Let’s talk about sax!

Having performed with bands of different genres such as Balkan Beat Box and Oy Division, Israeli saxophonist Eyal Talmudi has always had diverse influences at play.

musician Eyal Talmudi (left) seen here with drummer Roy Chen (photo credit: Guy Prives)
musician Eyal Talmudi (left) seen here with drummer Roy Chen
(photo credit: Guy Prives)
Acouple of months back Israeli jazz musicians occupied center stage at one of the genre’s most prestigious annual events, the Jazzahead international showcase held in April in Bremen, Germany. Each year the first evening of the event’s four-day program is dominated by acts from that year’s designated partner country. This year it was Israel and, it must be said, our boys and girls did us proud.
One of the most striking Israeli contributions came from no-nonsense saxophonist Eyal Talmudi, who was partnered by drummer Roy Chen for the Malox duo’s spot. Talmudi, who also plays with gypsy funk/electronica outfit Balkan Beat Box, took the stage by storm. Talmudi literally blew the audience away with a ferocious performance on his slightly pockmarked tenor saxophone as, notwithstanding the almost feral output, he and Chen wended their way along fetching melodic paths with unremitting intent. We met at the conference center, the day after his gig, at the generously proportioned Israeli jazz stand.
In fact, Talmudi started out in a very different area of musical endeavor. “I began with classical music,” he recalls. “The instrument I play today is the first saxophone I got, at the age of 12. You’re talking about a piece of history here. This is a really old instrument. It dates back to somewhere between 1935 and 1940.”
Mind you, not the entire horn is a blast from the past. “The mouthpiece is modern,” explains Talmudi. “I like the combination and the very bright sound of the mouthpiece and the dark feel you get from the body.”
That oxymoronic ethos informs all of Talmudi’s sonic expression. “There is the expansive sound, and there is warmth and intimacy too,” he notes. “That’s what I like in general.”
Talmudi had a helping hand, and role model, right from the start, in the shape of older brother Asaf, a musicologist who plays accordion and piano. They have both done time with high-energy band Oy Division, and Talmudi says his older sibling was a guiding light in his very early years.
“We used to listen to jazz together – guys like [saxophonist] Dexter Gordon – but I quickly got turned on to the artists who came up with a sort of coarser, rougher sound – people like [maverick reedman] Roland Kirk. A lot of the wilder side of what I do comes from Kirk, and there are people like [high-powered saxophonist] David Murray, and later [iconic avant garde saxophonist John] Coltrane. All these guys, and anyone else whom I could cite as an influence, they all came from the honkers.”
Talmudi certainly did his fair share of honking on the Halle 2 stage at Jazzahead, and the audience lapped it up with gusto.
He added some more color, and some very different textures, on a couple of numbers on which he played bagpipes.
Interestingly, Talmudi does not reference the founding generation of modern jazz, bebop. There is, betwixt all the in-the-face stuff, an underlying sense of an older form of expression. “I am definitely informed by swing,” he declares. “I don’t know, maybe it has something to do with being lazy, but I never got into learning all those bebop phrases. I learned the idiom but I like the wilder side of it all. I don’t fit in with the bebop scene. I got to jam sessions, and they were all doing bebop. I’m too far out for them.”
Talmudi says he prefers to ply his craft in left field. “I don’t really like all the Israeli jazz scene, you know the side that, at least to me, is a bit sort of nouveau riche. There’s jazz and swing, and that’s all very nice, and there are some amazing things being done which I can’t match up in terms of dexterity and technique, but I think you’ve got to push the boat out a bit further.”
Talmudi cites an iconic Israeli artist whom most people would not generally associate with jazz endeavor. “I did something with music by Meir Ariel. I took material from [Ariel’s 1995 album] Rishumei Pecham [Charcoal Sketches] and we took it to a different place. We called it Rishumei Pecham Betzeva [Charcoal Sketches in Color].” The project was called Avoda Ivrit, (Hebrew Labor), with Talmudi producing cover versions of the tracks on Rishumei Pecham, by the likes of rocker Beri Saharoff, crooner Shlomi Shaban and Oy Division.
“Meir Ariel was a genius, and I think Rishumei Pecham was the pinnacle of his work,” says Talmudi. “I was obsessive about the record for many years and, when I reached a certain level of musicianship, I decided to get all sorts of musicians and open the thing up to new directions. That’s what I like to do.”
Talmudi evidently likes to spread things about a bit. His performance in Bremen was very different from the Ariel-based project, and Oy Division is yet another outlet for his widely roaming mind and soul. The Malox twosome provides Talmudi with an accommodating vehicle for doing his own thing.
“It feeds off jazz and punk and rock, and all sorts of things, and it will always be an outsider sort of thing,” he notes.
The duo normally features drummer Hagai Fershtman, alongside Talmudi’s horn and pipe efforts, although Fershtman was otherwise engaged while Jazzahead was in progress. The two met up while there were in New York, and hit it off straightaway. “We booked one day of recording time at a studio in Brooklyn, did a couple of takes and raced through the set,” he recalls. “That became our first album.” The CD is, considering the brevity of their studio time, fittingly entitled One Day.
Ever since, Talmudi and Fershtman have been spinning out their stuff, and following their muse wherever it takes them. “In live shows, the music can start in one place and develops into something else completely,” says Talmudi. “That’s fine. That’s what I like. You’ve got to keep it fresh.”
For more information about Malox: malox.bandcamp.com