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Gilad Atzmon: More Than Just a MusicianJoe Rennison for Salem-News.com
(LONDON) - Few students currently at University of London will remember Gilad Atzmon’s gig at SOAS in 2006. His performance was exemplary, as all of his live performances are. Four years later, Atzmon is still gigging, still writing and still pushing the boundaries of thought and expression.
I met Atzmon in Soho opposite Ronnie Scotts. As I wait for him to arrive I spot his name on the October listings for Ronnie’s, a testament to Atzmon’s status within the Jazz community. We meet and go around the corner for breakfast.
On 18 November, The London Jazz Festival will play host to Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble (OHE) as they celebrate their 10th anniversary. The group is Atzmon’s mainstay and has seen him develop as a musician.
The OHE began back in 2000. “I started with Asaf Sirkis,” says Atzmon, “and we realised that we needed two other people and we basically auditioned quite a few and we couldn't find anyone and then Frank came back from Boston.”
‘Frank’ is Frank Harrison, a pianist of considerable talent who spent time at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston before returning to England. “The first thing he asked me is, 'Gilad, do you want me to try and play like you?' I said, 'You do whatever you want to do' and it was heaven and it has been heaven since then. The man,” Gilad pauses, “is a fucking genius.”
The gig will consist of three sets; Early OHE, Gilad with strings, and recent OHE. “We will play a marathon. Three or four hours. Three sets. We will play material from our first few albums. Then we play our strings project. Then we play our new offering The Tide Has Changed.”
People have said to Atzmon that The Tide Has Changed is the closest thing to his live show. The recorded Atzmon and the live Atzmon are distinct. Live, his improvisations are often hard bee-bop that make you sit up and listen. His albums tend to be more melodic and incorporate Middle Eastern styles as well.
Particular highlights on the album are Bolero At Sunrise, Atzmon’s take on the well known Ravel tune, and We Lament, which seems to echo aspects of Michael Brecker’s Ballad Book. The album is also an example of the close relationship between Atzmon’s music and his writing. The title of the album refers to the Arab-Israeli conflict. “I think that the tide has changed,” says Atzmon.
He is more than just a musician. Depending on when you meet him, you could describe him as a musician, an activist, an academic, a teacher or a philosopher - the list could go on. Atzmon attended Essex University, achieving a Master’s degree in Philosophy. “I think that what university is all about is a genuine and profound attempt to understand the world and to understand the subject that is part of understanding.” He goes on: “The problem is that we have lost our ability to philosophise. We don't know how to ask questions.”
Atzmon is critical of political correctness. He says that the construction of critical thought is the only weapon that we have against political correctness and that all we can do is follow the premises of an argument and dismantle it logically. “What is political correctness? Political correctness is a political scent that doesn't allow political negation,” says Atzmon. “In this society that is supposed to be tolerant and liberal, there are a few topics that we cannot address.”
“And I am sorry to say it, but Iran, for me, is freer. To quote Adorno's idea about freedom; Adorno says that in Soviet Russia you were freer because you were aware of the boundaries of your freedom. When you are a jazz player and you are in C minor, you are free because you can do a lot of things but when you play free jazz, you are far less free because there are no boundaries.”
It is another example of the overlap between Atzmon’s music and his political thought. Certainly, Atzmon is not afraid to ask questions. He is true to himself and fearless of criticism. “In the beginning, when I started to say what I'm saying, a lot of political groups tried to cling to me and I had to shake them all out because once you start to work with them you have to fit into an agenda. I don't want to do anything with the left wing. I don't want to do anything with the right wing. I don't want to anything with anybody.
“My job as an artist is to look into the mirror and to say what I think and believe. I don't want to start to say what I think and then have to make sure it fits into a political agenda.” It is Atzmon’s view that, “philosophers, artists, poets, shouldn't fit.”
“We are not doing it for power. I don't say, 'vote for me', I don't want you to vote for me. F*ck off. Buy my album if you think I'm good enough, come to my concerts, talk to me, let's have a beer.”
We speak at length about many different issues, from philosophy to politics to music. The pertinence of the topics Atzmon speaks on are exemplified when a young women on the table next to us interjects into our conversation.
Atzmon was speaking about multiculturalism. She is a black woman who lives in Germany. She said that her race dictated how easy it was for her to find a flat in certain areas. If she wanted a flat with other black people then it was easy, but to venture outside these areas made it much harder.
Atzmon understands. His drummer is black. “We go to a kebab after the gig and there would be some redneck yobs or whatever and he would go out because he would understand that there was potential conflict.”
We have finished our breakfast and with it our conversation. If you can, attend on 18 November. It’s a rare chance to see every stage of Atzmon’s music in one evening and perhaps what’s more, you will be seeing Atzmon live - a phenomena that can never be reproduced onto record because Atzmon is so much more than just his music.
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