Gilad Atzmon joins forces with Robert Wyatt

Yaron Frid writes:

In 1963 a baby was born in Israel. In 1972 a man fell from the third floor (or the fourth – views are divided ) in England in the middle of the night. Both of them took off on the wings of music, and life would one day organize a surprising encounter between them.

This is a sad story with a jolting soundtrack made of the howl of a saxophone and the wail of a clarinet. It’s a story of displaced persons who have no other country, featuring war criminals, Nazi-hunters and God in a cameo role, tempered by large daubs of irony and a few crumbs of hope.

Morning. Rain. Rail strike. Soho, London. Who is the huge chuckling fellow in the Italian cafe who is polishing off a schnitzel sandwich (washed down with tea ) and welcomes me with comments like “There is no light at the end of the Israeli tunnel”? Or, “I think there is something untenable, simply untenable in the fact that the Jews, who suffered so much racial discrimination, should establish a state that is founded on race laws.” And, topping the charts, “I am dead against the existence of the Jewish state.” It’s still early in the morning, let me remind you. I-am-dead-against-the-existence-of-the-Jewish-state-and-pass-the-sweetener-please. Good morning to you, too, Gilad Atzmon.

The fact that the cafe is across from Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club offers a subtle hint about Atzmon’s identity. He is one of the most acclaimed and in-demand jazz musicians in the world and he only enhances his glory – or totally destroys it, it depends whom you ask – when his mouth isn’t otherwise occupied with a saxophone (or a schnitzel ).

Atzmon says he is dealing not with politics, but with ethics. Maybe in his case it really isn’t just a matter of semantics. Or cosmetics. But we’re here to talk about music. And about beauty. “This beauty which simply spills out of you,” he says, “effortlessly, unconsciously, in the most wonderful moments of creativity, and when that happens you understand that you are only the carrier of the spirit, of something bigger than you, over which you have absolutely no control. I have no connection with that beauty, I just eat schnitzels. I am only the messenger. I don’t look for the beauty, the beauty finds me and through me finds its way into the world.”

And plenty of beauty finds its way into the world in “For the Ghosts Within,” the new album by Atzmon and his musical partners, which has already earned rave reviews in the British music press, with praise such as “the surprise of the year” and ecstatic descriptions of angels entering the listener’s heart. On the album Atzmon joins forces, as performer, composer, arranger and musical producer, with Ros Stephen and Robert Wyatt.

This is the great Robert Wyatt himself. Cult figure, one of the fathers and pioneers of progressive rock. The one calls the other a genius (“We have a mutual genius pact,” Atzmon chuckles ), while Wyatt says, “It’s a huge honor for me and not at all self-evident that Gilad agreed to work with me. He is an amazing musician, amazing.” But judging by the people Wyatt has worked with – Jimi Hendrix, Mike Oldfield, David Gilmour, Paul Weller, Syd Barrett, Brian Eno, Bjork (a “heavenly creature,” Wyatt sighed ) among others – it’s clear that the honor is also definitely Atzmon’s. He has performed with Paul McCartney, but the collaboration with Wyatt, 65, a unique object of admiration who cuts across tastes, generations and categories (just ask Radiohead’s Thom Yorke ), is something of a step up and a certificate of honor that further cements Atzmon’s status in the British music industry.

Wyatt is the hippie enfant terrible who became a white-bearded guru, a kind of secret national treasure, a genuine survivor who is almost unclassifiable. A drummer in Soft Machine (from which he was thrown out – to this day he maintains “there is nothing worse in life than humiliation” ) and in Matching Mole, he was reborn as a singer-songwriter after falling out of that London window during a drinking binge that lurched out of control. (Pink Floyd immediately rallied to the cause and organized a benefit concert for him. ) The fall left him in a wheelchair for life.

Few musicians have done all he has done – psychedelic, punk, post-punk, avant-garde, fusion and now “clean” jazz with his own twists.

Wyatt is married to Alfreda (Alfie ) Benge, who came to England from Poland as a childhood war refugee. She does the artwork for his album covers, once wrote a searing song about his alcoholism (he has since kicked the habit, or maybe not ) and calls him an “overgrown baby,” while he calls her “the dark side of my moon.” He records his albums, which are like nothing else and are always received as an “event,” in a studio in his home. He has a distinctive tremulous voice (a kind of trademark ), which the composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto called “the saddest sound in the world.” Wyatt has survived periods of bottomless, suicidal depression, and for entire decades avoided performing live. (“I think it’s stage fright,” Atzmon says. )

In an interview with the Guardian in June 2009, Wyatt selected Atzmon as the “greatest living artist” and noted that he was “born in Israel, which I prefer to call occupied Palestine.” Atzmon, for his part, says Wyatt is “a genius of the kind that Kant described so well – a genius who seemingly has no part in his own genius, who creates beauty as though ex nihilo. Everything he touches sounds new and completely different and utterly his own. He is totally transparent and through him you see the light.”

Gilad Atzmon writes:

Netanyahu, Barak and many other Israelis are often ‘outraged’ by FM Lieberman. I guess that Israelis grasp that their senior diplomat exposes the Israeli ploy: when Israelis talk peace — what they really mean is war with no end. When Israeli government spokesmen insist that Lieberman “misrepresents Israeli Government’s policies” — what they really mean is that he fails to repeat the Israeli official lies. As it stands, Lieberman’s UN speech few days ago, conveys not only Israeli cabinet vision, it is also a devastating glimpse into the Israeli mindset, worldview and spirit. Lieberman is a transparent image of the Israeli desire for racial and cultural homogeneity. Many Israelis claim to detest him and his ideas: but my guess is that they grasp that Lieberman is actually their true mirror. Otto Weininger wrote in “Sex & Character” that people hate in others that which they detest in themselves. Many Israelis ostensibly oppose Lieberman because he reminds them of the bigot whom they can’t stand in themselves. Some people do not like to look in the mirror; others are devastated when the mirror gazes back at them with pity.

Musical genius rarely accepts the confinement of a genre — or even a restrictive definition of music. In “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road,” Robert Wyatt takes a sound that generally remains on the periphery of most people’s consciousness when they hear it, and turns it into a song. It’s a sound probably unfamiliar to many Americans: the sound of a high speed train as it passes into the distance, heard from the platform of a station at which the train didn’t stop. The airborne noise of the engine and carriages are long gone but continue being telegraphed down the tracks in steel-shaped frequencies.

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2 thoughts on “Gilad Atzmon joins forces with Robert Wyatt

  1. Observer

    Surprise surprise, check the readers’ comments on the Haaretz page — Gilad Atzmon got to the point, spoke his mind fairly and directly on the Haaretz board — and he is getting utterly slammed for it. There are about three appreciative comments there from people who can see Atzmon’s honesty and candid inclusiveness, offset by about fifty screaming and cursing nutcases calling him an ‘anti semite’ and a holocaust denier.

    Israel Shahak, Pappe, Finkelstein — all hounded and harrassed, and Atzmon too.

    Ok, there is a radical difference of approach and vision and method with these critics : Israel Shahak, Pappe, Finkelstein and Chomsky are disciplined political scientists following disciplined method and rigorous water tight academic frameworks, while in contrast, Atzmon is an artist, and ‘shoots from the hip’ in an impulsive , sometimes chaotic manner, as artists are inclined too — but he has a valuable place in the critique too I think.

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