For the past two decades Israeli born, British based saxophonist, author and political provocateur Gilad Atzmon has matched his incendiary and controversial opinions with a relentlessly questioning attitude to the establishment and his own identity. With 15 albums to his name- backed by his rip-roaring Orient House Ensemble - Atzmon's latest, The Whistle Blower, is perhaps his most compelling to date. His Garrulous playing both mesmerizing and melancholic by turns. Stewart Nicholson discovers the outspoken polymath is still searching for answers in today's polemical maelstrom through passion, humour and politics.
By Stuart Nicholson
Being persistently iconoclastic is not easy work. Fueled by passion, it’s a commodity that can dim with the passage of time. But not the passion that burns within Gilad Atzmon, as his latest album The Whistle Blower reveals. It’s his most personal statement to date, his fifteenth since making Spiel in 1993, and it’s as revealing about the man as it is about his music. At once powerful, thoughtful and humorous, it’s also compelling and accomplished, comprising eight original compositions that see the leader featured on saxophones and clarinet together with his regular, working band The Orient House Ensemble. Formed in 2000 and since 2009 comprising Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass and Eddie Hick on drums — the latter replaced by Chris Higginbottom in 2014 — its a band that has grown in tandem with Atzmon’s own evolving stature as an artist. If consumer demand is the only acceptable measure of popularity, then Gilad Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble must surely be the most popular jazz attraction in the UK, evidenced by an exhausting tour schedule detailed on gilad.co.uk that relentlessly criss-crosses the length and breadth of the UK from now until spring. No wonder he has picked up the sobriquet “The hardest gigging jazz musician in Britain” among musicians and promoters, reflecting a mixture of admiration and how-does-he-do-it awe.
With whistleblowing well and truly in the news in recent times, from highlighting shortcomings in public office, the National health Service and national security (big brother is watching), the choice of album title reflects Atzmon’s counter-intuitive sense of humour, which in live performance can be as off-the-wall as the great Jackie Mason. “It’s a very funny title because I am regarded by many of my supporters as a whistleblower,” Atzmon reflects. “But I called the album The Whistleblower, as on the title track we are whistling [sings part of theme and does wolf-whistle] — it’s a very Italian tune. Very Nino Rota, Fellini could have taken it for one of his films, you know what I mean? It came to me a few months ago when I was driving home after a gig, long journey, I was with Enzo Zirlli, the Italian drummer, and I said, ‘This drive is fucking boring,’ so he showed me [a photo of] this gorgeous Italian woman, Moana Pozzi, to lighten the atmosphere. This woman used to have a TV show in Italy and was fucking politicians and other important people, and someone saw her in a porn film and so she had to step down from TV but she said, ‘Listen, I love making love.’ She became the most famous sex star in Italy, she wrote a book, where she marked famous men between one to five — Italian politicians and so on — incredible woman, she died in ’94 [age 33]. And it reminded me, when I was young, when we saw a good looking girl we knew how to show our appreciation [wolf whistles], and then political correctness! They stopped blowing the whistle! So this tune is my protest, we cannot start to talk about truth until we can appreciate real beauty. Is that outrageous??”
The album opens with a powerful “Gaza Mon Amour” — “I like to get people’s attention on the first track” — while the rest of the album comprises six laments, including “For Moana” dedicated to the late Italian beauty plus the album’s title track. Taken together — “Gaza Mon Amour,” the six laments and “The Whistleblower” — the album represent three quite distinct strands of Atzmon’s musical personality, “Yes,” agrees Atzmon, “I do have this funny Gilad, I have this very nostalgic Gilad, not sad but lamenting, and I have this localised, as you define it, Gilad.” The first Gilad is revealed with “Gaza Mon Amour,” which is a combination of — as his website says — “great bebop artistry and Middle-Eastern roots in a sophisticated, sometimes ironical manner influenced by Coltrane’s powerful approach on the sax” that might be called “Glocal” jazz, or a conflation of Global jazz (bebop and Coltrane have followers around the globe) and the Local (the music of the Middle East and Eastern Europe). This aspect of Atzmon’s personality was most memorably explored in Exile (2004), on tracks such as “Al Quds” (an Arabic interpretation of an Israeli tune fuelled by Coltrane’s inspiration) which number among the saxophonist’s finest work (Exile was a BBC Album of the Year) that suggests an area of music not yet fully explored. The second Gilad is expressed through a series of laments — “Forever,” “The Romantic Church,” “Let Us Pray,” “To Be Free” and “Moana” — that presents a different emotional climate, and actually grows out of the deep emotional feelings first expressed in the album Nostalgico (2001) and Exile (2003) and a recurring theme in subsequent albums, such as “We Lament” in The Tide Has Changed (2010). “I am getting more and more interested in belonging, and its very frustrating, because I don’t belong here, it’s your country, it’s not my country, so I am interested in these issues. My music is a reflection on belonging — instead of lamenting my symptoms I am celebrating my symptoms. As I get older, and become more and more critical of the left mode of thinking as I understand more and more the power of belonging, of nostalgia, I am not a very political person but that is what makes UKIP so strong when you drive in the countryside. That is exactly what happened in Scotland, fuck this multicultural, we want to be Scottish! I understand it.” Atzmon neither condones or condemns these trends that have their roots in longing for an idealised homeland or more accurately heimat — he simply understands the emotions that give rise to them from his own experience as an “exile” who is “unwelcome in my home country.” Continuing the theme, he explains, “’Romantic Church,’ for me is the early music I started to listen to when I started to listen to jazz and has a very romantic alto, ‘Let Us Pray’ which is very Coltrane, the song ‘To Be Free,’ these are the most elementary feelings we have.”
