Jazzwise feature article – Gilad Atzmon: The Ornithologist By Andy Robson

2 March, 2009

‘The artist has breathed in the world to breathe it out again; the philosopher has the world outside him and he has to absorb it.’ — Otto Weininger, Sex And Character

atzmon-album.jpgThis artist, this philosopher, Gilad Atzmon, watched the world outside him: stark TV images of death and destruction in Gaza. He did his best to absorb it.

And failed. He flicked off the screen and was silent. Gilad Atzmon finds it hard to be silent.

“We always thought if they came with tanks to kill children we would stop them. They do that now and we can’t stop them. These are hard questions and I do not know the answer.”
Human kind cannot bear very much reality, as TS Eliot noted. And philosopher Otto Weininger, whom Atzmon studied for his Phd, concurs. If more knottily.

“…madness is the outcome of the insupportability of suffering attached to all consciousness.”

Presented with the reality of the horror in, for example, Gaza, we look away. Else that way madness lies. But for Atzmon, his music, his art, his philosophy, his ethics, whether you agree with them or not, constantly return you by the paths of beauty, humour and passion to the world that is outside us. To look into the art of Gilad Atzmon is to look out at the world, whether we like that world or not. To cite Weininger again, “in art self exploration is exploration of the world.”

Even, paradoxically, when the music Atzmon is making right now, his re-imagining of the iconic Charlie Parker with strings recordings, couldn’t appear further from the fighting in Gaza.

Isn’t Bird with strings the summit of all that is lush, romantic, escapist in jazz? Indeed, Bird the great experimentalist, the be bop iconoclast was criticised hugely for ‘selling out’. Here was the greatest improviser of his or any time trapped within swathes of un-swinging strings, pinned slavishly to the melody, what’s more the melody of popular songs, standards, the Great American Song Book which Bird had done so much to tear up…

Even now, mild mannered tomes like the Virgin Encyclopaedia of Jazz call Parker With Strings ‘hopelessly out dated’. Indeed, in some schools, the criticism cut deeper. By abandoning bop for strings (under the influence of Norman Granz) Parker was a race traitor (an accusation Atzmon knows something of) seeking the cachet of the white, European concert hall. For those who professed bop was purposefully difficult to exclude white copyists, Parker With Strings is a bitter apostasy.

Yet Bird, to the consternation of his contemporaries, had long sought to play with strings, and indeed had looked to study with ‘classical’ (if maverick) concert hall composers like Varese. Parker had lobbied for a strings project since at least 1941 before Granz gave him the first limited opportunity in 1947.

Atzmon, though, laughs off any musicological reason for embracing Parker.

“I don’t know how jazz musicians go into interviews. If they’re just going to talk about jazz, then how boring is that? If you want to talk to me just about jazz, I would die…My saxophone is there. I play. WHY do I play it? I don’t know. I don’t know what the next note is going to be. That is the great thing about jazz. So how can you talk about jazz when you don’t know what it is?”

But Atzmon knows what Parker means and feels like. In his own paper, Primacy Of The Ear, Atzmon talks of first hearing Parker with strings on a cold night in Israel. He was 17 and about to enter national service.

“I was knocked down. It was by far more organic, poetic, sentimental and yet wilder than anything I had ever heard before. My father used to listen to Bennie (sic) Goodman and Artie Shaw, these two were entertaining, they could play the clarinet, but Bird was a different story altogether. He was a fierce libidinal extravaganza of wit and energy. The morning after…on the way home, I realised that Bird was actually a Black man. It didn’t take me by complete surprise, but it was kind of a revelation, in my world, it was only Jews who were associated with anything good. Bird was a beginning of a journey…”

Over twenty five years later, that journey has taken Atzmon from the land of his birth, seen him reject the nationality and many of the values he grew up with, seen him enjoy then reject a successful career as a pop producer and, relatively late in life, found him ship up in the UK where, against many of his own expectations, a new life as jazz man, writer and activist opened up for him in the mid-1990s.

And throughout it all, there has been Bird.

“You can go months not listening to jazz. Then you put on Bird and it’s so fucking transparent. Very few musicians have it: Bach…Brahms…Piazzola. And then Bird, Coltrane, Miles, Clifford Brown. Liebman, with Quest. They remind you why you want to become a musician. And the older I get, the more I want every album, every gig, every time I take my saxophone out to remind me why I became a musician. Not easy. It’s a big task. Within the same breath, every time I see the BBC news or Al Jazeera it reminds why I don’t live in Israel.”

