He paused for thought. And for a very brief moment, I imagined I had achieved the impossible and caught him short of an answer.
Atzmon is one of the most articulate, confident and powerful communicators around. Not just as a musician, but also as a fascinating, independent and much-followed thinker on cultural ideas and politics. Somewhere between a public intellectual and a public anti-intellectual. His site Palestine Think Tank gets hundreds of thousands of hits.
But landed with my left-field question he seemed, for a few seconds, genuinely lost for words. The first phrases of his response were short. Ironic yet deadpan.
“Obviously, I’m a foreigner. Big time. I can hardly speak English.”
Then gradually, the ideas started to take shape and flow and grow. His natural presence, his emotional force and intensity started to rebuild. Phrases were getting longer, starting to connect.
“You know, I’m not normally very emotionally overwhelmed when I play a gig. But recently I played the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the first time, and I was shaking. Playing music is my job, so I’m asking myself what the f*** is this? Maybe this IS my home town. All these friends have come to see me. People I really like. It was a unique feeling…
“I’d been bitter about London for quite a while. I just didn’t like what had happened here in recent years. (I’ve not seen violence. Where I come from is a violent place.) But London had become a cold, money-oriented city. The embodiment of filthy capitalism. But the news is that we are ALL in deep sh*t now, the money is running out, maybe it was a fantasy all along.
“Everything’s getting cheaper again. Musicians try to help each other. Venues are seeking to be helped by musicians. Without a real brotherhood we’re not getting very far…
“The BBC has very little good news to give out. Which is why I see a doubling of the audience at my gigs. People prefer to come out and listen to Frank (Harrison, Atzmon’s regular pianist) or Gwilym (Simcock) than stay in and hear Jeremy Paxman. Because what we can do is to remind people what beauty is.”
The whole experience was like a strong jazz solo. I was being told a story which gathered intensity and heft as it developed.
In the language of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Atzmon is a maven. He spots and interprets and predicts trends. He plays the higher saxophones, alto and soprano, and has that priestly, incantatory power as a player which you get from Coltrane on soprano or Parker on alto. Atzmon has just played his “with strings” project in innovative promoter Christine Allen’s inexpensive St Cyprian’s series, and they have proved very popular.
So, what’s next?
We talked at length about Atzmon’s fervent desire to help the victims of brutality in Palestine. Palestine has disappeared from the front pages, and from Paxman’s Newsnight. But it is front-of-mind for Atzmon. And he doesn’t just talk, he is doing something about it.
Atzmon will be doing a charity gig at the 606 on 30th April as a fundraiser for medical charities working in Palestine. The music and the words which go with it will be a powerful demonstration of one man’s committed defence of what he believes in.
Go. Book early. There will be no gig in London this year which stems from a deeper passion than Atzmon’s wish to do something about helping the innocent victims of the Israeli invasion.
The passion of a man who now, finally, considers himself to be a Londoner. Which makes me proud to be one too.