Downbeat-Q&A with Gilad Atzmon: Jazz Traveler with Passion for Politics
By John Ephland
Saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, a former Israeli citizen living in London since 1994, remains a veritable planetary citizen, a traveling artist who fuses his inner jazz urges with a deep passion for the political.
A multi-instrumentalist who plays soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, clarinet and flute, the 54-year-old Atzmon is currently touring off a new book, Being In Time–A Post-political Manifesto (Skyscraper), and three new albums: the alternately straightahead and romantic The Spirit Of Trane (Fanfare Jazz) with the Orient House Ensemble: pianist Frank Harrison, bassist Yaron Stavi, drummer Enzo Zirilli and the Sigamos String Quatet; the lovely and the haunting folk/gypsy jazz of Talinka (MoonJune) with vocalist Tali Atzmon, multi-instrumentalist Jenny Bliss Bennett (violin, viola, flute and vocals) and Stavi, Harrison and Zirilli; and World Peace Trio (Enja) with Dwiki Dharmawan on piano and synthesizers and Kamal Musallam on oud, guitar and MIDI guitar (also featuring Ade Rudiana on kendang, frame drummer Nasser Salameh and drummer Asaf Sirkis).
He evokes the image of a soul man with ideas, spurred on by a love affair that began when he was a teen growing up in Jerusalem.
Charlie Parker looms large in your musical life.
I fell in love with jazz when, one evening in my late teens, I heard Charlie Parker With Strings. I think it was Bird’s rendition of “Laura.” That omnipotent saxophone flying effortlessly over the lush string orchestration left an incredible impression on me. The next day, instead of going to school I went to Piccadilly Records, the one and only music shop in Jerusalem, and bought everything they had with Charlie Parker, three vinyl albums. A week later I rented a sax.
And, soon after you became a student of the music.
In the 1970s there was a tsunami of Russian Jewish immigrants flooding Israel; great mathematicians, doctors, musicians and some incredible jazz artists. One of them was Boris Gamer, my jazz mentor. Boris was a phenomenal tenor player. He managed to teach me everything I needed to know in six or seven sax lessons. For Boris, like for [German philosopher] Martin Heidegger, to teach is to teach others how to learn. I learned to concentrate on my problems, to develop personal exercises and then practice, practice and practice. Within a few weeks I started to gig, and my music career has evolved naturally from that point onward.
You’ve been on many albums over the years. What are some of your favorites?
I’ve been playing for 17 years with the same group: The Orient House Ensemble. We have recorded many albums and played thousands of gigs together. My favorite Orient House Express album is Refuge [Enja, 2007]. This was the last album we recorded with Asaf Sirkis, our drummer for 10 years. After Asaf left, bassist Yaron Stavi, pianist Frank Harrison and I continued and recorded many more albums with different drummers till we added Enzo Zirilli, who is the right drummer for us. I loved recording In Loving Memory Of America [Enja, 2009], our tribute to Bird. Similarly, The Spirit Of Trane was a unique nostalgic project. You learn a lot digging into the work of your heroes.
You’re also a published author. What about your evolution as a writer as something parallel to your evolution as a musician? Are there connections between your work as an author and as a jazz musician?
It’s been said that a jazz artist is a person who doesn’t repeat the same phrase once [chuckles]. To be a jazz artist is to reinvent yourself on a daily basis. While this is an idealized vision, I do try to recreate, to sound fresh. The same applies to my approach to writing. Initially, I wrote fiction. But after 9/11 I went through a radical change in my thoughts. I realized that the world in which we live is foreign to us. There was a sense of estrangement. We, the people, had been reduced into a bunch of consumers, the politicians had left us behind. The liberal dream was melting rapidly and I wanted to grasp it all.
I was probably the first to write extensively on ID politics and Jewish ID politics in particular. I bought myself many enemies. Being critical of Israel and Jewish politics cost me many gigs, it harmed my international career, but I do not regret it a bit. I make a living being myself. For me, to go to work is to be Gilad. We’ve been betrayed by our academics, media, politicians. No one tried to warn us that the world as we knew it was being pulled out from under our feet. As it seems this job has been left to an ex-Israeli saxophonist, I really try to do my best. DB