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Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble

Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble, Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 27/11/2011.

by Ian Mann

December 06, 2011


Atzmon is a true one off, a musician, writer and political activist who has enriched the UK jazz scene enormously whilst simultaneously creating an entire genre of his own in the process.

Gilad Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble, Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 27/11/2011.

The indefatigable Gilad Atzmon breezed back into town with his working group in tow for an exciting evening that featured the Israeli born saxophonist’s usual mix of terrific playing, political comment and spiky humour. Tonight’s edition of the OHE featured long serving members Frank Harrison (keyboards) and Yaron Stavi (double bass) with drummer Enzo Zirilli standing in for the unwell Eddie Hick. Born in Italy but based in London Zirilli has worked with Atzmon before as a regular member of singer/songwriter/guitarist Sarah Gillespie’s group.

Thus constituted the OHE treated us to a typically energetic and sparky evening with music that embraced both jazz and the music of the Middle East to create something unique. Atzmon has virtually created a genre of his own with his maverick borrowings from so many different sources.
It’s all informed by the subject of “Jewish Identity Politics”, a subject Atzmon covers in greater detail in his recently published book “The Wandering Who?”. Gilad was kind enough to give me a copy of the book for review purposes and I’ll be looking at it in greater detail in our features section in due course. From what I’ve read so far it promises to be an accessible and entertaining but highly thought provoking read. Atzmon was due to speak on the subject, plus his love of Charlie Parker and bebop, in a talk before this gig but with the majority of the large audience not turning up until BMJ’s regular gig time the talk was shelved. This was unfortunate but then again I have to confess to being one of the guilty ones. Nevertheless the gig itself, which was supported by the Arts Council of Wales’ “Night Out” scheme and by Abergavenny Music, was a great success and attracted one of BMJ’s biggest audiences of the year. 

With the concert being streamed live on the Valleys radio station BRFM ( based in Brynmawr) and on the net Atzmon commenced with the standard “Old Folks”, beginning the tune himself with a burst of unaccompanied alto saxophone. Atzmon later undertook a more conventional jazz solo with Stavi also featuring on the bass.

The bulk of the original material was drawn from the OHE’s most recent studio recording “The Tide Has Changed”, released in 2010 to mark the group’s tenth anniversary. The title track came next, a hard driving piece featuring the soaring wordless vocals of Atzmon and Stavi. The leader soloed powerfully on alto sax and entered into colourful dialogue with drummer Zirilli, the Italian deploying a range of shakers and other small percussive devices and also using his bare hands on the skins. The versatile Harrison delivered his solo on his Technics P30 keyboard with the responsive Zirilli again engaging in musical conversation from behind the drums. Harrison is a highly versatile and adaptable musician, equally at home with the acoustic and electric incarnations of his instrument. Very much Atzmon’s “right hand man” he has been a member of the OHE since the very beginning of the group. He also leads his own piano trio featuring long term associate Stephen Keogh (drums) and new bass player Davide Petrocca. The trio’s new album “Sideways” will be released in January 2012 followed by a UK tour in February. I will be covering the album, and hopefully the tour, in the New Year. Harrison is also excellent in this context so this should be well worth waiting for.

“Bolero At Sunrise” saw Atzmon putting his unique stamp on Maurice Ravel’s most famous work (Torville and Dean and all that). Zirilli’s martial drum intro paved the way for incisive solos from Atzmon on soprano saxophone and Harrison at the keyboard, each weaving around the famously insistent Bolero motif.

“A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” (or “Barclays Bank” as Atzmon put it) represented another foray into the standards repertoire but one that came loaded with political comment. Quotes from “Yankee Doodle” and “God Save The Queen” may have seemed humorous but in Atzmon’s world they also represent sharp satirical comment. Solos came from Harrison and Atzmon with the latter laughing grotesquely through his clarinet. Eventually the piece mutated into a kind of German drinking song (think Brecht and Weill) with Atzmon switching to alto saxophone. Nothing is off limits in Atzmon’s appropriation of global music styles. Thus ended a hugely entertaining but thought provoking first half, full of superlative musicianship with Zirilli fitting seamlessly into the OHE template.

The second set was a similar mixture of Atzmon originals and the group’s distinctive take on jazz and bebop standards. Things began with an often humorous montage of Parker tunes played by the duo of Atzmon on alto and Harrison at the keyboard.

The first original was unannounced but with Atzmon, still on alto, sliding in a quote from “If I Were A Rich Man” during his solo, a typical slice of Atzmon musical humour in a piece that also included features for Stavi and Harrison.

The standard “There Is No Greater Love”  represented another opportunity for Atzmon to demonstrate his love of the bebop idiom with a solo alto sax intro and a dynamic passage of dialogue with drummer Zirilli. After we’d heard from Harrison at the keyboard the piece was climaxed by a brilliantly constructed Zirilli drum solo.

“London To Gaza” represents one of the most significant tracks on the OHE’s latest album and began here in atmospheric fashion with Atzmon on soprano and Stavi on bowed bass. Following this impressionistic opening the band hit a heavy groove that provided the backdrop for a lengthy, biting Atzmon alto sax solo, arguably his best of the night. In a move that incorporated elements of his earlier albums the music shifted sideways to incorporate salsa rhythms with Atzmon encouraging the audience to clap along.

After such an entertaining show, one in which the excitement of the music was further enhanced by Atzmon’s presentation, an encore was inevitable. This took the form of Atzmon’s interpretation of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World”, here an unsentimental celebration of life and political and cultural resistance with solos from Harrison and Atzmon and with the saxophonist leaving the bandstand to go walkabout in the audience.

I’ve seen Atzmon and the OHE many times over the years and each show has been different despite the many shared elements. A huge character and a phenomenal technician Atzmon is a true one off, a musician, writer and political activist who has enriched the UK jazz scene enormously whilst simultaneously creating an entire genre of his own in the process.

This had been a terrific way to round off 2011 at Black Mountain Jazz and with BRFM capturing a hugely entertaining performance for their first BMJ broadcast. Let’s hope BMJ can build on this and enjoy a successful 2012. 

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