Gilad Atzmon: Jazz as Music and Philosophy

Marta Ramon By

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Multi-instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon-he plays sax, flute and clarinet- was born in Israel. One night he was listening to the radio and he heard something that impressed him: it was Charlie Parker. The day after, he went to the shop to find the alto saxophonist's records. He was already seventeen years old but, with around fourteen hours practicing per day, it wasn't long before he turned professional. And when he moved to London his career took off, especially since creating his Orient House Ensemble in 2000.

Atzmon's work can't be understood in general terms because it's a polyhedron: musician, composer, producer and writer. He's in a constant searching of his human roots through his music and his writings, and both of them took him to a quick tour in Spain. Gilad Atzmon visited Valencia to present his new book, The Wandering Who? A study of Jewish Identity Politics (Zero, 2011), and to take part in the Jimmy Glass International Jazz Festival. Atzmon has also just recorded his next album, Songs of the Metropolis which will be launched in January, 2013.

All About Jazz: What can we find in your new album, Songs of the Metropolis ?

Gilad Atzmon: My main idea in the new album is to bring back that sound that made us into what and who we are. When I was young I had a sound, New York had a sound, London had a sound. Now we are living in these kinds of identity politics and multiculturalism, nobody knows who he or she is, why they are struggling, or to what he or she is aiming. I´m very interested in nostalgia. I'm interesting in driving this sound that reminds you who you are. So I picked five cities: Buenos Aires, Paris, Tel Aviv, New York... I tried to pick London, but I couldn't because it has no sound; it has everything. People say that the English don't like music, they just like the noise that it makes, but this is the outcome of the music industry, that made us deaf following fashions and modes, and now the music industry is dead, and we have to start again.

AAJ: Are you talking about music in general or about jazz?

GA: Even in jazz we have an industry, let's say a less profitable industry, but in a society that is driven by commercial interests every art form deserves to exist only if it can be a commodity. So we turned John Coltrane into a commodity, we turned Charlie Parker into a commodity, we turned jazz into a slogan rather than beauty. I am an academic but I decided to do jazz because I really like it; I wanted to do it because I love it.

AAJ: You said once that jazz is not exciting anymore because it has lost its spirit.

GA: I hear it all the time, it has lost its spirit because you are measured not by the spirit-by the emotional energy that you manage to produce-but rather by the units that you manage to sell. And the same applies to Academia, or the political discourse. Academia doesn't produce ideas. My approach to philosophy, to ethics and to music, is totally jazzy. So I have to reinvent myself.

AAJ: This idea reminds me of an article that trumpeter Nicholas Payton wrote in his blog last year, and he received lots of criticism. He said that jazz died in 1959.

GA: I don't care if jazz is dead or not, I can tell you and everybody would agree with me that we have lost something, you have to be stupid not to see it, it's a fact. We produce now a lot of clever music, and jazz is not dead it just smells funny. I am alive, I am not sure that I am talented enough but every day I try to reinvent this music and to bring it back to what it was for me when I started listening to it.

AAJ: Do you think you are rebuilding the jazz spirit through your music?

GA: I don't know because, for me, it is not important anymore to create a jazz spirit. For me, the most important thing is to try to produce beauty, even if it is jazz, drum 'n' bass, Arabic music... I think that all those definitions in the start were very important because you went to a music shop and you wanted to know where to go - to the jazz, to the rock, to the classical.... But now there are no music shops, you buy it on Amazon so that doesn't matter. Music is music. Music is frequencies that I join together and make you cry. I want to make you cry, and I've managed to make a lot of people cry in my life.

AAJ: Paying attention to Theodor Adorno we could think that the spirituality you talk about gets in a controversial relationship with the music business you run. How do you see it?

