Speaking the same language

For Israeli saxophonist Uri Gurvich, it was a dream come true to have artists from five different countries perform with him.

uri gurvich370 (photo credit: Simon Yu)
uri gurvich370
(photo credit: Simon Yu)
Considering the numerous musical and cultural strands that inherently run through the genre, Babel isn’t a bad name for a jazz title.
Which is quite neat for Uri Gurvich, because that is the name of the 30-something New York-resident Israeli jazz saxophonist’s impending sophomore release on the Tzadik label.
In fact, the album title came from more immediate quarters.
“The people who play on the CD come from five different countries, explains Gurvich when we sit down to coffee a few hours before his gig at Avi Chai in Jerusalem recently.
“The others are from Cuba, Argentina and Bulgaria, and the guest artist who plays oud and percussion is from Morocco,” he says.
The said sidemen, in order of nationality, are drummer Francisco Mela, pianist-keyboardist Leonardo Genovese, bass player Peter Slavov and Brahim Fribgane.
Gurvich wrote all the tracks on the CD, except for a Ladino song, called “The Golden Ladder,” which he arranged. The band leader says the new album was created within comfortable professional confines.
“I have been playing with most of the others for quite some time, and the guest artist came in because I was looking to take a slightly more world music angle,” Gurvich adds.
The material was tried and tested before the band members holed up in the recording studio.
“I wrote the music with these guys in mind, and we performed the numbers live before we recorded the CD,” he explains, adding that the original scores evolved before the final product was put together. “I wrote the music over the last two years, and it changed over time.”
Gurvich hails from Kfar Saba, and he began his musical education at high school when he was given an alto saxophone to learn on. It remains his main instrument.
He quickly got into his improvisational stride.
“I got turned on to jazz almost from the start,” he recalls, “primarily through [veteran saxophonist, teacher and head of the Rimon School of Jazz & Contemporary Music] Amikam Kimmelman. There were also a bunch of us who sort of played jazz together. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but it was fun.”
At the time, it was all about good old mainstream modern jazz. “We listened to records by people like [saxophonists] Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt, and [trumpeter] Miles Davis. I really wasn’t into anything avant garde, or fusion-oriented. That wasn’t my thing at all.”
Gurvich continued to hone his playing skills, although not exactly in the jazz sphere, during his army service.
“I served in the Air Force orchestra for three years and then I went to Berklee [College of Music in Boston]. Joe Lovano was one of my teachers there and we are still in touch. He is one of my inspirations.” 60- year-old Lovano is, today, one of the jazz world’s preeminent saxophonists.
The Tzadik record company, owned by Jewish New Yorker avant garde multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer John Zorn, takes a largely Jewish perspective on new music. Gurvich’s debut release, The Storyteller, came out on Tzadik in 2009.
“I wasn’t into Jewish music or Israeli music when I was at Berklee,” he notes. “While I was in Boston I was into modern jazz only.” It was after his studies, when he relocated to the Big Apple, that he began to delve into his own cultural roots.
“I started getting into Jewish and Israeli music after I moved to New York,” he says. “While I was at Berklee it was all about the studies, but when I moved to New York I started wondering about where I was going musically.”
The Smalls jazz club in Greenwich Village has been a magnet for many aspiring Israeli jazz musicians over the years, but Gurvich says he was not drawn to it.
“I was looking to find my own original voice, which I didn’t think I would do at Smalls,” he explains. “I don’t know if I have found it yet. That’s always been my aim and Smalls did not fit in with that ambition.”
It wasn’t long before Gurvich realized that his “original voice” partly comes from this part of the world.
“I began playing the material for The Storyteller before I met Zorn,” he says, adding that it was something akin to absence making his heart grow fond. “You know sometimes you have to distance yourself from something or somewhere to get close to it. If I’d stayed in Israel, that might not have happened.”
Gurvich says he was not drawn to just the Jewish side of the Middle Eastern musical domain. ”I started listening to Arabic music too. You know, Coltrane did that many years ago. But, there’s nothing new about that. Jazz musicians have always dug into folklore.”
Then again, folklore is a very expansive cultural world. “We each have our own personal folklore,” observes Gurvich. “My folklore, for example, is different from someone who was born in New York.”
That realization was a formative stage in Gurvich’s artistic growth. “I felt I had to play what came naturally to me, and that is the stuff you can hear on The Storyteller and what you’ll hear on Babel.”
The saxophonist says his cohorts on the new release all went through the same learning process. “We all have a similar story of searching for our roots, within the jazz. You’ll hear Cuban stuff and Argentinean things on Babel, and Bulgarian and Arabic colors and rhythms. We have that common denominator of looking to express ourselves through what we have learned and the baggage we bring with us from our individual backgrounds and upbringing. That, I think, is the way to find you own voice.”
Gurvich will start to showcase the new CD at concerts in the United States and Europe over the coming months, with a prestigious slot at the fabled Village Vanguard jazz venue in New York arranged in May.
He’s also got a stellar guest artist roster lien up.
“That’s a great gig to have, and I’ll have all sorts of people like [trumpeter] Dave Douglas, and Zorn playing there. I’m happy about that.
Hopefully, Gurvich will be bringing his Babel band to this part of the world in the summer too.