Gilad Atzmon with Strings
Orient House Ensemble [Gilad Atzmon (alto & soprano saxophone, clarinet), Frank Harrison (piano, electronics), Yaron Stavi (bass), Asaf Sirkis (drums)]
Sigamos String Quartet [Ros Stephen & Emil Chakalov (violins), Rachel Robson (viola) & Laura Moody (cello)]
Reviewed by: Julian Maynard-Smith
Reviewed: 20 November, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room
How best to pay homage to a recording as well known as Charlie Parker with Strings: reproduce it faithfully or try something strikingly different? Well, you can do both, as the Orient House Ensemble and Sigamos String Quartet did.
Parker’s genius was such that he soared over any musical setting, but to modern ears the 1940s’ string arrangements on Charlie Parker with Strings can sound schmaltzy. I was never a fan of the swooning legato and slightly prissy pizzicato of the original, so although I admired the Sigamos String Quartet’s faithful arrangements on tunes such as “Everything Happens to Me” and “April in Paris”, I was happy when they later stretched out and did their own thing – for example on one of Atzmon’s compositions, a clarinet and strings piece with a klezmer feel.
Atzmon’s virtuoso bebop phrases were a delight, reminiscent of Peter King with Jackie McLean’s astringent tone. The most personally satisfying Parker-inspired performance was a very free piece from which “My Little Suede Shoes” gradually emerged, the melodic grain imaginatively key-shifted and twisted into surprising shapes. “What is This Thing Called Love” was completely modernised with funky bass and Rhodes-like piano.
When Atzmon played his own numbers, his musical personality and Middle Eastern heritage really came to the fore. A case in point was “The Burning Bush”, from his recent album Refuge. Wisps of clarinet rose like smoke from a desert campfire, accompanied by keyboard atmospherics and mallet-soft drums reminiscent of Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way”, building towards yearning saxophone suggestive of how Jan Garbarek might sound if he played alto. Elsewhere, Atzmon’s solos built to orgiastic climaxes, like Albert Ayler in full cry.
Atzmon is a witty raconteur between numbers, gags and puns flying as fast as in a stand-up routine; even during numbers he injected physical humour, at one point following beer-carrying late-arrivals across the stage as he played. His musical sense of fun emerged when he removed the mouthpiece from his saxophone and blew directly into the neck, producing a sound somewhere between a trumpet and conch shells – then followed it with clucks and other nonsense vocals.
By the end of the concert, on the infectious “My Refuge”, Atzmon was almost dancing around the stage and the string quartet threw themselves into the spirit of the moment, swaying in their seats and singing into the soundboxes of their instruments to amplify their voices. The Cuban flavour of Atzmon’s tune recalled Charlie Parker’s recordings with Machito & His Afro-Cuban Orchestra, providing a fitting close to this varied concert.