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

Phil Barnes By

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"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:


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