Sam Eastmond’s Brit-Ish
(JW3, 17 October 2019. Review by Daniel Marx)
John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture movement is rooted in a place. The Jewish culture of New York is well-defined and recognisable, and the potency of Radical Jewish Culture owes a lot to that environment. As both a follower of Zorn’s school of thought and a British Jew, composer Sam Eastmond’s challenge with the music, premiered last at JW3, by his two ensembles, Spike Orchestra and Gulgoleth, was to find a way to make RJC relevant to British Jewish life. While Eastmond’s music is clearly indebted to Zorn’s, his eclectic influences from surf rock to Mancini to the Marx brothers demonstrated a sense that while still in its early developmental stages, Eastmond is leading the way towards building a British variant on what Zorn began in New York.
Spike Orchestra, Eastman’s big band, featuring a number of rising jazz stars including trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, and guitarist Moss Freed, performed first, playing highlights from their recent Tzadik recording of John Zorn compositions, Binah. One rather immediate issue that became apparent was that the venue was not equipped to handle the sounds produced by an ensemble of this size and complexity. It was often difficult to hear what a given musician was playing due to how poorly the sound was balanced.
The sound quality, however, did not cause too much disruption to the enjoyment of the music itself. The stylistic quirks with which Eastmond approached Zorn’s compositions, such as the heavy surf rock feel on opening number Levushim, the propulsive tuba line and modern backbeat of Damam, and the use of unaccompanied saxophone quartet to open Kelim, breathed a great deal of freshness into the klezmer-influenced melodies of the compositions themselves.
All throughout Spike Orchestra’s first set of the evening, Eastmond stood at the front leading the band in what can only be described as half conducting, half taking it all in. When the time came for Spike Orchestra to exit the stage, leaving only the group’s rhythm section for a performance of Eastmond’s new project, Gulgoleth, the man brought out a chair and sat, still facing the band, right up close to bassist Otto Willberg. He gave off an impression that he was just watching the musicians in awe, as they performed his music, but assertive hand motions as the music commenced communicated that he was still very much in control of the process.
Gulgoleth was comprised of guitarist Moss Freed, bassist Otto Willberg, drummer Will Glaser and special guest, Alexander Hawkins on piano (subbing in for Elliot Galvin who featured on the new album). Eastmond said that this music was “pretty raw and very personal”, a quality that came across in how heavy and dissonant a lot of it was. Their first tune, ‘Zombie Love’, took a lot of stylistic cues from djent, with its relentless drumming, angular melodies, and percussive, distorted guitar accompaniment. Layered-in moments of free improvisation kept listeners on their toes, particularly as the transitions between composed moments and totally improvised ones came about intentionally abruptly. Hawkins shone on Buzzard Soup (Eastmond’s tribute to the Marx Brothers) with an extended piano solo that became increasingly deranged as the piece progressed.
The concert closed out with a suite of brand-new compositions commissioned by JW3 and PRS for this event, entitled Brit-ish. The compositions attempted to portray a number of different British Jewish experiences, inspired by interviews with a wide variety of British Jews, and accompanied by live visual interpretations by artist Miki Shaw. Part two, Matriarch Variations, influenced by the inspiring women in Eastmond’s life, was a highlight beginning once again with saxophone quartet, slowly building towards an astonishing surf rock cacophony, before disintegrating into free improvised sensory overload. Part 3, ‘Here & Now’, dealt with experiences of antisemitism, moving away from the klezmer stylistic tinge, and into a 70s cop show villain-esque milieu. The final piece of the event, Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Slayers, featured the heaviest drumming of the night as well as a collective improvisation from all four saxophonists; a textured, impressive number on which to finish, which reminded the room of the heavy influence of John Zorn.
Subtlety of influence may not have been a focus of the evening, but the mere existence of this music, and how deftly and joyfully it was performed, is a significant indication that Eastmond is shepherding in the beginnings of a British Radical Jewish Culture.
Categories: Live review