained across the Spike Orchestra's nie track contribution to the Book of Beriah box set then we can look forward to something very special indeed. All of this music has many levels of meaning. It can be enjoyed both at a purely sonic level, but there is more than enough to dig into should you have a deeper understanding of the Kabbalah. Eastmond explains:

"There's so much to it... Zorn as a person and as a musician is infinitely deep. Everything has layers and everything has meaning and I always assume that nothing Zorn has done is ever an accident or is there without a lot of thought... But at the same time its music and it has to exist on a purely sonic level and has to connect with you emotionally. If it only exists and works within those frameworks then, to me, it fails on some level."

Goodness knows what the genre purists will make of all this, but if the quality of the early previews is replicated across the whole collection the Spike Orchestra will have an album of the year in "Binah." The final word should be Eastmond's when asked how he would classify the music:

"It's language, its music but it's also everything! It's all such a whirl. A mystical realm and a spiritual realm—it's all of these things but at the end of the day it's just us talking. We're talking about love and energy and catharsis. The shorthand for all my arrangements is that we get together and have a hug. That's what it sounds like to me."

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