Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble - Exile
More and more, the British media - mainstream general, national, as well as specialist musical, are hailing Gilad Atzmon as the greatest thing ever to have emerged on the British jazz scene. For once, they are being modest, even conservative. Gilad Atzmon is probably the
most exciting phenomenon to have hit the international jazz world since Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. Exile, the latest album by Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble, featuring Reem Kelani & Dhafer Youssef, is more than ample testimony to this. It is without a doubt the most exhilarating,
inspired and innovative jazz album in some three decades. A fusion of post-bop,
swing, Sephardi/Ladino, Palestinian, Arabic, klezmer and Balkan, Exile is "world jazz" at its very finest.
Actually, this is jazz in its purest form. Music with edge, plenty of it, music arising out of strong, deeply felt emotions, out of oppression, and also a reaction to this; out of anger and frustration, out of deep love and a deep longing for justice and peace. All the very ingredients that made jazz what it was in the first place. Gilad Atzmon has achieved a full-blown renaissance of the original spirit of jazz over the course of his so far three albums with his Orient House Ensemble, something that has been absent for too long. The previous albums, the self-titled Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble and Nostalgico, each an outstanding achievement in its own right, fresh and exciting, refreshing and just, well, brilliant, could be seen, in the light of Exile, to have been preparing the ground, giving notice of things to come. For on Exile, the phenomenon that is Atzmon raises his music to yet another level.
Of course, Gilad Atzmon is a highly political artist, and his music is driven by his strong, sincerely and deeply held political convictions. But, whether one agrees, sympathizes, or vehemently disagrees with his politics, the music is the thing and ultimately has to stand, or fall, on its own, and needless to say, it stands. Tall. If the political sub-text interests you, to paraphrase Atzmon himself, fine, if not, equally fine, just enjoy the music. No matter how strongly one might feel about the politics, to ignore or reject music of this caliber purely because of disapproval of the politics would be akin to cultural vandalism.
Exile blends Jewish and Palestinian/Arabic music and highlights their commonalities, and thereby the commonalities between Jews and Arabs, which as always are far greater than the differences, and also celebrates those little differences. Atzmon's aim is to bring people closer together, to promote greater understanding and mutual respect, to break down and remove the artificial and unnecessary barriers between Jews and Arabs and the two cultures that not only for the most part co-existed in perfect harmony but co-evolved so closely and collaborated creatively for so long in the past. With Exile, he seeks to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian people, drawing parallels to the Jewish experience. It is, in its way, a desperate and angry outburst, shouting 'This madness has got to stop, we all have to re-learn to live together in peace again!'
Gilad Atzmon's prodigious chops and immense improvisational prowess alone would long have been sufficient to secure a formidable international reputation. His outstanding voice on clarinet as well as saxes, lyrical as well as passionate, often, on sax, reminiscent of Paul Desmond and showing influences such as Trane and Cannonball Adderley, has been honed ever more finely and is a further huge and exceptional asset. On Exile, Atzmon plays with a tremendous emotional power, intensity and passion, sometimes reminding one of Gato Barbieri at the height of his powers, now angry, even furious, now wailing in an agony of weltschmerz, then soaring ecstatically, floating, gliding along lyrically, seductively. However, his achievement of re-imbibing jazz with the socio-cultural and political spirit that appeared to have pretty much gone with the death of 'Trane goes well beyond securing a mere great reputation for Gilad Atzmon. It makes him something immensely greater and no doubt assures him a deserved prominent place in the history of jazz.
For Exile, Gilad Atzmon expanded the Orient House Ensemble from its usual quartet format to include Romano Viazzani, an accordionist of Italian extraction, Romanian violinist Marcel Mamaliga, featured special guests, the superlative Palestinian singer Reem Kelani and Tunisian singer and oud star Dhafer Youssef, as well as guest contributions by Israeli-born multi-instrumentalist Koby Israelite on accordion, Gabi Fortuna on Romanian flute, and Peter Watson on accordion. The core of the Orient House Ensemble has also undergone a personnel change with Israeli bassist Yaron Stavi taking over from Oli Hayhurst, otherwise remaining unchanged and consisting of Atzmon himself, percussionist/drummer phenomenon Asaf Sirkis and equally stellar pianist/keyboardist Frank Harrison. Most of these performers are living in some form of exile or other, some self-imposed, some enforced, dispossessed. While the core Orient House ensemble has long been probably the tightest band on the contemporary jazz scene, the close empathy extends fully to the guest artists and weaves its usual magic. Special mention however surely is due Frank Harrison who is fast maturing into an outstandingly fine jazz pianist in the finest tradition of the likes of McCoy Tyner and, I dare say, Art Tatum.
