Israeli-British saxophonist/tunesmith/polymath Gilad Atzmon and his combo the Orient House Ensemble have an intriguing new album out, Songs of the Metropolis, a tribute to great cities around the world. Most of it is streaming at Atzmon’s album page. The band here is the same as on Atzmon’s excellent previous album: the bandleader on alto and soprano saxophones and accordion, along with Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass and Eddie Hick on drums. As one would expect from an intellect as formidable as Atzmon, it’s no “look ma, I’m playing a tango now” type of genre-hopping; rather, it’s a series of impressions.
Paris, interestingly enough, gets a a staggered latin beat with quivery, bracingly microtonal soprano sax – and then Atzmon switches to accordion and lets the tune relax. Tel Aviv seems to have a split personality, a bounding, energetic groove and also an uneasy undercurrent that shifts from a Zorn/Sexmob cantorial theme to an unexpectedly neat, polyrhythmic reggae b-section. Don’t laugh: reggae is big in Tel Aviv!
Buenos Aires is heartbreakingly beautiful – this long ballad seems to be a requiem, moving slowly from a quiet, moody solo piano intro joined by bowed bass and Atzmon’s slowly diving alto lines. A tentatively steady sway underpins an absolutely morose piano solo followed by Atzmon’s understated, pleading anguish: it’s one of the most devastating songs released this year. A respite from the angst comes with Vienna, which rather predictably goes for old-world ambience, referencing Chopin and skirting the perimeter of schlock. Manhattan, at least through Atzmon’s eyes, is a funky place (and it is), albeit a pensive one, and he doesn’t neglect the latin flavor here. Scarborough gets a lingering, somewhat nostalgic soprano/piano intro, and then it’s obvious that this set not in Maine but in merry olde England, a launching pad for a long, sizzling, modally-fueled, Coltrane-esque Atzmon soprano solo and then a lively workout for the rest of the band.
Moscow gets accordion over heavy drum accents, a Rachmaninoff allusion, and an absolutely gorgeous alto-driven tune with fluttery countermelodies that evokes Ellington at his Suite-era, third-stream peak. Once again, Atzmon backs away from the sturm und drang with the balmy but bracing Somewhere in Italy…and then brings it back with a rippling, refusenik, rhythmic vengeance. He ends with Berlin, a twisted little waltz that alternates between faux beerhall sarcasm and creepy noir cabaret. It’s out now from World Village Music.