From the onset, it is quite apparent that For The Ghosts Within will enjoy a view far outside the musical box. It should come as no surprise, since British vocalist Robert Wyatt and Israeli saxophonist Gilad Atzmon live in rarified sonic space, blurring the barriers of perception and acceptance. Therefore, it is impossible to classify their temperamental collaborative project with violinist Ros Stephen, as it transitions from despondence to reflection, from melancholy to mawkish romanticism. Musically, the project is schizophrenic, leapfrogging from ragtime to traditional jazz while honoring the Canterbury stylings for which Wyatt is known. All told, For The Ghosts Within is an acquired taste that survives on artistic merit and dangerously toes the line between instability and dejection. Still, this album is suited for easy listening at moderate volume, as its chilling sounds merge to create a quirky, offbeat opus that could survive in 1920 or 2010.
Wyatt, Atzmon and Stephen came to this eclectic project from divergent paths. Wyatt’s musical journey began in the mid-1960s as a drummer for the Wilde Flowers and as co-creator of The Soft Machine, which fused jazz with psychedelic rock. Atzmon, whose music flirts with Middle Eastern themes, is more political than his peers, having written several columns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Stephen is relatively new to music, leading the Sigamos String Quartet, which had a heavy presence throughout For The Ghosts Within. Given their respective pedigrees, one would understand if the trio struggled for unity on this ambitious project. However, the beauty of Ghosts resides within the artists’ celebral approach to cohesion. “Where Are They Now?,” for instance, allows each musician to shine in the spotlight, as the soundtrack swells from the spirit of Scott Joplin to modern dance electronica. But while Wyatt, Atzmon and Stephen are indulgent, they still take time to honor music pioneers through altered versions of “Round Midnight” (Thelonious Monk) and “In A Sentimental Mood” (Duke Ellington).
Wyatt, Atzmon and Stephen have grand aspirations on For The Ghosts Within, as evidenced by its vast melodic production. On one hand, the enormity of said soundtrack can be appreciated by those with a palate for the peculiar, while others might yearn for a more streamlined recording. I was refreshed by the artists’ stubborn ambition, especially since too many albums nowadays can be too safe and disposal upon first listen. That is not the case with Ghosts, as a quick dissection does the project very little justice. Instead, the album is best served when listeners have time to peel this intriguing onion and examine its layers. There’s plenty to explore.