Jazz musician Omer Avital .
(photo credit: DAN BALILTY)
Omer Avital is the most genial of characters. With his mop of curly hair and boyish well-rounded, almost cherubic, face, you can’t help but be enchanted by him as he strums and plucks at his double bass or his oud, emanating a sense of unadulterated bonhomie and joie de vivre to his bandmates and members of the audience alike.
Over the past few years there has also been a strong infectious element to the longtime New York-resident Israeli jazz musician’s musical output, which could be described as something along the lines of “Middle Eastern groove.” That is a strong element of his discography as leader, which now takes in 11 releases over the past 17 years, as well as in much of the remainder of his evolving oeuvre of more than 30 other albums in which he served as co-leader or sideman.
But Avital’s newest album, Qantar, appears to be something of a throwback to more traditional, mainstream jazz climes as will, no doubt, be evident at his upcoming mini-tour here, taking in gigs at the Herzliya, Tel Aviv and Haifa branches of the Zappa Club on May 2, 4 and 5, respectively.
Perhaps Avital’s change of stylistic tack – or reversion to roots – is down to the greater sense of artistic freedom he now enjoys following the creation of his own label, Zamzama Records. When he spoke, he was about to embark on the European leg of the current tour but was also getting ready for the official label launch.
“I’m soaking chickpeas to make some hummus for the opening of the studio,” he noted with a laugh. “This [Qantar] is the first record on the label. Having your own studio makes things so much simpler. I can bring out all my own music. And I have loads of titles that belong to me which I can now bring out. It gives me complete independence,” he said.
In fact, the bass man (Avital also does a mean turn on oud but is primarily known as an acoustic bass player) has been merrily doing his own thing for more than 25 years. His various lines of musical expression over the years have included leading-partner roles in such successful outfits as Third World Love and Yemen Blues, collaborations with stellar bass man Avishai Cohen, the 3 Cohen siblings – saxophonists Anat and Yuval and trumpeter Avishai – and serving as musical director of the Mediterranean-oriented New Jerusalem Orchestra.
Now he has put together a quintet, which Avital feels is the perfect vehicle for conveying his musical thoughts. The group has been around for a couple of years, and there is a strong simpatico feel to the troupe on both the personal and artistic levels. That is helped by the fact that all five members are Israelis and all live in Brooklyn. The lineup takes in saxophonists Asaf Yuria and Alexander Levin, pianist Eden Ladin and drummer Ofri Nehemia, all of whom will be on stage here with Avital.
After enjoying so many wonderful synergies with numerous illustrious artists, at the “grand old age” of 46 Avital now finds himself in the role of the elder.
“Apparently, that’s what happens in life,” he chuckled. “Some of these musicians grew up on my music, and now we’re playing together. They say things like ‘When I was 11, I put your record on.’ It’s a different kind of feeling for me. It’s very exciting for me to play with them. It’s a new generation. They drew from my generation, but it all connects so well. We’re taking things forward together.”
Age discrepancies notwithstanding the bass man-record label owner says they all gel in just the right way, and they all have their shoulders to the communal wheel.
“This is a band,” he noted in seemingly self-explanatory manner. “This is the first time I have that band feeling since, maybe, Third World Love. It’s my quintet, but at the same time it’s a band. Everyone is involved in the creative process.”
You can hear that clearly on Qantar. Avital may be the senior and most experienced member of the troupe, and it may be his label, but this is clearly a cooperative affair, with everyone getting a chance to have his say.
The Middle Eastern seasoning (besides being born here, Avital has Moroccan and Yemenite roots) comes out most pungently in a track called “Lamina,” but there are subtle local references elsewhere as well. But over all, this is a more mainstream jazz project.
“I think one of the special things about this band is that we are not searching for our Middle Eastern or African character or something like that.” Avital said he has moved on. “There were times when I lived in Ein Kerem [in Jerusalem when he was on a four-year furlough here to study composition] when that’s all I did. I also played groove and tried to play music like a European. In the last few years, with this band it is just about playing music. Something Eastern may come out, but with this band we have a much more acoustic approach. But jazz is the ocean with all flow to.”
For Avital, it’s not a matter of trying to marry all his many influences – inborn or acquired – in a cohesive pattern.
“I’m not a fusion guy. At the end of the day, it’s all down to swing and the blues and how we’re flowing together and how uplifting it is,” he said.
Prepare to be uplifted.
Omer Avital will perform on May 2, 4 and 5, respectively, at the Zappa Club in Herzliya, Tel Aviv and Haifa (doors open 8:15 p.m., shows start at 10 p.m.). For tickets and more information: call *9080 or go to http://www.zappa-club.co.il.
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