In Loving Memory Of America - Gilad Atzmon With Strings
Bird must be smiling in that great undiscovered country. About sixty years after the original recording sessions for Charlie Parker With Strings, a worthy successor album has shown up in the form of Gilad Atzmon's In Loving Memory Of America, released early in 2009 on Enja.
But Bird isn't alone smiling. When I first heard Gilad Atzmon and his then newly formed Orient House Ensemble on their self-titled debut album around 2000 (well, actually, just a single track at first - Pardonnez Nous, if memory serves - that a friend had come across on some file-sharing network and thought I ought to hear; I never bought an album in greater hurry!) I was completely bowled over. I just knew these guys were going to go places, I still recognise genius when I encounter it. Then, along came Nostalgico, their second album, further consolidating my original opinion. Here was this young reed player with a voice as mellow and cool and sweet as you could imagine and a technique that was already mindblowing; not only that, but Atzmon had the spirit of Bird and Trane and had stepped firmly into their footsteps, consciously or not. A jazz musician then like none since John Coltrane. Atzmon just blew my socks off. (Not forgetting the even then equally world-class and equally astonishing drummer Asaf Sirkis and the very young and equally amazing pianist Frank Harrison; Yaron Stavi had yet to join.) Now, sometimes one thinks of a particular kind of album or material that one would just love to hear from a given artist. And thus, at that time I tried to imagine Gilad Atzmon doing some kind of Charlie Parker With Strings - after all, this was the modern-day Bird, and Trane. And Atzmon With Strings would surely be pure heaven.
And then Gilad Atzmon hit the road with Gilad With Strings, in 2008. Surely, an album had to follow? Of course, it did, in March this year. A dream come true!
In some three or four, and maybe more, decades no other jazz album has attracted so much superlative critical acclaim as Gilad Atzmon's In Loving Memory Of America. And justly so. Alas, CD sales nowadays come nowhere near the kind of levels of sales that records achieved back in the 1950s and through to the 1970s, and thus it would probably be futile to even hope that In Loving Memory Of America could achieve anything like the sales of Charlie Parker With Strings, often cited as the best-selling album in jazz history. Nonetheless, Gilad Atzmon With Strings - the unofficial sub-title of this album - is not only a worthy successor to Bird's superlative album (his personal favourite among his own recordings - and mine) but indeed even surpasses it.
The recording quality of Gilad Atzmon's In Loving Memory Of America is out of this world, and so is the production. Indeed, I would go so far as to say this is the best produced jazz album yet. Hardly surprising perhaps when you remember that Atzmon is also a very highly accomplished producer with a wealth of producing experience going back a long way even before the Orient House Ensemble.
As with most greats, Atzmon's life performances have always had something of an extra edge over the recordings. With In Loving Memory Of America, for the first time you can hear Atzmon on a recording as he sounds live, with all that extra edge and vitality and feeling. (If you don't get a chance to see Gilad with Strings live, try the videos on YouTube, some also available on Gilad Atzmon's A/V page on this site.)
In Loving Memory Of America, in addition to Gilad Atzmon himself on alto and soprano sax as well as clarinet, features his core Orient House Ensemble / Gilad Atzmon Quartet stalwarts Frank Harrison on piano and Fender Rhodes, Yaron Stavi on bass and electric bass and Asaf Sirkis on drums. You wouldn't really expect anything less than these stellar artists on a project such as this. The strings are provided by the Sigamos String Quartet, leader Ros Stephen, replacing the chamber orchestra used on Bird's sessions. I have to confess to knowing very little about the Sigamos Quartet, and alas have been unable to uncover any further information about them online as all references just point to their association with Atzmon, page after page after page on the search engines. I do know of Ros Stephen through her association with Tango Siempre and her outstanding reputation as a string arranger, and I can certainly assert that the Sigamos String Quartet are out of this world in their performances with Atzmon. Furthermore, Ros Stephen's string quartet arrangements (tracks 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, and 9) are equally not of this world and some of the very finest I have ever encountered. As, indeed, are those of Jonathan Taylor (tracks 3, 5, and 8). (That of track 11 is uncredited and can be assumed to be Atzmon's own.)
It would be easy enough to mistakenly think of Gilad Atzmon's In Loving Memory Of America as a tribute album to Charlie Parker. However, this it clearly is not. It is so much more. It is Atzmon paying his respect to Bird. His way. It is also a kind of homage to the America of Atzmon's youth, an America that is not exactly the kind of free place he then imagined and that it never really was, an America that gave birth to the heroes of his youth (and, coincidentally, many of mine) like Bird, Cannonball, Trane, Miles, Duke, Dizzy, Bill Evans, and so on. But let us not forget that this was also the America where Bird and his wife Chan had no end of problems as a result of their interracial relationship, still a taboo then. The America where Bird even had difficulty getting a cab in New York. The America where Miles Davis still got brutally beaten up for being black and trying to get into the club where he was gigging. The America where even today people are still sometimes killed because of their race. Atzmon's affectionate homage is to an America that, sadly, never really was but that many of us, at one time or another, thought it might be and that he had cherished in his mind for many years.
In Loving Memory Of America is also, to quote Atzmon, 'a tribute to America's greatest heroes. The people who have been liberating themselves through beauty. It is about Bird and the real Swans who flew far higher [above] anyone else.' It is in loving memory of Atzmon's first encounter with Bird's string sessions in the form of April in Paris on the radio that first got him hooked on Bird and jazz. It is a genuinely affectionate, nostalgic homage. But one that also looks forward, musically.
Of the eleven tracks on Gilad Atzmon's In Loving Memory Of America, five are standards that Bird played in his ...With Strings sessions, the other six are Atzmon originals, some new arrangements of tracks from previous albums, others specially written.
