Gilad Atzmon gets globetrotting at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – EFG London Jazz Festival 2013

Gilad Atzmon’s performances inspire a quirky and contradictory set of adjectives not usually applied to other jazz musicians: exuberant, belligerent, droll, generous, unapologetic, outrageous, exquisite, tragi-comic, edgy, folksy, caricatured, tumultuous… should I go on? It’s that edge-of-your-seat quality that I like so much; never quite knowing either in a solo, a setlist or his guest line-up, what’s going to happen next to deliberately disrupt the flow.

Tonight’s show was no exception, beginning with a whistle-stop tour of a few favourite cities: ‘Paris’, ‘Tel Aviv’, and ‘Moscow’. Yaron Stavi (bass), Frank Harrison (keys) and Eddie Hick (drums) who make up the other three quarters of the Orient House Ensemble, know how to conjure up a sense of place that’s vibrant and dynamic. But the OHE were just the opening act in terms of what Gilad had up his sleeve. Having warmed up his instruments (accordion, clarinet, soprano, alto), wound up his audience with some nicely non-PC jokes, and chatted up the very fine Sigamos String Quartet, arranged and led by Ros Stephen, ‘the hippies’ – Jennifer Bennett (violin and viola de gamba) and Yair Avidor (theorbo) – joined him on stage for the deconstructed and expansive ‘Scarborough (Fair)’ and ‘Leipzig’, a rendition of a portion of Bach’s St Matthew passion. The set ended impeccably with a tour through sleazy, carnivalesque ‘Berlin’.

Having reminded us of his credentials as a ridiculously good musician and bandleader, Atzmon risked turning set two into a variety show, were it not for the caliber and authenticity of his chosen acts. Opening with the wonderfully gritty songstress and collaborator Sarah Gillespie, he successfully interlaced raucous bluesy rock and roll with highly tasteful schmalz (is that a contradiction in terms?). Towards the end of a run of gorgeous ballads performed with strings à la Bird (‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’, ‘Laura’), I found myself longing for something rough and abrasive, when on came Norman Watt-Roy, the unstoppable rogue who ploughed around the stage while his hands moved at lightning speed over the neck of his electric bass for ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’. Atzmon’s body language subtly changed to become the Blockheads’ sax sideman, reserving his tenor and his intervalic effects-pedal for this moment, so he could rock out as a complete horn-section. By the time Wilko Johnson joined them on stage, I felt like I was at a stadium gig, and judging by Asaf Sirkis’ grinning and drumming behind them, they were all having an unexpectedly good time.

Eclectic is an understatement: everyone knows Atzmon’s not a catholic, but he has catholic taste, enjoying a broad musical church in his pleasingly defiant way that brooks no valid criticism, being far from indiscriminate. Music remains Atzmon’s escape valve, where he can work off any pent-up political turmoil and iron out residual identity issues in the most effective way possible. He’s a very compelling thinker, writer and comedian, but I sincerely hope he never stops playing jazz.

– Sarah Chaplin