Ian Mann-Songs of the Metropolis


Friday, January 25, 2013

Reviewed by: Ian Mann


Songs of the Metropolis

Atzmon has produced his most mature, and in many ways his most diverse, work to date. 

Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble

“Songs of the Metropolis”

(World Village Records)

Gilad Atzmon is no stranger to the Jazzmann web pages be it as a multi instrumentalist, composer, author or political activist. So I’ll largely spare you (and myself) the historical spiel with which I normally begin my reviews. Since he moved to London from his native Israel in the late 1990’s the indefatigable Atzmon has become a major figure on the UK jazz scene releasing a series of fine albums with his working group the Orient House Ensemble as well as being a prolific sideman (across a variety of genres from tango to the Blockheads)  and an in demand producer. He’s routinely described as the “hardest working man in jazz” (although Seb Rochford must push him pretty close) and his new OHE album “Songs of the Metropolis” is a reflection of his well travelled lifestyle.

Atzmon has played music all over the globe and the album’s nine compositions are named after some of the world’s great cities- and, er, Scarborough. As Atzmon explained to Andy Robson in the February 2013 edition of “Jazzwise” magazine the album is a step back from the politics of anger that have shaped his music for so long. It’s not that he’s changed his views, he’s merely tired of repeating them (musically at least) and with “Songs of the Metropolis” he’s looking to explore areas of greater emotional and political ambiguity. It’s partly a celebration of Atzmon’s lifestyle - “Every night I fall asleep in a different town and most towns have their own colour, their own sound, their own song”.

In its way, like Atzmon’s earlier homage to Charlie Parker “In Loving Memory of America”, this is a record that expresses love not hate, but it’s still filtered through the spectrum of Atzmon’s political views and it’s this that gives the record much of it’s bite. To love the world and humanity in general and yet to hate the way it’s organised and governed seems to me to be far from contradictory and it’s a world view that shapes the sound of many of my favourite musicians from folk rock titans Oysterband to the OHE.

“Songs…” features Atzmon on alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet and accordion and he’s joined by long serving members Frank Harrison (piano, keyboards) and Yaron Stavi (bass) plus relative newcomer Eddie Hick (drums). Their eclectic world tour begins in “Paris” with Harrison’s lyrical solo piano intro and Atzmon’s surprisingly tender clarinet, the latter subsequently swooping up into “Rhapsody in Blue” soaring magnificence. There’s a dash of accordion too to give that authentic French flavour with the whole underpinned by Stavi’s resonant bass lines. It’s a romantic, idealised Paris, a Paris as it should have been, the way Atzmon “had dreamed it would be”. Atzmon’s website has a brief shorthand description/dedication for each piece with “Paris” said to have been written “in the name of love”.

“Tel Aviv” with its bustling grooves and Middle Eastern inflected reeds is more typical Atzmon albeit containing a more reflective central passage. Nostalgia is a central theme of the album and even here there is a sense of yearning. Atzmon’s website alludes to “Tel Aviv” as “the birth of the tragedy”, an oblique political reference. But for the listener it’s all about the music with the dynamic Hick and the ever receptive Harrison responding to Atzmon’s every move with aplomb and Harrison’s judicious use of electronics enhancing the atmosphere.

The brooding “Buenos Aires” is quoted as being “for the pathos”. The bite of Atzmon’s horn is cushioned by lyrical piano and bowed bass. There’s a dark, simmering quality about Atzmon’s playing, his trademark passion bubbling just beneath the surface.

It’s not normally in Atzmon’s nature to confirm to stereotypes but “Vienna” does actually turn out to be a waltz. Written “for the charm of sweetness” it features Atzmon at his most yearning and wistful as Harrison adds a sprinkling of electronic fairy dust and makes pianistic allusions to Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby”. With its tinkling glockenspiel it’s a wilful attempt to be beautiful (like the earlier “Paris”) but even this self conscious loveliness becomes a political act in Atzmon’s hands -“beauty is perhaps the last true form of spiritual resistance” he declares, “the song is there to counter detachment and alienation”.

