Gilad Atzmon, of the Blockheads: Something Else! Interview
Ahead of the release of our OHE new Album The Whistle Blower, here is a massive profile article. It appeared yesterday on http://somethingelsereviews.com
By Sammy Stein
Gilad Atzmon is a prolific essayist and novelist, has a masters degree in philosophy and lectures, and writes and talks about issues which many people find challenging. He is restless and seeks new challenges always but, above all, he is a musician.
A resident in the UK since 1994, his 2003 album Exile (Enja) was the BBC’s jazz album of the year in 2003. As a soloist, leader and as part of groups, Gilad Atzmon has made a name on the jazz circuit playing both in the UK and Europe. Many know him as the sax player for the Blockheads — a role which he has undertaken, along with a rolling line-up of other sax players including Terry Edwards and Dave Lewis for the past 18 years — joining two years before Ian Dury’s death in 2000. He still tours with them today. Gilad brings his own version of free playing over the tightness of the band.
At one time or another, he has also joined forces with many musicians including Robert Wyatt, Sinead O’Connor, Shane McGowan, oud player Dhafer Youssef and drummer Jack De Johnette. He plays saxophone and clarinet on Pink Floyd’s 2014 album The Endless River (Colombia). Over the past 30 years or so, Gilad has been part of an eclectic and diverse mix of groups and ensembles — the most productive of which has been the Orient House Ensemble, where he joins forces with Yaron Stavi (who has played with many musicians including Nigel Kennedy, guitarist John Ethridge and several orchestras) on basses, Chris Higginbottom (replacing Eddie Hick and Asif Sirkis) on drums and Frank Harrison on keys. (Harrison has been compared to Art Tatum at his height and Mojo once dubbed him a “wunderkind” on piano; Higginbottom, incidentally, is a band leader in his own right, releasing One on Basho with his quartet in 2006).
Gilad Atzmon’s music falls into a category almost of its own but has links to many other genres, mainly jazz-orientated.
Gilad and I were introduced through a close friend of Gilad’s, the Orient House Ensemble bass player Yaron Stavi, who Gilad describes as, “the engine of my universe.” Coming with no preconceptions, I was lucky to be able to delve a little and get closer to what makes him tick musically. Gilad proved to be a great subject with a keen sense of humor, and a deeply caring musician who has been shaped by events and experiences which have affected him personally and musically.
He has gained, rightly or wrongly, something of a name for being a political animal. Some may speak of him as difficult to fathom, due to his strong views and seemingly contradictory ideas and philosophies. However, if you take the time to delve deeper, read his works and listen to some of his opinions Gilad Atzmon actually affiliates himself to no party and expresses his own views — forged from the furnace fires of his own experiences and observations both in the UK and in Israel. He asks no one to side with him or against him and largely leaves compartmentalization to others yet does not hold back on his thoughts, even interspersing ideas and opinions between numbers at gigs on occasion, which can be daunting for those not accustomed to this or unfamiliar with Gilad.
Gilad Atzmon does not, as I found out, do background detail. He has done it too often and anyone can get this from his website and blogs. He prefers deep, meaningful and challenging questions. In his words, an interview, “must be like a piece of music. It must lead to the unknown, it must be fresh and I can’t once again go over my life. I have done it so many times. If you want to interview me, you need to produce questions related to me and my life and activity so I find the energy to address them. I just can’t list again my favorite albums and talk about my childhood. I’ve been there. I can only engage in digging that aims at metaphysical depth. I love interviews and I love being interviewed. There is a book of my interviews coming out in 2015. I give it a lot of time and thought but what I need is a challenge, something that can distract me.”
As I got to know him a little bit, Gilad revealed that he, like so many musicians, has one main aim. Yes, he may be seen as “political,” yes he attaches labels to himself way before I had time to make up my mind like, “difficult, a princess” (and far stronger terms), but underneath he is a musician on a mission. He is hell-bent on communicating, delivering his music to an audience which appreciates it and encouraging people to think outside the corporate and political labels and boxes.
