Few jazz musicians balance pragmatism and artistry like the Israeli saxophonist and clarinetist Gilad Atzmon. Launching a new band at the Vortex, Atzmon drew attention to the stack of CDs from his earlier groups and told the audience: "If you don't like my new music, you might at least enjoy my history."
Atzmon's long-running Orient House Ensemble roamed across the music of Palestine, Romania, Israel, Britain, Italy and beyond, with American jazz as its calling card. This new quartet doesn't use vocals (except for Atzmon making a hoarse, abstract clamour by talking through his sax mouthpiece while playing), and the Elvin Jones-like polyrhythms of the dynamic young drummer John Blease makes it outwardly jazzier. But that's not the whole story.
A laptop behind pianist Frank Harrison idly displayed its screensaver for much of the show, testament to the fact that a swath of special effects and electronics remained stubbornly silent. Several of Harrison's succinct solos were thus confined to the faintly anticlimactic keyboard sound of a Fender Rhodes. Nevertheless, the band frequently worked themselves up to thrashing, Coltrane-quartet climaxes, with Atzmon making the connection explicit in quotes from Afro-Blue and A Love Supreme.
Flying double-time sax solos over driving jazz swing or intense ballads joined Atzmon's Charlie Parker allegiances to the microtonal pitching and woody sound of Middle Eastern reed instruments. In the second half, the world music and the funky connections became stronger, with bassist Yaron Stavi opening with a bowed drone for Atzmon's swooping soprano-sax sounds; followed by an infectious bass hook underpinning clarinet ascents reminiscent of the Rhapsody in Blue overture; and a polemic on the Iraq war that combined Middle Eastern dance-grooves with Coltranesque free-jazz. Atzmon looks to be on to another winner, with or without computer assistance.