It’s the same breath, for a sax man, that breathes the world in and breathes out the music. To breathe is to live and to play. Yet it was another artist who conjured Atzmon’s latest album into life.

Atzmon had been touring with Tango Siempre, working closely with Ros Stephen, their violinist. They’d been playing plenty of Piazzola’s classically framed tangos.

“I love Piazzola, but listening and playing a lot is really depressing. Everything is down, tight…The freedom, as a jazz musician you wish for freedom, it’s not there…but running this band, Tango Siempre, was Ros Stephen. She says ‘I see you are not going to work with the Tango forever. But I really want to work with you more. Is there anything you’d like to do?’ I say, ‘You know what, I’ve never played jazz standards on an album…I wouldn’t mind taking the risk of doing Bird with strings…’ But I think nothing of it.

“But she’s serious. Two months later she says ‘Tell me a tune you want,’ and before I know she’s sorted everything, arrangements, we did two gigs, and it was ‘Wow!’…She did most of the arrangements (for the album), and then 2 or 3 of my tunes were arranged by Jonathan Taylor.” (Turville was pianist with Tango Siempre but also has a promising trio of his own).

But how do you approach such a project? Parker with strings is hallowed territory. When Kurt Elling explored the equally iconic Coltrane-Hartman collaboration, he received mixed reviews, and that was without the risks Atzmon was taking.

For Atzmon, the project couldn’t be simply a tribute to Parker. More importantly it couldn’t be a sentimental exercise in escapism, a criticism sometimes levelled at Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. Haden, for even longer than Atzmon, has been a political activist whose music cannot help but reflect his views. Yet the Quartet West, with its lush evocations of ‘40s song and film soundtracks, couldn’t have seemed further from Haden’s work with Ornette Coleman or the Liberation Orchestra.

Yet there’s more than a clue to Atzmon’s attitude in the album’s title. In Loving Memory Of America. The music is at once a celebration yet also a eulogy for an America that in Atzmon’s terms is now dead. If it was ever alive.

“My image of America, as a young man, dreaming of going to play in the New York clubs…it’s a dreamy image, a fantasy. As it is for all of us. America is a fantasy.”

And the reality of American music has changed. “For me jazz is a music of resistance – but no longer in America.”

Where once jazz told the story of the struggle for freedom, a message that spread through New Orleans, to Chicago, Kansas, New York and on to the rest of the world Atzmon finds little in current American music to celebrate. It is music, an industrial product designed to make money: it is musik, in Atzmon’s terminology that relates to art, to expression, to meaning.

So the Parker Atzmon extols is as much a symbol of a lost era and attitude as it is an evocation of the unique musician. So just as our experience of the Palestinian experience depends on who mediates it (Al Jazeera or CNN, the Palestinian youth with a wobbly webcam or the embedded journalist) so our experience of Parker is mediated by his interpreters.

Which may explain some of Atzmon’s ambiguous responses to Parker.

“I wanted one or two (arrangements) to be close to the original and the rest I destroyed myself…”

There is an element of irony in Atzmon’s ‘destruction’ of Parker. He’s partly mocking himself  – he can never expect to ‘be’ Parker, anymore than Josh Redman intends to ‘be’ Sonny Rollins when he plays ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’. For Atzmon to ‘play’ Parker is automatically destructive because any re-production is implicitly a degradation of the Master Take.

But the ‘destruction’ is also real. Atzmon, via his arranger, consciously destabilizes the original, becoming an insurgent amid music whose traditionally ‘standard’ boundaries once appeared intact.

Instead Atzmon asks questions of what we once thought unchanging.  How can the old sureties of a ballad like Ralph Rainger’s ‘If I Should Lose You’ remain intact in the face of the ‘insupportability of suffering’ in the modern world?

So Atzmon’s take on the song begins with the lush string theme of the original yet within a bar or two we have siren effects, Harrison’s piano discords and Sirkis’ military marching drums. It is a finesse, on a smaller scale, of the ‘How can there be poetry after Auschwitz?’ argument. But now that question is wrenched from its post-World War II context (where part of the response, arguably, was ‘Let’s build Zion in Palestine’) and placed squarely in Bush’s post-millennium age.