The treatment of the standards is no mere copying of Bird's. Rather, Atzmon, as indeed you would expect, very much puts his own personal stamp of genius on their interpretations. The same of course also applies to his originals. To borrow from and paraphrase Atzmon's description of Bird, Atzmon is a libidinal force, an extravaganza of wit, energy, charm and elegance with a deep-rooted spirituality. In Loving Memory Of America is Gilad Atzmon having re-invented himself yet again, it is Atzmon at his most elegant, flowing, lyrical. Anger has been suspended in favour of affection, lovingness even, tenderness and - yes, even joy. Calm reflectiveness and thoughtfulness replace anguish. The sensuality of Atzmon's playing and of In Loving Memory Of America is totally electrifying and almost sexual in nature. This is Atzmon's heart and soul.
The opener, Everything Happens To Me, is the most 'conventional' of the tracks, the one most closely resembling Bird's interpretation. Atzmon's sublime alto glides above a tender-sweet string arrangement and some supremely fine, almost filigree ivory work from Frank Harrison. If I Should Lose You is by contrast decidedly contemporary, with some dissonances in the strings in evidence and Asaf Sirkis' often march-like, almost military trap work. Nonetheless, the contemporary setting still preserves the spirit of Bird's working of this standard. The first of Gilad Atzmon's originals comes in the form of a reworking of musiK, the title track of the album of the same name from 2004. Here, the strings are frequently supremely luscious, always sensuous, haunting. Atzmon's soprano is softly reflective at first, and there is some subtle and very lyrical piano work from Harrison, and Yaron Stavi's bass and Sirkis' trap work are almost ethereal. As Harrison's gorgeous piano raises the ante and the strings follow suit, Atzmon eventually goes into a flight of fancy, referring to the theme and embellishing it melodically rather than going into a soaring bop run. Spinetingling.
Another standard follows, What Is This Thing Called Love, at 7:21 the longest track. As always staying true to the spirit of Bird's interpretations, Atzmon nevertheless creates a very contemporary setting and interpretation, with luscious strings set off by a superb groove from Sirkis and finely judged electric piano from Harrison. Atzmon's alto here is gently teasing, probing, questioning. The modern setting is reinforced by the ending which features 'street sounds', children playing, in the background.
The second of the originals, Call Me Stupid, Ungrateful, Vicious & Insatiable, specially written for the album, finally sees an outing for Atzmon's gorgeous, much under-rated clarinet of which he is as much a supreme master as of his saxes. This track leans the most strongly towards the classical side of things, with superb underscoring by the string quartet and Atzmon briefly referring to Mozart's Clarinet Quintet. The mood is reflective, languorous, the feeling tender and almost bitter-sweet. Atzmon's playing style also strongly underlines the classical aspect.
I Didn't Know What Time It Was returns us to the standards. The strings tend to be more subtle here, while the middle portion strongly features Atzmon's quartet and emphasises the jazz aspect with again a very contemporary tone further emphasised by Harrison's Fender Rhodes. By contrast, In The Small Hours is another Atzmon original, a very distinctive re-working of a track first heard on 2007's Refuge. Luscious strings underscored by Sirkis' supremely subtle, delicate trap work and Harrison's light touch on his keys as well as Stavi's ever mellow, lyrical bass let Atzmon's alto dance as if in mid-air. Tutu Tango is the second Atzmon original from the musiK album. This Piazollaesque 'Middle Eastern Tango' shows the most prominent Middle Eastern influences so far on In Loving Memory Of America. The opening here is more quietly reflective than in its previous incarnation, with the strings also subtle at first before leading off a passionate dance. Atzmon's soprano is sensuous, seductive, impassioned, and teasing, joking.
The final standard from Bird's original sessions is April In Paris. After the opener, this track receives the most 'conventional' treatment. Harrison's piano is particularly gorgeous here, as is Stavi's bass. Atzmon's alto soars gently, tenderly.
The title track, a very brief 1:42 and specially written for the album, almost shocks back into the present and future with its pronounced hip-hop groove and 'street sounds' which Atzmon's alto and Harrison's electric piano weave in and out of. The strings play no part here. The closing re-working of Refuge is opened by the strings. Wherever they recur here, the strings have a superb Middle Eastern sound, underscoring that this is the track with the strongest Middle Eastern influences. Refuge in this new incarnation is even more joyous than previously, and it is easily the most exuberantly joyous, happy track not only on this album but on any Atzmon album so far. Not only that, it also covers much musical territory, moving from Middle Eastern beginnings through 'Latin', with a touch of Trinidadian kaiso (calypso), to South African 'Township' sounds. (How come everybody seems to be missing the latter two?) Refuge also sees another joyful outing for Atzmon's superb clarinet in the first half, here assuming the mantle of a Turkish clarinet, while the second half gives the alto free rein to sing with all the joy and exuberance in the world. This is a superbly fitting closer, rooting us firmly in the present and reminding us of the joy of music and its exuberant, vibrant side.
Gilad Atzmon's In Loving Memory Of America, or Gilad Atzmon With Strings if you like, is gorgeous, pure joy. To paraphrase what has often been said about Charlie Parker With Strings, In Loving Memory Of America truly is some of the most beautiful music ever recorded. It is the perfect blend of jazz and classical, just as Bird's original was, based on great standards and great Atzmon originals, and it is also the perfect marriage of West and East. In Loving Memory Of America is also, at least for me personally, a dream come true.
With In Loving Memory Of America Atzmon has set his place in jazz history in stone. Two figures have always towered above all others in the history of modern jazz. Now the 'Trinity' of modern jazz is complete - Bird, Trane, and Atz. The only question now is, what is Gilad Atzmon, this giant of the jazz world and its first true legend of the twenty-first century, what is this genius going to surprise us with next?
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