At The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire (4 Stars)
Gilad Atzmon, “Gilad With Strings”, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 23/10/2010
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
This was a great way to herald in the new era at The Edge.
Gilad Atzmon-Gilad With Strings
Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble with the Sigamos String Quartet
The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 23/10/2010
This concert was the first in the newly constructed building at the thriving Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock. First impressions of the new hall were highly favourable, particularly with regard to the acoustics. Atzmon and his fellow musicians sounded excellent throughout.
The London based Israeli musician Gilad Atzmon is celebrating the tenth anniversary of his regular working band the Orient House Ensemble and is currently in the middle of a huge nationwide tour in support of the quartet’s latest album “The Tide Has Changed”. The tour is sprinkled with dates featuring an expanded line up with the OHE joining forces with the members of the Sigamos String Quartet who had worked with Atzmon on his previous album “In Loving Memory Of America”, a project inspired by the “Bird With Strings” recordings of the great Charlie Parker. This evenings performance included material drawn both from the “with strings” project and from the OHE’s regular repertoire.
The evening began with the four members of the OHE taking to the stage to perform the title track of their new album. Joining Atzmon on saxophones and clarinet were original OHE member Frank Harrison on piano, long serving double bassist Yaron Stavi and the OHE’s latest recruit, drummer Eddie Hick. “The Tide Has Changed” proved to be a stunning opener, a classic example of the group’s unique blend of Middle Eastern musical motifs and jazz improvising, this time with the band’s wordless vocalising adding to an already heady mix. Atzmon and Harrison delivered dazzling solos on alto sax and piano respectively with powerful yet intelligent support coming from a highly flexible rhythm section. Hick has stepped admirably into the void left by the departure of former drummer Asaf Sirkis and the two performances I’ve seen him give with the OHE confirm his growing reputation as one of the UK’s most exciting young musicians.
For the next number Atzmon called the four smartly attired ladies of the Sigamos String Quartet, led by violinist Ros Stephen, to the stage. Besides her instrumental skills Stephen is also a formidable arranger and has worked with Atzmon in the group Tango Siempre as well as collaborating on the “In Loving Memory Of America” project. More recently the pair have collaborated with the great Robert Wyatt on the recently released and highly acclaimed “For The Ghosts Within”, a recording that The Jazzmann will be taking a closer look at in due course.
The SSQ commenced the next number with pizzicato plucking before taking up their bows to produce a remarkably, full lush sound. The volume they were able to generate from just the four instruments (violin x 2, viola and cello) was remarkable and they were never drowned out by their scruffier, jazz playing male colleagues. A word again here for the acoustics of the room and credit to the sound engineer for achieving an almost perfect sound balance. The eight instruments blended together superbly well to produce rich ,colourful, consistently interesting textures, themselves a tribute to Atzmon and Stephen’s arranging skills. With Stavi also employing his bow judiciously there were moments when we essentially heard a “string quintet” as on “Everything Happens To Me” which also featured Atzmon on Parker inspired alto, his pure tone soaring above the lush backdrop of the strings.
Atzmon is also an engaging interlocutor between tunes, his announcements a bizarre mix of political comment and and surreal humour. A champion of the Palestinian cause and an avowed Anti Zionist his politics inform but do not overwhelm his music. Nevertheless his verbal ramblings ensure that a Gilad Atzmon show is never dull or predictable. His humour involves mangling song titles, thus Monk’s “Round Midnight” becomes “Round Midland” but the punning wordplay can’t detract from the ability of the playing with Atzmon and Harrison at their most lyrical.
“If I Should Lose You” (Atzmon alters the pronoun to “we”) is more frankly into musical humour experimenting with atonality and sundry jocular musical devices around which he structures a powerful, wailing alto sax solo.
Turning again to the new album “The Tide Has Changed” the octet played a blistering version of the tune “London To Gaza”, a tune originally written for the 2008 film “From Gaza To London”. Things began quietly with Harrison’s brooding solo piano intro, this forming a dramatic contrast with Atzmon’s impassioned improvising on soprano saxophone. The power and fire expressed in his playing left no doubt about his sentiments. This was essentially a protest song without lyrics.
