Sunday, February 1, 2009

Gilad Atzmon 31/1/09: Hope you like our new direction...


Okay, so he didn't actually say that, but...

He was brilliant, channelling Parker and Coltrane (and to my ear bits of Dexter Gordon and George Coleman) in staggering, break-neck improvisations on classic standards like I Didn't Know What Time It Was. In his previous records there was always so much else to marvel at - the sound, melding jazz with Middle Eastern influences, the writing, the overall conception - that his virtuoso playing was rather over-looked, or noted almost in passing; now, out-front in a straightahead jazz quartet playing straightahead jazz standards, it's unmistakable. And yet, if that isn't exactly damning with faint praise, it ought to be; after all, what is mere virtuosity and brilliance when one is expecting, on the basis of past performances, something extraordinary?

The new album, In Loving Memory of America is officially launched in March; I picked up a copy last night and so have listened to it only twice as yet. It's a tribute to his memories of the idea of America, from hearing Bird With Strings at the age of 17; new versions of some of the songs from that album and some of his own, with long-standing playing partners and a string quartet. It's lovely (you can hear the version of Everything Happens to Me at www.gilad.co.uk), some of the playing is fabulous, and, heaven help us, it would do very well as background music for the next drinks party. Maybe it will grow on me, maybe it will become a favourite - but for quite different reasons than those for which I love his earlier work. Those albums were instantly distinctive and unforgettable, even the bits I didn't take to at first (or ever). They were angry and passionate and dramatic and over the top; this one is tasteful and lovely and, well, nice.

What struck me most last night was his declaration that until now he's been playing a sort of 'world music' rather than jazz. At the time I thought, or hoped, that it might be a joke, but on his website he's advertising this as The Real Jazz Quartet, and stating that "Eschewing the political rhetoric, Atzmon now lets the music do the talking". Well, yes, his political outbursts at gigs could occasionally be a little toe-curling, and heaven knows he's had enough grief for them over the years, but the music made his political points far more effectively than his words, extending the language of jazz to encompass different musical traditions and introducing the freedom and adventure of jazz to those traditions. And now he wants to label that as 'world music' and start a campaign for Real Jazz?

Obviously musicians have the right to follow their muse, and to claim credit for their musical skills as well as their political stance and trendy multi-culturalism. But actually I think I do have the right to feel a bit disappointed, as we have scores if not hundreds of sax players able to produce 100mph Coltranesque improvisations on April in Paris but, at least until recently, only one Gilad Atzmon. The one bright note was that, whereas once he just quoted The Birdie Song, he now plays a full-length version - but even so, half of me wonders whether I should have taken up Kalyr's suggestion of going to see Panic Room instead.

10 comments:

nilpferd said...

Hmm, just listened to that version of Everything happens to me, it is pretty anodyne.. he sounds like Cannonball Adderley, but without any of Adderley's wit, bite or swing. The strings are horrible; granted it is hard to get them right on jazz albums, but there are many better efforts than this one.
There were so many great ballad playing saxophonists- Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Adderley, Art Pepper, etc, and this recording doesn't really fit into that canon. Even someone like Michael Brecker, often criticised for his "technique over feeling" approach, turned out some wonderfully expressive slow tunes.

May1366 said...

I tend to agree with all your sentiments, Abahachi. Gilad's music always did do the talking, and the wonderful thing about the Orient House Ensemble, especially in a live set, was that for all the juxtaposition of klezmer with Reem Kelani's channelling of Oum Kalthoum and the satirical 'quoting' of stuff like The Birdie Song - yes, and the political rants, which I never minded too much; always thought of it as being in the spirit of Archie Shepp at his angriest - there was still an inventive jazz quartet in the midst of the sound.

Well, in a strange way, I hope it's a musical decision and not one that he's been cornered into because of hostility (or commerical aversion) to his politics.

Anonymous said...

I could not disagree with you guys more! The 'Gilad with Strings' album is a master piece. It is sarcastic, nostalgic, vicious, luscious music that evolves ultimately into some menacing urban racket. And the strings are incredible! What you on about? For those readers who want to watch someone be Middle-Eastern for an evening, I suggest you catch a Reem Kelani gig. She wears the ethnic costumes and everything! For those pursuing some profound beauty, get to an Atzmon gig if you can. I myself couldn't actually get in the door 3 days ago in Oxford and had to skulk by the loos in the hallway, but it was still as electrifying as ever.

Aisha

nilpferd said...

Sorry, Aisha, but on the evidence of "Everything happens to me"- unlike May and Abahachi that's the only Atzmon I've heard- I don't follow you, maybe the rest of the album is a lot better..?

Abahachi said...

One of the things I've been mulling over today is that if I hadn't head any of the previous albums I would have rated last night as one of the most exhilerating examples of sax playing I'd ever heard; not to compare with the calm, exploratory musings of Wayne Shorter, but for high-speed invention and superb technical control well up there with the likes of Joshua Redman. And usually I'm delighted when a jazz musician tackles a standard, partly as a chance to see what they'll do with it and partly because it's often much more engaging than their own tunes. But, as I said in the post, if you're used to someone producing something that's dramatic and extraordinary, then a merely brilliant straight jazz performance does feel a bit of a let-down - and that's even before we get onto the ideological implications of what looks to me like a dubious (and very American) attempt at drawing clear boundaries between Proper Jazz and anything foreign.

The album? After another listen, nostalgic and lucious I can go with, and there's some sound effects towards the end (though I didn't feel they achieved anything much). Sarcastic? If only. Vicious? Not nearly enough. There is so much that could be done in paying tribute to the tradition and yet questioning aspects of it and throwing in some subversion, and surely Atzmon is someone euipped to do that - but for me it sounds as if he's been completely overcome by nostalgia. It's not about wanting to watch someone being Middle Eastern (though I think Kelani is brilliant) but wanting to watch someone pursue an original artistic vision rather than what seems too much like falling into line with all the rest.

Having written all that, I am of course now terrified that Atzmon will 'do an Ettrick' and come on here to denounce me - he's a big guy, you know...

nilpferd said...

Big, you say?

Hope I wasn't outta line with that crack about the strings...

May1366 said...

With Israeli army training, to boot. Lovely with it, I hasten to add. Anyhows, I'm judging blind (or actually deaf), just basing my thoughts on Abahachi's write-up. And Aba', the most you can be accused of is loving Gilad's music too much. Nilpferd, on the other hand...we're with you in spirit, mate.

Johnny Ettrick said...

You! Outside! Now!

TatankaYotanka said...

Just booked two tickets for the first Londan date at St Cyprians on the strength of your comments ... Madame Yotanka is in physical and musical rehab at the moment. An early evening gig is pefect and with her jazz tastes being for solid, classic sounds .... this should be .... err ....'nice' :). Candles too, can't go wrong with candles.

goneforeign said...

I wanted to join this discussion but there's really nothing that I can add that hasn't been said already. I agree pretty much in total with both Aba and Nilp; wonderful technique but the strings don't add anything, rather they detract. One thing I can say is that Aba turned me on to this guy months ago and for that I thank him, not only for his brilliant musicianship but also for his political stance, were he not a musician he'd still be bookmarked for his writing; if there's anyone here who hasn't read him on music and peace activism in the Middle East I urge you to visit his website at: http://www.gilad.co.uk/html%20files/Primacy%20of%20the%20Ear.htm
One thing I would suggest for Aba. is that he post some more of his music and also his recommendations of specific albums, I think there are others here who would enjoy that.