Gig Review-Gilad Atzmon Trio, wall2wall Jazz Festival

By Ian Mann


Despite the rapidly plunging autumnal temperatures Mike Skilton decided to stage the festival’s closing set by Gilad Atzmon on the outside bandstand, I think he wanted to get his money’s worth out of the lights that had been installed. It was a bit parky out there and on reflection the event might have been better off being staged in the intimate atmosphere of the club room where Atzmon had generated such a buzz the night before as part of Sarah Gillespie’s trio. However in the end with an inspired Atzmon blowing hot the temperature hardly seemed to matter as one of BMJ’s favourite artists ended the festival on a high note.

Originally Atzmon had been scheduled to appear with his Power Cats trio, an organ combo featuring Asaf Sirkis on drums and Ross Stanley on Hammond. In the event Stanley was unable to appear and Atzmon replaced him with double bassist Tim Thornton which meant that we saw a rather different show to the one advertised. Not that this seemed to bother anybody, the music was significantly different to that of the Orient House Ensemble who had visited BMJ back in January. Instead of the focus being placed on original material this was instead a homage to Atzmon’s all time saxophone heroes Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and featured the rare sight of Atzmon on tenor. It was all reminiscent of Atzmon’s earliest days in the UK, incredibly this year represents the twentieth anniversary of his coming to Britain, a milestone that will be celebrated in November with a special concert performance at the 2013 London Jazz Festival.

In those early days Atzmon used to perform in the trio format and recorded a now unavailable album, “Take It Or Leave It” in the company of bassist Val Manix and drummer Sam Anstice Brown, it’s the only Atzmon album I’ve never heard. Atzmon says that he still loves playing in this configuration and in Sirkis and Thornton he had the perfect partners. Sirkis’ relentless polyrhythmic flow was the perfect fuel for Atzmon’s flights of fancy on a variety of reeds instruments while Thornton’s muscular but agile and always receptive bass playing was the perfect anchor. In the main this was a high energy performance that mixed virtuoso musicianship with Atzmon’s trademark off the wall humour. As usual the combination was irresistible, even as the mercury continued to fall.

Atzmon began on alto with a segue of the standards “I Can’t Get Started” and “Alone Together” delighting in the ironies and significances of the titles. A switch to clarinet for “Nancy With The Laughing Face”, with Atzmon using his clarinet to replicate the merriment suggested by this title, peels of notes imitating gales of laughter. 

He began on alto for Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait” but following a typically fluent and forceful Thonton bass solo he also picked up his tenor to give us a burst of the Roland Kirk “two horns” thing, something familiar to rock audiences courtesy of Van Der Graaf Generator’s David Jackson and Atzmon’s Blockheads predecessor Davey Payne. Following this crowd pleasing piece of showmanship he put down the tenor and entered into a series of thrilling alto and drum exchanges with the brilliant Sirkis. “He’s called Asaf ‘cos he plays his ass off!” declared an excited Atzmon.

Excursions on tenor have been something of a rarity for Atzmon over the years but recently he seems to have acquired a fascination for the music of John Coltrane that rivals his ongoing Charlie Parker obsession. His unique take on “Once I Had A Secret Love” featured a second sax/drum stand off and threw in a quote from “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Also played on the larger horn “Like Someone In Love” featured a brilliant Thornton solo and an equally jaw dropping solo tenor sax cadenza.

Atzmon had already given us his impressions of Parker, Kirk and Coltrane and as Sirkis set up a fast boogaloo beat the saxophonist now became David Sanborn. The title of this item was never given but it was notable for a stunning drum feature from Sirkis, his percussive pyrotechnics accompanied by the honks and squawks of Atzmon’s alto. A Thornton bass solo provided the bridge into a call and response section with Atzmon encouraging the audience to sing increasingly complicated bebop scat vocal lines back to him. “They couldn’t afford Courtney Pine”  joked Atzmon, “so I’m doing this for fifty quid”. 

The performance ended with a version of “Wonderful World”, a song that has had several interpretations by Atzmon over the years.

This was a great way to end the first wall2wall Festival.  Atzmon is an awesome technician and a superb if sometimes provocative showman. This freewheeling set performed with two equally brilliant exponents of their respective instruments mixed technical excellence with a spirit of fun and adventure with Atzmon clearly enjoying the freedom provided by the trio format. Incredible feats of musicianship were accompanied by laugh out loud moments of verbal and musical humour with Atzmon slipping all sorts of outlandish and outrageous quotes into his solos. The guy’s a force of nature, his performances Kerouac style “streams of consciousness”. The audience loved it, nobody was noticing the cold by the end.