The genre-conflating musical behemoth that is the Orient House Ensemble, led by multi-instrumentalist, composer, essayist and political commentator Gilad Atzmon, celebrates its 10th anniversary with the release of its seventh album, The Tide Has Changed. Funny, eerie, romantic and intriguing by turns, this is a work of tremendous warmth and strength. Atzmon's spirit and soul inhabit every one of his compositions, and his playing is truly exceptional, staking a genuine claim to being one of the finest saxophonists in contemporary jazz.
All four of the musicians are at the top of their form. Drummer Eddie Hick, who joined the Ensemble in 2009 at age just 22, is a fine replacement for founding-member Asaf Sirkis—gently building washes of percussion on "We Lament," and underpinning the melody with subtly swinging rhythms on "London to Gaza." Bassist Yaron Stavi—who, like Atzmon, is Israeli-born but UK-based—took over from original bassist Oli Hayhurst in 2003. He takes control of the music's core with fluid, lyrical and, at times, darkly brooding playing. Pianist Frank Harrison, an original Ensemble member, is uniformly excellent; his gentle chords on Maurice Ravel's "Bolero at Sunrise" are a delight.
The album opens with "Dry Fear"—a dark, disturbing, tune of unknown terrors? No. Instead, Derek "The Draw" Hussey—vocalist with The Blockheads, another of Atzmon's bands, and ex-minder to original Blockheads singer and writer Ian Dury—introduces the Ensemble over a jolly tune that wouldn't be out of place on the soundtrack to Cabaret (1972). Perhaps the title is a nod to the anxiety that grips many performers in the minutes before they take to the stage; perhaps it's a pun on drei, vier (three, four); perhaps, neither. But it's definitely fun—and unexpected.
The album gets under way in more "traditional" Orient House Ensemble style with "The Tide Has Changed." Harrison strums the piano strings as Atzmon builds up a tense, melancholy atmosphere on alto sax. Then, suddenly, Atzmon shifts the mood with an upbeat staccato riff to signal the entrance of Stavi and Hick. The drummer and bassist enthusiastically drive the music on until, once again, the mood darkens—thanks as much to their subtle rhythmic changes as to Atzmon's own shift in tone.
Tali Atzmon's wordless vocal on "And So Have We" gives the tune an air of unsettling beauty—rather like Krzysztof Komeda's soundtrack for Rosemary's Baby (1968)—her voice complementing Atzmon's sad but lovely clarinet and accordion. Elsewhere, most notably on "All the Way to Montenegro" and "We Laugh," the band members join Tali Atzmon to contribute their own enthusiastic vocal refrains.
"In the Back Seat of a Yellow Cab" is wonderfully evocative—an intriguingly complex tune. By turns it's languid, intense, sprightly and romantic, terms that sum up the whole of The Tide Has Changed. This is a richly varied recording from one of the most exciting and intriguing bands in jazz; a classic in the making.