Gilad Atzmon And The Orient House Ensemble
Vortex Jazz Club
March 23, 2018
The show was not called "The Music Of Trane," nor even "The Compositions Of Trane," but rather "The Spirit Of Trane." John Coltrane's soul has transcended this earthly realm and ascended beyond even our farthest reach. His spirit though, of adventurism and creativity and individuality, can still be invoked. And on a Friday night in London's North East, his spirit was almost tangible. It filled the one-hundred-capacity Vortex Jazz Club to the point of claustrophobia and surrounded the eighty or so spectators with its warmth.
The show began with "In A Sentimental Mood," the Duke Ellington number. But far from being a mush of nostalgia, Gilad Atzmon led The Orient House Ensemble with soprano saxophone playing that moved from gentle to forceful but never strayed far from beautiful. The beauty lay not in its pleasantries nor its tenderness. It was in Atzmon's passion and the band's exquisite accompaniment. There is no justice to Coltrane in notefornote clones of the songs. Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble know this and played the night with their own hearts on their sleeves and standing on the balls of their feet. They were ready to react to their bandmates' idiosyncrasies with their own personalities.
Where Atzmon is a very upfront saxophonist, commanding the stage and attention, Frank Harrison is at his best when he juxtaposes that with his own understated piano playing. He's a player of taste, careful in his choice of notes. He is perfectly capable of rocket-speed runs along the keyboard, but is most effective when he eases the pace. At slower tempos, his perfectly picked notes receive all the attention they deserve. Hard bop virtuosity was well represented that night. But it was never laden down with better-than-thou ego. Harrison's best playing combined Monkesque use of space with Ellington's onpoint taste, which kept the music from descending into egotistical density.
No note is wrong, no note is wasted, provided that it is played with passion. Even when the night's soundtrack metamorphosed into a far more aggressive beast, no member of the quartet played with anything other than rapturous passion. Enzo Zirilli played intricate but never wimpy beats, moving seamlessly from forte to pianissimo in the space of a breath. He never intruded on the others' playing, but simultaneously provided a solid floor-tom/bass drum foundation whilst his shimmering cymbals floated ghostly atop the sound. When he traded fourbar solos with Atzmon, the players counterpointed each other with dignity and respect. Each knew that the other's point would be worthwhile.
Underpinning it all were the lower frets of Yaron Stavi's double bass, his picking hand pounding the strings with tremendous strength. A master of vibrato, Stavi's left hand coaxed the slightest pitch waverings from the strings or shook the note with Charles Minguslike force. He only ventured to the high peaks of the neck during his solos, preferring to walk the low to mid-range foothills when accompanying. Varying his steady strides with graceful glissandi, letting every microtone get its word in, Stavi played well all evening. Each band member was given an equal voice, having his say and saying it well.
Those are the hows: the science, the tools that Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble used to craft their magic. Jazz however is not merely head music. Not overly intellectual, ego-stroking megalomania. It's soul music and body music. If not for lack of space, there would have been dancing. If not for politeness, there would have been dancing on the tables.
Atzmon rocked, contorted his face and played his sax from his gut instincts and feelings and wisdom. You have to be intelligent to play jazz. But you don't have to be intellectual.
That's what made that night more than mere repertory. The group raised it to the status of ritual. Atzmon, Harrison, Stavi and Zirilli took on this momentous challenge"The Spirit Of Trane"with all due respect and wisdom. They knew that to try to duplicate John Coltrane would be futile and pointless and disrespectful. Coltrane would want to hear your interpretations. He already knew his own.
Instead, the quartet matched Coltrane's stellar achievements by playing them their way. The refrains were recognisable as a singer covering a song: The words remained the same. But the voices changed.
Where the uptight and snobs would see irreverence, there is in fact the deepest respect for John Coltrane. Gilad Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble rescued Coltrane's music from a museum exhibit fate. In their capable and caring hands his music remains alive. For there is nothing more uselessly dead than homework. Or more thrillingly alive than "The Spirit Of Trane."