05/08 8:30 PM & 10:30pm - $25.00
Among the many talented Israeli musicians who have appeared on the world jazz scene in recent years, Omer Avital stands out from the rest. He is not part of this wave but rather one of those who initiated it. Omer Avital is a pioneer.
In 1992, when he arrived in New York with a head full of dreams and the lure of swing music gnawing at his belly, he was one of the first Israeli musicians to try his luck in the homeland of jazz. He arrived along with two other instrumentalists who would play a key role in the emergence of Israel on the world map of jazz – the trombonist Avi Lebovich and the bass player Avishai Cohen (the legend, almost too good to be true, of the three of them setting foot on American soil on the same day, turns out to be fact). In New York, Avital did more than just absorb the sounds of his idols – these giants who would soon leave the scene but who could still easily be heard playing live. At the time, there was a growing movement of regeneration in jazz, and Avital set himself apart as one of its key protagonists. Smalls Jazz Club, where forgotten veterans of bop rubbed shoulders with future stars of the genre, was the home of this rebirth, and in the mid-1990s the club saw the emergence of artists such as Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner. A regular at Smalls from the beginning, Omer Avital was the leader of one of the most important groups of the time, a sextet with four saxophones butwithout piano, an ensemble with a workshop feel which performed weekly late into the night, fed by an insatiable appetite for composition – one foot in tradition, the other in experimentation.
It was at Smalls that Omer Avital made his reputation as the Israeli Mingus, through his ability to blend influences and colors, through the power of his bass playing, his way of exhorting soloists to give their best, and through his inspirational compositions with their developed forms and evocative atmosphere. Far from home, Omer Avital adopted jazz – and jazz also adopted Omer Avital, to the extent where, at the heart of the New York jazz scene, he established lasting connections with many of today’s influential musicians (such as Mark Turner, Greg Tardy, Jason Lindner, Joel Frahm, Jimmy Green and Myron Walden) – whether they formed part of his ensemble or were involved in the musical adventures, both brief and long-lasting, which he initiated at the club. Among these was the Yes! Trio, with pianist Aaron Goldberg and drummer Ali Jackson.
New Song features a quintet which Omer Avital has led for many years, and which is a direct descendant of the ensemble with which Avital made a name for himself. However, this current group is imbued with the cultural heritage that the bass player took time exploring in the mid-2000s, when he returned to his homeland to reconnect with his ancestral roots – Yemenite on his mother’s side and Moroccan on his father’s. This Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jewish) heritage has long been mistrusted in Israeli society because of the links it maintains, out of necessity, with Arab culture. Avital studied its folk songs, dance rhythms and rituals, and these fed his imagination in the same way that blues, gospel and soul had fed his inspiration before them. The titles of his songs demonstrate how he now looks to the East as well as to New York, toward the West as much as toward the Arab world, toward the solitude of the desert as much as the urban mêlée.
Duke Ellington led his orchestra in Caravan, Dizzy Gillespie spent a famous Night in Tunisia, and Yusef Lateef addressed a Prayer to the East. With Omer Avital, however, the integration of jazz with the musical traditions of the Arab world is more than just a convenient meeting. It is the fruit of the assimilation of two cultures, an assimilation so strong that New Song resonates with endless colors and rhythms, joyfully combining ritual music with Afro-American grooves, linking the phrasing of Eastern melodies with the fervor of gospel and the expressiveness of soul. From the trance of Gnawas to the funky warmth of the Jazz Messengers, Yemenite songs with the workshop spirit of Charles Mingus, his musicians are at one with him as they effortlessly and joyfully leap from one genre to another. Some share his dual culture – like the trumpeter Avishai Cohen, who sprinkles his playing with Lee Morgan-like accents, or pianist Yonathan Avishai, reminiscent of McCoy Tyner’s fascination with the East. Others have absorbed it over time – such as the soulful saxophonist Joel Frahm and the drummer Daniel Freedman, whose sticks act as musical hyphens linking previously incompatible rhythmic worlds.
For Omer Avital, jazz is a language of reconciliation which has allowed him, through a strange balance of demands and tolerance, to reconnect with his roots without falling into the anonymity of folklore, to take on the culture of his homeland without being forced to limit himself to it. Demands, because he knows, having learned his trade live on the stages of clubs rather than in conservatoires, that jazz does not let itself be carelessly fused with just any other style. Tolerance, because he knows that jazz is a language which allows all hybridizations so long as certain essential elements are preserved, and one into which music can be introduced that on the face of it has nothing to do with its tradition. As a true citizen of the global village, in New Song Omer Avital makes his homeland, and the contradictions within it, resonate with just one voice – his own – a voice which no-one could mistake for any other. His songs, new or old, speak to us as much of himself as of the world in which we live. And that is not the least of their virtues.