Gilad Atzmon’s sell-out residency at Ronnie Scott’s was a game of two halves, two gigs and two quartets. The first half was devoted to playing numbers which Charlie Parker famously recorded with strings, and the second set delved into Coltrane’s catalogue and reworked a few of his numbers with fabulous new string arrangements. Anyone hoping for a hefty dollop of Atzmon’s acerbic wit and customary non-PC innuendo might have left a bit disappointed (he only made a few prescient jokes about Brexit), as he was on his best behaviour. As were his horns, perfectly evoking Bird’s alto timbre, creamy but with lots of bite, or Coltrane’s tenor, at turns tender and penetrating. The handover came at the end of the first set when Atzmon picked up his soprano and challenged us with Big Nick from the 1963 album ‘Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’ as a prelude to the adventures to come later in the evening, and featuring a terrific drum solo.
As for the two quartets, here you have four jazz musicians who’ve been playing together for years (Gilad Atzmon on saxes, Yaron Stavi on bass, Enzo Zirilli on drums and Ross Stanley on piano) and are intimately aware of each other’s interpretive stances, combined with a string quartet of consummate poise and precision, headed up on this occasion by Corina Hentschel, with Marianne Haynes on second violin and featuring Felix Tanner on viola and Laura Anstee on cello.
‘Charlie Parker with Strings’ was an album based on a series of recordings Bird made in 1950, and was among his bestselling work. Setting aside his bebop persona, he selected a handful of standards to present in this way, and Atzmon selected from this same repertoire, to recreate melodies such as If I Should Lose You, I Didn’t Know What Time Is Was, April in Paris and the wonderful Laura. When Verve released the material on CD in the mid-90s, they included bonus material from a further recording session, featuring among others Cole Porter’s What Is This Thing Called Love, which Atzmon also added to his Ronnies set. Loosely sketching out the melodies, adding arabesque fills and edgy enclosures and inserting some nicely tricksy solos, Gilad skilfully updates these classic tunes, pausing and offsetting his phrasing just enough so that the string quartet’s control and intonation is given enough space to soar. There is nothing cloying or overly sentimental about the arrangements, but they also don’t sound like someone’s messed around with the harmony too much either; just enough to give it a new lease of life for a new jazz audience to appreciate.
‘Spirit of Trane’, the album Atzmon released in 2017, was a very personal labour of love, in which he gave us a new take on classic Coltrane tunes such as Naima, Mr PC and Giant Steps with occasionally more dissonant voicings, and included Trane’s Ellington favourite In A Sentimental Mood. There is great scope to integrate strings in all of this material, which Atzmon has done with such gusto, such fondness for the inner workings of the tunes, that his ego is set aside, and his sheer love of the music and sense of stewardship comes shining through. This happens on stage too, as he leans on the piano and watches Stanley at work crafting another exceptional solo, or leans into the strings to urge them to play around on an acapella chorus with him, imploring everyone in the band to remain utterly committed to being in the moment and playing what arises. Stavi is the lynchpin here, being simultaneously a fifth member of the string quartet and holding the fort as a rhythm section player. His presence is discreet but incisive, as is Zirilli’s, whose deft handling of his kit ensures that the strings are well supported and creatively accented.
Atzmon reminded us that Coltrane only made two appearances in London, and on both occasions managed to clear the house in under twelve and a half minutes with his uncompromising sound. Looking at his watch, Atzmon mused that since we were still sitting there after a much longer amount of time, either Coltrane’s music is maturing well or the jazz audience’s musical taste is getting more sophisticated. After they rounded out the night by jamming wildly on Impressions, I think, probably, both.
Artists Bio: Gilad Atzmon
Photo Credit: Mochles Sa – MS Pictures
Last modified: November 24, 2018