AMN Reviews: Sam Eastmond / Spike Orchestra – Splintered Stories (2020; Tzadik)

Anyone who has been reading our reviews over the last ten years knows that we’ve been lauding the re-emergence of the “avant-garde big band” – a loose category that includes works from Darcy James Argue, Brian Krock, Anna Webber, Nathan Hubbard, Lauren Elizabeth Baba, Dan Weiss, and many others. Here we have another prime example, with Sam Eastmond leading his Spike Orchestra through a set of four pieces that explore musical spaces in multiple dimensions – instrumentation, textures, dynamics, and style.

I first heard Spike Orchestra as contributors to John Zorn’s recent Masada efforts, and certainly appreciated the group’s take on his compositions. But in Splintered Stories, we have an opportunity to point out where Eastmond is both similar and different.  Not unlike Zorn, Eastmond merges and blends styles, from free jazz to swing, rock to klezmer. This takes the form of heavy chording, marches, open-ended blowouts, as well as numerous powerful and distinct melodies that often overlap with one another. But Eastmond’s writing tends to tell stories and feature logical progressions that vary from Zorn’s approach.

Assisting Eastmond is an army of performers with emphasis on walls of horn and reed-based instruments, as well as electric guitar, piano, bass, and drums. Case in point, Matriarch Variations includes a baritone sax solo over horn and reed explorations that are both jagged and playful. Then the rhythm section cuts in to support a multiphonic set of soloing backed by wandering rhythms and themes. The piece finishes up with a classically-oriented and percussive piano solo before returning to one of its main motifs.

Hear & Now plays around with the Peter Gunn theme and variations thereof. Indeed, repeated listenings of Splintered Stories turns up a few other familiar-sounding breaks, though none that I could easily identify.  Nonetheless, these repeated listenings will be rewarding. There is a plethora of activity on this album that takes time to unpack. Well done.

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