Against all odds

For a man who was told by doctors he’d never play music again, jazz guitarist Lior Yekutieli puts on a powerful performance.

Guitarist Lior Yekutieli has experienced quite a few personal and musical epiphanies in his three decade-plus career to date. The 46-year-old musician, who will perform in the Felicja Blumenthal Festival on April 12 (Tel Aviv Museum, 8 p.m.), started out as something of a wunderkind in the classical world, making several appearances on Israeli TV and performing with top ensembles up and down the country.
But then he had a change of heart and musical direction. “I was brought up on classical music – my mother loved Bach.
Apparently, when I was four years old I was out walking with my grandfather and someone asked me my name and I said ‘Bach,’” recalls Yekutieli. “But when I was a teenager I suddenly felt I’d had enough of playing classical music.
It all became much of a muchness.
I’d played all the works there were, and I took it for granted that I appeared on TV and performed with all the orchestras and ensembles around. For me it became like working for the Israel Electric Corporation. It was a comfortable job with good conditions that wasn’t going anywhere.”
Yekutieli struck out in a jazz direction and, during his army service he played in various IDF bands. “There were all sorts of people who played jazz or jazzoriented stuff in the bands,” he notes, “including quite a few musicians with whom I play today.
Aryeh Wolnitz, who plays bass with me on the Felicja Blumenthal gig, was also one of the people I performed with in the army.”
After he got out of khaki, Yekutieli headed Stateside to study.
New York was his first port of call, but he didn’t last long there. “The weather was cold, and it was expensive to live in New York, so I moved to a music school in Los Angeles.”
That, too, was almost a brief encounter. “After two weeks I realized I’d made a mistake in terms of the education I could get there, and I decided to go back to New York; but they begged me to stay and said they’d give me a 50 percent discount on the tuition fees. There were also some really good musicians around in LA, like [fusion-blues guitarist] Scott Henderson.”
At the time, Henderson played with iconic keyboardist Joe Zawinul, but he told Yekutieli he wanted to focus on his own music and that he’d like to play with the Israeli. But Henderson’s separation process from Zawinul dragged on, and Yekutieli got another offer. “I met a fusion drummer from Switzerland called Marc Halbheer, and he said he’d get some gigs lined up there.”
Yekutieli promptly left the school in LA and relocated to Europe, where he spent the next three years playing fusion with Halbheer and Greek bassist Yiotis Kiourtsoglou as the Exit Trio band and with practically every jazz outfit around in Switzerland at the time.
But once again, meteorology got in the way of creative endeavor.
“Three long cold winters in Switzerland were enough for me,” says Yekutieli, “so I came back to Israel.”
He returned to a challenging breadwinning reality and quickly found himself backing all sorts of pop and rock singers to make ends meet. “It was nice to begin with.
You go to a club, have a beer, play with the singer and go home.”
One of the singers Yekutieli worked with over a five-year period was soft rocker Rami Kleinstein. “Rami is a good guy and he plays nice music, but I couldn’t express myself with him. I felt like I was in a pantomime. I was drinking too much, and I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. I realized quite a few years ago that I had to focus on what I really love, and eat less.”
Yekutieli was back in the creative fold when disaster struck. “In 2001 I started feeling some pain in my left hand, and I thought that I could get through it by practicing and playing even more. But eventually the condition deteriorated, so I had it checked out. Four different specialists told me I needed to have an operation.
When they operated, they didn’t find anything out the ordinary. The surgery was completely unnecessary. After I’d read up a bit on my type of hand problem, I decided to ask a neurologist. He told me I had a recognized problem called focal dystonia, and he advised me to change my profession, as I wouldn’t be able to play the guitar anymore.”
Yekutieli and his hand recovered against all the odds. “I was 36 years old when that happened. I started playing guitar when I was nine, so that had been my identity all my life. I knew I wanted to be a professional guitarist when I was 10.” For five years Yekutieli made ends meet by writing music, until his hand started to make a recovery and he returned to playing.
“After that, I said I would only play music that really meant something to me, whatever the price – financial or otherwise – and that’s what I have been doing ever since.”
The results of Yekutieli’s roller coaster ride will be evident at his Tel Aviv Museum concert, with Wolnitz and drummer Gilad Dovretzki, this Tuesday.
For tickets and more information on the Felicja Blumenthal Festival, call: 1-700-555-114 or (03) 607- 7020 or go to or