At face value

Jazz pianist’s Uriel Herman’s ‘Face to Face’ album is a seamless blend of David Bowie, Mordechai Zeira and pure, unadulterated Uriel.

URIEL HERMAN: My musical roots stem from Israel (photo credit: DANIEL ELIOR)
URIEL HERMAN: My musical roots stem from Israel
(photo credit: DANIEL ELIOR)
Four years ago, classically-trained pianist Uriel Herman woke up in a brave new world of instrumentals and improvisation. His debut album Awake proved a refreshing addition to the Israeli jazz scene, and even snuck its way onto Haaretz’s top 20 list. Fresh off back-to-back tours, The Jerusalem Post asked Herman about his latest album, his classical roots and how radio stations feel about his 10-minute jazz rhapsodies.
How have you matured through this second album?
I believe every album is a sketch of where you are as an artist in the time that you’re making it; Face to Face reflects back on all the changes that have happened in my life over the past four years – musically speaking, and also in a personal way.
For example, I wrote my last album after a hard breakup. My life was upside down and I didn’t know what was going to happen. After releasing the album, I started touring and getting to know this world. I got some great offers because of the music in that album.
With this album it was the other way around. We’ve had a lot of invitations from different venues and international festivals these past few years. The music came out of that: the shows, the roads, life happening.
Were there any cultural flavors that you picked up while on tour? If so, have they made their way into your music?
Traveling and meeting new people, especially musicians, is essential to my creative process. For example, two years ago we met Diego Cigala [the famous flamenco singer] at the Nuits du Sud festival in France. We had a crazy night together. We drank, he sang for us, we played together. It ignited a fire inside me. You can hear some of that flamenco flavor in the last song of the album.
Why did you choose to release ‘Face to Face’ under a French label [Laborie Jazz]?
We visited France at least five times in 2018 and we plan to visit again soon. We get the power to keep on doing what we’re doing from our audience, which is really fun, but sometimes a little difficult. It helps to have a big Asian and European fan base.
With all of this international appeal, what prompted you to use Hebrew titles in the new album?
My language is Hebrew and my family and musical roots stem from Israel. Plus, ‘Shva Esre’ works much better when people don’t realize it means ‘17’ in Hebrew. I’ve had a few shows in Israel recently after not playing here for a while, and I must say, it’s been nice speaking Hebrew onstage.
Language aside, it feels as if each of the album’s tracks tells a complete story. Can you pinpoint any overarching narratives?
Coming from a classical background, I tend to think in terms of form. For each song, there is always something that I want to tell or a line that I want to show. My challenge lies in improvising within the form. Also, three of the album’s arrangements have continuity because they belong to the Israeli composer Mordechai Zeira. Since Zeira didn’t write sheet music, I took his simple melodies to faraway places in my arrangements, making them my own.
Based on its name, would you call ‘Face to Face’ confrontational?
For me, this album was all about meetings: my meeting with Zeira’s music, with Bowie, with my wife [in ‘Ballad for Yael’], with the quartet members. It’s also about meeting new music. When you’re meeting something new for the first time, it makes you curious. You want to dive deeper. So this album, in many ways, is about meeting yourself, meeting other music, and seeing what comes from this merge.
Do you find it harder to break free from constraints as a classical musician turned jazz?
Even when I was a classical pianist, I found it hard not to improvise. I owe this to my composition teacher, who I also dedicated this album to: Prof. Andre Hajdu. I’ve been studying with him since the age of 14. He saw music as a language. He’d say, ‘You cannot only read. Classical musicians know how to read. Composers know how to write. But you also need to know how to talk. And to talk is the spontaneous world of improvisation.’
He had this project that we worked on called The Book of Challenges, where there were some written parts and others that you needed to fill in. So for me, the switch wasn’t too hard. But to improvise with a quartet and find my way in the jazz world is something I’m still working on. Something I hope to improve upon every day until my last day on Earth.
There is some rock influence in the new album as well, right? Can you shed light on your decision to include a David Bowie cover in the track list?
I take it you’re referring to ‘The Man who Sold the World.’ I grew up on this music – Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors – and I still love it. Rock & roll is my passion, the old stuff at least. It’s part of me. And this is what’s fun about living in the now. My top three artists can be Hendrix, Coltrane and Mozart.
Any local projects on the horizon?
Always. We have a really fun show coming up in Jerusalem that deals with the story of Hagar, Sarah’s slave. It’s a strong Biblical story that we’re trying to tell in a different way – through a woman’s perspective, a more feminist perspective. I’ve worked a lot with female poets in the past.
I asked myself: ‘How can we tell a larger, more global story?’ Then my wife, Yael, and I decided to collaborate. She’s an actress.
We sat on the story with another friend named Yonatan Blumenfeld. He’s a director and one of the best slam poets in Israel currently. We came up with this idea to tell this story through poetic monologues that he would write as well as new compositions by Arabic and Israeli poets that I could recompose. This is going to be the fourth time that we’re taking on a project of this nature. I’m very excited.
Uriel Herman performs at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem on Tuesday, February 19. ‘Face to Face’ is available on multiple listening platforms, including