Thursday, March 19, 2009

In Loving Memory of America

Gilad Atzmon moving tribute for America's greatest heroes

"On an especially cold Jerusalem night I heard Bird playing "April in Paris" on a radio program. I was knocked down. It was by far more organic, poetic, sentimental and yet wilder than anything I had ever heard before. Bird was a fierce libidinal extravaganza of wit and energy. The morning after, I decided to skip school, I rushed to the one and only music shop in Jerusalem. I found the jazz section and bought every album that was on the shelves. It was that moment when I fell in love with jazz, it was that moment when I fell in love in America"

Gilad Atzmon

Gilad Atzmon's latest album entitled In Loving Memory of America might well be the best album Gilad has ever recorded (and God knows Gilad recorded plenty of good music in the past). This latest album, however, stand apart from all his previous recordings.

The album is recorded with the Sigamos String Quartet (Ros Stephen and Emil Chakalov on violins, Rachel Robson one the viola and Daisy Vatalaro on the cello). His usual band (keyboard player Frank Harrison, bassist Yaron Stavi and drummer Asaf Sirkis) is also present. This unique combination of a jazz band with a string quartet will immediately reminds jazz fans of another famous jazz album: Charlie "Bird" Parker's "With Strings". Gilad's reference to Bird's album is also shown through several of the pieces also recorded on "With Strings", including the nostalgic and very moving "Everything Happens To Me" which begins Gilad's new album.

"In Loving Memory of America" is not, however, simply a re-recording of Bird's pieces: seven of Gilad's best past compositions are intertwined within Parker's jazz standards. What is amazing is how well these various compositions are blended together. For example, the third track on the album, Gilad's "musiK", is followed by "What Is This Thing Called Love" which is also present on Parker's recording. Gilad's version is, however, very different, slower, far more deliberate and tense, and it eventually "resolves" into Gilad's very moving "Call Me Stupid, Ungrateful, Vicious And Unstable" which begins with an almost Piazzolla-like opening with the strings supporting a lamentful exposition by Gilad's clarinet.

Gilad's use of the strings if far most complex and sophisticated than Parker's. The latter saw them mainly as a support for his instrument, whereas Gilad uses them much more as an interlocutor to his own phrases. Again, the figure of Piazzolla immediately comes to mind.

In fact, while Bird is the obvious reference, Piazzolla is the esoteric figure standing behind much of the lyricism and drama present in Gilad's latest album. Still, hints of this hidden filiation can even be found amongst Gilad's key musicians. Ros Stephen, for example, has played for many years in the tango quartet Tango Siempre. And can you guess who did many of the arrangements of "In Loving Memory of America"? The very same Ros Stephen, of course!

Still, for all the references found in this album, "In Loving Memory of America" is Gilad's album first and foremost. As John McLauglin likes to say, jazz musicians are "Thieves and Poets", and Gilad is not exception. Still, the poetry of Gilad's album is definitely uniquely his. Most importantly, it is Gilad's pain at seeing what the America of his youth has turned into which forms the basso continuo of this unique to this album.

One could ask whether the America of Gilad's youth every existed. I would say that it definitely did, if only in the hearts of those who listened to jazz music - America's beautiful gift to the world -in their youths. Gilad's music is a lament for the loss of this (mostly, but not exclusively, imagined) America, and it is a tribute to all those who share that pain today (one can think of all the jazz musicians who, with Charlie Haden, recorded the album Not In Our Name). Call it a much belated loss of innocence of poets and artists (the "bleeding hearts and artists" as Roger Waters would, no doubt, call them) , if you want, but somebody had to weep for this America the beautiful and jazz musicians did.

Music is probably the most sublime form of art because it allows to directly convey the the listener emotions which very often cannot be expressed in words. In this sense, it is also the most abstract art. The paradox, however, is that music and, in particular, jazz music is - or, at least, should be - also extremely subversive.

Emotions are, after all, probably the most powerful element of one's personality and, therefore, one of the most powerful influences on our thoughts and actions. In the booklet which comes with the album, Gilad writes: I do realise that ‘things have changed’. I do grasp that Jazz is not exactly a form of resistance anymore. It is not even a revolutionary art form. Maybe. Maybe not. But I don't believe that Gilad would ever have been capable of releasing such a powerful album if he did not feel that somebody out there was listening, feeling and understanding. The very fact that he did release this album is therefore an act of revolutionary resistance.

Sometimes, the emotion-idea is given rather directly, like in Gilad's piece "Refuge" which begins with a tension building Middle-Eastern melody which abruptly transforms itself in an African sounding explosion of joy. One could be forgiven for instinctively thinking of the collapse of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the precedent this sets for the last Apartheid-like regime left on this planet: the "Jewish state" of Israel. Sometimes, the emotion-idea is far more subtle, like in Gilad's "In The Small Hours", but no less powerful.

The entire album feels like a "painful embrace", painful because of the immense sadness it expresses, but an embrace nonetheless, because of the shared love it conveys to its audience. This mixture of seemingly contradictory feelings is yet another feature common to Gilad Atzmon and Astor Piazzolla. I sometimes think of it as "wise sadness" or "peaceful pain". It is this amazing capability for art to sublimate pain - or even agony- and to transform them into energy, beauty and hope.

There is one thing which Parker's and Gilad's albums definitely have in common: being deceptively easy to listen to. These albums need to be carefully listened to many times before they reveal all their nuances and subtleties . This is particularly true of Gilad's album which is, in many ways, a more complex and more multi-layered creation than Bird's more "straightforward" recording.

Two things should, in particular, be mentioned here: the very elegant and sophisticated arrangements and the very minimalist yet absolutely superb playing by Frank Harrison on the piano and, in particular, on the Fender Rhodes (a sound which I regret not hearing more often).

"In Loving Memory of America" is the kind of album which you can listen to for hours and days at a time without ever getting bored or feeling that you got enough of it. It is intoxicating and addictive as only the very best jazz albums ever are.

You can already order the album on Amazon in the UK, at Jazz CDs or, for those living in the USA, pre-order it at CD Universe.

Either way - get the album. It is truly a masterpiece.