The third Gilad emerges from his sense of humour that contributes to the charisma of his live performances and expressed in the title track of The Whistleblower — “I teach all these English people to whistle [wolf whistles] and I tell them to imagine a beautiful girl, and if there is a room with 150 people and they are whistling like mad, big liberation. We have fun!’ While this is not jazz, it serves to make a broader point, the absurdness of political correctness that surfaced when he first saw a photo of Moana Pozzi and wolf whistled, “I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was, if I was to see her in the street I would whistle, I would cry, I would do anything, this is what I want to do when I see a beautiful woman, I want to scream and when I see political correctness I want to scream as well!” Using musical humour to make a political point was also true of albums such as Artie Fischel and the Promised Band (2006) or MusiK (2004). “But always in my humour there is this aspect of belligerence, an assertive, rebellious, statement. Artie Fischel was just humorous and after that the amount of death threats I got was more than I ever got from my writing. They told me they would kill me if I went on the road with that. And why? I said in Artie Fischel that if you can take the land off the people you can take music from people — so its nothing much if you can take the music from the Black people and say it’s Jewish if you feel you can take their land. And they knew, you know, because it was Artie Fischel and the Promised Band.”
Because Atzmon is something of a Renaissance Man — the author of best selling books A Guide to the Perplexed, My One and Only Love and The Wandering Who? A Study in Jewish Identity Politics which have been translated into over 12 languages — it raises the point whether some issues are best expressed through the printed word rather than through music, since, for example, the meaning and purpose of the final track “The Whistleblower” is unclear. “This is a very crucial question. As you probably know — I know what you are thinking about ‘Whistleblower,’ you think I don’t know it doesn’t belong? But this is me — I am struggling with this issue, most people struggle to have one successful career, lots of people have one successful career, I am having at least two extremely successful careers, and they are not parallel, they are like two sine [waves], sometimes they are crossing each other, sometimes they are parallel, and they might — its totally arbitrary. But you’re right. What I created is a big red question mark. What the fuck is he doing?? Why Fellini? It is my nostalgia, I grew up on Fellini. I don’t have any doubt but for me, each album I have an idiotic track! I record the album, takes 5 or 6 hours, maybe 2 days, the idiotic track takes much more time! I spend much more money on that, much more energy, because I have to record it, and overdub and singing, shape its production.”
The inner complexities expressed in The Whistleblower represent the strong, often competing undercurrents in Atzmon’s music that make it so compelling and give shape to Atzmon’s musical personality, the musical polymath Robert Wyatt praising his “great artistry.” “When I played on Cuckooland for Robert Wyatt,” recalls Atzmon, “It was the first time I was really proud of my Arabic clarinet playing. The way Robert is doing covers he takes a tune he really likes, and then he takes different musicians and you play over the original track and he builds and builds on it, then he removes the original track and it’s a completely different track! So he brought me in and told me, ‘You play the part of the Palestinian singer Amal Murkus’ and it was a long session, it was like three hours, and I was doing it bit by bit, maybe two bars at a time and one bar by bar at a time and at the end of the session I was tired and exhausted, and he gave me a CD and I didn’t want to listen to it but then I played it in the car and WOW! It’s amazing, yet this is exactly how you learn to play jazz, you have to learn to listen!”
In more recent times, Atzmon was called upon to appear on The Endless River, the fifteenth and probably last Pink Floyd album released in September 2014 that broke the record for the most pre-ordered album in Amazon’s history, such was the stir it created. “I was invited to the studio, I didn’t realise it was Pink Floyd, I knew it was David [Gilmour] and thought it was a solo project, but when I was in the studio I realised it was actually something, I wouldn’t want to say slightly bigger for me to play on Pink Floyd, but I am 51 and I grew up on this music, it was quite a thing! It was interesting because I am not the classic English rock player of the era, I am more ‘American’ so to play on this Pink Floyd album wasn’t natural for me, and Dave really knows exactly what he wants, it was like the old days — a lot of takes. Then I told him, ‘Can I try something completely different?’ And I did that, I did it in one take on my Turkish clarinet! [on the track ‘Us and Them].”
Clearly one thing is certain — Atzmon is not a musician who can be neatly pigeon-holed in this category or that, he is simply a great musician whose musical odyssey, with all its surprising twists and surprising turns, has never lacked interest, as The Whistleblower reveals. “There is one thing about me,” he says. “I know where I am going to play in three months or four, I even know my next two books, but basically I don’t get too involved with my life. When people ask me what next, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I let the music lead me, I want to live like a jazz musician, if my music wants to go in one direction, it will take me with it.”
To Buy The Whistle Blower online: