Gilad Atzmon - 'I'm a Creative Reader'

John Robert Brown

Gilad Atzmon

“I have a big problem with the orthodox classical clarinet tone," says Gilad Atzmon, during our afternoon chat in the concert room of the club where he is to appear this evening. "The classical clarinet sound drives me mad; I cannot listen to it," he says. "I prefer the sound of Greek or Turkish clarinet playing. I’m talking about tone production. I play with a relaxed embouchure. And I change fingerings.” On his old Buffet clarinet (‘fifty years old’) Atzmon demonstrates, sub-tone, with many grace notes and portamenti. "I will mike it from the middle, not from the bottom, so as to get a rich sound, with microtonality," he says. "Then, when I improvise, I can move into a more conventional sound. I have found a way to produce the sound of a Turkish clarinet on the Bb clarinet.”

While we chat, folk come and go from the bar next door. Atzmon has both his alto and clarinet to hand. Occasionally he rattles the keys. Sometimes he blows a couple of notes between sentences. I comment on the short clarinet barrel he is using. “I have the same problem on my saxophone,” he says. “I must produce a video on the subject, because so many people ask about me it. My philosophy is one of playing nicely to produce a subtone sound softly, out of silence.” He takes the alto saxophone to demonstrate. “I’ve found out that most people, when they play on the saxophone mouthpiece alone can only produce squeaks. But when I play on the mouthpiece alone, for me to produce my sound, I play a note in the lower register, somewhere between G and Bb. Of the students that I see, hardly any of them can do this." He removes the saxophone mouthpiece to demonstrate.

"The problem is that I make a lower and lower pitch using the mouthpiece on its own. So I have to make the saxophone and clarinet short.” Atzmon has a shortened neck on his alto, which is a Selmer Paris Reference 54. “I’m in the process of shortening and shortening my instruments.” Describing his short instruments as ‘circumcised’, he laughs.*

Atzmon is a Selmer artist, though the soprano saxophone he uses is a Yanagisawa. “The Selmer alto is a pretty amazing saxophone,” he says. “This is an instrument that I selected at the company. Necks are crucial,” he adds. “I used to play on a Meyer number five mouthpiece. The one I use now is not a Meyer, but it’s exactly like a Meyer five, hand-made from scratch, a Morgan Fry; I have two different ones, well made. The problem with Meyer mouthpieces was that they made them from soft rubber. They don’t last long.” Atzmon has, like many players, sharp top teeth. “Last year in Italy I played for a week in a temperature of fifty degrees.” The mouthpiece material couldn’t stand up to such treatment.

“My philosophy is to play on the shortest instrument that I can find. I play as loose as I can be. “He demonstrates by playing with an extremely slack embouchure. "I’m not an expert on this, but the shape of the saxophone… I think that the sound is better than my Mark VI. The instrument may need more maintenance; I don’t know yet. Regarding the Yanagisawa soprano, Wally Evans [who represents Yanagisawa in the UK] has looked after me. He’s a lovely guy. I want to call him from time to time, to see how he’s doing.

“I used to say I can teach everything I know in twenty minutes! It took me some time to admit that I can teach everything I know in THREE minutes. I can tell you what it is. I believe that in order to be better at anything - it can be clarinet or saxophone, or it can be nuclear physics - you have first to admit your difficulties, your weakest aspects. Secondly, you have to develop your own strategy to tackle your problems. Thirdly, you must allow yourself the time to work it out. The people who follow these three stages are going to become great. It’s quite amazing to see with students. A few are capable, because everyone has difficulties at some time or another. To spot those who are serious is easy, those who understand it, and those who will never get it right. I’m a touring musician. I don’t have time to teach in a college regularly. I may do master classes, or teach for a period of six weeks or so, but it‘s the most I can do. I teach in the summer. I dedicate two or three weeks to do summer schools in Germany or Italy, and sometime in Eastern Europe.

