Expect the unexpected – that should be Gilad Atzmon’s motto. Certainly, anyone pitching up to be in the audience for one of his gigs is in for a roller-coaster ride. Musically, Gilad takes the listener from the hinterlands of jazz, as occupied in former times by the likes of Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and Roland Kirk, through to the crossover territory favoured by many contemporary alt-jazz outfits. Along the way, and to keep the diehard mainstreamers onside, he throws in a couple of standards for good measure. Not that there is anything standard or mainstream to his approach, but more of that later.
This Cheltenham date is special in that it coincides with the release of Gilad’s new album, ‘The Whistle Blower’, and tonight’s set sees it played in its entirety, albeit with the tracks differently sequenced. So the evening begins with an alto-led ballad, ‘The Romantic Church’, which features some subtle brush work from drummer Chris Higginbottom, and washes of synthetic strings underneath Frank Harrison’s piano. ‘Gaza Mon Amour’ gets the pulse racing with its catchy Arabian rhythms and plaintive melody. It seems to get Gilad going too, as he prowls about the confined space like a caged lion, roaring his saxophone into the lidless piano, the cymbals and every corner of the room.
Gilad takes up the accordion for ‘The Song’, another sorrowful tune on which Yaron Stavi’s lustrous bass tone was fully exposed as he floated into a wonderfully understated solo. This leads into ‘Let Us Pray’ which unfolds from a soaring soprano theme a la Coltrane over a tolling bell of a bass figure. Once again, Gilad lifts off into the stratosphere with a keening soprano solo followed by an equally intense flight of fancy from pianist Frank Harrison. The music is never static, its dynamic rise and fall owing much to Harrison’s ability to build a huge emotional edifice from a small cell of notes or a quiet repeated chord pattern.
The gentle ballad ‘Autumn In Baghdad’ is the only number in the first set that doesn’t come from the new record, though it sits alongside the new material with ease. Gilad then invites us to “whistle like builders” during the subversively throwaway title track that rounds off the first set.
The quartet return with ‘For Moana’, a lovely lament for soprano and piano with a discrete underscore from bass and drums. This leads into the Ayler-esque ‘To Be Free’, where Atzmon and Harrison whirl about the tune like dervishes. Another irresistible ballad, ‘Forever’ follows, and confirms that Gilad composes with his heart as much as his head.
It had been a long wait for the diehards, but they got their reward in the form of ‘Yes and No’ and ‘Here Comes That Rainy Day’. Jaws dropped all around as Gilad displayed his incredible chops on Wayne Shorter’s tune, whilst the latter standard featured a bravura bass solo from Yaron Stavi. Drummer Chris Higginbottom got his chance to let rip on ‘The Burning Bush’ – according to Jazzwise’s Jon Newey, another of Gilad’s ‘angry’ tunes. Though that’s not quite the whole story, as it morphs into an ethereal duet for synth and accordion before it’s done. And just in case we’d missed the point of any of Gilad’s barbed anecdotes or corny jokes, the band reprise ‘The Whistle Blower’ to send us merrily on our way.
©2015 Julia Price