Weary, jet-lagged and without a single note of music prepared, the musicians soon to be dubbed the World Peace Trio stepped off three planes from three places, meeting for the first time, and headed into the studio a few hours later. They emerged that evening with the bulk of a self-titled debut album: a stunning set of improvised, intuitive and instrumental landscapes. Ironically, by the time this music would be heard by the public, two years later, the viability of the group's peace-seeking message would already be in jeopardy.
That trio comprised British political activist and woodwind firebrand Gilad Atzmon, Indonesian piano maestro and composer Dwiki Dharmawan, and UAE-based Jordanian oud and guitar fusionist Kamal Musallam. Individually renowned for channelling their distinct musical heritage through the prism of jazz, each soloist is a celebrated bandleader with an extensive back catalogue.
While offstage drama means there is a distinct possibility this all-star trio might never play again, for fleeting moments their disparate voices, visions and egos were balanced in this singularly spellbinding union, thankfully captured on the excellent World Peace Trio album.
Of course, such a controlled conflagration could only be the result of design, not luck. The group was hand-picked by MoonJune Records founder Leonardo Pavkovic for a one-off festival appearance. The day before that gig, at the Kota Tua Jakarta Jazz Festival in October 2015, studio time was booked.
"We all arrived at the airport between 8pm and midnight, then went into the studio the next day to play music without a single idea how it was going to sound," recalls Atzmon. "The truth is no musician would ever come up with such an idea, but Leo is not a musician; he's an enthusiast. He could hear the colours… that no one could imagine."
The sonics Pavkovic dreamed up were particularly utopian. Musallam is renowned for his wiggly, fret-crunching jazz-rock fusion, translating Arabic scales onto blistering, distorted electric guitar. These are perhaps best captured on his 2008 album Out of My City, a love letter to the 47-year-old's adopted home of Dubai.
Dharmawan, meanwhile, filters Javanese gamelan traditions through hypnotic piano harmonies, assimilating broader Eastern influences on his recent double-disc spectacle Pasar Klewer. That 2017 release also features Atzmon, a prolific superstar of the European jazz scene since winning the BBC Jazz Album of the Year for 2003's Exile. Renowned for filtering klezmer, Balkan, Turkish and tango inflections through his searing bebop saxophone workouts, Atzmon has also been a member of The Blockheads for two decades, recorded a pair of LPs with Robert Wyatt and was called in to play on Pink Floyd's 2014 swansong, The Endless River.
Meeting musically for the first time in a crusty old studio attached to Jakarta’s Komunitas Salihara culture centre, with a skeleton crew of one engineer, this perplexing trio jammed with little direction or dialogue, locked into an implicitly telepathic discourse. Joined sparingly by local Indonesian percussionists Ade Rudiana and Nasser Salameh, the stark soundscapes conjured are marked by wide open spaces – simple hypnotic vamps, both soothing and spiritual. They offer each player ample space to stretch out on soulful, searching solos that recall wandering across an open terrain without any destination reached, or even in mind.
“The process flows like water,” says Dharmawan, 51. “There is a commonality between us that is not overloaded with rules in terms of harmony, rhythm and other artistic elements – full of openness and freedom.”
A promotional video on the band’s website captures the very first notes the trio played together: the session begins with Musallam spinning out a series of airy, rumbling oud runs, before Atzmon picks up his clarinet and lets forth a poignant, meditative cry, setting the tone for the sympathetic, spontaneous dialogue to come.
“It’s like putting three wise men in a conversation – if you can call us wise men – and asking us to have a good debate,” says Musallam. “It was a romantic old building, smelling of food, with great acoustics and a grand piano in the centre. We told the engineer: ‘Just set up the microphones, tell us when they’re ready, and don’t press stop, we’ll just play.’”
The trio reunited two months later (in December 2015) at the Bali World Music Festival. “After the gig, we looked at each other and said: ‘Let’s do another session, but in a different way,’” says Musallam. “A different studio, a different time, a different place.” Perhaps inspired by Atzmon’s unique, amplified “electronic clarinet”, this time, Musallam broke out his electric guitar – a special signature model designed for Ibanez, with extra frets to voice the quarter tones distinct to Arabic music.
Dharmawan, meanwhile, switched to electronic keys, and star drummer Asaf Sirkis, formally a member of Atzmon’s trailblazing Orient House Ensemble for close to a decade, was brought in to offer a stronger percussive pulse.
Not everything went to plan, though, and the band would not meet again for 18 months. "There was a big [mess] up," says Atzmon. "Everything was last minute. We ended up playing cramped in a hut in the middle of nowhere, in horrendous weather. It was horrible. Kamal freaked out at a certain stage… we couldn't hear ourselves. Imagine – I came home and put the recordings on my system, and it was outstanding."
Having amassed close to six hours of music from the two dates, an album was proposed. Here, however, the first cracks began to appear within the band itself: while all agreed about the quality of what was captured, there was little such cohesion about which parts of the sprawling, improvised stew should be used.
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"We ended up with so much music, we were listening for many, many months to whittle it down to 60 minutes – and just throw the rest in the garbage," says Musallam. They eventually agreed to tracklist the five spontaneous lengthy jams alongside the Palestinian traditional Ramallah, Atzmon's Gaza Mon Amour – which also opens the Orient House's eighth LP The Whistle Blower, released last year – and a conspicuous, turned-on-its-head take of Duke Ellington's In a Sentimental Mood. But in the meantime, the proposed record company had gone bust, and when the band reconvened in summer this year for their first European tour, ahead of the album's eventual release on Enja, the cracks would deepen.
“It’s very difficult to manufacture the same experience again,” admits Atzmon. “We live in very different places, and are three very different people, and therefore it’s probably not an organic thing with a life of its own. A lot of the best bands are kids from the same neighbourhood that meet in their garage – this was not
Personality clashes were exacerbated by the polarising presence of Atzmon on European soil. Since fleeing his homeland in 1994, and denouncing his Israeli citizenship, the 54-year-old has led a second career as an outspoken anti-Zionist essayist and commentator, authoring such charged tracts as 2011's bestseller The Wandering Who? This vehement critique of Jewish identity, politics and culture has made Atzmon's concerts the target of boycotts, protests and lobbying.
"It was a very rough and heavy tour, physically and mentally, and we came out not wanting to do it anymore," recalls Musallam. "I said: 'Let's just let the music speak.' Dwiki is so soft, quiet and in his own world. Gilad is an army man, a fighter, a bulldozer. And I'm in the middle holding them together."
The stress buckled when a concert at one of the prominent European jazz festivals had to be cancelled due to external pressure. "We got paid for it, but it was heavy on the band – morally and viably," Atzmon explains. "You have to be strong to play with me, and know deep in your own heart that what I'm doing is a peaceful approach. I wasn't convinced we had this energy between us. All these [European] gigs were on my back, based on my reputation – I don't see myself doing that again," he adds.
"What the World Peace Trio taught me is really how important music is in my life," says Musallam. "When you're playing with someone who talks about sensitive issues, against big businesses that can threaten his life, and how by playing with him… you have a career and a life to run, you ask yourself: 'What am I doing? Why am I doing it?'
“The answer is, because you’re searching for that special thing – that magic of music,” he concludes.
World Peace Trio is out now; www.worldpeacetrio.net