This is from November 2011 when I accompanied Gilad to Stratford-Upon-Avon.
4.30 p.m.: Teacher
It’s 4.30 on a Wednesday afternoon in a jazz club in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Gilad Atzmon is taking a master-class. The first of three scheduled events here, it will be followed by a talk at seven and a concert at eight. At midnight, after the last encore (Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” done as Armstrong might have done it if he hadn’t been chasing a world-wide hit) he’ll pack up, arrive home at 2.00 a.m., sleep, get up for a meeting at 10 and then drive on for the same again in Bath. And of course, for the permanently plugged-in Atzmon, all this is punctuated with feverish internet activity, phone calls etc. Atzmon hates sleep. It’s a waste of time, he says.
He does a lot of these classes up and down the country – this one is for twenty A-level music students. Trouble is, these kids haven’t bothered to bring their instruments and worse, they suffer from that peculiarly English-kid ailment BCS (Battery Child Syndrome). Twelve years National Curriculum has left them pretty much incapable of doing anything much, not actively and certainly not for themselves. Targets unmet, goals unreached, they still hope that boxes will be ticked and they’ll make it to ‘Uni’ or whatever next-stage they go to to keep them off the jobs-market. But now, they want ‘input’. After all, we all know that no input equals no output.
Atzmon’s seen it before and Yaron, OHE bass player, has already remarked to me that it’s only here, in this country, that they encounter this particular condition. And it’s no good these young people looking to their parents for some relief because they’ve suffered from the same – no, for any alternative, it’s to their grandparents they have to look. Irony is, that these kids are the age Atzmon was when he first heard ‘April in Paris’ and bought his first saxophone.
So he talks about consonance and dissonance, illustrating his remarks with both saxophone and voice. Of course, it’s all about balance – too much consonance and your audience falls asleep, too much dissonance and it just goes out the window. But still, from his young and, by now, wondering-what-the-hell-this-is-all-about, audience – still nothing.
So he tries some community singing – no words, just sounds and rhythms – but still they won’t do it. He fixes on Jasmine, a freaked-out 17 year-old. “Come out to the front” he asks. But Jasmine just clings to her mobile. “Wanna pee” she pleads. He tries again, this time with Hayley who just giggles. “Why don’t you speak?” he asks. ‘Dunno’, she says. He tries Jasmine again who this time flees the room. Five minutes later she’s back (She really did want to pee) and blow me if, in the end, he doesn’t get the whole lot of them going and none louder than Jasmine and Hayley.
Now he tears up the rule-book and for any half-decent teacher, sick of force-fed, over-fed, half-dead battery kids, government targets and climbing league tables, this is refreshing stuff indeed. So he tells them ”If you do not now, immediately and completely defy your teachers, your parents, the lot. If you do not remove all restraints on creativity, all inhibition, both without and within – you will, in your lives, produce nothing of worth. (Next day I email him to ask him what it’s all about. But ‘Consciousness is the enemy of beauty’ is all he’ll say. Later I learn that Atzmon has only ever had one formal teacher “He was very good teacher. I only had about four or five lessons but he was a very good teacher…… I’m still trying to work out what he was talking about.”
7.00 p.m.: Talker
Now the club’s full. Some are jazz-fans come to see the ‘award-winning’ jazz musician, some are locals having a mid-week night-out and some are just plain curious to see the beast.
This, the other side of Atzmon’s other exercise in tonal breath-control – words. For nearly an hour he talks. Initially full of good intentions, he treads carefully describing his own musical, philosophical, political and spiritual journey. From the sabra child with the Irgunist grandfather “I loved him a lot” to the jazz-obsessed teenager – the blast of Charlie Parker (it was ‘April in Paris’) from his radio, the raid on Jerusalem’s only jazz store and then the revelation “Charlie Parker was black and Dizzy Gillespie was black and Sonny Rollins was black…and Ron Carter and Miles and John Coltrane…they were all black. I thought to myself ‘They’re all black. This is impossible. The Jews are the best at everything so how come they’re all black” Two days later the very first meeting with his one-and-only-love, his saxophone. “The saxophone is really easy to play. I practised 1,2,3,4,8,12 hours a day – in four weeks I was gigging”.
