Manic Beat Preacher
John Lewis – The Guardian March 6, 2009
A few days before I meet Gilad Atzmon, he finds himself at the centre of an international storm. The prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, has approvingly cited Atzmon during a debate with Israeli president Shimon Peres. "Atzmon, a Jew himself," said Erdoan, "says that Israeli barbarity is far beyond even ordinary cruelty." Ever since, Atzmon has been getting 200 emails a day, his BlackBerry is constantly buzzing and his words are being debated by hundreds of bloggers around the world. Atzmon is revelling in the attention.
"A world leader quoting an artist?" he laughs. "Isn't that incredible? Not a singer, not even a fucking pianist, but a stupid fucking saxophonist! Ha!"
It may come as a surprise to some that Atzmon is a saxophonist at all. His career as a musician has long been drowned out by the clatter of his extra-curricular activities: the furious attacks on Israel (he writes and edits for the website Palestine Think Tank); the philosophical texts on Jewish identity that get discussed by the likes of Noam Chomsky; the two comic novels that have been translated into 24 languages.
However, since his arrival in London in 1994, Atzmon has also established himself as one of London's finest saxophonists. His work rate is phenomenal: he plays more than 100 dates a year, alternating between his straightahead bebop quartet and his Arabic-tinged Orient House Ensemble (named after the old PLO headquarters in east Jerusalem). As well as recording nine of his own albums, he tours and records with the Blockheads, the band he joined two years before the death of its leader, Ian Dury. He is recording a third album with another great English pop eccentric, Robert Wyatt, who describes him as "one of the few musical geniuses I've ever met". The day we meet, Atzmon is producing an album for the Dutch-Iraqi jazz singer Elizabeth Simonian; he has also recently helmed LPs by the singer-songwriter Sarah Gillespie, the afro-jazz percussionist and singer Adriano Adewale, and Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy.
This month, Atzmon launches his latest project, the album In Loving Memory of America. It's what he calls "a very personal story, of how I fell in love with jazz and fell in love – and out of love – with America".
Atzmon was born in Tel Aviv in 1963, into what he describes as "a conservative, secular Zionist family". During his National Service, he served as a paramedic in the Israeli army in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and started to question some of the fundamental tenets of his upbringing. "I realised that I was part of a colonial state, the result of plundering and ethnic cleansing," he says. He sought solace in jazz, in particular the recordings that Charlie Parker made with a string section in the early 1950s.
"Charlie Parker With Strings was the first jazz album I fell in love with when I was 17," he says. "It's the record that made me want to be a jazz musician. I loved the way the music is both beautiful and subversive - they way he basks in the strings but also fights against them. Since then, I've never been crazy about smooth jazz albums with strings, which is why I wanted to do it properly myself, to put Parker's ideas in a modern context."
The strings are orchestrated by the violinist Ros Stephen from Tango Siempre, the British tango outfit with whom Atzmon has recorded and toured recently. Despite the unorthodox setting, the project is Atzmon's most full-on "jazz" album since 1999's incendiary, pianoless set, Take It Or Leave It.
"It's true," he admits. "I've developed a reputation as a so-called jazz saxophonist, but the irony is that I rarely make jazz records these days. But I always love playing jazz because, even when I'm playing it, I don't know what the next line is going to sound like. That's what makes it truthful and genuine.
"That's one of the problems with a lot of contemporary jazz. Most of the young musicians I come across now are visually oriented. They learn licks by reading music from textbooks, but they don't learn the longer line. When I teach students, I tell them to put the instrument aside and learn to sing." He sings a complicated bebop line. "Only then, once you've learned to sing something, should you learn how to play it. It's like how Indian musicians learn to sing 'ta-ra-ta-da' for years before they are allowed pick up the tabla.
"I call it reverting to the primacy of the ear. Western education is very visually oriented: you play two bars of one chord, two bars of another - it's all written out in grids. I see the way my daughter learns the cello. It's codified, methodically. But there is no way to write Arabic music." He hums a melismatic Arabic phrase. "There is no way you can write that down. You have to learn to internalise it before you can play it on an instrument. You have to listen. And that's where I see the overlap with politics. I see Arabic music as injecting ethics into my music. We don't listen to Arab voices. We don't listen to Hamas. We don't listen to Hezbollah, or Ahmadinejad."
It doesn't take long for Atzmon to ricochet from talking about music to talking about politics, and a lengthy, furious and often hilarious argument about Islamism ensues. The problem is that trenchant politics often sit uneasily alongside music, particularly when that music is instrumental. Atzmon's musical method has been to play with notions of cultural identity, flirting with genres such as tango and klezmer as well as various Arabic, Balkan, Gypsy and Ladino folk forms. Only one of his albums has been truly bad - his 2006 comedy klezmer project, Artie Fishel and the Promised Band, a clumsy satire on what he regards as the artificial nature of Jewish identity politics - but even his best albums have a slightly tame, homogenous feel that shares little with his blistering live performances.
"My albums are nothing like my live shows," he says. "It's very deliberate. I don't think that anyone can sit in a house, at home, and listen to me play a full-on bebop solo. It's too intense. My albums need to be less manic. Of course, the album as a format is dying - soon the only place anybody will sell CDs is at gigs - but they still serve as a very important document of whatever project I'm working on."
It is Atzmon's blunt anti-Zionism rather than his music that has given him an international profile, particularly in the Arab world, where his essays are widely read. (He favours a one-state solution in Palestine; he concedes that it will probably be controlled by Islamists, but says, "That's their business.") It has also made him many enemies, even among some former allies. Some Palestinian activists see his provocatively anti-Jewish rhetoric as discrediting their cause, while the Socialist Workers party, which once proudly paraded him at conferences, has distanced itself from him.
"I don't give a shit, really," he says with a shrug. "The Palestinian cause doesn't belong to any one person. And I don't identify with any political party. That's the advantage the artist has over the politician. The politician, like the scientist or the academic, looks at the world and tries to tell us things about ourselves. I am an artist. I look into myself and try to tell you things about the world. We push envelopes because we look into ourselves. You don't have to listen to me. You can take it or leave it. But it's my truth."
• Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble and the Sigamos String Quartet play St Cyprian's Church, London, on Tuesday, then tour. In Loving Memory of America is out now on Enja
Last updated 10/03/2009