Niogi is living proof that packaging and marketing are not the be-all and end-all of getting the word out.
The Israeli jazz quartet is due to strut its stuff at the YMCA in Jerusalem on June 14 (11 a.m.) as part of this year’s Israel Festival. Not bad for a band that does not exactly have a bulging discography, or maintain a packed global circuit gig schedule.
Niogi – pronounced nee-oh-gee – comprises 25-year-old saxophonist and EWI (electronic wind instrument) player Omri Abramov, 47-year-old pianist-keyboard player Guy Shkolnik, bassist Shai Hazzan and drummer Utsi Zimring. Abramov and Shkolnik, who write all the band’s repertoire, first got together around three-and-ahalf years ago when the wind instrument player decided he needed to take his musical knowhow a step further.
“I went to Guy to learn about counterpoint,” recalls Abramov. “I was going to study music at the Hebrew University and I felt I needed to know more about the theory, to help me with my compositional skills.”
It was a creatively and personally harmonious encounter and the two immediately felt a comfortable musical bond. At the time Shkolnik primarily moved in classical music circles – he has a doctorate in musicology – but it was a pop number that really sealed the friendship and artistic synergy – Yoni Rechter’s “Shuv Hee Kan” (She’s Here Again), from the former Kaveret pianist- keyboard player’s 1979 debut release Hitkavnut.
“We both liked the song a lot,” says Shkolnik.
“That came up almost right from the start, and we clicked musically. We realized we came from the same place, in musical terms.”
The fact that Abramov and Shkolnik found a common language through “Shuv Hee Kan” is surprising, considering the generation gap between them, but much of Abramov’s early musical education came from someone nearer Shkolnik’s age.
“My dad used to play Hitkavnut in the car, and when I heard ‘Shuv Hee Kan’ I really liked it, and I asked him who it was by. Then I started listening to all Rechter’s stuff.”
Abramov’s interest in Rechter’s work eventually bore tangible fruit when his path crossed that of Shkolnik.
Another common thread in the Abramov- Shkolnik confluence is the fact that they both did their military service as members of the Israel Air Force band. Abramov says his time in the IAF troupe has stood him in good stead.
“We did all kinds of things – lots of pop-oriented stuff. I learned a lot about production, I did some arrangements, and I learned about performing on stage.”
Shkolnik says the latter attribute comes through strongly in Abramov’s work.
“He’s a real performer. That is an important added value for me, and for the band.”
To say that Niogi’s recorded offerings, to date, are sparse would be putting an overly fine point on it. Thus far, the band has not delivered a single album although, according to Shkolnik, their debut release is due out “before the end of the year.” You can hear half a dozen of the numbers that will eventually be available on CD on the Niogi website (www.niogi.com), and one is immediately put in mind of stellar guitarist Pat Metheny’s oeuvre by the richly layered atmospheric textures, and velvety tension of, for example, “Mercury Enters Virgo.”
It is here that the added Niogi factor comes to the fore. The band’s sonic output is a blend of acoustic instrumental endeavor and some cutting-edge technological embellishments. The intriguing element here is that, for example, Abramov achieves sounds that are highly reminiscent of Metheny’s guitar artistry, on the EWI.
Swirling tendrils of music emanate from his electronically-enhanced wind instrument, fed through a computer, resulting in something that sounds tantalizingly similar to, but not quite like, some of Metheny’s early work from the mid-1970s.
That early trio included bass guitarist Mark Egan and, more tellingly, Lyle Mays on piano and synthesizers. It is the latter role with which, naturally, Shkolnik identifies strongly.
“I don’t think Mays gets enough credit for his contribution to Metheny’s sound,” says the keyboardist. “It is very important to the sort of ‘sheets of sound’ effect the group produced.”
The digital-analog marriage is one of the most endearing attributes of Niogi.
Although much of the sonic end result is electronically produced the sense the listener gets is of an acoustic performance.
“We take an acoustic approach to digital music,” explains Shkolnik. “We pick up individual layers, for example, within the synthesizer sound.”
“I might hear something like a violin texture in what Guy is playing,” Abramov adds, “and I’ll feed off that and take it somewhere else on the EWI. The EWI offers so many possibilities.”
That go-with-the-flow approach is also an integral part of the way the band goes about its business. “We play music that we have composed, but there is always a strong improvisational element to what we do,” continues Abramov. “And Shai and Utsi fit in with that too. They have the same mindset as me and Guy. We work well as a unit.”
However they go about their business, Abramov, Shkolnik, Hazzan and Zimring are clearly doing something right. Accepted wisdom has it that, to get your word and sound out there onto the international festival circuit, you have to have an impressive calling card. That normally means having a CD to your name, so that festival artistic directors can give your product a spin or two while considering whether to invite you over for a gig. In the absence of any official discography to date, Niogi seem to have found a way to sidestep that particular problem.
“[Israel Festival artistic director] Yossi Tal Gan came to hear us play at the Yellow Submarine [in Jerusalem],” says Shkolnik. “He came to hear a couple of numbers and ended up staying for the whole show. That’s how we got onto the Israel Festival program.”
The band had similar luck in Germany.
“We sent the sort of CD we have, with the material we have recorded so far, to the artistic director of the Ingolstadter Jazztage Festival,” continues Shkolnik. “He told us he heard a couple of minutes of the music and immediately decided to invite us over. That was a great experience.”
That happened last November, and there was an earlier sortie to a jazz festival in Myanmar.
“We love what we do,” says Abramov, “and I think that comes out in the music.”
For tickets and more information: *6226, (02) 623-7000 and israel-festival.org/English