Alan Barnes and Gilad Atzmon seek The Lowest Common Denominator

Alan Barnes and Gilad Atzmon seek The Lowest Common Denominator

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. Continue reading “Alan Barnes and Gilad Atzmon seek The Lowest Common Denominator”

Gilad Atzmon at the Bluecoat

Gilad Atzmon at the Bluecoat

Orient House Ensemble

I went to the Bluecoat last night to see Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble drop by as part of their tenth anniversary tour, promoting the acclaimed new album, The Tide Has Changed.  It was, as would be expected from this superb band, a great evening of music that ranged from east to west, through klezmer, Palestinian, German oompah-band, jazz and classical sources.

As always, the huge personality and showmanship of Gilad Atzmon himself dominates proceedings – walking on stage he launches into one of his characteristic riffs about how last time they played the Bluecoat the place was packed, but tonight there are many empty seats.  What happened – did they die? After several more minutes of jocularity he asked: what will it be tonight – music or humour? Some called for politics to which Gilad responded that he could speak at length on the state of Israel – from whichever stance we preferred, since he had heard the arguments rehearsed so many times .

At last, the Ensemble launched into ‘And So Have We’ off the new album, a languid and gentle opener.  But after that, Gilad remarked, ‘I wouldn’t like you to get the impression that this is a quiet band.  It’s about to get very noisy’.  With that, they began to play the title track off the new album; ‘The Tide Has Changed’ opens deceptively as Frank Harrison strums the keyboard and Atzmon builds a tense, melancholy figure on alto sax. Then, suddenly, Atzmon shifts the mood with a staccato riff that signals the entrance of Yaron Stavi on double bass and Eddie Hick on drums. Now the Ensemble drive the piece forward ferociously.

Before the next number, Atzmon made some wry comments about the public spending cuts, announced that afternoon.  ‘The Arts Council is no more…at last us artists are free – free to support our music with raffles’.  He riffed on the this raffles theme for a while, then introduced ‘a raffles number’, which turned out be the hauntingly beautiful ‘Bolero Sunrise’, a variation on Ravel’s Bolero, and the track that, so far, stands out  for me off the new album.  It has the feel of Sketches of Spain.

During the evening Atzmon got in a few digs at the Bluecoat – commenting that the first time they played here was in a wonderful space that has now been converted into a restaurant in which, ‘like the old Soviet Union, most of the dishes were off’ and most of the seats were empty.  At another point, introducing Frank Harrison, he explained that he was playing a Technics keyboard (which, for most of the evening disappointingly sounded like a vibraphone) because the Bluecoat had got rid of the piano to make space for a cappuccino bar.

‘London To Gaza’ was clearly inspired by events in Gaza 18 months ago, and featured Yaron Stavis bowing the double bass to evoke ominous chords behind Atzmon’s plangent sax and Eddie Hick’s clattering percussion. Then there was  the quirky ‘All The Way To Montenegro’,  featuring Gilad’s on clarinet, and ‘We Laugh’, which had Gilad’s alto leading the band in a klezmer-like mprovisation that threw in ‘Salt Peanuts’ somewhere I recall. An old favourite, ‘The Burning Bush’ was reprised from the Refuge album, while ‘Re-Arranging The 20th Century’ off the Musik album was rearranged to become ‘Rearranging the Rearranging’.

Reviewing the new album for All About Jazz, Bruce Lindsay wrote:

Funny, eerie, romantic and intriguing by turns, this is a work of tremendous warmth and strength. Atzmon’s spirit and soul inhabit every one of his compositions, and his playing is truly exceptional, staking a genuine claim to being one of the finest saxophonists in contemporary jazz.  All four of the musicians are at the top of their form. Drummer Eddie Hick, who joined the Ensemble in 2009 at age just 22, is a fine replacement for founding-member Asaf Sirkis. Bassist Yaron Stavi—who, like Atzmon, is Israeli-born but UK-based—took over from original bassist Oli Hayhurst in 2003. He takes control of the music’s core with fluid, lyrical and, at times, darkly brooding playing. Pianist Frank Harrison, an original Ensemble member, is uniformly excellent.

That seems to me to sum up this performance perfectly.

Ten years ago I realised that beauty is the way forward. I saw that art is the true means of transformation. .. The tide has changed and so have we, more than ever, and in spite of all the odds, we laugh.

In the last decade I have managed to surround myself with some of the most incredible musicians around, people who push each other towards the edge of artistic creativity and beyond. I guess that the Orient House Ensemble’s motto is pretty obvious: relentlessly, we remind ourselves why we decided to make music in the first place. I thank the Gods for allowing us to proceed so far.
– Gilad Atzmon

Gilad Atzmon talks about the latest album


Gilad Atzmon with strings

Gilad Atzmon with strings

To the Bluecoat tonight to see the Gilad Atzmon Quartet with the Sigamos String Quartet – the last gig in his tour to promote the Gilad Atzmon with Strings project and the new album, In Loving Memory of America. Despite a late start, the result of a nine-hour journey from London, it was a really enjoyable evening. Gilad’s demonstrated superb saxophone technique, using two microphones, one of which reproduced the studio echo from the original Charlie Parker with Strings recordings which were the inspiration for this project. I like the stripped-down, less schmalzy sound that comes from using just a string quartet.  All the musicians were excellent, with Frank Harrison notably shining in then second half, once he’d been given a proper sound level. Continue reading “Gilad Atzmon with strings”

Gilad Atzmon celebrates Charlie Parker with strings

Gilad Atzmon celebrates Charlie Parker with strings

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

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.