It is re-pitched in a world where schools and hospitals are ‘legitimate’ targets. The genius of Atzmon’s interpretation is that within a bar two he and the band have landed, bang, back on the melody, never missing a beat, playing the song with more passion and longing than the original evoked. Thus the song ebbs and flows, between the sweetest melody and utter destruction: no longer a mawkish ballad,  ‘If I Should Lose You’ is song of real potential loss – if the melody is lost, the harmony smashed, hark indeed to what discord follows as form and chaos fight within the constraints of the humble bar line.

What’s more, it’s done in an almost chamber music context: there is no hysterical over-blowing or tortured Bartok-esque scrapings; Atzmon himself, compared to many of his earlier recordings, is restrained and suggestive: and the effect is all the more powerful for that.

Indeed, Chris Searle, author of Forward Groove, a book on the relationship between jazz and the ‘real’ world, praised Atzmon for removing the ‘saccharine’ from the original Parker recordings.

But Atzmon does not accept the line that the original Parker recordings were saccharine. Nor by implication that his own playing is without sweetness – or ‘schmaltz’ as Atzmon readily calls it.

“Yeah, I was really shocked to hear the Parker described like that. All the musicians I know love the songs as they are, they cry when they hear them. And I have no problems with a bigger format.  I just did it  (the music) with a symphonic (sic) orchestra and it was lovely. Obviously I am not sweet, but I like to play schmaltz and eat schmaltz…you know it’s food as well?”

Originally schmaltz was kosher poultry fat, an indulgence to be enjoyed like licking out the chocolate from a cake mix bowl. To gentile perceptions, schmaltz has gone on to suggest a maudlin sentimentality.

Sentiment, in our post-modern age, is a devalued quality. Yet it was, is, vital to the art of Dickens, Dostoyevsky and, oddly, Orwell. And of course Chaplin and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Ironically, in ‘30s jazz argot, it was a non-derogatory term for ‘straight’ jazz.

Atzmon understands how important is that power to stimulate fundamental emotions.

“One step further on the schmaltz, the saccharine, you vomit. I wrote about it,”

– although Atzmon wrestles with his Jewish heritage, he has that Judaic respect for the Word in written form –

“I wrote about it: consonance is continuity; dissonance is disruption; beauty is finding balance between continuity and disruption.”

And it is precisely this balance between continuity and disruption that underwrites the beauty of his version of ‘If I Should Lose You’, or is reflected in the programming of Porter’s ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ against his own ‘Call Me Stupid, Ungrateful, Vicious and Insatiable’.

“I blame The Blockheads. (Atzmon joined them while Ian Dury was still in his relative pomp).

“The bass player Norman (Watt-Roy) said, ‘Listen, Gilad we are a funk band with a very bad singer!’ And Ian was in the room! And I thought, ‘Yeah, you put a nice singer in front of The Blockheads it would be crap. But put Ian there, that discontinuance, and you get something different’…One of my strongest qualities is that I am pretty stupid as a listener as well as a musician. I don’t comprehend music as an academic listener. I just want to be moved.”

Atzmon’s self-professed musical stupidity may be hard to swallow – as well as his jazz credentials, he’s developed skills in Balkan and Palestinian musics. Yet he uses his ‘stupidity’ to dismiss what may be the Jewish influences on the music of In Loving Memory Of America.

Yet it’s hard to deny such a presence. As well as Granz’ influence as supervisor of the original Parker sessions, virtually all the standards Atzmon has chosen are by Jewish composers. Ralph Rainger, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers and Vernon Duke (born Vladimir Dukelsky). And like Atzmon they were all exiles and re-invented their identities to ‘fit’ their new American personas (hence the name changes). And in a grim twist, Rainger lost his life when the aircraft he was travelling in was downed by an American army ‘plane.

Stephen’s arrangements, too, evoke, Bernard Herrmann (it’d be hard not to) who in turn took inspiration from Bartok: non-Jewish, but Jewish sympathising and who, like Weininger, moved from his birth faith to Protestantism.

One man’s ‘contribution’ to culture maybe another’s ‘cultural hegemony’ but one can’t help feel that Atzmon protests too much when he says,

“I tell you something slightly embarrassing. I don’t know much about the history of jazz…Is it important these writers are Jewish? I never really hear it…You know what it is, it’s New York, they’re the biggest minority so they play it (jazz). All these Jews, they don’t know how to run away from their chicken soup and mothers and this is what happened to me.

