Wandering jazz player by By Theo Panayides
Those who are following my work, music, writing etc,' may find this interview interesting.
Published on February 21, 2010
Say the wrong thing, passionate saxophonist tells THEO PANAYIDES
“It’s very easy to regard me as a charming, entertaining and witty boy,” says Gilad Atzmon, putting an ironic twinkle on the word ‘boy’ (he’s almost 47, after all). “But if you get on the wrong side of me, it can be a devastating experience!”
On paper, that might read slightly arrogant; in the flesh, Gilad gets away with it, partly because he is very charming, entertaining and witty. Still, there’s clearly a darker side. At one point, he describes himself as a “radical”. Cyprus – which he loves and visits often – is “as close as I can get to my homeland without being arrested” (Gilad is Israeli-born, though he’s lived in Britain for the past eight years). Though his novels have been published in 22 languages, he’s been accused of anti-Semitism and branded a ‘self-hating Jew’. In 2007, according to Wikipedia, the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism censured a local party for inviting Gilad to speak, claiming he’d worked to “legitimise the hatred of Jews”.
Have I missed anything? Well, maybe one thing – the most important thing of all. You might think we spoke on the barricades, maybe on the sidelines of some demo outside the Israeli Embassy – but in fact we speak in Layali Café, down the road from New Division in Nicosia where Gilad is due to play a gig in about half an hour. (Not that you’d know it from his languid demeanour.) Gilad is a jazz musician, and a very successful one, hugely in demand as a saxophonist – he tours all the time – and record producer. He’s played as a session musician with the likes of Robbie Williams and Paul McCartney, and he’s just produced two albums, one for up-and-coming songbird Sarah Gillespie and another for the legendary Robert Wyatt of ‘Shipbuilding’ fame. All this in addition to writing essays and maintaining a website (www.gilad.co.uk) where he posts every day with titles like “IsraHell” and “Holocaust Exploited”.
Looks like his passions for music and politics run parallel, I point out.
“I don’t have any passion for politics,” he demurs. “I despise politics, and I despise politicians – of all sorts, even the most wonderful ones. I don’t like people who think they know better than others. I don’t trust them”.
What about his writings, then?
“I don’t write about politics, I write about ethics,” he replies. “I write about Identity. I write a lot about the Jewish Question – because I was born in the Jew-land, and my whole process in maturing into an adult was involved with the realisation that my people are living on stolen land.”
Isn’t that something he should’ve figured out even as a child? I mean, it’s not exactly a secret. “I agree with you,” he instantly replies – but “we didn’t know as Israelis that the Palestinians were ethnically cleansed”. He pauses, taking a sip of water. “We as Israelis were brought up to believe that the Palestinians just left, because they were advised to leave by the Arab countries,” he explains. “We didn’t know about legislation to stop them from coming back, we didn’t even know that every Palestinian village had been wiped out… We were indoctrinated into a denial of the Palestinian Cause. We were not aware of it”. He literally didn’t know about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon – till he went there as a soldier, aged 19, and wondered where these people had come from.
By that time he was “already in transformation,” he adds – and music had a great deal to do with it. When he wonders why he’s so “lonely” in his views, says Gilad, “one of my answers is music, because until I was 17 I was a real proper Zionist”. (His family were deep in the heart of the System; his dad actually worked for the military.) Then he had a serious mountain-climbing accident that left him incapacitated for almost a year – and that’s when he picked up a saxophone and started playing in earnest, meanwhile discovering the wonders of bebop. The work of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie was exciting enough – but even more surprising for the young Gilad was to learn that they were black. “Till that point we thought everything good came from the Jews!” he laughs, his fleshy face crinkling in a wolfish grin. “And the more I loved black music, the less I wanted to die for the Israeli idiotic ideology…”
Music is a thread, binding the life together. I watch him later on the makeshift stage at New Division, a stocky figure in a white jacket, rocking back and forth with his eyes closed, sometimes striding forward to underline a passage when the saxophone’s profusion of notes threatens to soar out of his control altogether – and I start to realise how his musical persona intertwines with his life in general, how the two reflect each other in (at least) three different ways. The first is their fluidity. The second, fearlessness. And the third is perfectionism.
Jazz is fluid, especially the improvisational kind played by Gilad. “For me, jazz is a celebration of the moment. What you may call the here-and-now,” he explains – and his lifestyle is equally fluid, just like his identity. Is he British? In a way. (He has British citizenship.) One of the few times he ever got stage-fright, he recalls, was when he played the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, and that’s when he knew he’d become a Brit – because he realised then that he thought of London as his home, and it made him self-conscious. When we first meet, on the other hand, we talk about sitting outside, and I mention that he probably doesn’t mind the cold, being from London – but Gilad shakes his head: “I come from Palestine”.
