Music Review: Gilad With Strings @ Ronnie Scott's (****)

As his long-time followers will know, there are two Gilad Atzmons. One is the expat political activist-cum-philosopher who can quote Hegel and enjoys making the sort of incendiary comments about Zionism that are usually hidden away in the murkier end of the internet. The other is the nonconformist saxophonist who blends bebop virtuosity with the immediacy and intensity of folk rhythms from the Balkans and the Middle East.

It was the latter, thankfully, who had the upper hand in this celebration of Charlie Parker’s with-strings recordings. Between numbers, the verbal sallies, rendered in Atzmon’s gruff Israeli accent, were mostly confined to opaque jokes at the expense of the Milibands, not to mention Marxists who can afford the admission prices at Ronnie Scott’s. The audience often didn’t quite know what to make of his muttered asides, and you sometimes had the impression that Atzmon, ever the contrarian, enjoyed their discomfort.
But his music spoke to the heart as well as the head. Instead of going for airbrushed, note-perfect reproductions of the originals, he imposed his own vision, his band improvising opposite the Sigamos String Quartet led by violinist and arranger Ros Stephen. The settings on the vintage Parker tracks come with a coating of Hollywood treacle. Here, the sound was leaner and much more angular.
The programme pushed forward into the modern era too. A heavily disguised What Is This Thing Called Love? was suspended over a funky beat, the strings largely confined to a spartan but atmospheric two-bar phrase. Atzmon’s own piece, Moscow — taken from his recent album Songs of the Metropolis — was rather more long-winded and portentous. But earlier on, when he asked us to imagine what Parker might have played if he had been raised in Gaza, his reedy, nasal timbre charted a stark and compelling new path.