Gilad Atzmon may hate mundanity but for those unfamiliar with him, some background is required here. He was born in Israel in 1963. His background and history proved pivotal in the development of his views, philosophy and ultimately his music. He watched his country change around him as he grew up and during perhaps his most formative years, unprecedented changes took place where his fellow countrymen warred, destroyed, tried and failed to build peace and where the regime placed one set of people over another. As a member of the Israeli army in Lebanon, Gilad saw things which totally went against what he had been taught as he grew up. He saw war from an ethical viewpoint rather than political. Men were put in charge of other men, people were killed in the name of expansion.
To Gilad, this was anathema to how he felt inside, and he left Israel for the UK after studying composition and jazz at the Rubin Academy, now part of the Tel Aviv University. He used to listen to jazz at night as a prelude to falling asleep (he jokes that jazz was good for that, as it was boring) but one track affected him a great deal and he went to the record store and find it. Gilad discovered David Raksin and Johnny Mercer’s “Laura” played by Charlie Parker and from then, his musical taste diversified and he began to seek out jazz, including Coltrane. After flirtations with pop and other styles, Gilad now plays music which defies categorization. Eastern and jazz roots merge to create music which, whilst strongly linked to several jazz genres like bop, be-bop (the style with which the playing style and structure of Gilad’s compositions is perhaps most closely associated) and modernism, has a style of its own.
Asked about how he feels when he performs, Gilad describes the experience: “Jazz, for me, is the commitment to change — the attempt to reinvent oneself on a nightly basis. This is obviously an ideal perception of this art form. In reality, most of us just play our three and a half favorite licks again and again in different permutations. I guess that most jazz artists are frustrated by the yearning for a new sound. Most of us would like to escape our lick ghetto. We would love to flee from our patterns, to surprise ourselves, to move beyond consciousness. In the old days, drugs were the means towards such liberation but jazz is much cleaner nowadays.
“When I play, I attempt to kill the consciousness, the fear. Ideally, I would love to let the music happen by itself. I would like to be reduced into the lungs that blow through the sax, the roadie who carries the horn to the gig, the driver of that saxophonist due to perform later. Ideally, I would love to let the self evaporate as soon as the gig is launched. But in reality, the ego and the so-called super-ego do not let go that easily. The fear is always around the corner. I would like to believe that this battle with fear and insecurity gets me going. It was fierce enough to sustain my music career for 30 years.”
I asked Gilad Atzmon about how he came to join the Blockheads and his meeting with Ian Dury. Gilad replied, “Soon after I landed in Britain over 20 years ago, I recorded in Chaz Jankel’s studio. [Chaz is keyboardist, co-writer and guitarist with the Blockheads.] I guess that Chaz liked my sound and started to use me as saxophonist on his own recordings. Two years later, I was asked to join the Blockheads. The meeting with Ian was obviously very significant for me. The man was certainly one of the greatest English wordsmiths ever. The combination of his dry voice and outstanding humor, together with a very musically able band is probably one of the most shining contributions of Britain to contemporary music. I am very honored to have known Ian, but even more honored to keep playing with the Blockheads nowadays.”
I asked Gilad Atzmon about the interaction on stage with musicians in his own ensembles and audiences and how he sees his music reaching people. He commented, “The OHE is my favorite group of musicians. We have been touring together now for 15 years. I have been playing with Yaron Stavi for 25 years, Frank Harrison for 16. In the OHE, we believe in simplicity. We are convinced that beauty is a transparent experience. Unlike many musicians of our generation and younger, we are not particularly educated in music. With the exception of Chris Higginbottom, no one in the band possesses a music diploma or degree. We believe in the song, and no one needs an education in order to compose or play a song. I believe that in the last four decades jazz has been reduced from being a vibrant spiritual message into a dull academic experience.
“Jazz education has a lot to do with it. The outcome has been pretty devastating. The music has become very complicated and sophisticated, yet at large boring. With the OHE, I search for the human experience, the sentimental, the nostalgic, the romantic, the anger and the pain as opposed to the ‘witty’ or the ‘sophisticated.’ I guess that this is why the OHE has been successful in Britain and in Europe. We attempt to communicate with people, rather than impress them. To a certain extent, unlike young contemporary jazzers, I do search for the lowest common denominator. I believe in common denomination.”
