Chris Searle on Gilad Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble
It is a full decade since the Israeli alto saxophonist Gilad Atzmon established his quartet the Orient House Ensemble.
It's a doubly ironic name for a jazz group, because it not only alludes to the building in Jerusalem originally designated as the official home of the Palestinian Authority which was subsequently seized and occupied by the Israeli army. It also referes to Atzmon himself who, as as a young man, was drafted into the Israeli Defence Force.
Yet his growth as a major talent as an ex-member of Ian Dury's Blockheads, a satirical novelist of works such as Guide To The Perplexed (2001) and My One And Only Love (2005) along with his ardent support for a free, democratic, inclusive and ecumenical Palestine makes his jazz story both unique and full of controversy.
His close musical confrere Robert Wyatt has called him "a seriously funny writer and the wittiest musician since Ronnie Scott" and, alongside a Swiftian edge to his writing, Atzmon maintains a deep empathy and uncompromising support for the Palestinian people, to whom he dedicates his performances and for whom he constantly campaigns and fundraises.
The 2010 London Jazz Festival finds him playing a gig on Thursday to celebrate the ensemble's 10th anniversary. Special guests include Asaf Sirkis, Guilhermo Rozenthuler and the Sigamos String Quartet - with whom he cut the Charlie Parker tribute album In Loving Memory Of America - as well as original pianist Frank Harrison, bassist Yaron Stavi and new drummer Eddie Hick from The Orient House Ensemble.
The fast-moving Atzmon has also just released two new albums - The Tide Has Turned by The Orient House Ensemble and For The Ghosts Within, an album with Robert Wyatt which has already been given five stars by Guardian jazz critic John Fordham.
The name of the ensemble's new album is, Atzmon says, inspired by the fact that since the "the criminal piracy and massacre" on board the boats of the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla, more and more people across the world are seeing much more clearly the brutality of Israeli aggression.
To Atzmon, the events signalled a crucial moment when the tide of world opinion changed. "The lethal behaviour of Israel has been exposed not only militarily but politically too because the Israeli cabinet gave clear instructions for this murderous attack," he says.
He compares it to another crime, the crucifixion. "Here were good and generous people offering aid, human support and love to an oppressed people. They were bringing medicines, food, tools, cement, building materials to Gaza to rebuild society there, and they were killed in the act of giving."
The present stage of the struggle in Palestine is "in the forefront of the battle for humanism," he declares. "It is a struggle against aggression, racism, Western colonialism and tribal supremacy.
"And it is a battle we must win alongside the Palestinians for the sake of the future for all of humanity."
Where jazz fit into this, Atzmon affirms, is as a music which demolishes all barriers and ghettoes and "puts all people together through beauty."
He sees himself as a jazz musician who has to face himself in the mirror every morning and "understand that the quest for humanism forces me to cope with what I see.
"I'm doing what I'm doing, saying what I'm saying, making the music I'm making because I want to be able to look into the same mirror every morning and feel in tune with myself and the world."
The role of musicians in such crucial times globally is to help support the solidarity movements with people in struggles. "Musicians are drawn by a search for beauty, which is what we strive to create for ourselves and all people," Atzmon says.
The sea change in attitudes tot he Palestinian struggle is exemplified for Atzmon by the response to the recent Jazza concerts for Palestine in September, which he helped to organise. "For many years we saw corrupt Hollywood stars rallying for Israel. The tide has changed now," he says.
"More and more artists in all fields are embarrassed and appalled to be associated with the Israeli government - they are cancelling appearances in Israel and many wouldn't even consider performing there."
The Jazza concerts were strongly supported and raised considerable funds for aid to Gaza.Musicians playing many different kinds of music were "virtually queuing up" to take part. "They all wanted to convey a clear message to the Israeli government. They were reflecting this huge change of tide. They want nothing to do with Israel and her deadly wars and occupation," he enthuses.
"They want freedom and justice for Palestine, and the sounds that they make are a part of the voice of that international determination."
Thursday November 18. Box office: (020) 8639-5454.