By Travis Rogers
Gilad Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble
“The Whistle Blower”
Fanfare Jazz 1501
“The Whistle Blower” is the eighth album in the 15-year career of Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble. While pianist Frank Harrison has been aboard since the beginning in 2000 and bassist Yaron Stavi has been a member since 2003, drummer Chris Higginbottom is the fresh face, joining in 2014.
Atzmon is the composer of all the tracks on “The Whistle Blower” and the album shows his compositional range from Middle Eastern folk roots to the French chansons to bebop swing. Atzmon can execute what he envisions due to his proficiency in alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet, guitar and the accordion. He paints with all the colors of his musical palette.
The album opens with “Gaza Mon Amour.” Higginbottom gets to kick it off with the snappy snare rhythms. The stringed Middle Eastern motif is accompanied by the male chorus which all lays the groundwork for the brilliant alto sax work and the piano’s punctuating of the rhythm. The Gazan pulse and melody is captivating. Stavi and Higginbottom are a fine team and merit close attention from the beginning. This is electrifying stuff.
Harrison constructs a brilliant moment with the bass and drums, setting up a great shout chorus to the conclusion.
“Forever” is a lovely piece. In the liner notes, Atzmon states, “These compositions are about love, nostalgia, devotion and simplicity. And such is the case with “Forever.” There is indeed a wistful nostalgia here that speaks of simple devotion.
The tender soprano sax is beautifully longing. Harrison, Stavi and Higginbottom are all delightfully subtle.
“The Romantic Church”—of which Atzmon declares himself a knight—has little or nothing to do with religion (Thank God!) but has everything to do with enchantment. It is about finding the true self through harmony and transparency. Transparency and authenticity are important to Atzmon as he freely declares in his liner notes.
In this piece, he finds his authenticity in the lovers’ house of prayer. How fitting that the following track is…
“Let Us Pray.” It is by far the longest track of the album but does not suffer for its length. From the opening, the name Coltrane comes immediately to mind. It is reminiscent of the opening of “A Love Supreme” and others of Coltrane’s spiritual albums like “Ascension” and “Meditations.”
There are epic solos and extended group excursions that are wondrous to hear. Harrison has a splendid solo which spirals upward as if in prayer. The length of the piece is completely representative of the knowledge that life is a prayer. It is not momentary, it is life-long because it is the quest for self-discovery.
“The Song” is a French chanson with Atzmon on accordion and playing it beautifully. Stavi has a touching bass solo which leads into Harrison’s piano highlights. A hauntingly lovely piece.
“To Be Free” has Atzmon on soprano sax again. It is a slow and deliberate song, free in its structure and approach. The dialog of sax and piano is like a debate between old friends with equally passionate but opposing views. In the end, harmony and closeness remain intact.
“For Moana” is a tribute to Italian actress Moana Pozzi. Atzmon calls her a “vintage romantic heroine.” The piece is as mesmerizing as Moana’s beaming glance. It is sultry and it is beyond reach. But the longing remains…
“The Whistle Blower” is riotous fun. Tali Atzmon supplies the voice of the female lounge singer. The four men of the ensemble are the male chorus. There are wolf calls and howls and bad boy behavior and lots of fun. All to prove Gilad Atzmon’s final line in his liner notes, “I am happy.”
“The Whistle Blower” is a brilliant album. Accomplished artistry and virtuosity along with self-effacing humor but—and this is supremely important—it is mostly about being authentic. As Gilad Atzmon is true to himself, he is not false to his listeners. He has let us look into his mirror.