The synthesis of Jewish and Palestinian/Arabic music on the one hand and jazz on the other that Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble present on Exile is appealing to connoisseurs of all these individual types of music at once, and indeed will be appreciated by any genuine aficionado of truly great music. It transcends "genre" and individual ethnicity to emerge as something that's very much bigger than any of these. Exile is driven music, with an intensity and passion and depth that make it utterly compelling, even irresistible. Charm and wit complete the magic.
Gilad Atzmon originals account for six of the nine tracks on this album and as ever testify to his great melodic gifts. Influences of Piazzolla are more evident than previously. A further track, Ouz, is co-written with Yochanan Zaray. The remaining two are traditional Palestinian and Ladino, respectively. The opener, Dal'Ouna - On The Return, is a traditional Palestinian mini song-cycle, with the lyrics of the intro by Monzer El-Dajani, sung by Palestinian singer-extraordinaire Reem Kelani. A deeply moving telling of the Palestinian people's dream of 'return', its parallels with the Jewish dream of 'return' are inescapable and tragic. The simple, elegant arrangement and the superb vocals by Kelani and Atzmon's here Middle-Eastern style clarinet are spine-tingling. Al-Quds (the Arabic name, 'The Holy', for Yerushalayim, Jerusalem) uses the Israeli 'anthem' of the seven-day war in an Arabic interpretation. The original Hebrew lyrics about the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem have been replaced with Arabic lyrics from an original poem by Mahmoud Darwish, dealing with the identical longing for homeland. Again, Reem Kelani's passionate vocals are outstanding and are supremely offset as well as complemented by Gilad Atzmon's impassioned alto. At ten minutes, Al-Quds is the longest track on this album, with some superb extended improvs. Jenin is inspired by an old Yiddish song about the burning down of a shtetl in a pogrom and applies this context to the destruction of the Jenin Refugee Camp in April 2002. Dark and somber, plaintive at times yet always lyrical and restrained, Atzmon and pianist Harrison keep the listener spellbound with their special brand of magic. Partly borrowing from another Hebraic tune from the acclaimed Israeli film Salach Shabati which tells the story of established Zionist settlers' cruelty to new Jewish settlers from Arab countries, Ouz applies this theme to immigrants joyfully colonizing new land while ignoring its indigenous population. The music here takes a lighter turn, but in a satirical manner, even touching on the ironic. Orient House, like the band, takes its name from the East Jerusalem offices of the Palestinian Authority. Klezmer and Balkan inspired, this is a lively piece with a very catchy theme and soaring improvs. Land of Canaan could be described as a kind of Sephardi tango, haunting and sophisticated, with Atzmon's improvs floating, soaring stratospherically at times. The title track, Exile, is a traditional Ladino tune given the Orient House treatment. Reflective, even somewhat grave and mournful, it is full of unfulfilled longing. Easily the lightest and liveliest track, La Côte Méditerranée features the outstanding voice and oud of Tunisian star Dhafer Youssef. The appropriately titled Epilogue provides the closer. Somewhat Piazzolla-esque, it's a haunting, highly memorable tune that's hard to get out of your head. Appended to this, after a few seconds of silence, is a brief, closing snippet of a folkish tune with celebratory ululations, the latter provided by Tali Atzmon.
As previous, this album is of the "CD-Plus" type, with multimedia content in addition to the audio track, including a bonus video track of "Epilogue". The well designed album sleeve is of the folding card type, the liner notes are brief and to the point. Included are English translations of the lyrics of songs. Both the booklet and the multimedia presentation are generously endowed with photographs.
Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble's Exile is a stunning, mesmerising album. The flow of ideas seems just inexhaustible and unstoppable. This is jazz as it hasn't been played in decades, incandescent and incendiary. As if all this wasn't enough yet, to Atzmon has to go the further credit also of finally taking Jewish music firmly into the mainstream; nothing and nobody has raised general awareness and appreciation of Jewish music, as part of and within the mainstream, as much or as prominently, as Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble and their spectacular music, at any rate in the British context. Exile is also, deservedly, proving to be a remarkably popular album, even attaining the number one position at the Virgin Megastore in London's Oxford Street in April. No mean feat this in itself. Released on Enja at the end of February, Exile has already been nominated for the prestigious BBC Jazz Awards 2003. A better, more appropriate nomination to these awards there couldn't be. Gilad Atzmon's Exile is a truly monumental album, and undoubtedly one of the great milestone recordings of jazz. Grab it while you can, in years to come the original release is destined to be a highly prized collectible classic; but most of all, grab it for the beautiful music.
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