“I love teaching. One of the reasons that I love teaching so much is because I myself didn’t study the saxophone. I had four or five lessons. So I learned to play through the students. Through their difficulties I started to understand what I was doing. It developed me. During a recent course, one of my ensembles wanted to play Giant Steps. Now, I play Giant Steps, but teaching Giant Steps is a different experience. I’ve found some amazing stuff…”

“I started late, when I was seventeen. I heard the recording of Charlie Parker with strings, which blew my mind. I wasn’t even into jazz. I liked the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Queen. A day later I went to the record shop and bought all the Charlie Parker I could lay my hands on. I loved it.” At this point Atzmon hadn’t started to play the saxophone, though he had a clarinet at home. “But I wasn’t serious about it,” he says. “I couldn’t understand. What’s the point?” He laughs. “I was diagnosed as a talented clarinet player. I didn’t like it. I didn’t get to any standard. I had good ears, classical music fascinated me, but I didn’t see myself as a clarinet player.

“This was in Israel. An unbelievable Russian saxophonist, Boris Gammer, came to town. I heard him every week, in a jam session in a small club. I took a few lessons with him. Gammer was incredible. He told me everything he knew in five minutes! It took me twenty years to take it in. I’m still taking it in. I still didn’t understand what it was - but I wanted to understand it." Gilad puts on a Russian accent. “’You have to transcribe a solo,’ Boris told me. I was astonished by Charlie Parker’s Night in Tunisia, so that was the first thing that I transcribed. It took me eight hours. I remember it. I had an old Panasonic tape cassette machine that I was given for my Bar Mitzvah when I was thirteen. Late one night, in the wee small hours, at three o’clock in the morning, four o’clock in the morning. I could smell something. The tape started to melt, because of the closeness of the lamp I was using. I woke up in the morning. I picked up the saxophone. I could play jazz!

“I realised that instead of being in the Israeli Marines, and dying in the Israeli war, I wanted to die on a bandstand, in New York, or Paris or London. I practised all day long for a few years. I was seventeen. I was still a student. There was nothing in my mind. I practised the most basic things, scales and so on. I realised what it takes. I’m dyslexic - and I’m a writer, which is quite an astonishing disaster. I was good in maths, but I was bad in everything else. I was doing the equivalent of A levels, aiming towards the sciences. Until the age of 22 to 25 I thought that I was going to be an academic, a mathematician or philosopher. I didn’t really go to school. I used to practise the saxophone, and tried to solve mathematical riddles and problems.

“I listened to Parker, and at a certain stage John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. I listened to Benny Carter a bit, but it was never my thing. I listened to Phil Woods, big time. But you have to understand that I was living in Israel, where my access to records by these players was limited. There was one jazz record shop in Jerusalem. Three years passed before I heard Coltrane for the first time. We didn’t have jazz radio programmes, like we do here. Jazz wasn’t a big thing. There was an English record shop, where early on I heard Tubby Hayes. He was a major influence, fantastic. For me, Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes were as important as Charlie Parker, because I could buy a lot of Tubby Hayes records.

“I didn’t think that I would ever be able to earn a living out of it. I never regarded myself as a unique talent. I know that a lot of people regard me as a major icon. I’m embarrassed about that, because I know more than anybody else how many problems I have! I was in New York, I saw the level of professionalism they have. I had a gig with an American drummer the other day. He sent me music to read. I am not a good reader. I get by. I’m a ‘creative’ reader. I have to play what I think should have been written. I used to do a lot of Latin gigs. I was extremely popular in the Latin world, because I can play all the altissimo stuff. Then I got a call to do a gig with the Cuba All Stars. They said: ‘Play the baritone. Tomorrow we have a rehearsal, then we are off to France.’

“The reading was difficult; the baritone had a completely independent part, bonding the rhythm section with the front line. I was getting all the notes wrong. Everybody was looking at me. I said, ‘Give me three hours, I’m on the case’. What I had to do was clear, and I did it. I was studying the music all day long. Everybody else was drinking and having good fun.”

