Wyatt, Atzmon, Stephen - For The Ghosts Within - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Wyatt, Atzmon, Stephen - For The Ghosts Within

by Charly Richardson Rating:9 Release Date:2010-10-11

Now here's an album which has been brilliantly conceived, thoughtfully arranged and skillfully executed. Its unorthodox recording process (strings recorded alone; then vocals; then saxophones and clarinets; then plenty of post production work) seems to have invigorated rather than hindered the final product. In fact 'unorthodox' is an adjective which often springs to mind whilst listening.

For the Ghosts Within is a collaboration between ex-Soft Machine drummer and vocalist Robert Wyatt, Tango Siempre violinist and composer Ros Stephen (whose Sigamos String Quartet feature on every track) and clarinettist, saxophonist and, evidently, accordionist Gilad Atzmon - jazz sideman and open-minded leader of The Orient House Ensemble, an outfit who toy with post-bop, North African and Middle Eastern sounds and the grey areas in between. Throughout For the Ghosts Within, musical cultures, traditions and, indeed, personalities are utilised, fused and juxtaposed to tremendous effect.

As a creative starting point, jazz standards were re-arranged and re-imagined. 'Laura' has a neo-romantic string introduction which quickly slides into a warm bed upon which Wyatt's vocals sit comfortably. His delivery is effortless, simplistic and wholesome, and his flat English vowels and grainy delivery are a pleasant contrast to honey-soaked Americana. Atzmon's busy solo may sound a bit like an excited school boy, but he quickly makes up for it on the next track, an original called 'Lullaby for Irena'. His microtonal Arabian-inflected clarinet is inspiring alongside the Yiddish-influenced strings and backing vocals.

On Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight', Wyatt whistles the eerie melody, which is neatly complemented by rich piano and string backing. Jazz standard 'What's New' passes fairly uneventfully, and I expected 'In a Sentimental Mood' to do the same, until Atzmon's clarinet reclaims Duke Ellington's melody, taking it from Broadway to Baghdad in one phrase. It is a magical moment and a testament to his virtuosity; Atzmon doesn't just command his instrument, he transforms it, as he does the overall sound of the album. For although the standards are tastefully arranged, they are not exactly earth-shattering; it is the original compositions which Atzmon, both as performer and producer, really gets his teeth into.

'Where Are They Now' is as eccentric as the man who fashioned it; an early-jazz saxophone quartet work-out, with question and answer exchanges between the 'live' quartet and a 'ghost' quartet which we hear through a wireless. Suddenly, the reeds turn into looped samples over a big-beat groove, and "first lady of Arabic hip hop" Shadia Mansour and Ramallah Underground's Stormtrap rap furiously in Arabic. They are clearly passionate about something, and you don't have to speak Arabic to find out what once Wyatt's vocals enter: "Palestine's a country, or at least it should be".

This political element is hardly surprising. As an Israeli-born anti-Zionist who writes and speaks passionately about Palestinian rights (and indeed incorporates these ideas into much of his music), Atzmon is no stranger to controversy. These themes continue in 'The Ghosts Within'. Apparently a re-working of one of Wyatt's songs, it quickly changes beyond recognition in Atzmon's hands (I can't shake images of a mad professor-style caricature sitting in his mixing laboratory cackling with satisfaction). The result is an epic, brooding, trip hop-influenced paean to the plight of Palestinians. The evocative lyrics, beautifully sung by Tali Atzmon, conjure up tragically romantic images of a lost land: "We once lived on this land forever/In the scent of a lemon tree/We once drank from our holy river/For our land you gave us just dust". At the end, Wyatt's North African vocal technique is hauntingly effective. It is, without question, the highlight of the album.

Although less politically-charged (on the surface at least), 'Maryan' is a folksy, naturalistic tale with a hint of the Celtic, a military snare drum and strings morphed by a tastefully-applied phaser. For the Ghosts Within finishes with mournful composition 'At Last I Am Free', and an elegant rendition of Louis Armstrong's 'What a Wonderful World'. The latter is, like this record as a whole, delightfully bitter-sweet. When placed alongside the politics of previous tracks, it can be seen as a grating juxtaposition, or indeed a masterful piece of irony. Wyatt's involvement might suggest the former (the blogosphere recently awarded him his own verb, 'Wyatting', which describes the practice of playing weird tracks on a pub jukebox to annoy others); but with someone as passionate as Gilad Atzmon by his side, it is also possible that all these tracks, including the jazz standards (which initially felt like a lazy option), were purposefully chosen. After all, the album title is transparently political.

Little of For the Ghosts Within disappoints, but it is the original material which really makes this decidedly innovative. It's not for everyone, but then groundbreaking albums rarely are.

Charly Richardson

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