“But when I become a jazzman I become part of a bigger international community, a community of jazz. And I ask Asaf (the drummer with The Orient House Ensemble) and he says ‘Yeah,’ too. And I talk to Chas Jankel – he describes The Blockheads as jazz with an audience – and he says it’s (jazz) a way out – it’s like being on the rocket that takes you out of there, into a new community…”

And Atzmon needed a different kind of rocket to wrench him from the incessant of the Orient House Ensemble. The In Loving Memory… project brought health in many ways.

“I needed a break from The Orient House. All this protest took a serious toll on my body. I was killing myself. I’d not stopped for two years. I was so ill this year. I had to say ‘Hey guys I need a break, I need to get stronger.’ We were in Europe, the second day, I caught a fever: pneumonia. And no way could I cancel the tour. Then pleurisy, then pneumonia again, then trench mouth.  My immune system wiped out…I recorded this album with trench mouth…”

And of course, all these diseases restrict the breath, stop you breathing in the world, breathing out music…

But fear not, Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble are back (like The Blockheads). Atzmon smiles. “We’ll have to do a big tour soon: it’s ten years (since we started) and we’re a pretty proud bunch!”

Not to mention disparate. It would be intriguing at another time to compare the impact of the arrival of the Palestinian/Israeli caucus on the Brit scene with other jazz exiles like the Blue Notes from South Africa.

“Yes, it’s a good question – how does Frank (Harrison, pianist) fit in (as the only member of non-Israeli descent). For a start we speak English in the band, unless he’s asleep. Which he is: a lot…As a musician he’s the most gifted, most natural I’ve ever met. As a person it’s probably not easy to be with three fucking foreigners: one of them is mentally disturbed, the other one is just eating Mars Bars all the time, and one is practicing drums all the time so he injures his body. Yet Frank’s survived it.”

But Atzmon nearly didn’t. Whether this health crisis directly led to the more inward looking, more restrained music of In Loving Memory…is impossible to tell. But there’s no denying the wider vision or depth of passion of the music. It is music that has gone beyond protest and yearns toward beauty. The ultimate weapon of myth destruction.

Yet can any of that directly help the situation in Gaza? Atzmon has long given up on music being able to bring people together.

“Listen: for many years I wanted to believe music could cross the divide; Yaron was in this orchestra (Daniel Barenboim’s classical orchestra which includes Israeli and Palestinian musicians).

“I admire every attempt to cross the divide, it is a gift from heaven. But who am I? What does it matter what I think? I don’t believe any more in peace…for me I do not think there will be peace, which is really tragic for me to say.”

Nor, against the tide of the times, does he invest much in Obama.

“I wouldn’t count too much on the new President. Symbolically it’s the biggest thing, but I’m afraid in the gap between the symbolism and meaningless reality – our hope will vanish. I will have to think about this, I think, to articulate it better…”

More thinking, better articulation, beautiful music. But no answers. Yet in this perhaps lies Atzmon’s universal genius. In not striving for the answers, in not striving in opposition to the music, he may have, wittingly or otherwise, found a different peace.

Atzmon’s philosophic muse, Otto Weininger, noted that ‘genius is a conquering of chaos, mystery, and darkness.’ Through his music, Atzmon wrestles, like Jacob, with the angels, with chaos, mystery and the dark. In cahoots with the Orient House Ensemble and the Sigamos Quartet he may not win: but perhaps freedom is in the trying, as Wynton Marsalis once posited.

Trying is certainly better than the alternative. Looking away and madness.

Weininger noted ‘The genius that runs to madness is no longer genius; it has chosen happiness instead of morality.’

Perhaps Weininger chose happiness in the end. He shot himself. Atzmon though has stuck with morality, over superficial happiness and therefore madness. It’s the toughest choice, gloriously unfashionable and unfathomable to those brought up on the American constitution’s endorsement of the pursuit of happiness as a human right. Shooting yourself, shooting others, it’s a bit of a career limiting move. It’s not a path Atzmon chooses. But he has had Bird to help him through the dark, the mystery, the chaos.

And if you read Eliot’s Burnt Norton, the reality humans cannot bear isn’t actually life’s horror: it is a vision of a possible paradise, which is found by following a bird. Or chasing the ‘Trane. There are many paths you can go by. ‘Go, go, said the bird…’

Andy Robson  jazzwise

Source: Palestine Think Tank

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