Joyous, Wondrous Time as Atzmon Overwhelms

GA: This following is one of the most flattering reviews of my work as a writer, educator and a thinker. It probably explains why people are interested in my work, however,  it certainly explains why my detractors are in a state of constant tantrum…


By Jeff Merrifield

When we sat in the Mareel and heard Tim Garland’s Lighthouse Trio there was a general understanding that this was the pinnacle of performance, a truly enlightening experience, and we thought we would never see the like of it again. Just one month later, sitting in the Town Hall, Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House ensemble once more blew our minds and took us to heights of unimaginable musical rapture. However, there was an added ingredient here – entertainment. Gilad is a master showman with a hyperactive personality and knows very well how to give an audience a good time as well as musical thrills.

       The group were playing tunes from their latest album Songs of the Metropolis on the World Village record label. Atzmon is renowned for his virtuoso, high-speed, post-bop attack. This concept album explores more sober alternative territory, where nearly every song is a ballad and even the occasionally faster-paced tunes emit an aura of relative calm. Atzmon’s concept is to dedicate his pieces to individual cities, conjuring an atmosphere evocative of the essential flavour of these various places. Here we begin in Paris, with Atzmon putting down his sax in favour of a new interest in the accordion and he elicits a truly Parisian sound. Although he has long resided in London, that’s one of the obvious cities missing from this repertoire. He skirts from Berlin to Buenos Aires to Tel Aviv, and from Scarborough to ‘Somewhere in Italy’.

     Support was a series of duos from members of the Shetland Improvisers Orchestra. Norman Willmore and Hayden Hook played with their usual majesty and gave us six minutes of beautifully played improvisation. It is a good discipline and these two are getting particularly good at it. Next up Jill Slee Blackadder and Clare Aldington performed on a voice and recorder piece that reached transcendent levels of sounds, gorgeously enhanced by Stevie Hook special effects. It was another exceptional moment. I even played a bit of cornet myself in a little duet with pianist Lewis Hall, who has really taken to the improvisational style and never fails to impress his listeners. Gilad thinks he is a rare talent with a promising future.

It was indeed a sublime concert and I will long treasure it in my memory as it was also to celebrate my 70th birthday. Atzmon could not let that go without some musical references and some extensive jolly banter with me from stage to audience. For me it was a joyous, wondrous experience and I hope those who were there enjoyed and appreciated the uniqueness of those magic moments.

The next day Atzmon moved to the Islesburgh Centre to present one of his improvisation masterclass workshops. There were sixteen or seventeen people there and they had the musical education of their lives. He shared with us his philosophy of music as well as some profound technical tips. He began by outlining his concept of Consonance (i.e.continuance) and Dissonance (i.e. disruption), where patterns are often repeated to create interesting soundscapes, but if those soundscapes are not interrupted occasionally by factors of dissonance then they become pedestrian and even boring.

     On a practical level, he had those attending try out musical journeys such as ‘call and response’ or ‘repeat what was played’. He got the best out of the youngest and the eldest participants. Not least of all his qualities, he inspired people.

     Gilad said to me afterwards, “Was that okay?” “More than,” I replied. “I gave my all,” he said, “I don’t know any more.” What more could anyone ask for?

Directly following the workshop, Atzmon gave a talk based on his latest, best-selling book, The Wandering Who? Gilad Atzmon, it is safe to say, is obsessed with the whole notion of Jewish identity politics, indeed identity politics per se. He grew up in a strict Jewish household, pro-Israel, pro-Zionist. He learned that his grandfather had been a member of the infamous Irgun, who practiced sabotage and what we would now call terrorist attacks against the British occupying forces. Like all good Jewish boys, he joined the army to loyally fight for the cause. It was only when he was taken to guard a camp of Palestinian prisoners that he realised Israel was now responsible for setting up the exact sort of concentration camps that had so horrified the world in the wake of Adolph Hitler’s megalomania.

     He has become one of the leading writers, researchers and message bringers in matters of the Middle East and Identity Politics. As well as gaining the support of many of the world’s leading thinkers and philosophers on these matters, he has garnered many opponents and vociferous enemies. His wife, Tali, fears for his life. There is one particular group at the moment that is trying to get promoters of Orient House Ensemble to cancel their gigs. They tried to get me to cancel these last weekend events. They do this by spreading slur, rumour and unproven innuendo of a particular nasty nature. If evil be in the eye of the beholder then there is little doubt these are evil people.

His talk covered these topics in an intense, yet strangely entertaining way. It is his inspirational ‘hyperactive personality’ that caries him through. When he debated with the audience he showed a willingness to listen, but an overwhelming determination to stick to his own well-thought out and well-honed attachments.

     I described him in a previous article as a ‘Renaissance Man’. Having spent all weekend with him, I realise he is certainly that, but with an all-consuming passion that never allows him to let up. From waking to sleeping he is talking politics, examining positions, conversing with great academics, answering critics. At every meal, on every journey, on an idyllic trip round Wild Shetland with Jill Slee Blackadder, he cannot escape from his convictions and reasonings. It may be obsessive, but it is certainly dedicated and keenly felt.