Gilad Atzmon wanders on stage in Brighton tugging on a customary cigarette. 'Smoking kills,' he announces. 'But Blair kills more.' On clarinet or saxophone, Gilad is now among the top UK-resident jazz musicians, winning awards and plaudits from all corners. Last year his Exile album won both the Radio 3 and Time Out awards for jazz album of the year.
But Gilad's fearless tirades against Zionism — the ideology behind the Israeli state — have cost him in terms of lost gigs and constant vigilance about personal security.
He describes his composition 'Jenin' as a warning to what he calls 'the BBS axis of evil' — Bush, Blair and Sharon. 'I want to see the world as a BBS-free zone. I am working towards that aim,' he says. Gilad was born in Israel in 1963 and raised as a secular Jew in Jerusalem. He says he always sympathised with the plight of Palestinians, but was radicalised by his experiences in the Israeli army in the 1980s.
'I will never forget my visit to Anzar, an Israeli concentration camp on the Lebanon soil,' he says. 'Thousands of Palestinians were surrounded by barbed wire fences and Israeli army sentry tower guards, getting burned in the heat of the August sun. I knew then that I wouldn't last more than five minutes. What I saw there was the clearest manifestation of oppression and abuse I have ever come across. After facing those devastating sights, I painfully grasped that my identity was grounded on a basic denial of the legitimate rights of innocent people to return to their homelands. What I saw in the Lebanon war convinced me that my one and only enemy is Zionism.'
Gilad moved to Britain to study philosophy and become a political artist. He founded his six-piece band Orient House Ensemble — named after Yasser Arafat's residence.
The core quartet involves Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass and Asaf Sirkis on drums. On Exile and some live shows they are augmented by accordion, fiddle and vocalist members. An evening with Orient House Ensemble is an unforgettable experience. They blend Middle East folk tunes, standards from the jazz canon and an increasing proportion of original compositions.
Though every player is a star turn in their own right, it's the quality of the ensemble playing that stands out. The music defies categorisation, and brims with passion, joy, warmth, anger and finesse. Artists can provide us with 'an alternative view of reality', says Gilad, since they are not 'bound to a given symbolic order'.
He cites the success of Michael Moore's books and films as examples of how artists can reach beyond narrow mainstream politics. 'Zionists have imposed a blindness on the world,' he says. 'It's time to hit back with literature, prose, music, cinema. Everything goes.'
'It's time to establish a clear association between colonialism and the Zionist lobby. It's my duty to make that association widely known.' Gilad notes that as an art form, jazz has 'become more and more analytical, clever and academic'. But politics can counter that tendency.
'Personal complexity and social struggle encourage an emotional expression that has almost vanished from improvised music,' he says. 'Being stimulated by a strong social commitment brings a radical blossoming to the artistic activity. It brings anger coupled with personal pain — it reveals the multiplicity in life.'
Gilad has just finished recording a new Orient House Ensemble album and is preparing a book of his writing, due out early next year. And despite his acclaim, he works almost every day in small clubs and is keen to perform at any political gig-just contact him via his website.
As to the future of Palestine, Gilad has no doubts over the way forward. 'Only one way round this problematic issue. One-state solution,' he says. 'In other words, full equality and a conclusive right of return for the Palestinian people.'
Gilad Atzmon will speak and perform on Tuesday 13 July at the Marxism 2004 festival and conference in London. You can find out more about his life and work at his website, www.gilad.co.uk.