Asked if he has a philosophy on life and music, Gilad says, “Like many people of my generation, I grew up inspired by Left thought and progressive self-righteousness. I foolishly tended to believe that people who speak about equality are somehow better. As I got older, I obviously grasped the lie that is embedded in whatever is left out of the Left. I am now regarding myself as a reactionary essentialist. I am primarily interested in the essence of things. To be an essentialist is to ask for the true meaning of beauty, the true meaning of jazz, but it also delves into political matters. It digs into the essence of being amongst others or even just ‘being’ in general.”
About how he came to be part of the long-awaited new album from Pink Floyd, Gilad Atzmon explains, “As you probably know, since my arrival in Britain 20 years ago I have been recording with many great British rock and pop artists. One of the greatest artists I was lucky to work with is, without doubt, Robert Wyatt — the most natural musician I have ever come across. I recorded with Robert at Phil Manzanera’s studio. [Phil is lead guitarist with Roxy Music, and a long-time Pink Floyd collaborator.] I then started to record with Phil, who was a producer on the last Pink Floyd album.”
At this point, Aztmon offers his thoughts on a side issue: “I should mention that I don’t believe in the division of musicians into style categories — jazz, classic, pop, etc. This attempt to compartmentalize genres was there to serve the industry, to create false identities that were based on ‘identification.’ In other words, we didn’t buy music, we borrowed identities; we were jazzers, rockers and so on. But now that the industry has died, we don’t need Tower Records or HMV dedicating floors to styles of music, we once again listen to music that appeals to our ears, we listen to music because we love the sound of it. This obviously also applies to musicians. We are now free to play whatever we like.”
Then, back to Pink Floyd: “If you listen to my sound on Pink Floyd, I actually played Turkish style clarinet. It has very little to do with my bebop background. When I think about it now, when Robert Wyatt first asked me to play on his record, it was Arabic clarinet he was after. I had to imitate the voice of the great Palestinian singer Amal Murkus,” a Palestinian singer who performs in Isreal with music rooted in Palestinian folk stories.
I asked Gilad about his statement concerning the super ego taking over, and if he ever wished to play really free — or whether he felt in a better situation when the ego/superego is controlling rather than the id or the muse.
Gilad replied, “I certainly want to be free and dominated by spirit alone. However, jazz is also a competitive art form and demands high performance. Along the history of this art form, we detect a constant battle between the ‘wit’ and the ‘ghost.’ I would argue that in the peak of this art form, somewhere between the late 1940s and early 1970s, the ‘wit’ and the ‘ghost’ reached its ultimate symbiotic relationship. The technique and the knowledge were transformed into beauty, energy and anger. Due to the emergence of jazz education, jazz has become an academic domain. At large, contemporary jazz is very clever and sophisticated, but it is hardly exciting, to my ears at least. I guess that jazz artists have to find for themselves the right balance. We must practice for hours but once on stage, we must switch into performance mode, we must let the devil and the ghosts take over.”
On freedom versus control in his music Gilad says, “A discourse is basically a set of boundaries. In that respect a music style is no different, it is also a set of restrictions. Freedom could only be realized once bound to limits. It is the restrictions and the boundaries that bring to light the true jazz genius. The best jazz musicians, as such, are the people who can visit the same club night after night, play the same tune and make it sound fresh, innovative and beautiful.”
I asked Gilad Atzmon if he felt commercial pressures had a positive or detrimental effect on musicians. He replied, “Commercial pressure is beautiful. It determines that art and beauty must communicate with others. It saves jazz from being a solipsistic [the theory that the self is the only thing that can be verified] form of masturbation. In the second half of the 20th century, we saw governmental and public bodies interfering with art. Needless to say, this was a total disaster and I am very pleased to see all those ‘art cancer’ institutions falling apart and fading away. Art is a precious domain of communication between a creative genius and an audience. This contact must remain as pure as possible and the last thing we want is politicians or public bureaucrats interfering with this bond. In the 1990s, people used to say that the most appreciated art form in Britain was the art of filling the forms for the art council. Thank God, we don’t have to fill the forms any more. Musicians should compose music rather than filling forms. Touring musicians should do the same; just tour and build a crowd.”
I asked if he would be wary then of playing freer for an audience, who had come to see him perhaps because they were more familiar with The Whistle Blower, Orient House Ensemble’s latest album. Would he be afraid to intersperse them something different? Gilad replied, “Our audience always tell us that, with the OHE, they never know what to expect. I really do not see it as a problem. And if anyone ever dares approach with such a complaint, I will use this opportunity to vow to give him/her their money back.”
