The artist maintains his/her own homepage: www.gilad.co.uk
Excerpts from an interview John Fordham did with Gilad Atzmon which was printed by the Guardian, June 15, 2000
He used to fight the Palestinians. Now he plays with them.
John Fordham meets saxophonist Gilad Atzmon
'Some people I work with say they think I'm a power freak," says Gilad Atzmon. "They don't realise I suffer from massive anxieties.I'm a very, very, very worried person."
A first meeting with Atzmon suggests something quite different. He is rugged, striking, opinionated, and increasingly revered for the intensity and passion of his saxophone and clarinet playing. In his sunny house in Kilburn, north London, with its bulging boxes of CDs, scattered musical instruments,sheet music, children's toys and all the paraphernalia of a freewheeling,positive life, it looks as if Atzmon's worries could be worse. His work as a pop producer - which has helped bring him something like prosperity as jazz players go - has not been his only alternative to playing.
An academic career beckoned, but he was distracted from an M Phil in aesthetics by the hyperactive pleasures of delivering firebreathing bop sax to the audiences at the Red Lion in Kilburn High Road. He also briefly attended film school in Israel in his 20s, when he was driven by the desire to make a film about his early experiences in the Israeli army.
As well as learning to play swing in a military band, as a soldier he developed a fervent anti-Zionism. Tomorrow his Orient House Ensemble,a world music band of jazzy intensity mixed with klezmer, east European folk forms and at times an almost ambient stillness, plays at the London International Jewish Music Festival with Palestinian oud virtuosoAdel Salameh as a guest. The following evening he's in the Blockheads for the Ian Dury memorial gig in Brixton. Atzmon toured with the Blockheads during Dury's last months, and calls it the nearest thing to a musical family he's ever been in.
But though Atzmon has built a reputation and a following in the five years since he came to the UK, he is a career worrier, living a life that ricochets between contradictions. He is loyal to old playing partners and says he needs "to feel comfortable", yet dislikes the cosy insularity of the jazz scene. He wants artists to resist fashions and the materialism of a commodity culture, but distrusts public arts funding. His music has a force and conviction that have made it a blast of fresh air in the UK, yet the urge to improve obsesses him.
"Though I've made a lot of friends here, there are things that make it hard for artists. For one, everything has to be put into boxes - hiphop, bebop, world music, pop. It's very conservative, very restrictive, and it's not the way most musicians think. For another, it's very difficult to get hard criticism.I'm an ex-soldier and I think like a soldier. I'm against what the Israeli army has stood for big-time, but I think the fact that I was in the army turned me into a clever man. You understand once you're in the army that the world is stupid. But there is a good side to it - you're under severe criticism all the time. Tough. It has made me want my music to be strong and enthusiastic. I want my musicians to look down on me when I don't perform well."
But the Israeli army's purposes in Palestine eventually filled Atzmon with the desire to escape. "I got to a point where I was ready to shoot my leg. But I'd had a serious injury before I joined, and it turned out to be a disability I could use to lower my profile and get into the band instead. It was a kind of swing band, and it was my music school. In the band we all felt the same - we wanted to fuck the army. It was often very depressing and often very funny. Our conductor died in a car accident, so they put the bus driver in to run the band. He had a mental breakdown trying to do it, so they got this poor woman who was a kind of sex slave for some of the senior officers to be our commander because they had to keep her in the army to keep her from talking. We'd go to a gig, 15 of us, and people would jump out of the bus on the way, so by the time we got there there would be only two people left."
Atzmon called his new quartet Orient House after the beleaguered Palestinian headquarters in Jerusalem. The name indicates a shift away from the mainstream bebop he has principally played in London, toward the multi-cultural music he had lacked the confidence to showcase.The band's drummer, Asaf Sirkis, shares Atzmon's background, "which got me back into playing Jewish and Arabic and Balkan music, and I decided I wanted to try this mixture again. Then when the two British members (pianist Frank Harrison and bassist Oli Hayhurst) joined and seemed to hear what we were doing so easily, it just took off. I was amazed."
Atzmon certainly listened closely to Ian Dury during the singer's last months with the Blockheads. Though the energy of the band is still there, Atzmon knows it won't be the same without Dury. "Because I'd been a paramedic in the army, he used to show me how they were treating him. He'd talk about it a lot, but he didn't complain. And though he was getting much weaker when he was working two weeks or so before he died, he would still go for it. He was still that giant figure when he was on stage. That's the way he struck me - somebody who wasn't a great singer who was a great singer, you know what I mean? Big voice, big presence,big influence. Like Louis Armstrong. That's the way I thought of him.Those people make music come alive. And that's what I do this for."