Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

Into the sometimes overly cosy world of British jazz, 11 years ago, strolled Gilad Atzmon.

Into the sometimes overly cosy world of British jazz, 11 years ago, strolled Gilad Atzmon. An Israeli who prefers to be labelled a Palestinian, a Jew who calls himself an ex-Jew, a saxophonist and clarinettist, novelist, philosopher and airline pilot manqué, the 41-year-old Atzmon is, it's safe to say, a bit different. Acker Bilk he is not.

Fame, or infamy, did not come his way immediately, but by 2003, after stints studying at Essex University and playing with Ian Dury and The Blockheads, he was making a mark for himself in a way that no other jazz player in Britain has done before or since.

That year, Atzmon and his band, The Orient House Ensemble, won the best album category at the BBC Jazz Awards with Exile. This so infuriated one critic that he declared the evening had been "hijacked", later writing that he considered Atzmon's album to be Palestinian folk music, and criticising the band leader for making political statements on stage.

Atzmon's comments at the time were tame by comparison with the outrageous (or offensive, depending on your point of view) remarks that trip off his tongue as fluently as the fierce stream of notes that issue from his horn. He says he has a war against Zionism and Israel, and tells me that Cyprus, where his band will play on his current two-month tour of Europe, is the closest he has been to his homeland since he left. "It has the same weather, the same climate, but nicer people," he jokes.

Controversy remains Atzmon's calling card. His aggressive defence of displaced Palestinians has brought thousands of hate e-mails. "They call me all sorts of things - self-hating Jew, for instance." Doesn't he find such an epithet painful? "Marx, Freud, Chomsky - there are some quite nice people on this list," he says. "I call it my Cartesian point. As long as people dislike me, then I am saying something."

More controversy is to be found in his just-published second novel, My One and Only Love. Set in the 1950s, it is the story of Danny Zilber, a trumpeter who plays only one note, but who does so with such accomplishment that it wins him hordes of female admirers. Then there's Sabrina, a female spy who uncovers Nazi war criminals and locks them inside double bass cases. The imprisoned Germans are left trapped in these cases, which are hidden among the baggage accompanying Zilber's orchestra, and they continue to travel in this state for ever.

Why, I ask Atzmon, does Zilber only play one note? "He probably could play many different notes," he replies, "but he's been convinced just to play the one." As such, Zilber is the opposite of his creator. "I play very fast, but that's because I'm always searching for the right note."

He finds it easier, he says, to put his political views over as satire. If it is unusual for a jazz musician to be a novelist, it's far more unusual today for one to be so pre-occupied by political matters. "More and more, my writing and my playing are concerned with ideological issues," he says. "I'm still playing jazz, but this is where I find meaning."

Atzmon thinks that most jazz today is "boring". Neither his music nor his novels could be called that. Whether one agrees with his views or not, there's no denying the passion and beauty of his playing. And a little controversy, surely, is no bad thing.

'My One and Only Love' is published by Saqi Books. 'Musik: Rearranging the 20th century' is released on Enja Records