From the Gilad with Strings album “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” temporarily brought an air of calm back to the proceedings with the SSQ prominent in the arrangement and with features for Atzmon on alto and Harrison at the piano. However when Atzmon picked up his clarinet and Hick laid down a vigorous drum groove things quickly gathered momentum as Atzmon delivered a slippery clarinet solo and traded Middle Eastern sounding licks with the string players who were clearly enjoying every minute of it. Another change of direction saw the leader switching back to alto for a Latin/Salsa inspired outro during which he introduced the members of the band. For all his verbal wanderings off piste Atzmon’s shows are actually very well programmed and inevitably contain elements of his highly individualistic brand of showmanship. The Edge crowd loved it and gave the octet a rousing half time reception.
The second half began with “Call Me Stupid , Ungrateful, Ambitious and Insatiable”, a brief piece for clarinet and strings only that offered a real opportunity to appreciate the lustrous nature of the Sigamos’ sound. However for all the sweetness the SSQ are never overly lush or cloying. It’s a feature of modern classically trained musicians that they’re no longer frightened of other genres of music or indeed of improvisation. The level of interaction between the OHE and SSQ in this concert was revelatory, the string players were an integral part of the creative process and their role far more than merely “playing the notes”.
The next (unannounced) piece saw Hick establishing a funk/hip hop groove which combined well with the sound of the SSQ’s plucked strings. There was even a brief solo violin feature from Stephen before a lengthier alto solo from Atzmon.
“April In Paris” (or “April in Much Wenlock” as Atzmon inevitably called it) was was initially delivered fairly straight with the lushness of the strings combining well with the more incisive qualities of Atzmon’s alto. Subsequently there was a lengthy duo dialogue between Atzmon on alto and Harrison at the piano, the saxophonist wandering over to the piano and either playing off mic or inserting the bell of his horn into the open piano. In any event there was no lessening of volume or intensity as these two old sparring partners traded ideas and threw some humorous “quotes” into the mix (did I hear a satirical reference to “Yankee Doodle Dandy?) before Atzmon stepped aside for Harrison to deliver a more orthodox piano solo. There was also a humorous element to a playful “Tutu Tango” with Atzmon switching to soprano saxophone to solo alongside Harrison.
Originally recorded on the 2001 album “Nostalgico” “Rearranging The Twentieth Century” proved to be a kaleidoscopic romp through a variety of jazz and other musical styles reflecting Atzmon’s various influences. Almost “cut and paste” in nature this featured Atzmon on soprano saxophone, Hick on military sounding drums (a reflection I suspect of Atzmon’s national service in the Israeli army) before morphing briefly into Gershwin’s “Summertime” representing Gilad’s love for a mythic America. Then “Roll Out The Barrel” (for London I guess), the melody disintegrating in the face of the atonal rumble of Stavi’s viciously bowed bass. Then “Mack The Knife”, a nod to the importance to Atzmon’s sound of the influence of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and finally Atzmon and Stavi’s theatrical scat vocals on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts”. This breathless tour de force drew whoops of delight from another sizeable Edge crowd. They didn’t leave the stage but their version of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World” was in effect an encore, Atzmon’s alto and Harrison’s piano reclaiming the song and transforming it from sentimental mulch into a genuine life affirming celebration. In time the tune mutated into the salsa version of Atzmon’s tune “Refuge” as the second half ended in the same style as the first with a final name check for the musicians.
Although the charismatic Atzmon is the dominant figure and both the quartet and octet very much an extension of his unique musical vision the contributions of the other musicians shouldn’t be underestimated. The stage was filled with superb technicians and each played their part in a memorable performance with the SSQ integrating brilliantly with the OHE. Before the gig I’d worried that the strings might have an emasculating effect on Atzmon’s sound but I needn’t have worried. Thanks to the skills of the arrangers and the abilities of the players they positively enriched it.
This was a great way to herald in the new era at The Edge. Alison Vermee has put together an exceptional programme of contemporary jazz stretching into summer 2011 including a couple of international coups. See our events pages or visit http://www.edgeartscentre.co.uk for more details.
In the meantime the OHE’s mammoth tour continues with the schedule including a prestigious 10th Anniversary concert complete with special guests at the Art Depot, London on November 18th 2010 as part of London Jazz Festival. See http://www.gilad.co.uk for full details of this and other scheduled performances.