As he has labelled himself as a “reactionary essentialist,” I asked Gilad Atzmon if he actually knew he was reaching people and with what message? “After 15 years with the OHE,” he replied, “touring successfully all over without applying for funding, I can safely say that we are reaching people and a lot of them. My message in The Whistle Blower is very simple — say what you think and behave as you feel! I see myself now as a bitter opponent of the culture of ‘correctness’ that is imposed on us by the guardians of the speech. For me, to be is the celebration of ‘being.'”
Since he writes, lectures and uses his blogs, website and sometimes gigs to talk about his views on Jewish identity, I asked Gilad Atzmon whether he was concerned about reaching the masses with his views and music — and which was more important. Gilad said, “It doesn’t matter any more how many people you reach at a single event. I have given talks in front of 500 people that never reached a single person outside of that university lecture room, but I also gave an interview via Skype in Amsterdam airport that reached 200,000 viewers within 12 hours. In this age of communication, thoughts, ideas and spirit travel as fast as the speed of light. You can look at my schedule. I am travelling all over the world, on a daily basis giving talks, concerts and interviews. I guess that I tapped into something. I do present an alternative form of thinking that is becoming more and more popular. I am very happy to see it happening, I must admit.”
I asked him what he felt about that fact some had labelled him as anti-Zionist, Gilad replied, “I have been writing for years about Jewish identity politics. My criticism of Jewishness wasn’t received well by the Jewish political world — left, right, center, Zionists and ‘anti.’ I was subject to years of vicious defamation campaigns, but seemingly I survived it. Not a single critic of mine has managed to point at a single mistake in my work, factual or categorical. Instead, they suggest that I shouldn’t discuss Jewish matters. I easily survived the defamation campaign against me. When they called me an anti-Semite, I had three Jews in my band. When they tried to call me a racist, I was leading the most ethnically diverse ensemble in Europe. They didn’t stand a chance. Those who are scared of me, have good reason to be worried. I am an essentialist and if this is not enough, I am allergic to political correctness.
“I am not just critical of Israel or Zionism. I argue that if Israel defines itself as the Jewish state, and decorates its airplanes with Jewish symbols, we must ask first: “What is Jewishness?” I wrote a book about it, The Wandering Who. It became a best seller and was translated into 12 languages — and, for a reason. There is a total and general fatigue of Jewish power. The Wandering Who pointed out that Jewish power is the capacity to silence discussion on Jewish power. It was an attempt to challenge this power, it delved into Jewish identity politics and identity politics in general. It was critical of both. It was a suicidal move. I stood up against the most powerful people on the land, but somehow I survived. Now I am determined to take the battle forward. I can envisage a huge fight ahead.”
On labels and affiliation, Gilad Atzmon adds, “I am not a political creature. I never been a member of any organization. I think freely, or at least attempt to. I am as critical of Israel and Jewish culture, as I am occasionally critical of Palestinians and Arabs. As I mentioned before, to be a jazz artist is the capacity to reinvent oneself on a daily basis. I like the idea; I try to live as such. It isn’t easy, but it is possible.”
To profile Gilad Atzmon was a bit like travelling down a tunnel with many side tunnels — some strewn with shiny objects which you might want to chase and be distracted by and a few were perhaps too dark to venture down, but all of them intriguing. Yet ,finally, after the difficult start, Gilad proved open and honest, allowing me insight into his private documentary video and answering questions in a straightforward and refreshingly open manner. I became aware of a deeper man behind the long words, the philosophies, idealism and the intrinsic intimacy of his view points and his music which he does not seem to separate. This is a musician who simply wants to communicate, to play and leave a lasting effect.
Gilad Atzmon speaks through his music. It takes a while to understand the complexities which go into the making of this intriguing musician. Yet, behind all the distraction there is engaging simplicity. Gilad speaks from his heart; he speaks of music and musicians as he finds them. Most importantly, he has important things to say. It is important to ignore labels, other people’s opinions and listen with an open mind to both his words and his music. The music speaks with such clarity that the complex theories, bravado, shiny things and self depreciating comments fall away, revealing at their heart a musician who is slightly insecure, maybe slightly fearful but at the end of the day, Gilad simply wants to play, to connect. Job done.