Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 07/12/2013.

Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 07/12/2013.

Atzmon's performances blend strong writing and awesome instrumental technique with a high degree of professionalism, all this leavened by a healthy dose of humour. 

Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble,  Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 07/12/2013.

In January 2013 Gilad Atzmon released “Songs Of The Metropolis”, the latest album featuring his regular working band the Orient House Ensemble. Each track is dedicated to a different location, in the main the great cities of the world, but there are paeans to more modest settlements too. In many respects it’s Atzmon’s most mature album to date, stylistically diverse and less directly confrontational and overtly political than some of its predecessors. Instead it’s more of a celebration of the lifestyle of the globe trotting professional musician as Atzmon explains
“every night I fall asleep in a different town and most towns have their own colour, their own sound, their own song”.

I reviewed the album back in January 2013 and also reported on an excellent live show that took place at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny, just one of a string of dates that formed part of an extensive tour that not only promoted the album but also celebrated Gilad’s fiftieth birthday and the twentieth anniversary of his arrival in the UK from his native Israel.  More recently in 2013 Atzmon has been busy with a host of other projects and collaborations including playing on and producing Blockheads bassist Norman Watt Roy’s début solo album “Faith And Grace”.

But it’s the OHE that remains at the core of Atzmon’s diverse musical, literary and cultural activities and tonight’s performance found him returning to the “Songs of the Metropolis” repertoire. This was the third jazz event to be held at the Arena Theatre following hugely successful sell out appearances by the Zoe Rahman Quartet and The Impossible Gentlemen. The OHE show was similarly well attended and was yet another excellent advertisement for the new Jazz In Wolverhampton strand curated by Alison Vermee. Like both Zoe and the Gents Atzmon’s performances blend strong writing and awesome instrumental technique with a high degree of professionalism. All three acts are consistent performers who “put on a show” without ever becoming “showbiz” or suggesting any hint of compromise with regard to their artistic integrity. It’s also to Atzmon’s credit that during the afternoon he had conducted an improvisation workshop with a group of local students. 

Tonight’s OHE performance followed a similar pattern to the Abergavenny show with most of the material being drawn from the “Songs of the Metropolis” album. Atzmon was featured on alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet and accordion and he was aided and abetted by long term OHE stalwarts Frank Harrison (piano, keyboard, electronics) and Yaron Stavi (double bass). A bonus for the audience was the presence on drums of the popular Asaf Sirkis who came in for the missing Eddie Hick. Sirkis was the regular drummer for the OHE for a number of years, appearing on several albums before leaving to concentrate on his solo career and a variety of other sideman projects. The joy of Sirkis’ return to the fold was tempered by the news that pianist Gwilym Simcock had sustained a serious hand injury when playing five a side football. Surgery was required and although Gwilym is expected to make a full recovery he’s been forced to cancel a number of dates with the Lighthouse Trio, thus freeing Sirkis up for tonight’s engagement. All at The Jazzmann wish Gwilym a complete and speedy recovery. 

And so to tonight’s music which began with Atzmon on accordion as the group paid homage to “Paris”. Harrison’s gently lyrical piano solo was accompanied by Sirkis’ delicately brushed grooves.
Atzmon subsequently returned on clarinet sliding a number of stylised, very obviously “French” quotes into his solo in the form of “The Marseillaise” and Charles Aznavour’s “She”. Earlier in the year I wrote of Atzmon celebrating a “romantic, idealised Paris”, a Paris “as it should have been” or the way Atzmon had “dreamed it would be”. Nearly twelve months on he seems ready to send up his own material and have a little fun with it, an attitude that spilled over into his between tunes patter which combined bawdy humour with bantering with the crowd. Some of it was surreal or just plain daft but there was little of the political proselytising and anger of yore. Gilad was here to have a little fun with Harrison, the only Englishman in an otherwise all Israeli line up the butt of many of the jokes.   

“Tel Aviv”, a musical depiction of Atzmon’s birthplace was more urgent and bustling with Atzmon’s soprano and Harrison’s piano skipping lightly over Stavi’s powerful bass lines and Sirkis’ driving drumming. The piece seemed less obviously angry than it had done previously as Atzmon continued to take liberties with his own tunes. Here we had the fresh ingredient of Atzmon and Stavi chanting the words “disco, disco” during the closing stages of the piece.

