Talking to Andy Robson (Jazzwise, December Issue) about Jazz, Palestine, the Orient House, politics, art funding and music education.
The most outspoken saxophonist on the planet? Probably. But GILAD ATZMON turns the tables yet again, and lets the music do the talking, on his latest album The Tide Has Turned, but he still has plenty to say, as ANDY ROBSON discovers
They call him the hardest-working man in jazz. But even by his standards, it’s been a hectic time for Gilad Atzmon lately. It’s breakfast time on a Tuesday and he has still not had the chance to get off the ever-ringing phone. “I have never been so fucking stressed in my life,” admits the sax man, ripping out his earpiece and finally snapping off the phone. “On Friday it was Ronnie’s and the Orient House launch, last night was Jazza For Gaza at which we launched Robert Wyatt’s album; tonight’s the second night of Jazza and then it’s back to the Orient House tour which is our biggest ever. Oh, and I’m working on Sarah Gillespie’s album for the new year.”
Just for a moment, the Big Man looks tired, vulnerable even, despite his reputation for outspokenness, although his forthright views could be seen as coming from a position of endless questioning, putting assumed knowledge to one side.
On another occasion, Atzmon has talked about this “other Gilad”. “I guess that Gilad, as far as I know him, is a very insecure being; he searches constantly and relentlessly for answers with the hope of never finding an adequate one. I do music because I love to be transformed. Music and jazz in particular has this capacity to reinvent itself. I love to reinvent myself constantly. This is why I play the sax; this is why I can hardly read music; this is why I write, and write and write. I don’t let my ideas settle. I question them before they see daylight.”
Breakfast though isn’t the time for doubts: it’s a time to carb load on rich buttered scones, and how can you be down when there’s so much to do? When on the big screen behind us they’re lifting the Chilean miners one by one from their living entombment spread over some 69 long days. Musicians, writers, heh, we have it lucky.
Atzmon knows this better than most. The last time we met two years ago to discuss In Loving Memory Of America his subsequently much acclaimed album with the Sigamos Quartet, the televisual backdrop had been bloodier, tragic, hopeless. Atzmon, powerless before Al Jazeera’s coverage, had been rendered silent by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. “We always thought,” he says, “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.”
More unknowing. Yet, somehow, like the miners rising blinking into the light, Atzmon, has come to address, if not answer, that question. Part of the answer is in the title of the new album, The Tide Has Changed. Originally the album was a celebration of a decade of The Orient House Ensemble. “You know it was Frank’s band,” he says, Frank being Harrison, still the erudite pianist in the ensemble, and the only Brit to have survived the course. “He asked me to play with him at a fundraiser before he went to Berklee. And I just took over – being an Israeli,” Atzmon says, grinning. Atzmon’s jokes may not be to everyone’s
taste, but he plays constantly with his own persona. “Hey, I’m a chameleon. That’s a Jewish thing, like Zelig. It’s no coincidence that Woody Allen came up with Zelig. Jews are known to be chameleons. Sure, it’s a problem critics have with me, be they from the Left or the Right. They say hey, one minute he says he’s an ex-Jew, then he says he’s not! But I’m an artist, it’s my privilege to change. At least I own my discrepancies!” And with this the chameleon laughs again. “Anyway Frank lasted for six months at Berklee, and meanwhile Asaf Sirkis came to London from Israel.”
Sirkis’ arrival was seminal. “With Asaf, I smelled this blossom of Palestine. And I was already very angry with Israel. So my original idea was to take Jewish music and Palestinise it so Jews are able to see the misery of Palestine through their own culture. I took Jewish songs about The Return and put Arab music and lyrics to them. It wasn’t a success in Israel.”
Yet it found an audience in the UK. The name of the band, taken from the PLO’s base in Jerusalem in the 1980s, may not have had the resonance for audiences that it had for Atzmon, but after a decade of hard gigging and a slew of albums, including one that became BBC Jazz Album of the Year, the OHE has built a loyal following. Yet at the turn of the millennium, Atzmon’s vision was high risk. “We did the first gig at the Watermill in Dorking. I’d played there five or six times as a bop man and then I went back with Orient House doing all this note-bending and Arabic stuff. I couldn’t even do it very well! It was outrageous to go and play our big Jewish crap. Some guy yelled ‘play some Bird!’ I’m like ‘Oh shit’. But the whole crowd shouted him down: they were loving it!”
A decade on and audiences have grown to embrace the ensemble’s mix of jazz grooves, bop, Middle Eastern and Balkan vibes. It’s not only the musical tide that has changed. “The tide has changed because we all are aware of the Palestinian plight,” explains Atzmon.
“Everyone knows I am committed to this Palestinian thing. People ask me ‘Gilad, what can I do?’ And the only thing we can do is talk about it freely. What has changed for me is that we’ve talked, though it is still a disaster for the Palestinians, and I see more people aware. In 1967 when Israel invaded the whole world cheered, but by 1982 things started to change. People saw this country was aggressive beyond belief. In 2008 the bombardment of Gaza led to people changing their views, and again the events around the flotilla raised even more issues.”
