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Interview: Gilad Atzmon

PUBLISHED: 16:02 26 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:40 29 October 2010

Rob Garratt

One of modern jazz's most controversial, wacky, and downright loud players, Gilad Atzmon renews his links with Norwich with a concert next week. ROB GARRATT spoke to him.

Further listening: Gilad Atzmon

One of modern jazz's most controversial, wacky, and downright loud players, Gilad Atzmon renews his links with Norwich with a concert next week. ROB GARRATT spoke to him.

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Known as one of jazz's loudest players, Gilad Atzmon turned more than a few heads when he announced his latest release, a delicate album of ballads recorded with a string section.

What few people realise is that the Israeli-born saxophonist decided to record the album right here in Norwich, on stage at the Playhouse.

Appearing with a string quartet for the first time as part of a coup for the 2008 Norfolk and Norwich Festival, it was during the flights of exuberance associated with a premiere that saw him decide to devote the next 18 months to the project.

“I did it for the first time in Norwich for the festival and I really, really loved it,” says Atzmon. “It was there and then that I decided to make this album and do this tour.”

The project culminated in the release of In Loving Memory of America earlier this year, a self-conscious tribute to legendary bebop pioneer Charlie Parker, and his delicate Bird with Stings album.

“Whenever I heard Bird it always shocked me how great he was,” explains Atzmon. “It's always kind of refreshing, devastatingly brilliant. It always remains and it's why I decided to be a musician in the first place.”

It sees the prolific composer play moving takes on Parker standards Everything Happens to Me, April in Paris, I Didn't Know What Time It Was, and If I Should Lose You, all from the 1949 LP Bird with Strings, an album that recast the notorious bebop pioneer in an unfamiliar setting.

Hearing it for the first time as a teenager, it was a remarkable zeitgeist that helped craft both Atzmon's musical and political personality.

Born in Israel in 1963, at 19 Atzmon served in the Israeli Defence Forces during Israeli invasion of Lebanon, an experience that inspired him to turn against his people. He is now a fervently outspoken anti-Zionist, and is said to be as well known is some parts of the world for his fiery philosophical essays as his playing.

“I was a teenager, I wasn't into jazz but I loved music,” recalls Atzmon. “I heard Bird on the radio and I thought 'oh my god, what's that?'

“I went to the shop and I couldn't believe he was black. I was living in a Jewish state, in Israel, where everything beautiful was Jewish. I thought he must be a black Jew. I listened to all his friends and were all black.

“Through that that I started to believe how wrong Israel is. It's through that I saw it was a completely different place to I was. Its through that that I ended up in total support of Palestine and totally against my people.”

In Loving Memory of America is the most recent chapter in Atzmon's career, an uncharacteristic homage to a lost time and place, it is at odds with his unsentimental style.

Moving to London in 1994, a decade ago he formed the Orient House Ensemble, a band who mix Atzmon's fiery bop phrasing with ethnic scales, epic arrangements and electronic effects.

Their breakthrough album Exile won the BBC Jazz Album of the Year in 2003, and established him at the forefront of the genre, a position that was solidified in the title of a recent book written by Chris Searle - Forward Groove: Jazz and the Real World from Louis Armstrong to Gilad Atzmon.

As well as recording five acclaimed albums with Orient House, his most bizarre move to date is an album and tour under the alter-ego Artie Fishel, a fictional deluded Jew convinced jazz was born in Israel. The album was a peculiar mix of mock-interviews and ironic musical parodies.

As well as jazz, Atzmon, 46, has also written two comical philosophical novels, which have been translated into 27 different languages, and further explore his anti-Zionist tendencies.

But you would be wrong to call him an intellectual, and is featured gigging member of rock band The Blockheads - formally fronted by Ian Dury.

His time with the band has seen him taking to the stage with stars including Paul McCartney and Robbie Williams, an experience he denies enjoying.

“It's not necessarily something I am proud of,” he says stoically. “It's just a fact. Something that happened.”

This year Atzmon added the role of producer to his CV, recording and playing singer-songwriter Sarah Gillespie's debut LP, Stalking Juliet, and is currently producing an album by Robert Wyatt.

His own In Loving Memory of America is more than just a tribute to Parker, but also sees the sees Atzmon looking back over his own storied career for the first time, reworking his own Orient House material alongside familiar standards.

“The strings thing is a major thing for me, something I really wanted to do for many, many years,” explains Atzmon.

“There are a lot of things about Bird that are shocking. But I had to put some of me in it, it couldn't be any other way.”

The album is also a romanticised, nostalgic look at the time and place that gave birth to Atzmon's heroes - Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane among them - an America of the forties and fifties has occupied a cherished vision in his idealistic mind.

But the academic, philosopher and author is less than dreamy about modern America, or indeed modern life - and argues we are at a pivotal time in musical history, at the birth of a recession-inspired “revolution”.

He is full of rousing rhetoric, equally convinced of the truth of his words as the beauty of his music, repeating his adjective-laden speeches with the assuredness of someone rehearsing familiar arguments.

“I live here and I love it here,” says Atzmon. “I was very happy not to live in America these last eight or nine years. Something pretty horrible to America.

“Something pretty horrible happened to British music too, we were under a serious iron first of the music industry that flattened creativity and talent. It was devastating to watch.

“However the music industry officially died. It's a revolution. Those economics who took over the will have to die now. We are going to play again. I am far busier now in the context of a credit crunch than I've ever been.”

t Gilad with Strings, Norwich Playhouse, November 28, 01603 598598, www.norwichplayhouse.org.uk

Further listening: Gilad Atzmon

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