There are those who believe that the regimented world of classical music and the improvisational ethos of jazz are of the cheese-and-chalk pairing variety. Uriel Herman begs to differ, and he will demonstrate his viewpoint in no uncertain manner when he performs at the winter version of the Red Sea Jazz Festival, which will take place February 6-8.
Until not too long ago, the 26-year-old pianist was a fullfledged member of the classical domain. He studied piano and composition at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance of the Hebrew University, the latter under the tutelage of acclaimed Hungarian-born composer and ethnomusicologist Andre Hajdu.
In fact, Herman has always tended to look for new avenues of inspiration and exploration.
His concert repertoire includes jazz-infused covers of material by the likes of rock groups Radiohead and Nirvana, and he says he has had at least one eye on non-classical areas ever since he can remember.
“I am influenced by lots of styles,” he says. “That includes music I have studied and music I have heard, and I really like rock bands,” he adds.
That penchant for diversification was nurtured by Hajdu at the academy.
“Even when I was a classical pianist and studied classical composition, I was always interested in improvisation, the free parts, the areas where you have freedom. I worked with Prof. Hajdu on a project called Sefer Ha’etgarim (The Book of Challenges), which contains works that are semiopen, whereby the instrumentalist becomes a composer on the stage. The works are only partly written.
Some only have the tempo defined, and others only have various instructions about how to approach the music.”
That sounds suspiciously like a description of jazz.
“Yes, that’s exactly it,” Herman concurs. “It is about entrusting the player to perform the music and to bring spontaneity to the performance.”
Five years ago, Herman released the first fruits of his non-classical labors in the form of a CD based on poems written by Rachel, called Hatzaei Tzevaim, Hatzaei Kolot (Halfcolors, Half-sounds), on which he collaborated with jazz bass player Ehud Etun.
“That introduced me to what classical artists call ‘light music’ or the music of today,” notes the pianist. “There were all sorts of singers on the album, and [international ethnic percussionist] Zohar Fresco was in it. That really led me to leaving the classical stage.”
Herman needed a more direct and vital connection with his listeners.
“I feel there is something more alive and communicative about jazz and improvised music,” he explains, although he adds that classical music is still very much a part of his artistic ethos. “I bring that classical background with me to everything I do. First and foremost, I bring my classical compositional skills to my work, even to, say, [Nirvana song] ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The way I arranged that was very classical. There is form to it. There is a certain degree of polyphony, and there is a classical structure to it. In jazz, you have the standard, with an open section that is repeated. With me, more of the arrangements are based on written scores. At the end of the day. my fingers produce what they have learned.”
Herman notes that, in fact, classical music and the individual approach to performing music are not that far apart.
“Up to around 100 years ago, the delineation between composers and performers was far less clearly defined than it is today.
Composers were generally excellent pianists and very good at improvising. Chopin and Liszt, for example, were excellent performers, too,” he says.
Later, things began to become more compartmentalized.
“These days, because everyone has to be so good at what they do, you get this categorization of composers and instrumentalists, and musicians can’t be good at two things. To my mind, that’s a bit absurd. Music is really a language, and everything in it is interconnected. So the fact that communication through written scores and communication through playing have been separated seems absurd. For me, it is all part and parcel of the same thing,” he says.
Herman takes the issue even further and notes that composers sometimes allowed themselves more freedom with their compositions than other instrumentalists entrusted with performing the composers’ works.
“It is interesting, for example, to hear Rachmaninoff playing his own works [on piano] because he adhered far less to the text he’d written,” he says.
That might have been because as the creator of the work, the composer could take liberties with the score.
“That’s true,” concurs Herman, “but I think that also says something about how Rachmaninoff related to his work and to the creative process.
There is something so alive and dynamic about his work. For me, that is the beauty of performing music. When I play Mozart, I don’t change the notes but I invest a lot of thought in how to play the notes. It is all about speech and communication. Music is the art of time, which takes place in the here and now. If it does not live when it is being played, no one will like what they are hearing.”
For Herman, producing art has to involve leaps of faith.
“There is this thing today in the classical world where everybody has to be at the top of their game, and that makes them wary of taking risks; and there is the risk that the music will not come out well. For me, it is all about taking risks. That is the place I want to be on the stage, when I have absolutely no idea how a piece is going to pan out. That’s where the music is most alive,” he asserts.
For his Eilat gig, Herman will join forces with double bass player Avri Borochov, woodwind player Uriel Weinberger, cellist Leat Sabbah and drummer Matan Assayag. The quintet will play numbers from Herman’s upcoming new release, Awake, as well as jazzy renditions of rock material with added classical seasoning.
Elsewhere on the Red Sea Jazz Festival roster there is an abundance of world music-oriented shows. such as 70-year-old guitarist Larry Coryell, who will team up with five flamencooriented musicians; a classical and ethnically inclined contribution by the Leszek Mozdzer Trio, which features the Polish leader on piano; Swedish jazz bassist Lars Danielsson; and stellar Israeli ethnic percussionist Zohar Fresco. Tango fans should enjoy the show by the Buenos Aires-based Escalandrum sextet fronted by drummer Daniel “Pipi” Piazzolla, the grandson of tango-jazz fusion composer Astor Piazzolla. And promising Ethiopian jazz pianist Samuel Yirga will bring a quartet over here.
On the home front, internationally renowned Israeli pianist Anat Fort with team up with veteran guitarist and oud player Amos Hoffman, and New York-based saxophonist Uri Gurvich will present his highly personal mix of jazz, Yemenite music and sounds from Eastern Europe and North Africa.
For tickets and more information: www.eventim.co.il/; *9991; www.ortaltour.co.il; and www.redseajazzeilat.com.