The mercurial Gilad Atzmon has a new project, its purpose defined on the sleeve of his new CD as being ‘to revive the dwindling and complacent British jazz audience.’ At the Band on the Wall in Manchester last week a much-revived and expansive audience were treated to the result: an evening of straight-ahead jazz and lively on-stage banter.
The banter ricocheted between two stalwarts of the British jazz scene: Atzmon, no slouch in the motormouth department, and fellow saxophonist Alan Barnes who was once described as playing ‘music that was radical 50 years ago – hard, urban post-bop’ but infusing it with ‘so much passion and energy you could believe it was minted on the spot.’ With the sterling support from Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on double bass and Chris Higginbottom on drums the pair led an evening of superb music that bore the name of The Lowest Common Denominator.
They opened with a number penned by Barnes called ‘Fat Cat’. Signalling how they would proceed, Alan’s introduction ignored the fact that it had been composed originally as a dig at greedy corporation bosses, instead stating that the tune was named for Gilad. This pattern of acerbic introductions by both players continued through the evening.
The gig showcased virtually all the tracks from the new CD, The Lowest Common Denominator, each number providing opportunities for dazzlement by Gilad’s tenor, alto and soprano saxophones while Alan joined the fray on alto or baritone saxophone. At times both men also took to the bass clarinet.
Both these men are players who can be delicate and lyrical, then fierce and brassy in the next breath. At Band on the Wall it was Barnes whose breathy tone generally played more delicate foil to Gilad’s tempestuous bursts. While Gilad became more and more physical as the evening progressed and he became immersed in the music, bending deep or swinging his instrument, Barnes tended to retain a gentlemanly stance at the mic.
The compositions tended to alternate between Barnes – ‘Fat Cat’, ‘Sweet Pea’, ‘Phonus Bolonus’ and ‘Sun Moon Stars Rain’ and Atzmon originals – ‘The Lowest Common Denominator’, ‘Blip Blop’ and ‘Pro-State Solution’, the latter provoking a lengthy mediation by Gilad on the perils of ageing, the increased necessity of taking a pee during a set, and the beautiful relief to be found in the bass clarinet. This business of ageing is clearly on Gilad’s mind, and may even be eroding it a little bit: introducing ‘Blip Blop’, the 53-year old spoke of being married to a woman from China (she’s not) for 68 years.
One of Alan’s pieces was clearly written especially for Gilad: in his intro to ‘Giladiator’, Barnes made reference Gilad’s controversial second life as a political essayist and activist (critical of Zionism, Jewish identity politics and pretty much anything to do with the land of his birth, Israel; sample: ‘I think there is something untenable in the fact that the Jews, who suffered so much racial discrimination, should establish a state that is founded on race laws.’). Last time he was slated to play in Manchester at the RNCM, all it took was a letter from the North West Friends of Israel for the concert to be cancelled. Strangely, a year on, no-one from that quarter seemed concerned about his reappearance in the city.
The fact of the matter is that Gilad Atzmon is one of Britain’s finest jazz musicians who should not be denied a platform to play his music because of views expressed in his habitual provocative style. I have seen him play now several times, and each time he has conjured an evening of superb jazz. Those concerts have been as varied, as thrilling and as lyrical as his various albums – whether with the Orient House Ensemble, celebrating Charlie Parker with strings, or as here, powering his way through a set of originals and tunes from the American songbook with an equally gifted British jazzer.
It should be added that the trio supporting Atzmon and Barnes were not without merit: the large and forceful figure of Yaron Stavi on double bass driving the music forward alongside the energetic drumming of Chris Higginbottom, and the delicate interplay of pianist Frank Harrison. The LCD may be the lowest common multiple of several vulgar fractions, but there was nothing vulgar or tiny about the contribution of these three guys. Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves, evidenced by the smiles frequently exchanged by all five men.
Why had they decided to call themselves the Lowest Common Denominator? Were they ‘pandering to the lowest common denominator of public taste’ in the words of a definition quoted on the CD sleeve? Did we get an earful of cocktail-hour jazz? Not at all. This was thrilling, bop-based jazz with moments of ineffable lyricism. Or, if you like in the words of the CD’s tongue-in-cheek sleeve notes, ‘an evening of humour and superb music by a hand-picked band of stars at a fraction of their true value. You can’t set the bar any lower than that.’