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For the Ghosts Within
Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen For the Ghosts Within
Released 8 October 2010

Gilad Atzmon, Ros Stephen, Robert Wyatt
Label Domino
Length 56:06
Genre Jazz, experimental

It’s time for another round of the most divisive voice in music. Who better than Robert Wyatt to throw down a marker? His latest collaboration sees him venture further into the musical stratosphere with saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephen. For The Ghost Within is a collection of re-imagined Jazz standards and original tracks that catapult the old world sound beyond its perceived dustiness.

Like the dramas of Dennis Potter, the album plays with a cosy old fashioned feel and subverts it into something dissident and sometimes creepy.

'Laura' in its original form is a sweeping orchestrated torch song but in the hands of this triptych of innovative musicians ends up understated and with a wistful ghostly atmosphere. Wyatt, as always, is either your crazed mumbler of marginalised phrasing or a nuanced interpreter with a brilliant sense of space and rhythm. Take your pick. Personally he never fails to bring something interesting to the table.

'Lullaby For Irena' is an original composition that creates a melancholic mood through the Middle Eastern horns and willowing violin at the beginning. The foundations are laid for Wyatt’s voice or ‘instrument’ to take its grip on this gentle love song. He distorts the music, splashing about in the layers of sound like some strangled sea lion amongst trawler netting. His voice is grating and heartbreaking simultaneously.

“In the air long before the day that I was born”

The jazz constructions suit the idiosyncrasies of his wayward vocals succinctly.

Mid century orchestrated jazz is both celebrated and stripped of its complacency on tracks like 'The Ghost Within' and especially on 'Where Are They Now?'

The latter showcases the rhythm of dance hall jazz and Bebop only for it to be turned on its head and sped up with a pair of British-Palestinian MCs reaming out high speed rhymes. This is the most overtly political part of the album and yet it is probably the quirkiest too. Just as you think you are heading towards the polyphony of avant garde classical music, the hip hop confounds your expectations.

Familiar Wyatt nautical themes come to the fore on 'Maryan'. He delves into his murky sea imagery against a military drumbeat and the Middle Eastern/Western saxophone of Atzmon.

One of the Great American standards 'Round Midnight' is put on the treatment table next. Rather than mess with its structure Wyatt adds a further chill to its air by his lonesome whistling of the melody. You can imagine it being played along some foggy post war cobbled street with the sound of muted footsteps in the background.

'Lush Life' is another original but unfortunately it hovers somewhere between nice and boring. The lounge room feel is not rescued by Wyatt’s vocal as he plays it sweet and the song goes nowhere.

A duo of fifties Jazz giants comes next. 'What’s New?' made famous by Sinatra at his most solemn, oscillates with operatic strings stabbing this time out. Again Wyatt invests his own sense of gloom into such a recognisable tune. Although it works perfectly I doubt Ol’ Blue Eyes would have approved. What invention can you produce with 'In A Sentimental Mood' without screwing it up? The danger is there but the musicians are able to explore the melody and play with scaling without damaging proceedings. The notion of listening to things on different mediums is expounded upon by the insertion of radio static/interference. This is a real study of what and why a standard is by commenting on its familiarity depending on the listener and repeating the melody throughout. You end up re-visiting the original and appreciating it with renewed ears.

What about modern standards? Well at least Mr. Wyatt isn’t modest. His second attempt at Chic’s 'At Last I Am Free' is not exactly revelatory but again it does have the right amount of wistful accordion and morose vocals to make it listenable. It is unremarkable all the same.

The closer is one of those tracks that are often copied but never equalled: 'What A Wonderful World', the Armstrong classic. Wyatt and friends take the gentleman’s way out by playing it straight. He warbles evasively as usual but the musicians, as a constant throughout the album, are sweet, soulful and always on the money.

This is an interesting little album that is brave enough to play up to the strengths of the classics without fawning over their accepted greatness. It beautifully distorts how we hear them as well as celebrating their structures. As an added bonus for those who appreciate Robert Wyatt’s uniqueness it is great to hear him putting his own twist onto a classical/jazz setting. Atzmon, the string quartet and Stephen must get plaudits for their consummately interesting arrangements. It is more of a collector’s piece for fans of Wyatt and won’t win him any new fans or those of the jazz inkling but as a demonstration of what you can do with a standard it’s a deliciously subversive selection box.

- Tim Gannon