Gilad Atzmon Plays Bird and More at Snape Proms in Suffolk, England

Bruce Lindsay By

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Gilad Atzmon
Snape Maltings Concert Hall
Suffolk, England
August 26, 2009

Snape Concert Hall, set in beautiful Suffolk countryside, was built as a barley malting hall in the 1840s. In 1965 the hall was converted by composer Benjamin Britten into a 900-seat concert venue. Saxophonist Gilad Atzmon loves Snape Concert Hall—and, lest his love affair with the place wasn't clear from his playing, he went to the extra trouble of telling the audience on at least three occasions during the evening of his fondness for the venue, delivering a warm and entertaining performance of rare quality. Atzmon is a mesmerizing performer: a strong visual presence on stage, a stand-up comedian (at one point he tried to persuade the audience that Charlie Parker had been born in Ipswich, Suffolk's county town), as well as a gifted musician.

Atzmon was performing his Gilad With Strings program as part of the Snape Proms, accompanied by Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass, Eddie Hicks on drums and the Sigamos String Quartet led by Ros Stephens. Gilad With String is, as Atzmon said, a tribute to Charlie Parker. Most of the evening's tunes were taken from Parker's 1949 recordings with a string orchestra—featured on Atzmon's album In Loving Memory Of America (Enja Records, 2009)—with the addition of some of Atzmon's own compositions. The resulting concert blended jazz and classical performers into a superb musical aggregation.

The tunes taken from Parker's recordings were beautifully arranged and performed. Each seemed to deliver its own memorable highlight. Cole Porter's "What is This Thing Called Love" was underpinned by a smooth, driving, rhythm from Stavi and Hicks: Rodgers and Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time it Was" was exceptionally beautiful throughout, from the strings' languid opening bars to their final sustained note; David Raksin's "Laura," played as the encore, was an exquisite ensemble performance. The string quartet arrangements for these tunes, by Stephens, were sympathetic to the original Parker arrangements while the Sigamos Quartet's own enthusiasm also helped to ensure that these four players created a sound that was almost as full and effective as that of the original, larger orchestra.

While these tunes were things of beauty, played with love and reverence, it was Atzmon's own compositions that were the high points of the night. "The Burning Bush" and "Refuge" were played with power and emotion from all of the musicians and clearly showed the wide range of influences Atzmon brings to bear on his writing and playing, especially those of his own Middle Eastern upbringing. In "The Burning Bush," the longest tune of the night, Atzmon vocalized through his alto as well as coaxed an exceptional purity of tone from the instrument. The jazz musicians played with increasing volume, almost in competition with the Sigamos Quartet who, despite playing with equal enthusiasm, were drowned out for the only time in the concert. "Refuge" was a powerful and dynamic performance from all eight musicians. Harrison strummed the piano strings, Stavi and Hicks provided a strong pulse at the heart of the tune, and Atzmon, on clarinet, traded phrases with the string players, who also added back-up vocals by singing through their instruments' microphones.

"Call me Stupid, Ungrateful, Vicious and Insatiable," performed by Atzmon on clarinet accompanied by the Sigamos Quartet, showed a gentler, more straightforward side to Atzmon's writing and playing, despite the tune's title. So, too, did a short duet with Harrison during which Atzmon played long phrases with his alto horn under the lid of the piano. Atzmon did not attach microphones to his instruments, preferring instead to play into freestanding microphones. This detachment from the electronic amplification allowed him much greater control over the dynamics of his playing, which he used to great effect. It also enabled him to prowl the stage with his instrument, playing with great sensitivity and emotion alone at center stage, or close to one or another of his fellow musicians, with little if any loss of volume—a testament to the hall's excellent acoustics as well as to Atzmon's ability as a musician.

This was a beautiful performance, in a beautiful venue. The musicians never forgot that they were playing for an audience, and as a result the concert made for an involving, affective and memorable evening.

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