The Israeli boarding of the ‘peace’ flotilla in international waters in May led to the deaths of nine people. “You know I was asked to go to Gaza with the Jewish flotilla, but I said no. I want a dinghy of me and the self-haters! But now I have an idea to put this whole Jazza festival on a bus and to tour music for Palestine all over the world! I don’t argue that musicians should have a political commitment but some of us do. We can raise money and people listen to us. They listen to us because we aren’t driven by power. We are driven by the search for beauty. You cannot say about Cameron that he is driven by the search for beauty. Or David Miliband. Or Ed.”
It is this search for beauty that transfigures Atzmon’s often tortuous political logic. “Look, I’m not in politics because I don’t believe in politics. All politicians let us down. But I took this from Robert Wyatt. I am an anti-racist. People are entitled to life and to celebrate their differences. I am not a multi-culturalist but I am against any measures of repression that are racially motivated. This is an ethical, not a political question.”
It’s not only the Israeli state that feels his anger. “British tolerance is so hypocritical. The only place you see real equality is on stage between musicians. On stage at Jazza we had Palestinians, Jews, Blacks, Gypsies: unbelievable.”
But this is no plea for multi-culturalism. Atzmon may sound like Angela Merkel, but he’s arguing from a very different place to the German Chancellor. “I want to see English people celebrating their cultural, um, symptoms? The best thing that came out of this country in the last 70 years has been The Beatles, Surman, Taylor, McLaughlin, Holdsworth, Dave Holland. Did they grow up with multi-cultural crap? No, they found their voice by protesting against an Englishness they didn’t accept. They found their own language, like McLaughlin found it through Konokol, the south Indian rhythm language. But “multi-culturalism” isn’t the way to do it. That flattens everything, makes everyone the same. We need a celebration of manifold cultures. And in that sense, the contemporary Left is very banal. I think England is now at its lowest point for generations. But we have the human power to bounce back in a matter of days.”
Yet how, when we’re facing the biggest cuts in public spending since the second world war? Atzmon’s message is a tough one. “I’m not moaning. I am a chatter box. When people hear me, they know I’m not malicious, I just want a better world. We want to tell young musicians, ‘You know what, you don’t need a fucking Arts Council grant!’ Let the Tories destroy everything, let them take the money and give it to the Olympics. You don’t need their money. What you need is to be capable of doing the thing you like to do. Ironically, the collapse of infrastructure may be the best thing for music. For decades in this country the only art form has been filling in forms to claim money for the arts! You know, once I was even asked about the sexual orientation of my band. I don’t even know what my sexual orientation is!”
And jazz education can go in the same bin as arts funding, according to Atzmon. “There is a big crime in the colleges. Let us say 2,000 students in the country join jazz education. But when they come out there are only 45 places to play. It creates a great educated audience,” he laughs. “But these kids leave Trinity, Leeds, the Royal College with 28k debts. Jazz is not a profession. It’s an occupation, not a way to make a living. Eddie [Hick who paradoxically Atzmon discovered as a student] leaves Leeds, gets a job with me but he’s not going to get rich, not from me! Maybe he gets a Matt Bianco tour and he’s better off.”
Atzmon is happy to sound like an “old man of the right” as he puts it. “I learned from Heidegger that to teach is to teach students how to learn. You do not plant information. You plant enthusiasm. I have played with guys straight from college and found them completely lame. But the good ones are strong enough to take my abuse,” he laughs again, scoffing another scone.
“Then they find a voice and are no longer lame English boys. Why are Frank and Eddie the only English in my band? I tried others. But after two days on the road they collapse. But then look at The Blockheads. They are 10 years older than me but they play, they drive, they talk. They are like soldiers, this older generation of English musicians. Look at them, at Peter King, he’ll drive from Wales, do the gig, drive back in the middle of the night. Soldier mentality.”
“In the mid-1980s we developed a spoiled generation. But the next generation?” And at that Atzmon nods toward a friend whose teenage son has applied to Trinity, “they will learn that if jazz music is something they want to do, then great. But they will have no-one waiting to give them a job when they get out of college. It will be a struggle.”
Yet here’s the rub. “Struggle is good. We have forgotten that. I saw my father working in a factory. He struggled. But it was the meaning of his life. He was struggling for something. For meaning. So it was very natural then for me to play fast, loud, slow – and beautiful. You have to come with a story. Who wants to read what a musician has to say, eh? It is not enough to say I play bop because I like it! But now, within the context of the struggle for Palestine, music makes more and more meaning for me. Though I do not know what the meaning is. This is where I am.”
Atzmon demolishes another scone. The tide prepares to change again; and another miner comes out into the light.