By Elfyn Griffith, September 12, 2017
“Do you like John Coltrane?” asks Gilad Atzmon with an ironic smile after he and his band The Orient House Ensemble have opened tonight with a beautiful cover of Duke Ellington’s In A Sentimental Mood, Atzmon’s clarinet soaring deliciously above the melody, like Coltrane’s in the original.
Describing tonight as ‘Coltrane light’ this constantly touring sax supremo – who the Guardian once described as ‘the hardest-gigging man in British jazz’ – and his excellent band pay homage to one of the greatest jazzmen of all time with The Spirit of Trane.
John Coltrane, who died 50 years ago, was the most influential tenor saxophonist in jazz history, and while the sonic power of his music can never be overlooked his experimentalism confused some jazz audiences back in the day. As Atzmon says, he once emptied a gig in London in just seven minutes. No chance of that tonight though, as this is over ten minutes into tonight’s set and the warmth and feel that this amusing, supremely gifted and controversial figure gives to Coltrane’s sound is infectious.
Atzmon is an exiled Israeli and political activist who has courted controversy with articles and books about the injustices in the Middle East, but his philosophy and music has always sought to surmount boundaries and barriers and encompass different cultures. His band are named after the former East Jerusalem HQ of the PLO, Orient House. He’s also played with many people outside the jazz lexicon such as Ian Dury & The Blockheads and Pink Floyd to name but two.
Amid the lovely renditions of Coltrane’s material tonight, Atzmon’s natural comic talent comes to the fore, whether it’s joking with his drummer the versatile Enzo Zirilli about Brexit or about his own prostate problems, and how the bass clarinet could come in handy as a stage toilet (!), his big character comes to the fore.
And speaking of big characters, the huge frame of double bassist Yaron Stavi, concentration etched on his features as he strolls the strings of his bass with feeling, is a delight. As are the quite astounding touches and flourishes of pianist Frank Harrison. This is a gifted, tight unit, who’ve been together for a long time and flow and complement each other naturally.
Atzmon’s sturdy interpretation of Bronislaw Kaper’s Invitation after its moody build up is followed by a poignant My Favourite Things/Scarborough Fair with its playful and esoteric asides, and Sinatra’s Nancy (With the laughing face), before ending with the swing-edged Big Nick.
The second half starts with this multi-instrumentalist reed player switching again from bass clarinet to tenor sax and giving us the epic Impressions, a tour de force of tonality with astounding bass and piano contributions.
Breezy, confident, exceptionally innovative playing throughout and after this Trane feast including the seductive My One and Only Love and the hard bop of Giant Steps they end with their own composition, the hauntingly atmospheric Oblivion.
“You are imprisoned with the most disturbing jazz to come out of the US in the sixties,” Atzmon had told us earlier. Well, our incarceration was a treat.
Photo by Elfyn Griffith