Then the army and the Lebanon war: “20,000 civilians wiped out by the army of Israel”. He just makes it into the Air Force Military Band and his army problems could be over – except that the band visits the south Lebanon concentration camp at Ansar and, for the first time, he sees Palestinians who are prepared to fight back “I looked at one, he looked back at me. I looked at another, he looked back at me. They all looked at us and we knew that they knew that one day they would win”. He also sees the concrete bunkers – concrete cubes, kennels for naughty Palestinian dogs. “Two days in one of those and you’ll also become a devoted Zionist”. That was it. It was simple. The Palestinians were the Jews and he was the Nazi. No other interpretation was possible and no doubt. No matter how long it took to leave, he was done with Israel “…‘enough is enough’. I took my saxophone and decided I was going to live somewhere else” But it was Oslo that did for him. “I knew there was no chance in a million years for the Jewish state to encompass the concept of peace.” And here he takes a moment to make that distinction between ‘peace’ and ‘shalom’. For those in Christian or Muslim environments ‘peace’ means peace and reconciliation but for Jews ‘shalom’ means security – but only for Jews. “The Oslo ‘shalom’ process was to secure for the Jews the land they had stolen.” That was it. Finished. He left Israel for ever. Only to a free Palestine would he ever return.
It was in London that he begins to experiment with Arabic music and here begins what he sees as his lifelong struggle – to listen. “When it came to Arabic music, I was lost. I tried to play it – it was a disaster”. He tries to listen, but really listen – first to the music and then to the Arab himself. He elaborates and here, he grabs his saxophone and gives the audience a quick taste of what is to come (Even to me, it’s breathtaking in its dexterity and wildness). The westerner can play a jazz phrase in a few seconds and he thinks he can win a war in the same time, But in the Eastern world it’s not like that. It takes time, the time of the desert. For Atzmon this difference also came to define a new concept of beauty.
But how to get at it? When I tried to reproduce this beauty, I couldn’t get at it – it was very frustrating.” Then he hits on it. He begins to use his voice. “Only when I sung it, I somehow managed to get closer to the authentic spirit.” And through this process he begins to understand and to refine his music – and also his political philosophy.
Because we must listen. Watching just will not do. Speaking will not do. Marching will not do. Leafleting will not do. Slogans will not do. We must listen – to the other, to the Palestinian. We must listen because it is then, and only then, when we have heard what the other has to say, what the other feels, only then can one know the other. It is only then that, rather than tell the Palestinian what he needs – one-state, two-state, secular state, democratic state, socialist state – we should listen, listen to what he thinks he needs. Only then can we know what the Palestinian wants for himself, only then can we truly be in solidarity. And, for Atzmon this is where ethics starts – and also the beauty. The Primacy of the Ear.
But then it comes, slowly at first, then faster and faster. It’s not just Israel and it’s not just Zionism. Jews. Jewish-ness. Identity. Secular Jewish identity. What is it? If you ask a secular Jew what he is, he will tell you he is not a Christian, he is not a Muslim, he is not a Buddhist, he is not religious, he is not this and he is not that. What is he? Is he just someone who likes chicken soup and chopped liver? No, he cannot tell you what he is – he can only tell you what he is not. And to be real, to feel truly authentic, between what he is and what he is not there must be distance – there must be conflict. So to find himself he must have conflict, he must fear and he must hate. Wars ….wars for Israel. Jewish wars. How many British dead? How many Americans? One and a half million Iraqis. Lord Levy the fundraiser, Lord Goldstone the fixer, and Aaronovitch, Cohen, Freedland,– warmongers to a man.
Jews, Judaism, Jewish-ness. Time and time again he addresses the ever-present charge of racism. That critical distinction: “In my writing, I differentiate between Jews (the people), Judaism (the religion) and Jewish-ness (the ideology) and again and again he makes it clear that it is the third, and only the third, with which he is concerned.: So,“those who are searching for blood or race-related interpretations of Zionism will have to look for it in someone else’s work.
But as the words spill out of him, doors are kicked down, taboos fall away and, for these gentle, middle-English folk, nodding in modest agreement, wryly noting the jokes, hearing what they always knew but never dared say, even to themselves – for them, the shackles simply slip away. The simple truth is that Gilad’s words lie just below the level of consciousness. Too conscious and they know it already, too unconscious and they just can’t hear it. Too much consonance and your audience will fall asleep, too much dissonance and it’s just out the window.
