The Spike Orchestra – Cerberus (2015)

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Cerberus is the latest installment in the Angels series — part of the Masada project orchestrated by John Zorn with the considerable help of the deliriously talented Spike Orchestra. In 2004, John Zorn wrote over 300 tunes for his Masada project and Cerburus is from Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels, Vol. 26.

The Spike Orchestra’ Cerburus is a surprise on many levels. It combines elements and references to many of the great jazz musicians and bands of the past including Ellington, Zappa, Stalling and Zorn, yet it has a very distinctive identity, and one stamped on the project from the start.

With a massive big band opening, “Gehegial” assaults the senses with strong melodic undertones, overdriven by a rollicking tenor sax solo from Paul Booth culminating at one point with a delicious to and fro between brass and wind with a foot-tapping undercurrent as a distinct nod to the big bands sounds of the past. There are many brassy ensemble chords, tempered by interludes of drums and Latin beats. There is a touch of the big, brassy sounds of the ’60s orchestras here, tempered with a youthful cheekiness and energy. “Hakha” is the Spike Orchestra’s second track, and this works around a repeating chord sequence, one that taken, used, abused a little bit and worked upon until a guitar solo from Moss Freed guitar introduces a transition section into a marching, thumping beat which the orchestra uses to the full working up to a sax solo from Mike Wilkins — complete with over blowing which is one of the highlights of the album and transcends the “oompah” beat enforced by the rest of the orchestra.

“Hananiel” starts as a gentle, ’60s-esque mood piece and builds until becoming something so much more — a deep, full orchestral occasion with solos from Stewart Curtis on clarinet and Paul Booth tenor sax. “Lahal” is fun and includes lots of riffs worked over a counterpoint drum beat. The wood section leads with clarinets stating the tune, but the back-up from percussion and horns creates a conversation into which the vibraphonic sound of the keys of Sam Leak drops in and out. The track just keeps building, until a stonking tenor sax solo from Booth creates a free sounding section before the full orchestra are all in by the end.

“Armasa” is started with brass setting the soft, delicate tones, before the tenor sax of Paul Booth creates a light, comical, almost cartoon-esque riff which is repeated back, over the constancy of the rhythm section. That’s followed by an exquisite alto sax solo from Vasilis Xenopoulos, interspersed by big brassy chords. All is brought back to the main riff before the comedic motif is introduced again from the guitar. Then there is another sax solo before the motif is introduced again by the tenor to finish. It’s a brilliantly developed piece with structure and deep textures.

“Thronus” begins in epic style, developed by the brass section with much fanfare and noise before guitar and drums set up a conversation over which the various solos enter. Sam Eastmond takes a turn on trumpet, then there are saxes from Stewart Curtis, Paul Booth, Xenopoulos, Wilkins and Erica Clarke; and then Mike Guy on accordion. “Shinial” is an piece schlepped in Eastern promise with a delightful clarinet section underpinned by a Swiss oompah sounding grind from the brasses before a key section from Sam Leak introduces a whimsical feel, topped by trumpet and later drums. The tuba of Dave Powell delivers a short but enigmatic solo here.

“Donel” is a slightly more laid back event, with a wonderful, sleazy, loosely flowing trombone solo from Ashley Slater, then three trumpets of Noel Langley, Karen Straw and George Hogg exchange the tune before an absolute stealer of a solo from, echoing the theme from the alto sax of Mike Wilkins. A great, easy-to-listen-to number. The Spike Orchestra’s “Raguel” may prove more of a challenge, starting with a fugue of different instruments at once competing for primacy yet at the same time blending into what develops into an absolute delight. Brass feature heavily, but so do wood and guitar, underpinned by a consistent bass beat which keeps everything together. The final track “Pahadron” is deeper, darker and has a grinding, mesmeric beat set by bass, guitar and sax with solos from Sam Eastmond on trumpet, Nikki franklin on voice, Vasilis Xenopoulos on alto sax.

The Spike Orchestra’s Cerberus is an album which, with each play, you hear more layers, textures and colors. Initially, you hear the structure but with each listen you can hear more going on underneath — little interspersions of keys, brass and quietly thrumming bass, a little riff inserted before a solo, a quick flurry from percussion just to add another layer. Many of the tracks establish a strong theme, which works as the spine of the piece with members of the orchestra playing as parts of the whole. They are connected limbs of sound, working to forge one body, one gigantic structure which makes the benign monster that is Cerberus. It has elements of big bands, improvised sounds and is all about the essence of communication.

Cerberus is special, it makes you smile, it makes you laugh out loud at times because from nowhere comes a massive chord set. What makes this very special is the connection between members of the Spike Orchestra, the way everything works apart yet is drawn together like there is a connecting chord. Cerberus works; it works!

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