Sliding into home bass

Omer Avital is comfortable playing jazz in New York, but he draws his real inspiration from Israel's mixed music scene.

omer avital 88 248 (photo credit: Haim Yafim)
omer avital 88 248
(photo credit: Haim Yafim)
Critics call him a poet of the bass, and he is considered by international musicians and fans as one of the most innovative and exceptional musicians of his generation. Meet Israeli-American jazz musician Omer Avital. Raised in a Tel Aviv suburb and with parents from Yemen and Morocco, 38-year-old Avital is trying to reconcile musical influences from both the Middle East and the West in his music. It's a mix that seems to be working well. His performances in New York, where he now lives, are booked up quickly and it's not uncommon for clubs to turn patrons away for lack of space. He has played with some of America's greatest contemporary jazz musicians including Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Roy Haynes and Brad Mehldau. Critics call him a virtuoso as well as a creative force. Sitting at the East West House in Jaffa - a performance venue for Israeli world music - and sipping strong Turkish coffee, roasted and bought from an Arab shop nearby, the virtuoso double bassist says he feels his roots in his blood. Even though Israel is perceived as a western country, it's very much eastern too, and Avital relates to that. "I feel very Middle Eastern in my soul," he tells ISRAEL21c. Avital got into music at an early age. "The first thing I played was classical guitar. I had a guitar at home and that's it. That was the serious thing to do, and eventually I got into jazz, but it wasn't that popular then," he explains. He moved to New York after leaving the army, and began playing, writing, recording and jamming in his own band and as a soloist. He often played at the legendary Smalls jazz club in Greenwich Village. By 1995, Avital had formed The Omer Avital Group. It quickly became one of New York's most acclaimed young jazz bands. "Expressive, powerful and well-informed, the sextet doesn't have a weak link," said a New York Times review. Then the record label Impulse! - the same one that carried John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Count Basie - folded just after signing him on. At that point Avital decided to stop pushing the traditional jazz cart uphill and to look in a new direction. He returned to Israel in 2002 to recharge his batteries, which turned him onto something entirely new. HE LOOKED back at where he came from, where his parents came from, and in Israel soaked up regional and religious influences. It had a profound influence on his work. "In Israel there is a mixture like klezmer or Moroccan Andalusia classical music - Muslim music with a twist," he says. "Yemenite music is Arabic music with their twist. I am also going back to the roots of Torah and piyutim [Jewish liturgical music] and tracing back to traditions that are here. "I like culture and people - it's best to develop what we have so that it doesn't become flat," he says. "I see myself mainly as a composer, and I divide my time between studying Arabic and North African music and composing for different ensembles," Avital says. He favors working with "Israelis and Middle eastern people into jazz and who have foot in the Middle East," he says. In 2005, he decided to bring these influences back to New York, where he now lives with his wife and new baby son. Avital sees American jazz as something he slips into easily, like a glove. "I think of it as world music itself: It's African, American, British, French... it's the perfect format to express myself," he explains. And it's in New York that Avital feels embraced. "Anybody can make themselves into anything," he says. People are looking at "what you have to offer" rather than judging you from where you come from. This summer, Avital will be in Israel to treat local audiences to a home-grown project he's been cooking with veteran Israeli musician Yisrael Borochov. The Debka Fantasy is a reinterpretation of the first genre of Israeli music, composed by new immigrants to Israel in the 1920s. The immigrants were influenced by the music of Beduin people living in the region. Over the years, people tried taking these songs to develop them into something new and it didn't quite work. "It's an Arabic song so why does it sound like American funk, and why isn't it funky?" says Avital. "We took it to a level of serious of music... Debka is Arabic and is very open to interpretation. It's also very Israeli."