Itai Kriss has been feeding off musical sensibilities from foreign climes for quite a few years now.
The 36-year-old Israeli jazz flutist discovered a liking for Latin sounds and rhythms at an early age and has been churning out heady numbers for a decade and a half or so, since he relocated to New York. Kriss is currently on a brief jaunt over here and has lined up a bunch of gigs for his week or so in the Mediterranean winter sun.
Tomorrow, patrons of this year’s winter version of the Red Sea Jazz Festival can catch his nimble fingerwork at a show at the Royal Garden Hotel in Eilat, when he performs with compatriot fellow New York resident accordionist Uri Sharlin and the DogCat Ensemble.
Kriss will also strut his seasoned stuff at a slew of concerts in and around Tel Aviv, including three gigs at Beit Ha’amudim near the Carmel Market, with double bass player Inbar Paz, drummer Dan Aran and his own quartet (February 15, 18 and 20, respectively), and a February 18 date with Sharlin at Ha’ezor.
The Red Sea Jazz Festival blurb describes the Eilat show repertoire as “Jazz spiced up with Balkan, Brazilian and Arab scents.” Kriss says that Latin attraction notwithstanding, he has always kept a tight hold on his homebased grooves.
“I have a new project called Telavana,” he notes. “That’s music from the Middle East and also Latin music. I hope to make a record of that material soon. We all have different roots – from the West and the East.”
Kriss’s own roots spread far and wide. He first got a handle on Latin sounds as a teenager, and it was love at first listen.
“I got into Latin stuff when I was in high school – the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts – in the late 1990s. It was a record by [New York-born Puerto Rica-rooted percussionist] Ray Barretto. It was really great,” recalls the flutist. “It really blew me away.”
That was that for the youngster, and it didn’t take long for him to put his money where his newfound love was.
“Someone asked me to a join a Cuban music band, but I told him I didn’t know anything about Cuban music,” says Kriss.
But he clearly wasn’t going to get out of the gig that easily.
“He told me that it didn’t matter, as long as I knew how to improvise.”
And so it came to be, and Kriss enjoyed a fruitful berth with the band before relocating Stateside in 2002.
That apprenticeship in Israel stood the then 21-year-old Kriss in good stead and eventually helped him make ends meet.
“It was hard to find work in New York to begin with, but I asked to sit in with all sorts of Latin band there,” he recalls. “You have to really know your stuff to play with Latin music guys, and they asked me if I played well. I told them I did. You have to have a lot of self-confidence to go for something like that.”
Or Israeli chutzpa, perhaps.
“Yes, you have to have chutzpa, which I obviously had,” he laughs.
Kriss proved to be up to the task.
“It really worked,” he says.
“After a few sit-ins, they began to hire me for gigs. I got a weekly gig at an Asian restaurant with Puerto Rican musicians. It was like going to school for me. I learned at street level. I have been part of the Latin scene in New York ever since.”
He has yet to make it to the homeland of the music he loves so much but hopes to do so in the near future.
“I have been planning to visit Cuba for some time, but for one reason or another it hasn’t happened yet. It’s easier now since Obama opened up the door to Cuba. I’ve got so many friends there, but there are enough Cubans in New York to play with for now,” he says.
Like many an Israeli kid, Kriss started out on recorder; but unlike many an Israeli kid, he didn’t drop it after a while but kept going. In fact, he looked to try his hand at a more serious wind instrument. But first he had to overcome some physiological logistics.
“I wanted to play flute, but the teacher said my fingers weren’t long enough and that I should come back after a year, after I had grown a bit,” he recounts.
Frustrated and disappointed, the youngster duly kept going on recorder, and a year later he finally got to place fingers and mouth on his instrumental object of desire.
Growing up with a guitarplaying dad, who now sings and plays drums in a rock band when he’s not at the office, in an outfit called Midlife Crisis, Kriss imbibed a healthy dose of 1960s pop and rock music.
“I played classical music on flute, and blues with my father,” he says. “He taught me blues numbers and rock and roll, without notes, by ear. I think that was good training. I also sang in a choir. I had a really good musical education.”
Dad’s LPs also helped to fill in any musical gaps.
“I listened to lots of Beatles stuff and jazz musicians like Count Basie,” he adds.
That was later enhanced by a fruitful tutelage with Americanborn jazz saxophonist and educator Arnie Lawrence.
“Arnie taught me so much,” says Kriss. “I played with him at all sorts of places, including at a club in Ramala [pre-second intifada].”
Kriss was on a trip to America as a member of a group of Jewish and Arab musicians Lawrence took to the late lamented annual IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education) gathering, which took place in January 2002 at Long Beach, California, when he opted to stay in the US and try his luck on the New York jazz scene. And he has been there ever since.
In the interim, he has appeared at jazz clubs and festivals all over the world and released his album The Shark in 2010. He also contributed to several numbers on a CD by the Migrant Workers quintet, which comprises four Israelis and an Australian.
“Nick Hempton, the saxophonist, is Australian but he is really an honorary Israeli,” Kriss jokes. “We each wrote a couple of numbers for the album, so it is a mix of all sorts of things.”
That sort of sums up what Kriss is about.For more information about Itai Kriss’s concerts: http://redseajazz.co.il/; 052-222-2657 (Beit Ha’amudim); 054-446-7240 (Ha’ezor)