WYATT, ATZMON & STEPHEN
I first met Robert and Alfie in 2007 at Lyth Arts Centre in North East Scotland, which is run by Alfie’s old college friend William Wilson. They were there on holiday and I was on tour with my band Tango Siempre. We spent a lovely couple of days with them enjoying William’s hospitality, exchanging stories about our mutual friend Gilad and, as I recall, attempting to sing "Giant Steps" through mouthfuls of lemon drizzle cake.
Robert and Gilad are great friends and have worked together for several years: Gilad played on Cuckooland and Comicopera and Robert made a guest appearance on Gilad’s 2004 album Musik. It was after hearing a track from Musik that I first contacted Gilad to ask him if he’d like to do a project with my tango group. He agreed, and in 2006 we did a 20-date tour together and recorded ‘Tangents’, an album of jazz-inspired tango music.
Working with Gilad was an incredible experience; he is a one of the most energetic and positive people I have ever met and as a musician he is simply awe-inspiring, so I was delighted when he asked me if I’d work with him on a project based on Charlie Parker’s ‘Bird with Strings’ album. In 2008 we recorded the album ‘In Loving Memory of America’ and over the next 18 months we did around 40 gigs as an 8 piece band made up of my string quartet (the Sigamos String Quartet) and Gilad’s jazz quartet (the Orient House Ensemble). The project was very well received and we had a great time, so we decided to do another string project together. I suggested the idea of working with a singer and we both instantly thought of Robert. The idea of juxtaposing Robert’s voice with the rich, sumptuous sound of a string quartet seemed perfect. Robert liked the idea too, so in early 2009 Gilad and I went up to his place in Lincolnshire to talk it over. We left with a list of jazz standards and some suggestions of our own, and as soon as I got home I started working on the string arrangements. My friend and long-term tango band colleague, the composer/arranger/pianist Jonathan Taylor, also wrote a couple of the arrangements for us.
The creation of the album was a slightly unconventional process. We started by recording the string quartet and bass (Ros Stephen, Tom Piggott-Smith, Rachel Robson, Daisy Vatalaro and Richard Pryce) at Eastcote Studios in London, engineered by Phillip Bagenal. It was logistically impossible for Robert to be there, so the day before we recorded he sang the tunes into my answer phone to help us get the right tempos and feel – I transferred his messages to a CD and took them along to the studio with me! After an intense 14-hour day of recording we took the string tracks to Phil Manzanera’s studio where Robert, Alfie and recording engineer Jamie Johnson were waiting.
The first track we opened was ‘Laura’. Gilad and I waited on the sofa in trepidation while Robert went into the vocal booth. The moment he started singing was extraordinary. His voice blended perfectly with the strings and we knew instantly that it was going to work. Robert seemed very comfortable singing with the strings; I remember him saying it was the musical equivalent of getting into a lovely warm bath.
The CD was produced by Gilad who astonishingly quickly and imaginatively transformed the raw material into the finished album, adding sax, clarinet, electronics and accordion, and in the case of ‘The Ghosts Within’, completely reworking the material to the point that it became a completely new piece of music. There should probably be a prize for anyone who can guess which of Robert’s songs that one started out as.
The project was very much a collaboration between the three of us and many of our friends: Alfie wrote beautiful lyrics for ‘Lullaby for Irena’ and the title track ‘The Ghosts Within’, Tali Atzmon sang the title track, Shadia Mansour and Stormtrap (Ramallah Underground) sang on ‘Where Are They Now?’, Frank Harrison played piano on several tracks and Julian Rowlands played bandoneon on ‘At Last I Am Free’.
Making ‘For The Ghosts Within’ was an overwhelming experience and I hope people enjoy listening to the album as much as we enjoyed making it.