Album reviews

‘John Zorn’s Bagatelles Vol 16’ – (Sam Eastmond)

Sam Eastmond John Zorn’s Bagatelles Vol 16
(Tzadik Records. Album review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

John Zorn’s Bagatelles Vol 16 consists of eight pieces arranged by Sam Eastmond and played by a 12-piece British band. 

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Sam Eastmond is a British composer and trumpeter who has worked closely with John Zorn since 2015, and has already brought out four albums on Zorn’s Tzadik label.  Eastmond has said that his relationship with Zorn has helped him understand and develop his identity both as a composer and as a member of the Jewish community. Zorn’s Book of Bagatelles consists of 300 original tunes, mostly based on 3-line melodies that are open for interpretation by musicians in many different ways.  Eastmond has chosen to arrange them for a 12-piece ensemble. 

He received the Book in January 2021 and sent Zorn a mixed album with the eight interpretations of Bagatelle tunes in November 2022.  In describing the process, Eastmond reports:I spent months with the whole book, immersing myself in Zorn’s new  language: sketching out ideas, searching for understanding  – adding counterpoints and bass lines, testing limits, extrapolating harmony, letting the tunes tell me how they work, what settings they fitted into and  fought against .The results are extremely impressive. 

The adjective that most comes to mind is ‘dramatic’; each arrangement moves rapidly from one mood to another, similarly from one texture to another.  It includes anarchic ensemble passages, other fiery ensemble passages that have the energy and drive of rock music, and a particular feature is the way that soloists are backed by very interesting and challenging textures from the ensemble.  The music also breaks down on occasions into duo or trio improvisation.The result is big band music that has a very distinct character, with neither a classic big band sound, nor a totally free approach to big band improvisation.  With its constant changes of mood and pace, it reminds one of Mingus’ writing for both small and large ensembles.

The eight tracks are played with both great energy and impressive precision by the ensemble that brings both established jazz players and some new names.  There are impressive solos by trumpeter Charlotte Keeffe, saxophonists Asha Parkinson, Emma Rawicz and Chris Williams, trombonist Joel Knee, pianist Olly Chalk, guitarist Moss Freed and bass player Fergus Quill.There are eight tracks, seven of which are just under 10 mins in length and one just over 10 mins.

Three tracks give a flavour of the music on the album:

  • Track 2 Bagatelle 78   The interpretation begins with an enigmatic ensemble passage with a hint of an anthem; then Charlotte Keeffe enters on trumpet and develops an extensive, rather spiky solo backed by exciting textures from the ensemble.  The solo gradually becomes free-er, but then the ensemble moves onto a more lyrical passage. a short duo passage between trumpet and guitar over the bass and drums follows before the ensemble returns to the more melodic mood. The trumpet and guitar duo returns briefly.  Then the mood shifts again with a heavy percussive brass sound into which Emma Rawicz enters on tenor saxophone.  The ensemble builds to a climax before winding down with a short gentler passage.
  • Track 4 Bagatelle 63: this begins with a blast on trumpet which leads into a short section in which Chris Williams on alto sax and Moss Freed play off each other; it then moves into a high octane, rock style ensemble passage which has a free blast from the whole ensemble with Williams’ alto sax interacting with the brass section. This leads into a bass solo by Fergus Quill, mostly bowed and backed by a repetitive rhythm which is subsequently augmented by the brass section.  Quill then switches to plucked bass before Chalk comes in with a freely improvised piano solo.  The brass section enters with a rather more traditional big band sound which in turn leads into a call and response passage between the brass and saxophone sections.  This builds up to a sudden climax.
  • Track 6 Bagatelle 198  This has another high energy, rock style start interspersed with short blasts from trombone, guitar and piano; this leads into a tenor sax solo by Asha Parkinson with a bubbling ensemble backing, which is picked up by Parkinson after a short interlude with a rather more percussive backing.    A lengthy trombone solo by Joel Knee follows with punchy ensemble backing ; the ensemble drops out and  leaves room for a duo passage between trombone and Moss Freed’s guitar who are later joined by piano and drums.  An atmospheric, mysterious ensemble passage leads into a raucous ensemble which builds to a sudden climax.

For the work of this British arranger working with a British ensemble involving young players from our scene to be issued on the prestigious Tzadik label in New York is an impressive achievement.

Release date 8 September 2023

PERSONNEL: Saxes: Chris Williams, Asha Parkinson, Emma Rawicz, Mick Foster
Trumpets – Noel Langley, Charlotte Keeffe
Trombone – Joel Knee 
Tuba – Tom Briers
Guitar – Moss Freed
Piano – Olly Chalk
Bass – Fergus Quill
Drums – Alasdair Pennington

LINKS: The ensemble will be playing this material at Cafe Oto in Dalston, London on Thursday 19 SeptemberDETAILS
John Zorn’s Bagatelles at Tzadik

Categories: Album reviews, Reviews

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