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As ridiculous and pretentious as it may sound, it's almost as if New York was just waiting for Omer Avital to come back.
But what could the epicenter of the jazz world possibly need from an Israeli double bass player that it couldn't get from any of the other hundreds of local jazz musicians that ply their craft in bars, basement joints and restaurants across the city every night of the week? Judging by the rave response of critics and public alike to Avital's latest release, the seemingly cheekily entitled Asking No Permission, the answer is "plenty".
Givatayim-born Avital, 35, who is in Israel to play four shows with a trio including young Jerusalemite pianist Omri Mor and American drummer Daniel Freedman, first made it to New York as a wet-behind-the-ears aspiring musician fresh out of a one year stint in an IDF band. His first port of call in the Big Apple was the New School's jazz faculty where he studied with, among others, saxophonist Arnie Lawrence. Five years later Lawrence came on aliya and did much to galvanize the jazz community in Jerusalem and elsewhere around the country.
Avital's formal musical education began at the age of 11, when he entered the Givatayim Conservatory to study classical guitar. It was shortly after he enrolled at the Thelma Yalin High School for the Arts that his interest veered towards jazz. "I started trying to improvise on guitar," Avital recalls when we met at a cafe' on Tel Aviv Beach. "My teachers didn't like that at all, but that was the way I wanted to go."
Avital stuck to his free-wheeling bent, switched to the acoustic bass, and soon became the leader of the school's jazz ensemble for which he wrote all the arrangements. During his last year at the school he began playing professionally in various jazz, pop and folk bands, and made appearances on TV, radio and at jazz festivals.
By the time Avital had paid his dues in the army band New York was beckoning hard and he landed at JFK on the same day as two other starry-eyed Israeli jazz e'migre's - fellow bassman Avishai Cohen and trombonist Avi Lebovich. All three completed their studies, grafted hard to keep body and soul together, combining manual labor daytime jobs with nighttime gigging, and eventually secured a respected berth in the global jazz fraternity.
As Avital's reputation grew he landed coveted sideman slots with leading jazz artists the likes of saxophonist Antonio Hart, cornet player Nat Adderley, drummer Jimmy Cobb and rising stellar pianist Brad Mehldau. But it was when he became a regular at the Smalls jazz venue that he really found a home for his music. In fact, Asking No Permission does not contain new material - it is a recording of a live performance at Smalls from 1996 - but it does offer some indication of where Avital is at, and of his artistic credo.
Avital has no doubt at all about his place in the evolutionary jazz continuum. "We - jazz musicians of my generation - are now the torchbearers," he declares. "The older guys, people like [evergreen octogenarian drummer] Roy Haynes, showed us the way and now we have to take jazz further." Avital is certainly doing that and, as the new CD and his previous 2 recordings show, he has a lot to offer. Asking No Permission is a multi-hued offering of envelope-pushing free-oriented jazz but with plenty of swing, blues and more than a dash or two of Middle Eastern coloring. More than anything, however, it is evident that Avital has highly polished compositional skills. "My time at the Rubin Academy [in Jerusalem] helped me to develop my understanding of classical music, and my writing," the bassman adds. "I also grew up with classical music, and Arabic music. My parents are Moroccan and Yemenite, so I have those eastern roots."
Avital's stint at the Rubin Academy - during a three-year hiatus from New York before returning there last summer - also provided Avital with a breather from the frenetic pace of the Big Apple. "It was great being back in Israel for a while because it allowed me to slow the pace down - it can be crazy in New York."
Now he's back where the real jazz action is and accumulating kudos by the bucketload. There is, however, one thing missing from his life in the States. "I miss the humous here," says Avital. "You can get humous in New York, but it just isn't the same thing." With that we concluded the interview and retired to the Abu Hassan restaurant in Yaffo for some humous-based mesabaha.
The Omer Avital Trio will perform at Hagadah Hasmalit in Tel Aviv on February 28 at 9:30 p.m., Hamartef 10 in Haifa on March 3 at 9:30 p.m., Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine on March 4 at 9:30 p.m. and at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv on March 7 at 9 p.m.
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