The Jazzmann 4 Stars Review
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
“The Whistle Blower” maintains the high standard established by previous OHE releases as it continues to explore Atzmon's themes of love, loss and belonging.
Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble
“The Whistle Blower”
(Fanfare Jazz FJ1501)
The multi talented Gilad Atzmon has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages, appearing as an instrumentalist, composer, author and political activist. All these aspects of his work are interlinked but it’s primarily his activities as a musician that interest us most as the Jazzmann.
Born in Israel but based in the UK for more than twenty years Atzmon is best known as a saxophonist although he also plays clarinet, accordion and guitar and occasionally sings. As a leader he has fronted his regular working band The Orient House Ensemble since the late 1990s and “The Whistle Blower” represents the eighth album by this prolific unit. Elsewhere Atzmon has been involved in productive creative liaisons with Sarah Gillespie, Robert Wyatt, Tango Siempre and Norman Watt- Roy. As a sideman he famously works alongside bassist Watt-Roy as a member of the Blockheads and he has guested on albums by guitarist Nicolas Meier, bassist Shez Raja and many others. Most recently, and perhaps most famously, he has featured as the saxophonist on the new Pink Floyd album “The Endless River”. Other high profile session dates have included work with Paul McCartney, Sinead O’Connor, Robbie Williams and The Waterboys. Atzmon is also in high demand as a producer with albums by Gillespie and percussionist Adriano Adewale ranking among my personal favourites.
“The Whistle Blower” introduces a new version of the Orient House Ensemble with Chris Higginbottom taking over the drum chair from Eddie Hick, who had in turn followed Asaf Sirkis and Enzo Zirilli. Long serving member Yaron Savi remains on both acoustic and electric bass and co-founder Frank Harrison features on piano and a range of keyboards. On this album all four group members also sing.
“The Whistle Blower” is the first release on Atzmon’s own Fanfare record label. The title seems particularly apt, it works in the musical sense that Atzmon is a player of multiple reed instruments but there’s also the political dimension of the phrase. As an avowed anti Zionist and as somebody who has spoken out strongly against the activities of the Israeli government, particularly with regard to Palestine and Gaza, the “whistle blowing” Atzmon is effectively an exile from his own country. Despite living and working in England for over twenty years he still sees British culture through the eyes of an “outsider” despite making himself very much at home here.
Atzmon is a multi faceted, sometimes self-contradictory figure. “The Whistle Blower” continues to explore many of the themes that run through previous OHE albums such as “Nostalgico”, “Exile” and “Refuge” as he continues to examine the role of music in his personal and political life. He’s a multi cultural figure who disdains political correctness, a political agitator with an intense romantic nostalgia not only for his homeland but also for an idealised jazz history, a fiercely intelligent thinker with an earthy, some would say crude, sense of humour. His character is a fascinating mix of apparent opposites that creates an energy which he channels into his albums and into his exciting and often unpredictable live performances. For all the angst Atzmon is a brilliant showman, something of a dying breed in contemporary jazz. Even I’m prepared to admit that the music sometimes takes itself much too seriously.
Atzmon’s notes on the packaging for the new album abound with provocative pronouncements but his belief in the power of music as the instrument of truth shines through. Of the eight pieces on the record he states; “these compositions are about love, nostalgia, devotion and simplicity”.
It begins with “Gaza Mon Amour” which fuses aspects of Arabic folk music with the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane. Its composer describes it as “ a combination of great bebop artistry and Middle Eastern roots in a sophisticated, sometimes ironical manner influenced by Coltrane’s powerful approach to the sax”. Atzmon deploys a variety of reeds and the opening stages will sound decidedly Middle Eastern to most West European and American ears. Yet there’s an authentic Coltrane style intensity to the blistering sax solo at the heart of the piece that wholly justifies and vindicates Atzmon’s description. He receives terrific support from his well drilled band with the faithful Harrison conjuring up a variety of piano sounds and the super flexible team of Stavi and Higginbottom handling the rhythmic twists and turns with panache. It’s a typically attention grabbing opener and a piece that must be wildly exciting in the live environment.
Atzmon has spoken of “the nostalgic Gilad, not sad but lamenting”. Indeed many of these pieces could be said to constitute “laments”. There’s a real sense of yearning within the lush balladry of “Forever” with its keening saxophone and lyrical piano embellished by Higginbottom’s assured cymbal flourishes.
Harrison deploys a string synthesiser to good effect on “The Romantic Church” as Atzmon recreates something of the atmosphere of his Charlie Parker with Strings inspired recording “In Loving Memory of America”. The string sounds underscore Atzmon’s first alto solo before the versatile keyboard player switches to lyrical acoustic piano for a short solo before linking up well with his leader as Atzmon’s sax comes to the fore once more. “I am Old Fashioned, an Honorary Knight of the Romantic Church” declares Atzmon in his sleeve notes.
At a little over eleven minutes “Let Us Pray” is the lengthiest track on the album, an even deeper excursion into the spiritual style jazz of John Coltrane. Atzmon features on soprano, musing at considerable length above a flexible modal style rhythmic backdrop and gradually ratcheting up the tension as the piece proceeds. At his most impassioned his playing is more than a match for that of one of his primary influences. Harrison, on piano, then constructs an excellent gospel flavoured solo, a towering musical edifice that emphasises his own considerable abilities.
The relatively brief “The Song” is another lament, a further evocation of the bitter sweet nostalgia that imbues much of this album. Atzmon features on accordion but the featured soloist is Stavi with a highly melodic but deeply resonant double bass solo.
Also relatively brief “To Be Free” initially maintains the wistful, nostalgic mood, this time courtesy of the plaintive wail of Atzmon’s soprano and the sensitive accompaniment of the band. There’s also a knotty passage of piano from Harrison on a piece that subsequently toys with the crumbling structures of free jazz, a development that lends a double meaning to the title.
“For Moana” is Atzmon’s musical love letter to the charms of the late Italian TV personality and one time porn star Moana Pozzi who died in 1994 aged just 33. “My Vintage Romantic Heroine” is Atzmon’s description of a controversial figure who, back in the day, slept with many of Italy’s leading political figures. Even if the subject of its devotion remains provocative the tune itself is a beautiful and richly emotive love song with a genuine sense of romance and yearning courtesy of the combination of Atzmon’s unexpectedly tender sax and Harrison’s gently flowing piano plus the sympathetic support of Stavi and Higginbottom.
With the exception of the powerful opener and the more animated parts of “Let Us Pray” the prevailing mood of the album thus far has been reflective and nostalgic. However humour has long been part of Atzmon’s music and especially his live shows. However a number of pieces on previous albums have highlighted “the funny Gilad” but this is the first time that this role has been fulfilled by the title track. “The Whistle Blower” extends the idea of the metaphor of the wolf whistles that used to be directed at Moana Pozzi. Featuring the voices of all the members of the OHE plus the vocals of guests Tali Atzmon (Gilad’s wife) and Antonio Feola the piece is a gloriously daft slice of cabaret style warbling complete with wolf whistles and Gilad on accordion.
Tagged on at the end of the record the tune represents a little light relief and I assume that it will also represent the closing item of the quartet’s live shows on their current tour.
“The Whistle Blower” maintains the high standard established by previous OHE releases as it continues to explore Atzmon’s themes of love, loss and belonging. Expertly recorded by a top notch engineering team the mix ensures that all four musicians sound good throughout, something we’ve come to expect from this highly skilled and tightly knit ensemble. I liked the contribution of new boy Chris Higginbottom, particularly his distinctive cymbal work.