Back to bass basics

Omer Avital is comfortable playing jazz in all corners of the globe, but he draws his real inspiration from Israel’s mixed music scene.

July 7, 2013 21:39
4 minute read.
Jazz bass player Omer Avital.

jazz bass player Omer Avital 370. (photo credit: Roberto Cifarelli)

Omer Avital has got his feet planted firmly on terra firma. At the age of 41, the Israeli-veteran New York-resident jazz bass player has been in the game a long time, long enough to know where he is going creatively or, at the very least, how to keep on looking for his personal and musical truth.

Avital performs at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv this evening alongside trumpeter Avishai Cohen, saxophonist Joel Frahm, pianist Yonatan Avishai and drummer Daniel Freedman. In fact, all five have clocked up plenty of stage and studio time together and that comfort zone, no doubt, will be palpable at the Ramat Hahayal venue later today (doors open 8:15 a.m., show starts 10 p.m.).

The concert repertoire will be based on material from a new release featuring the aforementioned five, which is due out after the summer, as well as numbers from Avital’s last CD to date, Suite of the East, which came out on Anzic Records last year, with four-fifths of this evening’s quintet. Avishai has since replaced fellow Israeli pianist Omer Klein, although Avital and Avishai are both members of the popular Third World Live band, as are Cohen and Freedman.

Avital has Moroccan-Yemenite roots and feeds off an eclectic cultural and music substratum. His expansive discography to date incorporates mainstream jazz, offthe- cuff live recordings and offerings that incorporate generous helpings of Middle Eastern sounds and textures.

The latter musical domain has featured front and center in much of Avital’s output in recent years, including Suite of the East, the forthcoming release and Avital’s work with The New Jerusalem Orchestra. The ensemble fuses music from Jewish communities across the globe, and the bass player acts as one of its two artistic directors, as well as writing and arranging much of the material.

Avital says he tends to go back to basics, regardless of the genre. “I came up with traditional jazz, and I still play that today,” he notes. “I love listening to and feeding off swing and the blues, and all the things I heard when I was younger.”

Jazz educators frequently talk about the need for their students to find their own voice, to bring their personality and cultural baggage to the fore after learning the ropes and imbibing the work of the discipline’s giants of yesteryear. Avital feels that, for him, that objective has been ever-present since the word go. “There were references to the things I listened to when I was a kid in my first CDs, but I keep on growing and learning, and bringing more things to what I do.”

Avital relocated to New York in 1992, along with two other of our most successful jazz artists – bass player Avishai Cohen and trombonist Avi Lebovich. For almost any budding jazz musicians worth his or her salt the Big Apple is a natural magnet.

Kim Smith, a leading PR professional on the New York jazz scene, once noted that the young Israeli jazz musicians who move to the States appear to be fired by an intense desire to learn and to further their art. That was certainly true of Avital when he left these shores two decades ago. “I got straight into the thick of things,” he recalls. “I played as often and with as many great artists as I could.”

He certainly went for broke, and secured sideman berths with such jazz titans as drummer Roy Haynes – now 87 and still going strong – cornet and trumpet player Nat Adderley, saxophonist Johnny Griffin and drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played with Miles Davis in the 1950s, as well as his contemporaries like pianist Jason Lindner.

Lindner and Avital found plenty of common ground and soon became mainstays of the underground scene at the Smalls jazz club in Greenwich Village. The venue provided Avital with fertile breeding ground for creative muse, and he says he got a lot more from the place than just rewarding stage time. “We’d play there and we’d use the backrooms for jamming and rehearsing,” he says of the club’s original premises. “It was a bit seedy but there was this fantastic ambiance about it. All sorts of people, including poets from the ‘60s, used to hang out there. It was great to be part of that.”

After over a decade mixing it Stateside Avital felt the need enrich his musical education and to reconnect with his cultural roots. “I came back to Israel, to Jerusalem, for three and a half years, to learn composition and to learn to play the oud,” he explains. “I studied Andalusian music and classical music. I got back to my origins and also honed some of the skills and knowhow that I already had. I never lost touch of my roots but I think the general picture become a bit clearer after that.”

The incipient CD is an extension of that back-tobasics ethos. “You know you keep on digging into who you are. They call it ‘cleaning the mirror’ and seeing who you really are in your reflection. What I do is a mixture, a sort of balance, of all these things that rub through me.”

Avital is only here for a few days before he pops over to France for a gig, but he will be around these parts through the summer, and will play alongside trumpeter Cohen and American drummer Jeff Ballard at this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat on August 18 and 19.

There is also a The New Jerusalem Orchestra concert at Safra Square next to the Municipality of Jerusalem scheduled for September.

For tickets and more information about this evening’s concert: *9080 and

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