GILAD ATZMON has been a restless presence on the British and international jazz scenes since the early 1990s, with his garrulous playing style that’s as coruscating and as caustic as his provocative political views. Yet his latest work, Songs Of The Metropolis, finds him mellowing, but only a little, says ANDY ROBSON
Jazzwise Feb 2013 Edition
They call him the hardest working man in jazz. And Gilad Atzmon has no problem justifying that title. “I’m always busy! As you know, I don’t fill out the forms for the Arts Council. I don’t believe it’s down to the tax payers to pay for me loving music. So for me the only way to survive is to keep working.”
And the fruits of that labour keep coming: we’re here to talk about his new release as leader of The Orient House Ensemble, Songs Of The Metropolis. But straight from here Atzmon’s off for a Blockheads gig; he’s every intention of finishing the production of Blockheads bass hero Norman Watt-Roy’s album in the new year, he’s producing long time associate Sarah Gillespie’s new album and, perhaps most exciting of all, there’s “the most expensive album I’ve ever done. Recorded at Abbey Road, a beautiful project, a double album – four sides of vinyl – it’s a tribute to Serge Gainsbourg!”
The energy, the will to succeed, (and not to mention the eclecticism) seems endless. One stereotype, of course, is that Atzmon’s drive reflects the classic immigrant’s need to work twice as hard, to be twice as good as their host, to build their new life in a new land. After all it’s 16 years since Atzmon left Palestine for Cricklewood’s green and pleasant land. But Atzmon doesn’t do stereotypes. If he identifies with any community, it is not one defined by such limited notions as nationhood or ethnicity. Instead his home is among the community of jazz people striving to find new voices, new ways of expression. And for Atzmon these musicians are free of the trammels of time and place: whether it’s Coltrane in New York, Piazzolla in Buenos Aires or Bird all over the place.
Yet Atzmon’s albums resonate with a sense of time and place: only Atzmon can take us from ‘London To Gaza’ and indeed ‘All The Way To Montenegro’ (The Tide Has Changed); only Atzmon has shepherded us from ‘The Land of Canaan’ (Exile) to ‘Autumn In Baghdad’ and, by delicious irony, ‘Spring In New York’ (Refuge). And now, with Songs Of The Metropolis, Atzmon takes us further into the paradoxical locus of his musical heart.
On one level Songs Of The Metropolis is a concept album, a travelogue of places rich with meaning for Atzmon (and indeed the band, for this is very much a band release). The notion is hardly unique. It’s only a couple of years since the ebullient Hiromi guided us through Place To Be, which celebrated puff pastry in France and crisps in Cape Cod. But travel was always going to be more complex and confectionery-free for Atzmon. Indeed, although Atzmon describes his pieces as ‘love songs’, love for him is as much about loss as it is about consumption and consummation.
“I travel a lot. Every night I fall asleep in a different town. And I fall in love every night. Every town carries a significant colour. It is the sound of language, it is the way the women behave: most towns have their own sounds, their own song.”
And some of the signposts to a city’s signature song are familiar. Atzmon’s ‘Paris’ is redolent with Bechet, accordion chords underwrite its melancholic joie de vivre, Harrison’s piano is broken-hearted yet lyrical.
But as Atzmon is quick to point out, if he has a talent as a composer as well as a philosopher, it is to ‘deconstruct’. He takes the familiar, but places in it a fresh context, breaks a tune mid-bar, shifts a tempo with the merest cue. So ‘Vienna’, hardly surprisingly, is a waltz (and Harrison, the nearest we have to Bill Evans, evokes a ‘Waltz For Debby’). Yet for all its charm, this ‘Vienna’, this paradise of sweet things, could almost be too sickly, scarred as it is with the scrape of Stavi’s bass.
Nowhere is this deconstruction more spectacular than on ‘Scarborough’, at over 10 minutes the epic heart of Songs Of The Metropolis. The saxman loves Scarborough the town, but the incongruence of positioning the sleepy seaside site alongside iconic metropolises like Moscow and Tel Aviv tickles Atzmon’s broad humour. And only he could propel the familiar folkish theme of ‘Scarborough Fair’ to a furious Coltrane-style climax, replete with quotes from ‘My Favorite Things’.
Atzmon’s re-visionings of Bird songs on In Loving Memory Of America prepared us for these deconstructions, these invitations to a dance during which we can never be too sure who is leading, who is calling the tune. And with this awareness comes a realisation that these cities are as imaginary as they are geographically specific. They are, as Cream’s lyricist Pete Brown may have had it, ‘Deserted Cities Of The Heart’.
“Yes, the music is about love, but love of something that is lost. It is about loss, about yearning… yes I am always nostalgic – you remember Nostalgico? (Atzmon’s 2009 release where he reinvented the familiar, like ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, as something new and contemporary). Look at how people yearn for Elvis. You like Elvis, but it’s not because you were with Elvis – it’s because you would’ve liked to be like that. I wasn’t in Paris when it sounded like that, but I wanted to create a sound like I dreamed it would be!” Yet one metropolis is conspicuously absent from this roll call of the world’s most vivid cities. London. Or more specifically, Atzmon’s long time UK residence, Cricklewood. He laughs: “I thought of doing a posh arrangement of ‘New York, New York’, you know, ‘On Cricklewood Broadway’. But maybe only you and me would’ve got the joke.”
Few have tried to celebrate Cricklewood, fewer have succeeded. Alan Coren, perhaps. Ten Years After’s Cricklewood Green spawned the Woodstock monster ‘Love Like A Man’. Doubtless this feature will provoke a rich correspondence about North West London’s finest. Indeed, as a Blockhead, Atzmon is all too aware of Kilburn and its High Road’s heritage. But more pertinently, Atzmon rages against London’s lack of a theme tune, musical or indeed cultural.