8.00 p.m.: Café Jihad
Atzmon turns his back to the audience and hunches over his saxophone. A tentative phrase, quite mellow but then grows more insistent it becomes a wail. He raises the stakes higher – more insistent. The rim-shot and the band comes in. It’s jazz. Paul Eisen trying to write about the music of Gilad Atzmon.
I don’t know much about music and pretty much nothing about jazz. (Truth is, it goes right over my head), so to write about Gilad Atzmon in performance presents something of a problem. How to get into the music? I search around for an Atzmon album and find one: “In Loving Memory of America” – Gilad’s love letter to an America now long gone, This is the America he dreamed off in his bedroom in Jerusalem. I dig it out and glance at the tracklist. There it is, track 9 “April in Paris”. Feverishly now I send off for ‘Charlie Parker with Strings’. It arrives in a day, and there it is, Track 3: ‘April in Paris’, the piece the young Atzmon first heard, the piece that made him skip school and head for Jerusalem’s one and only jazz store. “It was by far more organic, poetic, sentimental and yet wilder than anything I had heard before. Bird was a fierce libidinal extravaganza of wit and energy”
Surely if there’s a way into his music, this must be it.
I start to listen. Well, it’s nice – it’s more than nice and I can imagine why people love it but I’m damned if I can see what he sees.
For me it’s all very visual. He’s a big man and lately he’s given up on the IDF-style fatigues for jackets, tee-shirts and jeans – but he’s no snappy dresser that’s for sure. And boy, if ever there was a Khazarian then this, surely, must be it. Solid and Slavic in head and burly in body, he dominates the stage.
Him and his saxophone, that is. It’s some contraption - a deep, deep gold with lots of moving parts like some kind of hand-held Spinning Jenny – quite refreshing in this digital age which boasts “No moving parts” And when he plays, the valves and levers at the bottom open and close as if by magic It reminds me of a Monty Python cartoon or a gently-throbbing pulse in the neck. Between bursts he holds it like a Kalashnikov – and with the same devastating effect – spray everything and take no prisoners. ..
He wanders around a lot, strolling off and leaving the band to get on with it. And they do. Yaron Stavi on bass, Frank Harrison on keyboards and the astonishing Eddie Hick on drums. “I’m playing with the same people now for many years and it’s a great experience because you see people around you developing and you try to keep up with them. It’s a challenge.” That pride – you see it in him and in the band. I saw it that night atStratford-Upon-Avon in the nod Atzmon gave to the young and immensely talented Eddie Hick – it said “Go on boy, now’s your time. Let’s see what you can do. Oh, and good luck!” Sometimes he dances.
Then back he comes, slings up the Kalashnikov and starts spraying.
And it does not take one minute to see that the class, the talk, the jazz, they’re really all one. “We shut our eyes and concentrate on one thing: Delivering beauty’.
Beauty is truth; truth beauty. Keats would have loved it.
Oh, and by the way, those kids – they came back, six or seven of them led by Jasmine and Hayley. What did they make of it all? The stilted lesson with its embarrassing silences. The harangue from the front – Defy all! The talk: Jews …Judaism…Jewishness…..Then the jihad of the music
But it’s at the every end of the evening that the true meaning of the day is revealed. After the last tune he starts once more to speak to the audience. Now it’s earnest, almost pleading. It’s about universalism and brotherly love. About “our Muslim brothers and sisters, our Palestinian brothers and sisters, our Christian brothers and sisters and ……’ And then it comes – for me, the surprise. It’s obviously unplanned and I wonder if he’s ever said it, or even thought it before. Because he stumbles, perhaps he can’t quite believe what he hears himself say, perhaps like the music itself, it’s only ever really made up in performance. But he says it, and all the celebrity, the humour the Israeli swagger, even the talent, all simply falls away ‘…..and our Jewish brothers and sisters too. I phone him next day and ask him what he meant. Again, all he’ll say is “They are our brothers and sisters and we’re responsible for them too”.
But now it really is late, time for just one more. It has to be “What a Wonderful World” The band plays.
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.