Last night we enjoyed a celebration of Charlie Parker with Gilad Atzmon at the Philharmonic’s Rodewald Suite.  The event was part of this year’s Writing on the Wall festival. Martin Smith narrated the story of Parker’s life and the music was brilliantly brought to life by Gilad Atzmon with Frank Harrison on piano.

Martin Smith is the author of John Coltrane: Jazz, Racism & Resistance, while Gilad Atzmon was raised as a secular Jew in Israel. He served his compulsory military service at the time of the Lebanon war (1982), an event that made him very sceptical about Zionism and Israeli politics. Ten years later he fled his native country with a no-return ticket. In the UK he studied Philosophy but after graduation chose a musical rather than an academic career (he played with Ian Drury as one of the Blockheads). He lives in London and considers himself an exile.

Bird was the man who made me into a jazz lover.  Jazz is freedom in its making. It is both a call for liberation as well as a challenge of one’s personal boundaries. Playing jazz is the aim to free oneself while knowing that this will never happen.

In particular, explained Atzmon, it was Charlie Parker’s album with strings that was the record that persuaded him to become a jazz musician.

charlie-parker-with-strings
Charlie Parker with strings

At half time bought his latest album, Refuge, and had it autographed. Drawing on jazz, electronica, Arabic music and the sounds of the city, the new album is a potent melting pot of 21st-century sounds taking the listener to a space beyond words. Shifting from jazz noir and Arabic flavoured grooves to heavy metal bebop it’s music for the heart and the head and is the sound of a band running full steam into the future. It features Gilad Atzmon saxophones, clarinet and electronics, Frank Harrison keyboards and electronics, Yaron Stavi double & electric bass and Asaf Sirkis drums.

When I founded the Orient House Ensemble in 2000, I had just a few tunes in mind, but I also had a great belief. I was sure that music was capable of bringing people together. I was totally convinced that music could heal the wounds of the past. I was sure that music was a message of peace. I was confident that if rivals could make it into a song, they can easily learn to live together. Eight years later, I must admit that I may have got it wrong. This is our fifth album. We have performed hundreds of concerts around the world and somehow peace is nowhere near. Every other day a new conflict comes to life. Once a week, a newly born fear is shaped into a sinister agenda wrapped in an image of Western goodness. As far as my homeland is concerned, peace has never looked so far away. The world is indeed becoming more and more hostile. Yet, we, the Orient House Ensemble, have done something, a thing that has very little cosmic significance. We have learned to sing together. We didn’t plan to learn, we didn’t educate ourselves. It just grew on us. Over the years our personal fears faded away. Our insecurities melted down. Without realising it, our music made it into a language with some very personal shapes and colours. Music has become our refuge. I was wrong regarding music as messenger. I was wrong referring to music as an idea or ideology. Music is not a messenger, it is actually the message. Music doesn’t belong to man. It is the other way around, man belongs to music. Music speaks itself through man. Music comes into play when thoughts pass away, consciousness disintegrates and ideologies implode. Music is the true Being in Time. Just give it time and let it be. Enjoy Yourself. Gilad Atzmon

Gilad has, it seems, two reputations: one as a musician whose work blending jazz with eastern Mediterranean sounds, is gaining a growing reputation; the other as a political polemicist.  The two are brought together in this very good piece by Jim Gilchrist in The Scotsman:

The melancholy yearning which informs much of Refuge, the current album from self-exiled Israeli musician Gilad Atzmon and his Orient House Ensemble (OHE), in between some powerfully surging, all-out jazz, is what you might expect from a musician so passionately, not to mention controversially, preoccupied with the plight of the Palestinian people. Such moments of mournful beauty include the introduction to the album’s longest track, The Burning Bush, when this consummate reedsman sounds on sax as if he’s blowing some plangent folk clarinet – a duduk or a zurna or such like. In contrast, Spring In New York rumbles along belligerently, Atzmon’s sax squalling over jangling keyboards in a manner reminiscent of Weather Report, who, he says, were once an inspiration, while Burning Bush itself accelerates between sampled mutterings and cries into a wild and dance-like climax – Middle-Eastern bebop.

Atzmon and the Ensemble (Frank Harrison, piano, Yaron Stavi, bass and Asaf Sirkis, drums), who won a 2003 Radio 3 Best Album award for their album Rearranging the 20th Century, pick up glowing reviews for their live performances, as audiences can hear for themselves next Wednesday and Thursday, when they play Edinburgh and Aberdeen respectively. Apart from his OHE activities, Atzmon has recently been playing with and producing the emerging London jazz vocalist Sarah Gillespie, and has also played with the powerful Palestinian singer Reem Kelani (who plays the CCA, Glasgow, on Friday), while an eclectic career over the years has seen him associated with Robert Wyatt, Sinéad O’Connor and Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

Born in Israel in 1963 but living in self-imposed exile in London for the past 14 years, Atzmon, who is also an author and music educator, prefers these days to describe himself as “a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian”, and if his eclectically inclusive music prompts rave reports, his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his intensely anti-Zionist polemic have provoked outrage, not least among some other anti-Zionists, and he has been condemned as an anti-semite and even a Holocaust denier.

Ask him about such claims and he sounds cheerfully, indeed pugilistically, unrepentant. He refutes accusations of Holocaust denial – although elsewhere he has described his attitude to that human catastrophe as “complicated”, arguing that it should treated as historical fact rather that what he described as “religious myth”. So far as being labelled in some quarters as a “self-hating Jew”, he responds: “Self-hating Jew is almost correct. I would say a proud self-hating Jew,” and continues, unabashed, “I would remind you that great thoughts have been contributed by Jews who were self-hating – Christ, or Marx, or Spinoza… whenever you come across a mega-Jewish thinker, there’s always this element of anger against oneself.

