A step beyond for Uriel Herman

Since making that life-defining decision, to listen to his inner voice and forge his own sonic path, Herman says he has been thrilled by infinite epiphanies.

URIEL HERMAN: My musical roots stem from Israel (photo credit: DANIEL ELIOR)
URIEL HERMAN: My musical roots stem from Israel
(photo credit: DANIEL ELIOR)
There are decent grounds for calling Uriel Herman the definitive Israeli jazz musician. While it is difficult, and even a little imprudent, to try to encapsulate an artist’s work with such seemingly crass labels, the 32-year-old pianist displays many of the attributes that have made this country such an exciting cultural powerhouse, particularly in the jazz domain.
Herman has just put out his third album, Face to Face, which he will showcase with his quartet at the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv on July 25 (doors open 8:30 p.m., show begins 10 p.m.). It is a wide-ranging effort which takes in many of the numerous sonic and stylistic threads that run through Herman’s evolving personal and professional fabric.
Anyone who has followed the meteoric spread of dozens of quality Israeli musicians across the global jazz scene over the last couple of decades or so will, no doubt, have gotten something of a handle on a general direction of contemporary jazzy offerings from this part of the world. There are some who term it – somewhat derisively – falafel jazz, but to describe Herman’s work as such would be more than a little disparaging. In general, the culinary epithet conveys the idea of a solidly lyrical approach, suffused with attractive departures and melodic and often groove-based endeavor, but without providing too much in the way of bona fide exploratory derring do.
Face to Face is shot through with sonorous intent, but it is apparent, at every twist and turn of the record, that Herman has plenty up his very able sleeves. For starters, he trained as a classical pianist, and besides his jazz core, he displays a lively interest in pop and rock music, and all kinds of ethnic musical material. All the above come through loud and clear on Herman’s latest release with, for example, his singular take on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” going practically every which way, harnessing the quirky textures of the komiz – a fretless string instrument that hails from Central Asia – to anchor the main thematic line. There is an abundance of rhythmic and melodic activity in the mix, with the players going off in multifarious directions, and weaving a complex fabric of sounds that, somehow, all manage to stay within touching distance, and dovetail with each other to produce a beguiling end result. His reading of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – complete with oud and tabla – from his Awake debut album is a similarly expansive stylistic escapade.
THAT JERUSALEM-BORN Herman comes from these parts is evident from the word go. And he makes no bones about his eclectic avenue of thought. “I think that, in general, any musician encapsulates all the music he loves and listens to,” he notes. “I think my music, in particular, comprises all the music and styles I have learned and explored, and all the musicians I have listened to. I think I now realize that the best way to progress with your musicianship is, simply, to listen and to play.” That sounds simple enough, and fair enough. “You may be listening to someone, like [piano titan] Bill Evans, getting really deeply into his music, and you examine his harmonic approach, then you will have Bill Evans in your ears and hands, and in your guts,” Herman continues. It is, he posits, basically just a matter of going with your current flow. “Then the music you write at that time, if you are honest with yourself and don’t try to do specific things, will be the result of the totality of all your influences. At the end of the day, it is you, it is not somebody else.”
As a kid, Herman made his way along diverse musical pathways. “At home, I heard a lot of classical music,” he recalls. “That was the first world that opened up to me.” When he got down to putting his burgeoning love into hands on practice, that was his first disciplinary port of call. Fortunately, he came under the guidance of two highly capable teachers who advocated keeping ones options as open as possible. “I studied classical piano and composition,” says Herman. “Michael Wolpe taught me at high school,” he adds, referencing the acclaimed conductor, pianist, composer and educator who spreads his rich talents across generous tracts of musical aspirations, nurturing a similarly unfettered mind-set in his charges. The school in question is IASA, the Israel Arts and Science Academy, in Jerusalem.
Herman’s other mentor was Israel Prize laureate Hungarian-born composer and ethnomusicologist Andre Hajdu, who died in 2016 at the age of 84. “I was really blessed,” Herman affirms, recounting the ample support he enjoyed from Wolpe on a challenging project he took on following a commission from Germany to create work for a classical ensemble and jazz band. “It was a pretty difficult thing to do, but Michael helped me so much, whenever I needed it, and refused to take any money for his work. I am just so grateful to him, and that I could learn from someone like Andre. I learned from Andre that music is a language. You have reading, writing and speech. You have to be able to read music, write music and speaking is improvisation. It is the spontaneous ability to communicate.”
Besides his formal training, Herman has learned a thing or two along the road that have left enduring imprints on his personal and musical nous and, naturally, inform the way in which he goes about his artistic business. “A few years ago, I was in Costa Rica and I went through a shamanic trip, with my dad,” he recalls. “I came back from that and my first album came out of that. The music just poured out of me. The title of the record, Awake, alludes to the experience I had in Costa Rica.”
HERMAN IS something of a rarity in that he has not paid his New York dues. Since the likes of bassists Avishai Cohen and Omer Avital, and trombonist Avi Lebovich, went to New York, in the early 1990s, to further their institutional and street level jazz education, hundreds of budding Israeli jazz musicians have pounded the Stateside beat. At some stage Herman considered enrolling at the prestigious New England Conservatory (NEC), in Boston, but eventually opted to stay here.
There is something to be said for staying close to your roots. Herman clearly feeds off all sorts of genres and cultural baggage but, at the end of the day, he is an Israeli who makes no apologies for using the Great Israeli Songbook as a springboard for some of his creative forays. Face to Face opens with “Hayoo Leilot” (There Were Nights), a classic Israeli song composed in the 1930s by Mordehai Zeira, and is probably best known for the rendition by late Yemenite-born diva Shoshana Damari. The number starts out with a seductive rustic-sounding flute line, conjuring up the ambiance of the pioneering days of pre-state Palestine. That is followed by a rich tapestry of textures and lines of sonic attack, careening through western classical passages, mellifluous Middle Eastern fare and jazzy slots, interspersed by groovy riffs.
Herman follows his own heart through the wild and wonderful world of sound. He might have become a concert pianist but, over time, he realized he had to stay true to who and what he is, and to enjoy his music. “I played, for example, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20,” he says. “It’s one of the most beautiful works I know. There was a really good orchestra. But what I took away from the concert was the one note I didn’t play perfectly and not the ten thousand ones I play properly. That’s the crazy thing about classical music.” A more forgiving domain of practice was the order of the day. “As soon as I started playing my own music I didn’t care if I played exactly the right note. There aren’t any mistakes. Those are the most intriguing moments.”
Since making that life-defining decision, to listen to his inner voice and forge his own sonic path, Herman says he has been thrilled by infinite epiphanies. “A few years ago, we played at a club in San Francisco. It was a really intense tour and we played six sets over two nights.” There was an evolving crucible effect to the band’s output. “Each time, the third set was the most interesting, because suddenly there was no formal form, no set list. We just opened our hearts and ears, and listened. That’s when the magic happens.”
The foursome in question will also be on duty at the Abraham Hostel, with Avri Borochov on double bass and oud, Uriel Weinberger on various wind instruments and Haim Peskof on drums. With countless shared hours, on the road, on the bandstand and in recording studios, that most precious of on-the-fly fueling ingredients, friendship and empathy, should guide Herman et al, and the audience, through a thoroughly pleasurable and rewarding experience.
For more information and tickets: (03) 634-9200 and https://abrahamhostels.com/tel-aviv/he/