Something of a polymath amongst the general corpus of jazz musicians, Israeli-born reed player Gilad Atzmon, London-based since 1994, is not only a prolific performer and recording artist, but also a novelist, political essayist and campaigning anti-Zionist. Atzmon's bookshis most recent, My One And Only Love (Saqi Books, 2004), is a comic satire about a Jewish trumpet player who becomes ensnared in an Israeli spying operationhave been enthusiastically received on the literary pages. His fiery and outspoken political activities are more controversial.
Onstage, Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble have a reputation for giving performances as in your face and uncompromising as Atzmon's anti-Zionism. By contrast, the band's albumsRefuge is the fifthhave tended to be more measured affairs, placing Atzmon's visceral mix of bop, free-bop, fusion, Jewish and Arabic musics in a more finely nuanced context.
Some listeners have welcomed Orient House's approach to studio albums; others have found it uninvolving. Personally, I love it. If I want to be beaten about the ears with sonic excess, I'd sooner volunteer for the experience in a club than in my own home. But what shouldn't be in dispute is the quality of Refuge, which is certainly Atzmon and Orient House's most assured recorded outing to date, and one of the most satisfying jazz albums to come out of the UK so far in 2007.
All the tunes are Atzmon originals and, as some of the titles suggest, politics continue to drive his music, though here subtly so. "Autumn In Baghdad," a lovely, wistful ballad with an Arabic flavor, alludes to happier, less murderous times in that ancient city of culture and scholarship. "Spring In New York," the most heated and fusionesque track, powered by a heavy electric bass ostinato, all speed and frenetic energy, is ironic in title, a bedmate perhaps of Mel Brooks' "Springtime For Hitler" in The Producers. "The Burning Bush" is overtly Middle Eastern in feel, and at just under thirteen minutes the longest track, in which Atzmon weaves first tremulous clarinet, then vibrant alto saxophone through a soundscape of distant Arabic singing and vaguely unsettling electronic effects.
Ballads dominate the album. "In The Small Hours" could have been written by Billy Strayhorn, and Atzmon's glissing alto inevitably, and gloriously, evokes Johnny Hodges. "Her Smile," performed without drums over Yaron Stavi's bowed bass, is another gorgeous alto showcase. Stavi shines further on "Her Tears," again playing with a bow, his instrument gently weeping. "My Refuge" sets Atzmon's delicate shabbaabeh flute against Asaf Sirkis' insistent tribal beats, played with brushes on the snare drum. The closing "Prayer For Peace" is as meditative as the title suggests.
Far from being "only" a refined version of Orient House's live performances, Refuge is, instead, a more profound expression of it, a brilliantly navigated combination of gentle, sensitive lyricism and precisely focused passion.
Personnel: Gilad Atzmon: alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet, electronics, shabbaabeh flute, piccolo, voice; Frank Harrison: piano, Fender Rhodes, electronics, Farfisa organ, Jun 6, harmonium; Yaron Stavi: double bass, electric bass; Asaf Sirkis: drums; Paul Jayasinha: trumpet (4 ,6).