Gilad Atzmon – The Spirit of Trane – CD Review by Sammy Stein

'The Spirit of Trane' is released simply because, for Gilad Atzmon, it is a chance to acknowledge possibly the greatest and most influential tenor sax player in jazz history. Gilad says, "whether it is his patented sheets of sound, his rapid fire improvisations, advanced harmonic progressions or lush interpretations of ballads, no aspiring music lover can afford to neglect the music of 'Trane" . As Gilad handed me one of the first copies of the CD at a gig recently he told me, you will love this'. He was, as he sometimes is, right. ♦

This CD is a spiritual journey along with Coltrane, with Gilad adapting his distinctive style ( he often plays with an Eastern lilt or a more Parker-esque accent to his playing in my opinion) to try to capture the essence of Coltrane’s style, his beauty, skill and simply take the listener through significant stages of the man whose name is synonymous with almost sublime sax playing.

The CD opens with Ellington’s ‘ In A Sentimental Mood’, a track which Coltrane rendered with such heartfelt emotion at times and here Gilad and his quartet produce an outstanding version, complete with the percussive rhythms lifted as if from the Ellington original counterpointing the emotive and beautiful playing of Atzmon as he soars across with the melody. There is a gorgeous double bass section from Yaron Stavi and the arrangement is interesting with both piano and bass having extended and interesting parts underneath the beautiful and explorative sax line. Gilad’s touch is surprisingly light and gentle on this number yet there is a strength and conviction throughout the track, particularly the last freely delivered section making it a great opener.

Bronislaw Kaper’s ‘Invitation’ is next ( the other famed theme from MGM’s ‘On Green Dolphin Street’). Given that this track is popular and has been done slow, fast, high, low and any which way in between, Gilad chooses the ‘Trane style, mellow and smooth and it works so well. The rich tones of the sax work their magic as well as those sections where bass and piano come to the fore. Beautiful and delivered almost with reverence.

The third track is an Atzmon-penned, 11 minute plus epic track. Beginning with a simple fanfare like introduction, the reference to perhaps the minor keyed themes Coltrane was drawn to is apparent in this track as well as the references to the cycles, three and four tonic systems and changes so redolent of Coltrane and this is lovely because the entire track, almost subliminally uses many of the techniques which made Coltrane unique yet never tries to copy-cat Coltrane himself. Then again, perhaps I was hearing things but this track certainly is a nod to ‘Trane in both style and delivery. You can almost imagine the great player sitting somewhere, going through ideas, tripping out different changes, seeing if this works, ‘that works, yes, that’s it, play like that!’. This reverence to style coupled with Gilad’s sheer dexterity makes for some delicious, mind challenging listening. The apparent complexity and yet underlying simplicity when you get down to it of this track is a thing of beauty and extremely clever. Absolutely wonderful.

Mal Waldron’s ‘Soul Eyes’ is delivered with a bit more of an introduction than on most recordings – in this case by the Sigamos String Quartet ( Ros Stephen, violin, Marianne Haynes, violin, Felix Tanner, viola and Laura Anstee , cello) but the theme is woven around a beautiful arrangement for the strings from Ros Stephen and this is a well honed and lovely number.

Coltrane’s ‘Blue Train’ is , for me, the track on the album where you can perhaps hear the true spirit of John Coltrane, like some great guiding hand in the way the music soars, dips and echoes of itself in a wave, then another, then another and there is that subtle but present reediness which Coltrane often had pervading his playing. In just one or two sections Gilad tries to fit so many notes in he cuts some of them a tad short, producing a clipped feel to phrases even above that which was intended and of course, there is no Lee Morgan, the original trumpet player on some of Coltrane’s recordings but you can’t have anything and otherwise this feels just how this essentially 12 bar blues should feel and the occasional suspension of the percussive beat into a half time is genius from Enzo Zirilli as it makes the theme stand out more. The piano section from Frank Harrison, underpinned by the lovely strolling bass of Yaron Stavi is delightful, light and lifts even the most world weary listener to higher realms.

‘Naima’ is a lovely interpretation of Coltrane’s gentle, emotive ballad. The rich range of flattened major chords pervading over the deep, evocative bass line make this a special number and here it is delivered with respect. It was one of the recordings on the seminal ‘Giant Steps’ albums and the next track is ‘Giant Steps’ which here is surprising because, apart from the introduction the chord sequences associated with this number ( 3,2,5 and 1s so I am reliably informed) are shared amongst the musicians with the sax improvising over the top before picking them up again for its own. Clever, imaginative and not, somehow what is expected but all the chords are there, the imagination is unfettered and the playing magnificent.

Jimmy McHugh’s ‘Say It (Over and Over Again)’ closes the album and is a number which was recorded by many ,including Coltrane. Here the delivery is almost the same metre as Coltrane played it in his version with McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass. Gilad adds his own flourishes and polish, which is different but impressive and this makes a great closing track.

With Coltrane, I think sometimes the modern listener who never saw the great man play is influenced in how they hear ‘Trane by the enigma of the man, which is natural and important but also means that there is never a perfect tribute yet neither will they ever hear ‘true’ Coltrane but good referencing music paying tribute to the style yet giving his music the evolution it undoubtedly would have had had he lived, are just as important as listening to the original recordings. After all 50 years is neither a huge length of time nor a short period so things would have changed, since Coltrane’s early death though not of course his utter prowess with a metal stick with a reed. With his changes, theories and patterns ‘Trane, tributes are difficult. It is hard to ‘play ‘Trane’ but here, Gilad has produced a CD which not only uses Coltrane’s music with reverence and deference but is also, whether you have heard ‘Trane before or not, simply great music and easy on the ears for the most part ( and for the parts where it is not, this is deliberate).

Gilad Atzmon has such a distinctive style of playing and accents to his style that there is no disguising the fact it is Gilad playing here but never, for a moment, does he try to imitate or emulate Coltrane – and that is a good thing. The slight sharpness and staccato of Gilad’s playing is often present , as is his tendency to glissando some of the sharpened notes, adding a slightly Eastern lilt without even thinking about it. Too often albums meant as a respectful memoire end up as some sort of pale imitation of the person they aspire to commemorate but there is no danger here – it is clearly Gilad’s embouchure and style. Yet, he respects Coltrane, clearly enjoys and loves the music and this CD is a delight from the opening to the close.

Personnel: Gilad Atzmon Tenor and sporano sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute

Frank Harrison: piano

Yaron Stavi : Double bass

Enzo Zirilli: drums

Label: Fanfare