Life & Culture

Meet the composer whose music is avant garde and very Jewish

Sam Eastmond’s expansive music fuses various genres


For so many creatives, there’s a moment of revelation that paves the way for their own artistic endeavour. And for Sam Eastmond, that moment was hearing the genre-defying American Jewish composer John Zorn’s Masada album. It set him on a journey of discovery, both musical and personal.

“That changed my life,” says Eastmond, sitting in front of an impressively large CD collection at his west London home. “It changed what I wanted to do with music, how I heard music. The idea of something so defiantly Jewish, and looking forward, not backwards, meant a lot to me at a time when I was younger and struggling with what I wanted to do with my life in music.”

Eastmond, 43, didn’t listen to much Jewish music when he was growing up. Instead, he listened to jazz and pop. He loved Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, and still feels connected to their music.

“But I have a different heritage,” he sighs. “It felt like I had an existence as a musician on one hand, and as a Jew on the other hand, and they didn’t really meet.”

The composer and trumpeter longed for his work to reflect all of the facets that form his identity. However, he had never identified with klezmer, the retrospective music from the eastern European stetl — and the Jewish genre favoured on London’s scene. And anyway, from a practical perspective, since he’s not a folk musician, klezmer is not an option.

But, over in New York, where Zorn reigns over the Radical Jewish avant garde movement, Jewish musical culture is forward-looking. So when Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture series “exploded into” his life,  Eastmond finally felt he had found a Jewish music made just for him. And it showed him how his musical and Jewish identities could finally merge.

He can recall the seismic day that he heard both Zorn’s Masada and Naked City albums for the first time. “It was absolutely instant, absolutely visceral,” he says, the excitement evident many years later. “It blew my mind. It was like throwing a hand grenade in a fishbowl. The opening salvo on Masada absolutely changed me because I knew it was Jewish music, but I’d never heard anything like it.”

To his utter delight, Eastmond has since become Zorn’s trusted interpreter of his work. Since 2015, he has made four albums of Zorn’s compositions. His latest release is from a selection of Zorn’s 300 pieces: Book of Bagatelles. When Zorn calls to commission him to make a new album, it’s with the pressure-inducing statement: this one has to be better than the last. Eastmond relishes the challenge. “If I haven’t learned anything in a year or two years,” he surmises, “why am I making another album?”

And this album was even more of a celebration, given that its release falls in Zorn’s 70th birthday month. Shaking you into submission with its big-band energy and intricate ostinati, and confronting you with emotional forces spanning love, anger and catharsis, Eastmond’s Bagatelles delivers on Zorn’s stipulation.

Since, he says, any one of Zorn’s tunes can carry the same amount of ideas that most people would put on an album, Bagatelles is constantly shifting. Arranged for 12 musicians, it showcases Eastmond’s complex yet intoxicating polystylistic arrangements fusing jazz, improvisation and avant-rock.

A conversation with Eastmond morphs from topic to topic, anecdote to analogy — a mirror, in a way, of his expansive music.

“I’m not very directional,” he warns, before we cover the importance of heritage, big band’s lack of diversity, antisemitism, lockdown (“I was a pretty dark place”), and, of course, music.

His hand-picked ensemble features creative musicians from across Europe as well as “exciting” young rising stars from the UK, some of whom he met at a Masada project with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. He also enlisted the veteran trumpeter Noel Langley, who is as vital for his music-playing as for diffusing stress in their rehearsals and recording sessions. “He looks after the band when I’m pushing them hard, and tells me we should take a break — because it’s intense, I’m intense, and it’s a hard environment to work in.” There’s pressure to record an album in just one day when you’re employing this many musicians, he explains.

How would Eastmond describe himself in the sessions? “I’m a very benign dictator,” he says with a smile. While he begins sessions with a strong sense of how it will sound at the end, “no one else does. So it’s a different journey of discovery for them. Most of my job is just keeping everyone rowing in the same direction.” When the “monstrously brilliant” musicians do bring his vision to life, it’s “magic”.

