Tuesday, October 05, 2010
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
“The Tide Has Changed” is as good as anything the OHE have produced in their ten year history.
Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble
“The Tide Has Changed”
(World Village/Harmonia Mundi)
For a decade or more the Israeli born multi-instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon has been a larger than life (in every sense) figure on the UK music scene. Primarily a saxophonist he is most commonly pigeon holed as a member of the jazz community but Atzmon’s interests take in several forms of so called “world music” plus the sphere of rock through his involvement with The Blockheads. On top of all this there is Atzmon’s work as an author, polemicist and political activist. He is one of the hardest working musicians in the country, playing hundreds of gigs a year and involving himself in playing, writing and production activities for other artists, among them Robert Wyatt, Adriano Adewale and Sarah Gillespie, in addition to his own prolific output.
However Atzmon’s principal creative outlet remains his working group The Orient House Ensemble. 2010 represents the tenth anniversary of the formation of this hard working and innovative combo. The current edition comprises of founding members Atzmon and Frank Harrison (piano, keyboards), long serving bassist Yaron Stavi and new drummer Eddie Hick. The OHE have long been a formidable live act, their often fiery music augmented by Atzmon’s huge on stage personality. Their albums have sometimes been uneven and maybe even a little self indulgent as Atzmon has attempted to cram all his various interests into a single entity but nobody could ever accuse an OHE record of being dull.
I first saw Atzmon play at Hay Festival with the Blockheads, one of the last gigs Ian Dury himself ever played. I was hugely impressed with Atzmon’s contribution and promised myself to check out his jazz outfit. Shortly afterwards I was lucky enough to see the OHE on the Stroller programme at Brecon Jazz Festival (it must have been 2001) , bought their début album at the gig and have been a fan ever since. I’ve seen the OHE again on several occasions and never been disappointed but with the best will in the world I couldn’t recommend anybody to see the Blockheads without the unique presence of Dury. I saw them at a charity bash at Kidderminster Town Hall a year or so ago and was bitterly disappointed, only the jazzers in the line up, Gilad and drummer Dylan Howe, emerged with any real credit.
“The Tide Has Changed” is the OHE’s sixth album and is a celebration of the changes the group has been through over the past ten years. The music is the familiar mix of jazz, Middle Eastern music, Argentinian tango, Brecht and Weill and much else besides. The instrumentalists are augmented on some pieces by the vocals of Gilad’s wife Tali Atzmon and Gilad’s old Blockheads mate Derek “The Draw” Hussey acts as Master of Ceremonies on the opening track “Dry Fear”. Hussey, Dury’s former minder, now handles the vocals for the Blockheads but frankly he’s no substitute for the original diamond geezer.
Turning now to the OHE’s latest magnum opus the album opens with “Dry Fear” as Derek The Draw acts like a kind of cockney Leonard Sachs and the OHE come on like a cross between Kurt Weill and English Music Hall. It’s a playful curtain raiser, a bit of fun to sweeten the palette for the more serious stuff to follow.
Next up is the epic title track, a lengthy exploration of Middle Eastern motifs and jazz style improvising with Atzmon’s fluent, fiery alto playing to the fore. Drummer Hick, formerly a member of The Souths Trio steps seamlessly into the shoes of the departed Asaf Sirkis to ensure that the new look OHE has lost none of it’s rhythmic muscularity or flexibility. Harrison is very much Atzmon’s musical right hand man and the versatile pianist is also outstanding here with a solo of feverish inventiveness.
“And So Have We” is a natural successor, this time haunting and brooding with Gilad on clarinet and Tali on wordless vocals. Stavi, such a fine ensemble player features here as a soloist, his playing lyrical but unfailingly resonant.
“Bolero At Sunrise” borrows from Ravel’s famous melody as Atzmon and his colleagues give the musical form a Middle Eastern twist. The OHE brood and simmer and there’s a beautifully sparse piano solo from Harrison above Hick’s insistent snare tattoos. The pianist vies for excellence with the leader’s distinctive wailing soprano.
“London To Gaza” is a genuine musical journey with Atzmon deploying various reeds plus accordion in a cinematic, near ten minute epic. The OHE are, as ever, totally on Atzmon’s wavelength and offer passionate but sympathetic support as their leader’s playing becomes more and more abandoned. Harrison’s expansive solo is equally inspired, he is the perfect foil for Atzmon adding light and shade to the Ensemble sound.
“We Lament” features the band at their most tender with Atzmon’s choked intensity contrasting well with the lyricism of Harrison and Stavi.
The leader doubles on accordion for “In The Back Seat Of A Yellow Cab” which mixes lyricism and whimsicality in equal measures
“All The Way To Montenegro” is a Balkan/klezmer style romp with Tali’s wordless vocals featuring alongside Gilad’s squiggling clarinet. The album ends with “We Laugh”, a return to the cabaret/music hall mood of the opening item.
Despite being bookended by a couple of brief, almost throwaway items the body of “The Tide Has Changed” is as good as anything the OHE have produced in their ten year history, a blend of passion, intensity, superb musicianship and an underlying political commitment as Atzmon continues to campaign against all kinds of oppression. Even the group’s name, derived from the Headquarters of the Palestinian people in Jerusalem, is a political statement. Atzmon may keep his politics and his music increasingly separate these days but they are still inextricably linked by a man who has done so much to enhance the cultural landscape of the UK in recent years.