by Ian Mann
June 22, 2017
An impressive leadership début from Tali Atzmon. The album touches many bases with its wide ranging and evocative arrangements while her lyrics are perceptive and intelligent and enhance the music.
(Fanfare Records FJ1701)
Talinka is a new quartet led by vocalist, songwriter and actress Tali Atzmon. Israeli born but London based Tali is the wife of multi-instrumentalist, composer, band-leader author and political activist Gilad Atzmon, a well known and (mostly) well loved figure on the UK music scene.
Tali has provided backing vocals on a number of Gilad’s many album releases but as far as I’m aware Talinka represents her first musical project as a leader. Alongside Tali’s vocals the band features Gilad on bass clarinet, soprano sax and accordion and Yaron Stavi on double bass, the latter a long term associate of Gilad’s and a member of Gilad’s regular working band the Orient House Ensemble.
The inclusion of Gilad and Yaron may be fairly predictable but Tali’s other choice to complete the Talinka line up is less so. Jenny Bliss Bennett is a musician more closely associated with baroque music. A specialist on the viola da gamba she also contributes baroque violin, flute and backing vocals. The viola de gamba is a six stringed, fretted instrument, somewhere in size between a regular viola and a cello. It can be either bowed or plucked and strummed like a guitar. Bliss Bennett moves freely between both techniques and thus fulfils a rhythmic as well as a melodic role in the creation of the music.
The album also includes guest appearances by pianist Frank Harrison and percussionist Enzo Zirilli, two musicians also closely associated with the Orient House Ensemble.
The inclusion of Bliss Bennett helps to ensure that Talinka has a distinct and unusual group sound.
Perhaps this is best described by the band themselves who provide album liner notes that summarise their music thus;
“Talinka is a music-loving adventure. For us the love of music extends beyond style and genre; we blend folk, early music, jazz, tango and free improvisation. We believe in songs and beauty being vital forces of nature. We adhere to simplicity, harmony and warmth. The outcome is a natural breathing, deep and spacious sonic adventure”.
The programme consists of seven original compositions written by members of the group plus arrangements of “Invitation” by the Polish film composer Bronislau Kaper and the jazz standards “Don’t Explain” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is”.
Talinka blur both musical and geographical boundaries. The album begins with “Talinka” itself, a tune written by Gilad Atzmon. Paced by guest Harrison’s careful and exact piano the tune features the pure sound of Tali’s wordless vocals, which sound almost Brazilian at times. Meanwhile the inflections of Gilad’s soprano sax suggest that the music also has roots in the Middle East. Whatever its provenance the piece is a thing of quiet beauty, wholly in accordance with the group’s mission statement.
Tali explains her song “Losing Vision” thus;
“I wrote the song in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The bass clarinet together with the viola da gamba creates a primordial auditory realm that evokes a deep sense of Sisyphean existential struggle yet is a cry for change”.
Not surprisingly the mood is sombre, with deep, resinous bass clarinet combining with melancholy bowed viola da gamba while Stavi’s bass acts as the song’s anchor. Tali’s deep, grave, evocative vocal expresses both the suffering and the inherent dignity of the refugees while subtly alluding to the song “People Who Need People” as she sings the lines “people dream of leaving” and “people dream of loving”. But despite all of the song’s sadness the ultimate message is still one of hope.
Credited to the entire band “Baroque Bottom” begins by featuring the ethereal sound of Tali’s wordless vocals, subsequently joined by those of Bliss Bennett, floating above Stavi’s sparse bass accompaniment. The introduction of Gilad’s soprano sax, which subsequently combines with Bliss Bennett’s flute and Tali’s now soaring voice steers the music into the kind of territory inhabited by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. I suspect that the joky title is probably a homage to Robert Wyatt, with whom Gilad Atzmon once worked, and specifically Wyatt’s landmark 1974 album “Rock Bottom”.
Harrison’s piano returns for Tali’s supremely melancholic interpretation of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” which sounds even sadder than the original. The piece is measured by Harrison’s piano and the sorrow in Tali’s voice is complemented by the sepia tinged combination of bass clarinet and viola da gamba.
Bronislau Kaper was a Polish born composer who emigrated to the US where he wrote songs for film scores, some of them becoming jazz standards. Talinka’s arrangement of his piece “Invitation” begins the deeply resonant sounds of Stavi’s double bass and Gilad’s grainy bass clarinet. Stavi subsequently strikes up a groove, augmented on this occasion by Zirilli’s subtle percussion shadings. Tali’s sultry vocals are accompanied by a combination of reeds and accordion as Gilad overdubs himself. In a typically genre bending performance the accordion hints at Argentinian tango, the soprano sax and bass clarinet at the sounds of the Middle East.
Gilad’s own “Four 2 Tango” is arguably less ambiguous. He’s worked frequently with tango groups, notably Tango Siempre and features himself on accordion here. However Tali’s wordless vocals, which extend into some quite extreme areas (shades of Julie Tippetts and other vocal improvisers here), plus the sound of Bliss Bennett’s viola da gamba take this particular tango to some interesting and unexpected places.
The group penned “Heimat” also features wordless vocals with Tali’s larynx teamed with bass clarinet and viola da gamba on a brief but atmospheric piece, again with echoes of Garbarek and the Hilliards but with a pronounced Middle Eastern flavour.
The piece acts as a kind of overture to an extraordinary version of the jazz standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is”. Despite the presence of Harrison’s mellifluous piano in the mix the power of Tali’s voice allied to the keening of Gilad’s soprano and the dramatic bowing of Bliss Bennett brings out the bleakness and pathos of Don Raye’s lyric.
Interestingly there’s an equally arresting interpretation of this song on “Nightfall”, the recent album by the trio Quercus featuring singer June Tabor, saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren, another drummerless line up. It’s intriguing that both of these ‘chamber jazz’ groups should have chosen to tackle this song and that both of them imbue it with such a visceral emotional impact. Presumably they came to it wholly independently of one another. Both versions are stunning and I wouldn’t like to choose between them.
The melancholic mood continues with Tali’s song “When You’re Gone” a song featuring the composer’s emotive vocals teamed with drone of her husband’s accordion. Bliss Bennett and Stavi also combine well with the mournful ring of Bliss Bennett’s strings enhancing the sense of yearning and loss expressed in Tali’s lyrics.
The album concludes with Tali’s evocative “Every Now and Then”, a song whose melody and lyrics remind me of a Leonard Cohen number as Gilad’s reeds and accordions add an element Middle Eastern exotica.
Released on Gilad’s own Fanfare imprint “Talinka” represents an impressive leadership début from Tali Atzmon. Musically the album touches many bases with its wide ranging and evocative arrangements and the standard of the musicianship is excellent, as one would expect from players of this calibre. The arrangements are consistently interesting and exotic and the combination of baroque specialist Bliss Bennett and multi-instrumentalist Gilad is highly distinctive.
Some commentators have cited the lack of range of Tali’s voice but it is well suited to her chosen material, both her original songs and her interpretations of jazz standards. Her background as an actress has helped to ensure that she is able to “get inside” a song, just as June Tabor does. And let’s not forget that on wordless pieces like “Four 2 Tango” she’s prepared to push her voice into more adventurous areas. Meanwhile her lyrics are perceptive, evocative and intelligent and thoroughly enhance the music.
Talinka will launch the album with a performance at Jazz Café POSK in Hammersmith, London on the evening of Saturday June 24th 2017. For details please visit http://www.jazzcafeposk.org
For details of other dates and further information on the band and its members please visit http://www.talinka.live
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