Review of Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble, Touring
Gilad Atzmon is arguably the most outstanding artist to emerge on the British jazz scene in recent years. He can hardly be described as new, having recorded nine albums in the past decade, as well as performing with musicians as diverse as Ian Dury, Paul McCartney, Sinead O'Connor and perhaps most bizarrely, Robbie Williams. It is in recent years however that his star has shone most brightly - firstly with the release of the 2003 BBC Jazz Album of the Year Exile, followed last year by the widely acclaimed Musik. He is also a prolific live performer, yet still finds time to write literature and has just published a novel, My One and Only Love.
Atzmon proudly describes himself as a political artist, and he leaves you in no doubt where his sympathies lie. Born in 1963 and raised as a secular Jew, he left his native Israel in disgust at the repression of the Palestinian people. He concludes his sleevenotes on Musik by declaring, 'Sooner or later musik will free itself and so will the Palestinian people,' and he closed the set of his recent London dates with a poignant ballad entitled 'Jenin'. Elsewhere he and his band, the Orient House Ensemble, mesmerise the crowd with a beautiful track entitled 'Liberating the American People'. Another song is dedicated to Ken Livingstone who he describes, wrongly but understandably, as 'the only brave man in western politics.' Meanwhile the world's most powerful politician and his beloved sidekick are satirised as 'two old hookers', Georgina and Antonella, who have presumably prostituted themselves to the major multinational powers.
The evening was characterised by a performance that displayed wit, humour, grace, passion and poise. Atzmon himself is a saxophonist of at times quite literally breathtaking virtuosity. During the performance of 'Jenin' he put his horn to one side and emitted a piercing police siren type wailing noise using the mouthpiece alone. Of course all latter day saxophonists take as their reference point the great John Coltrane, and Atzmon pays tribute to the maestro with a brief repeated motif from Coltrane's masterpiece A Love Supreme.
Atzmon is supported by an ensemble of musicians on piano, double bass, accordion, drums and vocals who are worthy of his talent, and able to absorb and articulate a wide range of musical styles from North African wedding songs through to bawdy fairground music. Not surprisingly the Arabic influence is very strong but just when we began to imagine ourselves in a Middle Eastern bazaar the band jolted us with an improbable rendition of 'Roll Out the Barrel'. I'm convinced there was also a brief but unmistakable and presumably mischievous blast of 'The Star Spangled Banner'.
Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble is a band that brilliantly combines musical panache and charisma with political conscience and commitment. Experienced jazz fans and new listeners will enjoy their music, and I would recommend their live dates across Britain, possibly including this year's Marxism event in early July.