“I don’t say there’s no music in London but I’m sorry to say now there is no sound of London. When I first came to London, there was such a thing. There was Ronnie Size doing his drum and bass. I’m sorry to say but I ask around ‘What is the sound of this fucking city?’ And no one can tell me! If you think, there was punk, Liverpool had a sound, Manchester in the 1980s, but now, in London?
“One of the last industries in this country was the music industry. When Britain made music for the whole world it had to look for the common denominator – I won’t say lowest denominator – and in doing so you lost your identity. Everything became homogenous. I was born in Israel, and I have some criticisms of Israel. But in Israel you never spoke of identity because it was very clear to us who we are, what we are, why we kill, why we get killed; all is obvious. But here everyone speaks of ‘identity’: because none of you know what it is!
“I was talking to this right-wing thinker, I’m not taking his side, but I believe in dialogue, and he said, ‘I am from the north and we have a great tradition in the north for brass bands. But now in schools they teach steel drums.’ And that devastates me: I understand that concern. We have to make sure that the host culture is also valued.”
As if to illustrate his point, a Greek band strikes up in the bar where we are talking, at that palace of culture, The Royal Festival Hall. “It is great to hear such music, how often do you hear 7/8 in England?” notes Atzmon, clapping in time to the rising groove. “But at the same time how many cockney bands do you hear in this place, how many cockney bands get supported by the Arts Council?”
Of course Atzmon wants to shock. He concedes that he needs to shock himself, to constantly re-galvanise his relationship to the everchanging world around him. “In Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, you knew what freedom meant because you didn’t have it. But what is freedom in Britain or America? If you do not know what freedom is, then it is my job to tell you here in Britain what the boundaries of your freedom might be. I’m not a politician. I’m a philosopher and artist. My job is to stimulate exchange. I will not give you answers. I leave that to Cameron. I don’t claim to know the truth. But I’m good at exposing lies. When I see deceit, spin, one culture being celebrated at the expense of others, I freak out!”
Atzmon’s words, his rage, need heeding. A strength of democracy is to respond to criticism and insight with dialogue, to learn and co-create in response to stimulus. To respond with our own vitriol and prejudice is to fail to adapt. And not to adapt is to die. Atzmon is in the hallowed tradition of the ‘outsider’ who sees our foibles and flaws in sharper relief than we do ourselves, from the Irishman Swift to Linton Kwesi Johnson to Emeric Pressburger – another self-exiled Jew who came to England and grew to love it even as he gently jibed and probed it in movies like The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp.
“You know, I came to this country because this country is England with a lot of beautiful things I liked. But they are disappearing – partly because I am me! I am ‘Johnny Foreigner’. I am an artist and a producer and I am part of the industry. So I am responsible for some of those changes, I am aware of that. I don’t want to celebrate my culture at the expense of the culture of others.”
And indeed Atzmon can’t resist another broad grin. “But now we have reason to celebrate!” (It’s always intriguing to trace Atzmon’s use of the ‘we’ word; who are the ‘we’ that ‘we’ are now talking of?)
“According to the census,” he gleefully continues, “there are now more of us Johnny Foreigners in your city than you! You are a minority group! So according to The Guardian it is now time for you to claim your rights as a minority! Your time is now!” and Atzmon claps and laughs. “So it is funny and maybe in 10 years I will be able to write a tune for London for a new album.”
No one is more aware than Atzmon that his words are likely to be misconstrued, misquoted back in evidence against him. Even within his family the question of roots runs deep. “My son has grown up here. He is a Londoner, a patriot for Britain. But I ask him ‘Would you die for England?’ And he says, ‘Are you crazy? Only if they come and invade us here.’ But for my generation, in Israel, we were happy to die for the things we believed in. But my son is not crazy. He just wants to live.”
And it is this zest for life that unites the cities on Songs Of The Metropolis. It transcends even
Atzmon’s passion around the plight of Palestine, a passion that has so long driven his music. “For me this is the first time I’ve done music with the Orient House which is not politically motivated.” This is a statement one can hardly believe would come from his lips. For so long, anger drove the music, drove the band. But at 50, Atzmon is now looking again at the world.
“I know how to produce an angry solo. It bonded me with Coltrane through Palestine. I did it now for 10 years. I invented this Arabic-Israeli jazz, whatever you want to call it. I know how to play a Gilad Atzmon song in D minor. It takes me naturally to this Coltrane thing. I can make another 25,000 albums like that. But with Songs Of The Metropolis I didn’t want to. Before this I had created a safe territory. But as an artist I thought ‘If I don’t move now I will get stuck.’ This album moves me away from the boring political. How many times can I talk about Palestine, about being an Israeli? That would be the same solo, the same rant and I can’t do that anymore.”
And in a way, that is the bravest journey yet for Atzmon to undertake: to move from his comfort zone, to travel from his very identity, the anger and righteousness, to a world where certainties are not clear where clarities shade into ambiguity. Yet there is also a strange peace in much of Songs Of The Metropolis. Not that Atzmon is mellowing out, God forbid.
“I don’t look for peace. Or tranquility. This will sound horrible, but I get too excited by the panic I cause! I know I have something to say otherwise they would take no notice of me. But I don’t have to connect my music to my activism or intellectual work.”
This is a huge sea change in Atzmon and his ever growing aesthetic. It may also be the release valve that ensures Atzmon – composer, producer, bandleader and sax man extraordinaire – gets to travel to even further flung and yet undiscovered cities. And when London gets its song back, let’s hope it’s Atzmon who writes it. Because his conscience is the only one we deserve right now.