Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble, Vortex

Monday, 15 February 2010 12:13

Atzmon:  Atzmon:
The force of Israeli-born Gilad Atzmon’s world view – his anti-Zionism, but also what Robert Wyatt, a self-confessed “Gilad groupie”, calls the “intrinsically non-racialist philosophy that's implicit in jazz” – comes through loud and clear in his stage banter. Not many jazzers namecheck the Chilcot Inquiry or dedicate tunes to “the biggest arseholes on the planet”: ie a good handful of (named) British and Israeli politicians.
Crucially, though, that ideology comes through at least as strongly in the saxophonist’s music, the mix of jazz and Middle Eastern folk music pursued by his now decade-old Orient House Ensemble making exactly the same political point. And, at least at this performance at London’s Vortex club, it’s a quite spectacular triumph in artistic terms too.

Without a doubt, Atzmon is a superb technician, yet he’s also a hugely charismatic, exuberant character, as is clear from his inter-song announcements. As typical as the political rhetoric is his demand that the venue install a gold plaque in his honour, even his description of the microphone as “a Jewish extension… to compensate for something we lose when we are very little”.

That same warmth and wit infuses his every note. Not only are his solos highly energetic, but the facial contortions suggest he remains just as deeply engaged even when dropping out to allow space for understated but impressive pianist Frank Harrison. Meanwhile, the rhythm section – long-serving Yaron Stavi, bass-playing as robust as his imposing physique, together with newcomer Eddie Hick on drums – are gloriously “in the pocket” throughout, whether tackling 5/4 gypsy-infused folk or a tongue-in-cheek oom-pah-pah waltz, apparently inspired by Atzmon’s “sheer, genuine, authentic love for Deutschland”.

The one slight questionmark surrounds guest Monooka, whose Romanian heritage introduces a welcome strain of Eastern European folk but whose vocals at times struggle to find their place within the group sound. That said, it’s early days – much of tonight’s material is so new it has yet to be named – and any failing is notable primarily because the set is otherwise so coherent. Atzmon’s discography extends from bebop to session work with Paul McCartney to a stint with the Blockheads, whose band T-shirt can be glimpsed beneath his jacket tonight; yet possibly his greatest gift is the ability, as a bandleader, to draw together these apparently diverse strands. Towards the end of the night, he even refers to “my favourite Palestinian composer, Louis Armstrong” – and at the time it almost makes sense.

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