By BRUCE LINDSAY
Saxophonist Gilad Atzmon is a giant of jazz—an imposing physical presence, a huge personality, technically masterful and emotionally committed to every note. On The Whistle Blower, the Orient House Ensemble's eighth album since it formed in 2000, he's joined by long-term Ensemble members Frank Harrison on piano and Yaron Stavi on bass along with new recruit drummerChris Higginbottom. The band is as strong as ever, the album a worthy addition to its discography.
To buy The Whistle Blower:
Atzmon is an in-demand session player—he's on Pink Floyd's The Endless River (Columbia, 2014)—a producer and a long-term member of the much-loved Blockheads. However, it's the Orient House Ensemble that best represents his personal take on music, a quartet that's recorded some strikingly exciting original work as well as a loving tribute to Atzmon's early inspiration, Charlie Parker, (In Loving Memory Of America, Enja, 2009).
In his poetic self-portrait on The Whistle Blower's sleeve Atzmon describes the compositions as "about love, nostalgia, devotion and simplicity" and himself as "a reactionary existentialist," "the enemy of progress" and "the Imam of retro." Crucially, he also states "I am happy." The album title is a self-deprecating reference to Atzmon's instruments of choice as well as to his political activism.
The Whistle Blower is the first release on Atzmon's own Fanfare Jazz label. Atzmon wrote all of the tunes, mixing the sounds of his early years in the middle east with rock grooves and bebop flourishes. His playing focuses on the alto and soprano saxophones, but his accordion playing is also worthy of note, adding a jauntier and more upbeat feel to his often plaintive reeds.
"Gaza Mon Amour" is a fiery opener—fast, danceable, energetic and positive. The following half-dozen tunes have a gentler, mellower, vibe. "Forever" is a beautiful ballad, Atzmon's romantic side emanating clearly from his soprano sax. "The Romantic Church" is another slow tune, Atzmon's alto and Harrison's piano are cool, Harrison's keyboards add a string section feel and the result is a sophisticated success.
The 11-minute "Let Us Pray" takes inspiration from John Coltrane's spiritual jazz: it's an ambitious tune with some fine extended solos, though its impact would be heightened by reducing its length. The Gallic-flavored "The Song" puts the accordion center-stage and features the album's most graceful melody, while the dynamic "To Be Free" slowly builds and releases tension through soprano sax and piano solos. The Ensemble return to the romantic ballad with "For Moana"—Atzmon's paean to Italian adult-movie actress and politician Moana Pozzi, his "vintage romantic heroine."
"The Whistle Blower" is a cheesy, tongue-in-cheek, tune full of wolf whistles, clichéd rhythms, Tali Atzmon's wordless lounge-jazz singing and a rather jolly vocal chorus from the gentlemen of the Ensemble. It's all rather delightful, a reminder that Atzmon the activist and musician is also a joker—and he's happy.
Track Listing: Gaza Mon Amour; Forever; The Romantic Church; Let Us Pray; The Song; To Be Free; For Moana; The Whistle Blower.
Personnel: Gilad Atzmon: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, accordion, guitar, vocals; Frank Harrison: piano, keyboards, vocals; Yaron Stavi: double bass, electric bass, vocals; Chris Higginbottom: drums, vocals; Tali Atzmon: vocals; Antonio Feola: vocals.
Record Label: Fanfare Jazz