“Manhattan” is also close to type with a hypnotic, shuffling groove and an urban, after hours ambience. It’s written “in loving memory of America”, an allusion to the earlier album but Atzmon’s lithe soprano doesn’t really sound anything like Charlie Parker. Harrison, who excels throughout delivers a joyous piano solo, a wonderfully versatile player he interprets the album’s varying moods with considerable aplomb.

Arguably the collection’s stand out piece is “Scarborough”, a ten minute piece that extemporises on the folk melody of “Scarborough Fair” with Atzmon indelibly stamping his own identity on his source material. The music grows from a delicate sax/piano intro, gradually escalating through increasingly intense modal patterns to embrace full blooded sax wailing in the manner of John Coltrane. The intensity then wanes before rising again through an increasingly expansive and equally brilliant Harrison piano solo before the piece resolves itself with a lyrical restatement of the theme.
Reviewing the album in the “Irish Times” Cormac Larkin compared Atzmon and Harrison to Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and the song to Coltrane’s sublime take on the similarly unlikely “My Favourite Things” which is pretty much spot on. Besides the musical possibilities Atzmon presumably chose the piece to honour Scarborough Jazz Festival. His note “as opposed to London” is also intriguing, although he lives in the capital and despite London’s apparent multi-culturalism Atzmon still feels that London is becoming increasingly homogeneous with no real identity of its own.

“Moscow” (“in honour of greatness”) combines the sense of a great power (huge piano chords, rolling toms) with that familiar sense of yearning as Atzmon doubles on reeds and accordion. There’s a lovely feature for Stavi’s double bass in the middle of the tune and a passage of delicately lyrical piano from Harrison, both admirably supported by the subtly nuanced drumming of Hick. Embracing two very different moods in the course of a single piece this is an excellent piece of writing, one of many such.

“Somewhere in Italy” (“but not too far from home”) is full of pastoral lyricism with delightful solos from Atzmon and Harrison but there’s still fire in Atzmon’s playing. Overall this may be OHE’s most reflective and openly beautiful album to date but it is emphatically not bland. By allowing himself to relax and to soften his attack Atzmon has produced his most mature, and in many ways his most diverse, work to date. My promo copy doesn’t make clear who is responsible for the production but the sound is immaculate throughout with Harrison’s piano sounding particularly lustrous.

Having said all that Atzmon still can’t resist a joke. The closing “Berlin” (“ a farewell to productivity”)  is a brief but humorous beer hall stomp featuring accordion and all four members of the OHE raising their voices in a mock boozy chorus. It’s a style that owes something to the pieces “Dry Fear” and “We Laugh” that bookended the previous OHE album “The Tide Has Changed”.

The OHE are currently on a mammoth UK tour to promote the album. I’ll be seeing their lunch time show in Abergavenny and I’m really looking forward to reporting back on that.   


25 The Victory Club,  Cheltenham

1 Fleece Jazz, Suffolk
2 606 London
5 Brook Theatre, Chatham
8 St Mary’s Church Wivenhoe
9   Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth
10 The Swan Hotel, Abergavenny (lunch time)
10 Chapel Arts,  Bath (evening)
14 The Boat House Broxbourne
15 The Verdict,  Brighton
21 Album Launch Pizza Express Jazz Club Dean Street, Soho , London

22 Album Launch Pizza Express Jazz Club Dean Street, Soho , London

23 Album Launch Pizza Express Jazz Club Dean Street, Soho , London
24 Jags, Ascot
27 Y Theatre, Leicester

2 Posk Jazz Café, London
5 The Stable, Milton Keynes
7 Bonington Theatre, Arnold,  Nottingham
9 St.Marys, Sandwich
10 -12 Town Hall, Shetland Island + master classes
13 Jazz Bar Edinburgh
14 Jazz Bar Edinburgh
15 The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, Cumbria
16 Band on the Wall, Manchester
17, Herts Jazz, Welwyn Garden City

More information at http://www.gilad.co.uk