gilad atzmon and the orient house ensemble - cbso centre, 22/01/05simon gray - 2005-01-22, 01:39:14
Under normal circumstances, if you went to a gig by a punk band at the Birmingham Academy on one saturday, you might be forgiven for being somewhat surprised the following saturday at a jazz concert in Birmingham's CBSO Centre to recognise the saxophone player in that gig from the one the week before.
That's normal circumstances, but anybody who knows anything about band The Blockheads and saxophonist Gilad Atzmon knows that in this case, normal circumstances don't apply. The styling of The Blockheads as a punk band was always whilst in one sense technically true somewhat of an oversimplification - punk lyrics and attitude maybe, but always backed by a hard jazz-funk musical soundworld. An ideal setting in fact for Gilad Atzmon, perhaps one of the most creative musicians on the scene currently, to have his 'other band'. But The Blockheads was the other gig.
Atzmon's stance is intensely political, and he uses his art, be it as a jazz musician or as the author of two short novels and numerous essays (readable online at www.gilad.co.uk), as the vehicle for his politics. He was born and raised as a secular Jew in Israel in 1963, and spent 20 years witnessing the suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government and army, eventually moving to England to further his cause from here. Unashamedly outspoken, his book A Guide to the Perplexed was banned in Israel within weeks of being published, and although he strongly affirms the legitimacy and need for a Jewish state he considers his main band The Orient House Ensemble to be just as much a political anti-zionist vehicle as it is a jazz-world group.
Of this there was no mistake - during the course of the evening we were treated to pieces with titles such as Rearranging the Twentieth Century (dedicated to 'the three most horrible people in the world today - Bush, Blair, & Sharon'), Liberating the American People, Surfing(interpreted for us this time by Al-Jazeera as an allegory about Tony Blair's government), andGeorgina and Antonella, about two prostitutes nearing the ends of their 'careers' down the docks.
The political messages were reinforced by the vocal poetry as part of the jazz line, ably delivered by Argentinian Guillermo Rozenthuler. Apparently the last time the Orient House Ensemble played in Birmingham a couple of years ago a number of audience members walked out during the Jenine, dedicated to all those suffering at the Palestinian refugee camp of the same name. That piece was reserved this time for the encore, and the emotion Atzmon feels is clearly genuine.
Pre-publicity describes the Orient House Ensemble as heavily middle-eastern influenced, though as Atzmon himself said at the end of the concert "we seem to be dropping the Orient from our music; but then if the USA gets its way there probably won't be an Orient left soon anyway", and although there were hints of arabic scales to be heard and the occasional Chinoiserie as he sang down his saxophone, the overall soundworld was more a combination of eastern European sounds with straight-ahead contemporary jazz, though Italian Romano Viazzani's accordian added a very French spice to the mix.
Although each piece was laden with complexity of sound, rhythm, and dynamic range internally the overall effect was more like the whole concert was less several discrete titles and more movements of a single greater work, with a single overall 'something's about to happen but I'm not sure what' sinister feel reminiscent of the German cabaret jazz of the 20s and 30s - a feel reinforced by a short interlude based on Mack the Knife from Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera.
Do politics and music mix? Opinion will always be divided, especially as for the most part people will tend to feel that politics which match their own fit with the music they like to listen. But jazz will always be jazz, and good jazz is the best - and Gilad Atzmon is certainly a proponent of the best jazz, well worth hearing whenever the opportunity arises.