The album notes declared “Moscow” to have been written “in honour of greatness”.  Harrison’s introduction on grand piano accompanied by the gentle thunder of Sirkis’ mallet rumbles was suitably grandiose as Atzmon moved between alto sax and accordion and Stavi produced a splendidly resonant double bass solo, his sound was huge all night. Atzmon’s alto feature re-introduced a little of the humour that was so much a feature of the first half (both musically and verbally).

While searching for a tune and location to honour his adopted homeland Atzmon rejected what he perceived as the increasing homogenity of London and opted instead for Scarborough. I’m sure that this was partly in acknowledgement of the town’s annual jazz festival but the choice also gave him the opportunity of taking the melody of the folk song “Scarborough Fair” and transforming it into a modal tour de force in much the same way as John Coltrane liberated “My Favourite Things”. The piece is in many ways the focal point of the album and began here with Atzmon pointing the bell of his soprano into the raised lid of Harrison’s piano to conjure an astonishing degree of echo and resonance from the strings, a quality further enhanced by Harrison’s subtle sound treatments. As Atzmon picked out the familiar melody things progressed to a full sax/piano duet with Stavi and Sirkis subtly entering the fray as the music became more modal and Atzmon’s saxophone probings more Coltrane like. As the intensity gathered Atzmon’s playing became ever more passionate and Sirkis’ drumming increasingly dynamic. But even here there was still room for humour with Atzmon’s quote from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” and Harrison’s allusion to the lullaby “Rock a Bye Baby” during an extended piano trio interlude with features for bass and drums. Overall this was a tour de force, a homage as much to Coltrane as to Scarborough or England.

In a brief moment of seriousness Atzmon paid tribute to the recently departed Nelson Mandela and also paid homage to British jazz great Stan Tracey who left us at much the same time. However the mood was soon lightened by “Berlin” which closed the first set, 

a kitsch beer hall sing along featuring Stavi’s bowed bass and Atzmon on alto with the leader introducing the band as his henchmen warbled the chorus and made other silly vocal interjections.

The feel of the second set was very different with Atzmon talking much less (he’d arguably overdone the verbals on the first half) and with the music generally darker in mood and intensity. All of the tightly constrained passion of tango was expressed in “Buenos Aires” with Atzmon on acerbic alto and Stavi on brooding arco bass. Harrison’s piano solo offered a balancing sense of lyricism with Sirkis providing finely judged brushed accompaniment.

From the 2007 OHE album “Refuge” the tune “The Burning Bush” was the focal point of the second set and a true tour de force. Atzmon’s blistering alto soloing was enhanced by Sirkis’ volcanic drumming with Harrison using the electronic gadgetry at his disposal to manipulate Atzmon’s voice. An extended Sirkis drum feature saw Atzmon switch to accordion, his drones augmented by Harrison’s synth in an unsettling duet before Harrison moved back to the piano for a more conventional solo. Eventually the piece culminated with a further, more orthodox duet between Harrison on piano and Atzmon on alto.  This piece, the title either a biblical allusion or a barbed reference to a certain ex US president, has been a staple of the OHE’s live sets for many years yet each treatment is subtly different to the last.

Atzmon had stopped talking altogether by now and moved to clarinet for the next item, a title I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but a piece that incorporated some of Atzmon’s most obviously klezmer/Middle Eastern” style playing of the set.

The evening closed with a kind of “Outro” featuring Atzmon on alto and the humorous four way vocalising of all the members of the group (Sirkis a little reluctantly I thought, but Stavi loving every minute of it). This was augmented by the salsa stylings of the title track from the “Refuge” album. A light-hearted way to finish a more intense, but in many ways more enjoyable set.

The band exited briefly but quickly returned for an encore in the form of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia” with Atzmon on alto, often blowing off mic but with no real discernible loss of volume or power. The quartet tackled the tune in a fairly straight ahead manner, the style more blues/r’n'b than bebop and with Atzmon only bringing in his characteristic klezmer/Middle Eastern flourishes towards the end. An interesting but absorbing and enjoyable choice.

An evening in the company of Gilad Atzmon is never dull and this was an enjoyable gig that was very well received. However one senses that Atzmon has taken the “Songs of the Metropolis” project as far as he wants it to go and that it’s time to look forward to the next step on one of the most fascinating career paths in modern music.