A typical thought process, he explains, could be injecting some Sixties noir into a groove, before shifting into a surf dream sequence, or an avant garde moment, and an imagined deserted house. Or the section that he labelled “lagoons”. “I think very visually,” he says. “We talked about what I thought the lagoon looked like, and it should sound like that.”

The lagoons were inspired by the 1963 experimental film project Normal Love; he takes his visual inspiration from cinema, and comic books. “Cinema has more of an impact on me than photography because stories are what really excites me.”

Eastmond had also been bingeing on horror films – a run that included 1922’s Nosferatu, 1931’s Frankenstein and 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. “That seeped into it. That idea of overly dramatic, trying to put the story in your ears as well as in front of your eyes.”

What he would like to do is blow up stills from the films and hang them around the studio while they record, but he doesn’t have the budget. While he fully admits to his choice of big bands as a medium being “economically insane”, the composer wouldn’t have it any other way. “Large ensembles excite me. My love is large ensembles and getting to be in a room with them, getting to create a world of big bands that aren’t old men dressed like accountants.”

The conversation turns to the lack of diversity in big bands, most obviously the lack of women. Most of those he has played in were populated by men in their sixties. “My heart sinks every time I see a big band and I don’t see any women. I think that’s outrageous. It’s still a predominantly male world.”

He continues: “We live in a society enriched by our differences. My bands need to reflect that if they’re going to reflect the things that I’m writing about. And we’re not playing repertory music. We’re not breathing life into something that’s already been written and has a history. We’re creating new things.”

For his ensemble, he actively sought out excellent musicians. “No one gets onto any of my records unless they inspire me,” he says, stressing that there is no tokenism. “The women on this record are there because they are awesome. But it wouldn’t occur to me to book a band that was all men. And it would look wrong.

“It looks wrong when I see other people do it. There’s an element of machismo in big-band playing, especially in brass sections. But that’s true in music.” You only have to look at male-heavy festival headliners, and the Keychange gender equality pledge, to see that the issue extends throughout the music industry. That orchestras tend to have better representation is because so many now do blind auditions. But the diversity issue is not just about gender. “I’ve been a part of bands that were old, male, white, where I was the secret minority,” he says. “Jew”.

Indeed, before he established his own Spike Orchestra, he had been playing and working in big bands and with other composer collectives, trying to fit Jewish elements into what he was doing “with varying levels of distrust, suspicion and hostility from people I was working with”, he says. “Everyone was always like, ‘Why?’” He breaks off to tell a story of when Zorn and clarinettist Ben Goldberg were playing music with some jazz artists in the Nineties — jazz, rock, pop, improv… but nothing Jewish. “There are many reasons for that,” says Eastmond. “That’s linked to the wave of Jewish immigration and assimilation in the States and when it happened. There are all kinds of reasons why all the Jewish acts we know from the Golden Age didn’t have Jewish names.”

He experienced a microcosm of that when he himself started trying to introduce Jewish sounds. “That really didn’t go down well. Something I wrote that was not in any way Jewish everyone would love and think was edgy and cool. But every time I did something Jewish, it wasn’t exciting to them.”

Bagatelles, he says, could be made only at this point in his career, because it’s the combination of everything he has learnt in music to this date. Zorn gave him the concept of a heritage that stretches forward but doesn’t look back, and Bagatelles is Eastmond fulfilling that challenge to create a sound that could only exist now. It is, therefore, a defining moment.

“So much of what we talk about as Jews is what has happened and what has been,” he says. “We are moving towards Yom Kippur and I absolutely value that. One of the things I get out of shul is knowing that the words I’m saying are the same words my grandfather said and the same words his father said. That connection is important to me, and that rooting and that idea of identity and who I am, because it is a part of me."

He adds: "Jewishness is about what we think. But antisemitism is only ever about what antisemites think, and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do; if you are a Jew, that is enough. As an artist, it’s important to be a part of things in my own way. Part of what Zorn gave me was the idea of a heritage that is yet to come. The traditions that we have yet to make.”

The Bagatelles Vol.16 is out now on Tzadik Records. Sam Eastmond plays Cafe Oto on September 19

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