Off the scales

Saxophonist Eyal Hai, already a student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, has been selected for the school’s new Global Jazz Institute.

February 7, 2010 11:20
Israeli saxophonist Eyal Shmuel Hai.

Israeli saxophonist Eyal Shmuel Hai. (photo credit: PR)


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It’s the equivalent of an aspiring attorney getting accepted to Harvard Law School. For most young jazz musicians, attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston is the pinnacle of their educational aspirations. What better credentials could there be to prepare for a career in music?

Apparently, there’s an 11 on the scale of 10 for Holon-bred saxophonist Eyal Hai. Earlier this month the school announced that Performance major Hai, along with 13 other Berklee students, had been selected as an inaugural member of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI), a new center at the college designed to foster creativity and musicianship through various musical disciplines.

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“The Institute is an all-inclusive contemporary music lab where students are given the opportunity to explore their creativity to the highest level possible,” the program’s managing director Marco Pignataro told The Jerusalem Post. “The BGJI is designed to help students with a broad range of musical interests and special musical talents achieve their artistic goals. The program focuses on teaching what a musician needs to know to succeed in the music industry as an artist, and is tailored to suit each student’s specific needs.”

World-renowned pianist Danilo Perez is artistic director of the institute, where, according to Pignataro, students can pursue their performance degree, and, at the same time, explore the social power of music as a tool for the betterment of society and connect musical creative thinking with environmental restoration.

“The program will provide interactive experiences in uncommon settings, such as the jungle or the forest, where music is used to promote interaction with indigenous cultures and is used to create awareness about the importance of the restoration of ecology,” said Perez in a statement.

Hai’s selection to the program was one more notch in a series of  highlights for the burgeoning jazz musician, who honed his skills as lead alto saxophonist for the IDF Orchestra. Following his army service, he  studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music before being accepted to Berklee last year.

“It’s really amazing, I get a chance to work with some great artists,” Hai said during a phone conversation from Boston last week, citing some of the noted Berklee faculty members who are tutoring the group, including Joe Lovano, Jamey Haddad, and artists-in-residence John Patitucci and Ben Street.


“They know you can do the basic stuff like play the right notes at the right time. They work with us more on expression and working as a group and really creating music. We get to spend time with them and talk about music and life.”

MUSIC HAS been part of Hai’s life since he was able to sit at a piano, which was his first instrument. By the time he was eight, he had switched to the sax.

“My older brother played guitar in high school, and when I told my mother I didn’t want to play the piano anymore, my brother piped in and said, ‘go ahead, play the sax, it’s cool.’ He was very supportive,” said Hai.

His parents, a father who’s an electrical engineer and expresses his artistic side through folk dancing, and a psychologist mother who also paints and sculpts, provided the right kind of environment to develop a musically adventurous son. And they didn’t even mind the noise back when Hai was still learning the rudiments of the sax.

“It wasn’t that hard, but it takes a while until you sound good,” he said.

Eventually Hai got very good, and fast-forwarding to Berklee, the sax player has taken to his musical environment like a fish to water, excelling in his studies and even founding his own jazz quintet. And helping him feel more comfortable has been the plethora of Israeli musicians studying with him.

“We do have kind of an Israeli community here and we hang out together. But, for sure, I have friends from all over,” said Hai. A look at his quintet’s makeup confirms that, with players including Israelis Ilan Bar-Lavi on guitar and Noam Wiesenberg on bass, and Americans Christian Lee on piano and Devin Drobka on drums.

“We just started last semester and started playing at some clubs around the Boston area and at school. It’s a lot of fun,” said Hai.

The affinity for Israeli musicians and jazz is well known, with many Israeli players ensconced in the US jazz scene, a fact which Hai said he has often pondered.

“Maybe Israelis excel in jazz because the jazz scene in Israel and the country itself are so small that it raises the level of performance. People have to be really good to stand out,” he said. “I don’t think Israelis practice more but they do tend to get more experience faster by playing more often. Also, Israelis tend to be more outgoing, which is really important in music.”

THAT LAST trait certainly didn’t hurt Hai when he applied for the Institute, which required performing at an audition, attending an interview, and submitting two recorded pieces. According to Pignataro, he acquitted himself just fine.

“Eyal presented an outstanding audition, demonstrating his remarkable creativity and a very personal approach to music,” he said. “During the interview he also demonstrated to be mature and intelligent; our program seeks young artists that are also mindful of their role in society and that are committed to make a positive change. Eyal stands out not only as a very talented musician, but also as a person who cares for others and who wants to influence his environment and create change.”

In order to nurture that element of their musical development, the Institute, in addition to the classroom time, also features a number of extracurricular activities such as BGJI jam sessions, trips to jazz festivals and various environmental and social service activities.

“They’ve been given this great musical talent. We’ll teach that, as artists, they are responsible to positively affect their communities,” explained Pignataro. That includes giving back to the community by working with children, teaching music locally, through Berklee’s City Music program, and in other cities during Institute performance trips, all in order to develop the skills needed to become role models for a new generation of musicians.

A recent trip to Panama was an eye-opener for Hai. “We had an amazing experience there. We performed a few shows and gave clinics to young musicians. There’s a lot of talented kids there and they’re hungry for knowledge,” he said.

Hai’s own thirst for musical knowledge has already opened plenty doors for him and paved the way for a successful career as a musician. While he considers himself first and foremost an Israeli, he said that the winds of opportunity in the jazz world may keep him across the ocean for the foreseeable future.

“I’m not sure yet what my plans are,” he said, “but I think I’m going to stick around the US for a while.”  Which means we’ll likely be hearing a lot more from Eyal Hai.

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