He lives mostly on the road (though he has two children back in London), and isn’t even sure where he’s going after Cyprus – like a Wandering Jew, he adds with a chuckle. Does he also live his life ‘in the moment’? “I try to,” he shrugs. How exactly does one do that? “You try to walk along with your feelings,” he explains rather cryptically, “make ethical judgments, not believe anything anyone tells you”. Does he mean ‘anything’ or ‘everything’? “I don’t believe anything,” he smiles. “If I’m interested in something, I learn it myself and come up with my own judgment. This applies to History, politics, and obviously to music.”
Then there’s the fearlessness. Jazz, for him, is a form of creative detachment: “I like to close my eyes and let it happen”. Sometimes it doesn’t. Musicians fail to bond, playing styles clash instead of meshing – and the reason is fear, people’s fear of failure, which frustrates their creativity. “In the process of improvisation,” explains Gilad, “insecurity plays a major destructive role”.
Again, though, music reflects something larger – because fear is also what drives the cause of Zionism, the obvious fear that comes from being surrounded by enemies as well as a deeper fear borne of centuries of oppression: it’s a painful fact, says Gilad, that “You can’t understand the history of Jewish suffering without looking at Israeli barbarism”. Maybe fear is also what fuels the denial (as he sees it) of the obvious, that “every piece of land in Israel is actually Palestine” – the fear he himself has tried to banish from his own life.
You have to be fearless, he insists – in music, in politics, in life itself. “For me, the meaning of Life is to live. Is to live! To enjoy your symptoms, to celebrate your symptoms.” Symptoms? He shrugs, as if to say ‘whatever you want to call them’. “To love the soul,” he goes on, getting animated, “to make love to the people around you, to communicate – and to communicate not like a f***ing Western politically-correct lefty that’s saying the right thing. Say the wrong thing! Bounce back! Hit back, you know? To feel Life! To challenge yourself every f***ing second. This is what Life is for me.”
Above all, however, is perfectionism – or perhaps persistence, “pushing people to the wall” as he calls it. It’s a little hard to imagine, watching him sit in Layali next to Kyriacos – his “best friend in Cyprus” – talking about this and that, but Gilad is apparently something of a martinet in the studio (he also teaches with the Global Music Foundation, and admits to “giving [students] hell” when he feels they’re not taking it seriously). He quotes Philip Bagenal, a sound engineer he’s worked with for the past decade – a good friend, and the best sound engineer he’s ever worked with – who nonetheless said to him one night, as the hours dragged on and Gilad still pushed for more: “Gilad, you are the most exhausting human being who’s ever been in a studio. You just don’t let it go.”
Once again, the music reflects his personality. His hero, he confides, the man he most admires is a Russian-Jewish music teacher he had as a teenager “who was f***ing horrible with me” – yet “he turned me into an adult”. Once, when teenage Gilad came to a lesson unprepared, this teacher “wiped me out, like a cloth on the floor” – a harsh lesson but a valuable one, because it taught him not to leave things half-baked: he goes all the way, whether as musician or activist.
When he’s writing something, “I won’t leave a single stone unturned” (“and when I turn the stones,” he adds wryly, “I find a lot of cockroaches”). When he’s playing, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “To a certain extent I’m very easy to connect with,” he repeats, “because I’m funny and I am – inverted commas – ‘charming’. But some people would find me intimidating and obnoxious, and hard to deal with. I don’t play the usual politically-correct game. If I’m playing with someone and he doesn’t listen, I may take my sax out and shout at them, and this person would hate me for the rest of their life.” Does he get nasty? “Apparently. I don’t want to be nasty, but…”
He doesn’t seem very nasty, but I’ll take his word for it; despite his charm – indeed, because of it – Gilad Atzmon radiates a kind of forceful energy, and it’s easy to see how it might turn explosive. Besides, he adds, it works both ways: he pushes people and expects – indeed, wants – people to push him back. Must make for some fiery personal relationships, I point out, but he won’t be drawn: “I’m in a relationship with me for 47 years,” he smiles. “It’s exhausting”.
Sounds like the self-hating Jew again. What does he say to that little slur? Gilad smiles: “I’m not a self-hating Jew,” he replies, “I’m a proud self-hating Jew! It’s a big difference… I celebrate my hatred towards everything I represent – or better to say [everything] I’m associated with.
“My ethical duty is to say the things that I know and feel,” he goes on. “I’m an artist. Do you know –” he brightens, having just recalled the perfect aphorism – “this is something I learned from Otto Weininger, the Austrian philosopher. He was a clever boy, killed himself when he was 21!”. Gilad laughs delightedly: “He was definitely a proud self-hating Jew!”
But that’s not the point. What Weininger wrote, says Gilad, is that “Scientists look at the world and tell us what they see. But artists look at themselves, and tell us something about the world!” It’s the same, it’s all connected: Life and Art, and all that jazz.