I mention to Atzmon that Buddy Rich couldn’t read music. Atzmon lists others who had trouble with written music - Ira Sullivan and Chet Baker for instance. “Louis Stewart told me that when Chet Baker joined him in Paris. Baker couldn’t read.” Atzmon opens his newly published transcription book, and looks at one of his own complex solos. “If someone put that in front of me…”

But he is being hard on himself. Though few players would be able to read such a complex part, it is clear that Atzmon feels that he is not yet the musician he would like to be. “I make a living as a musician. Tonight is sold out. Yesterday was sold out. The night before was sold out. Business is fantastic, but I’ve never been a professional. I turn up on time, I’ve never missed a gig. Yet I have these fundamental things that are wrong. For me, I go out every night. I play my own music. A lot of people like it. This is the tenth anniversary of the Orient House Ensemble. We’ve recently started a massive tour of forty gigs in the UK. At the beginning of October the latest album came out, followed closely by an album for which I collaborated with Robert Wyatt. In December I tour with The Blockheads, Ian Dury’s old band. In January and February I’m touring with the singer Sarah Gillespie. Then in March we’ll start to tour The Tide Has Changed, the Orient House Ensemble in Europe.” Though Atzmon says that he dislikes being booked far in advance, there is already talk of work in South America, then North America in 2011 and beyond.

However, there is much more to Gilad Atzmon than the story I’ve related so far. For instance, he is a published novelist whose novels have been published in 22 languages. And, more controversially, Atzmon is dedicated to the Palestinian issue. On his gigs he always talks about his political concerns. “I don’t lecture,” he says. “I’m a kind of funny guy.” I ask if he is heckled by those in the audience who have come out to hear jazz. “I used to be,” he says. “A lot of Jewish people came to my gigs. There is a Jewish joke. A CNN reporter heard that there was an old guy going to the wailing wall every day.

She asks: ‘What are you doing?

He says: ‘For the last 60 years I’ve been coming here each day and praying to the wall.’

‘And what do you pray about?’ she asks.

‘I pray that there will be peace between Christians, Jews and Muslims, with an end to the wars.’

She says: ‘And how does it feel to do it for so many years?’

He says: ‘As though I’m talking to a f****** wall.’

“The moral is,” Atzmon says, “Instead of talking to walls they should start to talk to people around them. And if they’re brave enough, they’d better look in the mirror. Then peace will prevail.

“A lot of journalists ask me: if it’s so obvious, why are you the only one? It took me many years to understand that it’s probably because I’m a musician. When I was seventeen, I listened to Charlie Parker. I went to the shop, to discover that Parker was black. Yet they had been telling me that the Jews were the best! And Dizzy was black. Sonny Rollins was black.

You know what? I want to be black.”

*Footnote concerning the effect the individual player has on saxophone pitch:

A saxophonist’s mouth acts as a resonator. The mouth contains a series of displacement and compression nodes and antinodes, the mouth serving as a continuation of the bore of the instrument. The node is the narrow part of the wave, at the mouthpiece tip, for example. The antinode is where the wave is wide enough to touch the side of the bore. Remember those diagrams of curved lines drawn inside the bore of the instrument? Those nodes and antinodes continue into the mouth. That is to say, between your tongue and the roof of your mouth (the hard palate at the front, the soft palate at the rear) there are displacement antinodes. If a displacement antinode is narrow (low), the pitch is lower. Conversely, if a displacement antinode is wide (high), the pitch is higher.

In other words, if one has a thick tongue or a low palate, the displacement antinode is 'squashed'. The pitch is lower. With a thin tongue or high palate, the displacement antinode is 'broadened'. The pitch is higher. Observe that singers open their mouths widest when they are singing their highest notes. From this, because one (for example) plays at a sharper pitch, one can conclude that one must possess a thin tongue or a high palate. This means that the antinode is wider, which in turn makes one’s clarinet (or saxophone) play sharper than average, all other things being equal. JRB.

This article first appeared in Clarinet and Saxophone, September 2011. Used by permission.
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