CD REVIEW: The Spike Orchestra - Cerberus, Book of Angels Volume 26 by John Zorn

The Spike Orchestra -   Cerberus, Book of Angels Volume 26 by John Zorn
(Tzadik TZ 8338. CD Review by Peter Slavid)

John Zorn has always been a fascinating and polarizing character. I’ve been a fan since many years ago when I saw him do a solo set at the old Knitting Factory in New York. Since when I’ve loved his Masada groups and hated his improve sessions with Lou Reed. As a composer he is bizarrely prolific across jazz, films, klezmer, rock and several other genres.

He wrote his first Masada book of 200 tunes during the 1990s. All the tracks were named after angels; and the themes included a lot of references exploring Zorn’s Jewish heritage. There were 10 albums all performed by his own very fine Masada band.

The second Masada book contained 300 tunes and was written in a single year. The first 25 volumes of those compositions have all been performed by other artists. Which brings us to Cerberus, Book of Angels Volume 26 performed here by London’s Spike Orchestra. They are in exalted company with earlier volumes having been recorded by, amongst others, Uri Caine, Pat Metheny, and Medeski, Martin and Wood.

It should be said that Zorn’s compositions can range from cheesy sounding film themes to klezmer to avant-garde jazz to rock. What they seem to have in common is the ability to bring out the best in arrangers and improvisers.

The Spike Orchestra is the brainchild of composers Sam Eastmond and Nikki Franklin, and it’s a large 18-piece band featuring a host of talented improvisers. Their previous album Ghetto introduced the band, and featured smaller groups as well. Clearly it’s combination of musicality and subject matter was enough to persuade John Zorn to give them this unique chance to record a big-band version of Masada.

So - this is The Spike Orchestra’s version – John Zorn from a full on big-band with some delicious arrangements of ten tunes – named after ten angels.

The arrangements are characterised by very crisp riffs, sometimes in broken rhythms, and strong pulsing bass lines including some nice use of baritone sax and tuba. It’s very melodic and accessible music. A few tracks are overtly klezmer in style, others more reminiscent of classic modern big-bands – think Carla Bley with a hint of Loose Tubes. The arrangements give lots of scope to the excellent soloists but there are too many to single out.

In the end the stars here aren’t the soloists, good though they are. This is an ensemble piece with the musicians, the arrangements and the tunes all in sync.

I do hope we are going to have an opportunity to this performed live fairly soon – meanwhile the CD, which is available from the Spike Orchestra website, has gone straight into my “Best of the Year” selection.

Peter Slavid presents a radio show of European jazz available at

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