“It’s true that I manage to enrage quite a few political Jews,” he chuckles, “and I’m not sorry that I did. At the end of the day my argument is simply that Israel defines itself with the Jewish faith. If this is the case, considering the crimes committed in the name of this faith. It is our duty to ask who are the Jews, what is Judaism and what is Jewishness?

“Let’s get some things very clear. I never attack Jews, I hardly criticise Judaism – I never criticise people for their beliefs. But I can criticise conduct.”

His attitude stems from his period of national service with the Israeli army during the 1982 conflict in Lebanon: “Watching my people destroying other people left a big scar. That was when I realised I was completely deluded about Zionism.” Hence his condemnation of Jewishness as “very much a supremacist, racist tendency”. But an anti-semite? “Considering the fact that I’m from Israel, my wife is Jewish and I have three Jews in my band, am I an anti-semite? Naaaw… that just doesn’t work.”

He agrees, however that he has, in effect renounced his Jewish identity, although, he adds, he grew up in a secular Jewish environment: “So I’m probably very loud and rude at times. You can take the Jew out of Israel but you cannot take Israel out of the Jew.”

Discoursing further on this fraught identity, he says that most of his late work, including his music, is very “self-reflective”: “When I criticise the Jews, in many cases I’m criticising myself. When I say that I’m a proud self-hater, I really mean it. But I don’t have anything against Jews in particular and you won’t find that in my writings.”

Confused? Angry? Best return, perhaps, to his music in which, with its mercurial swerving between the poignant and the wildly impassioned, one is tempted to detect something more conciliatory. In his sleeve notes to Refuge, he states that when he founded the OHE in 2000, he did so in the belief that music could bring people together. “I was totally convinced,” he writes, “that music could heal the wounds of the past. I was sure that music was a message of peace… Eight years later, I must admit I may have got it wrong.” Music, he concludes is the message.

Is he disillusioned, then? “Not really,” he tells me. “I now realise that music is much too important to give to a political cause. It can serve a political cause, but it is really very effective when the listener is manipulated by it, without any intended intervention. We are playing music for the Palestinian cause, but you can feel for the Palestinian people without me telling you what you’re supposed to feel.”

Gilad Atzmon and the OHE presenting Refuge at Pizza Express (part 1)

Gilad Atzmon and the OHE presenting Refuge at Pizza Express (part 2)

Gilad Atzmon and the OHE presenting Refuge at Pizza Express (part 3)

I found an interesting essay, Politics and Jazz, by Gilad Atzmon, which contains the following thoughts:

When bebop was born, it was the voice of black America. Black Americans were calling for freedom, and jazz expressed it better than mere words. Charlie “Bird” Parker played Now’s the Time, insisting the moment was right for social change. Charles Mingus composed Fable of Faubus (1959) in response to Orval Faubus’s racism as governor of Arkansas. John Coltrane recorded Alabama after four black girls died in the Birmingham church bombing. When Martin Luther King started his campaign for civil rights, the American jazz community, white and black, stood right behind him. Not only was jazz aiming for freedom; the music itself was a real-time exercise in human liberation, as performers reinvented themselves night after night. It was hardly surprising that they became symbols of the black civil rights campaign. Coltrane, whose music was deeply rooted in African culture, became a hero of the civil rights movement in America and around the world.

It didn’t take long for America’s white elite to realise that jazz endangered their hegemony, and that jazz and America represented opposing ideologies. While the American ethos is traditionally presented as a celebration of civil freedom, jazz, as it appeared in the late 1950s, laid bare crucial flaws in the American dream. Not only did it expose the fundamental injustice within the capitalistic system; it also valued beauty far higher than money. This was foreign to the American way of thinking.

After the second world war, jazz became hugely popular in western Europe, and jazz giants such as Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon were treated as major cultural figures. At home, those very legends had to enter jazz clubs via back entrances, because the front ones were for the white clients.

So jazz became the cultural ambassador of the American civil rights movement – a fact that was highly embarrassing for the establishment, already presenting itself as the leader of the “free” and “democratic” world. Since America’s main motivation at the time was to convince the world that Coca-Cola was the only way forward, jazz was clearly in the way. It was anti-American. It revealed the relentless and abusive face of hard capitalism.

For the white bourgeoisie, jazz became a problem that had to be addressed. Its political and philosophical message was about to be crushed. The best way to beat a resentful rival is to integrate it into your system – so Voice of America, the government’s broadcaster, adopted jazz as its own and transmitted it to the world. Black Americans became simply Americans, and jazz ceased to be subversive. It wasn’t long before black Americans were found qualified enough to die en masse in Vietnam.

Soon after their alleged “liberation”, black Americans lost interest in their own revolutionary music. Jazz was no longer the black American call for freedom, but a white middle-class adventure. It was transformed from a vivid, authentic and socially motivated artform into an academic exercise. In the 1970s, more and more colleges launched jazz courses as if jazz were a form of knowledge, rather than spirit…

Sadly, jazz isn’t a subversive art form any more… Jazz’s spiritual and political message is almost defeated…

I refuse to view jazz as a technical adventure. It isn’t about the speed with which I move my fingers or the complexity of my rhythmic figures. I insist that jazz is a form not of knowledge but of spirit. Jazz is a world view, an innovative form of resistance. For me, to play jazz is to fight the BBS (Bush, Blair and Sharon) world order, to aim towards liberation while knowing you may never get there, to fight the new American colonialism. To say what I believe in, to campaign for the liberation of my Palestinian and Iraqi brothers. To play jazz is to suggest an alternative reality, to reinvent myself, to be ready to do it till the bitter end.

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