GA: Where is the conflict? In the fact that I make living as a musician when I talk about spirituality? It's very simple: my job is to introduce you to beauty. You come and you pay because I am going to uplift you spirituality, this is my job. This is what I am doing for a living, this is not an industry. What we, the musicians, give out, what we produce is catharsis. And as long as I produce catharsis, I can support myself being a musician. What happened with cultural industry, and I do respect Adorno for defining the term, we were not interested anymore in catharsis, we moved beyond beauty and surrendered of the notion of fashion. Beauty is a concept which engages you statically and fashion is concerned in the transformation of beauty into commodity.

AAJ: Going back to your next album, Songs of the Metropolis, are you working with The Orient House Ensemble again?

GA: Yes, we are a jazz quartet. We recruit what we need but this time we didn't recruit anyone. One of the problems is that we, the Oriental Ensemble, have toured and played together during the last thirteen years and, oddly, we found musicians who could join us, but as we become older it has also become more and more difficult.

AAJ: What are we going to find musically in this new work?

GA: In this new album I didn't play too much Arabic music. I think Arabic music is now embedded in my playing so it comes out anyway. I've always been fascinated by the culture and the music of the indigenous European. One of the things that strikes me is to try to look deep into the music of the Europeans. For instance, when I play a Parisian tune, we use a harmonium; I am really interested in these instruments. We usually go to a museum and see ancient instruments, but rather than seeing them on the walls I want to know how they sound, it is very important for me because then I can understand where we come from.

AAJ: So this time you are making an approach to a European roots sound-like when you put together bebop and Middle Eastern rhythms-but you don't like to talk about multiculturalism.

GA: Multiculturalism is myth, it is an attempt to actually suppress, to equalize, flatten, the differences. I'm actually very enthusiastic when I hear a rift between cultures. When I put together Arabic and jazz I don't want them to melt, I know how to make them melt and join them together, I know exactly how to do it. I am a producer, I am programmer. But I want to hear the discrepancy, because this discrepancy is the moment of the true debate, it is when the humanity starts to flourish for me. The differences bring you to a different place and this for me is an incredible experience as a musician. For example, in Songs of the Metropolis, the instruments take the music to a new continent, to a new city.

AAJ: Can you separate your music from your politics?

GA: I don't separate anything anymore, I am a package. By the way, I don't do political work, and I am not an activist even though I am very active, I am a writer and I write about lot of things: human rights, issues, philosophy. You'll never find me writing about politics. I am a thinker and I am a musician.

AAJ: Other musicians avoid expressing their ideas because they don't want to mix ideology with music, do you mind that your writing work makes a shadow over the musical one?

GA: I respect people who don't want to talk about those issues in public. I would save myself a lot of problems, but I didn't ask to come to this world, I was thrown, and I have to spend my time here. I want to be interesting and challenging, and that's all. My website is probably more popular than most musicians' because I write about things that get my attention and Jewish identity is one of the main ones. I delve into the issues that are interesting enough to keep me going.

AAJ: Do you think you receive more attention because of your music or because of your books?

GA: It's an interesting question. A lot of music followers don't care about my writing, a lot of the followers of my writing are not concerned about my music. And I quite like both of them. Sometimes I see 25,000 visits to my website in just six hours. I realized a while back that I run three or four extensive careers: full-time writer; full-time musician; full-time musical producer; and sometimes I work as editor. It's quite exhaustive but it's what I am doing, and if I do less I'm bored.

Selected Discography

Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble, The Tide Has Changed (World Village, 2010)

Robert Wyatt/Gilad Atzmon/Ros Stephen, ...'for the ghosts within' (Domino, 2010)
Gilad Atzmon, In Loving Memory of America (Enja Records, 2007)
Gilad Atzmon, Refuge (Enja Records, 2007)
Gilad Atzmon, Artie Fishel and the Promised Band (WMD, 2006)
Gilad Atzmon, MusiK (Enja Records, 2004)
Gilad Atzmon, Nostalgico (Enja Records, 2001)

Photo Credit Tali Atzmon

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