Traveling between worlds

Is our man in Australia Yitzhak Yedid more of a contemporary classical composer or jazz musician?

Yitzhak Yedid (photo credit: .)
Yitzhak Yedid
(photo credit: .)
Yitzhak Yedid has come a long way in the last few years – actually, “gone” a long way might be more to the point. It is hard to think of many artists more rooted in the traditions and spirit of this part of the world but, in fact, the 38-year-old, Jerusalem-born composer-pianist has been a resident of Australia for the last three years.
Geographical distance notwithstanding, Yedid has maintained a strong bond with this country after his relocation. He visits and performs here several times a year and, in the process, garnered the prestigious Landau Award for the Performing Arts in 2008. Two years earlier, Yedid won the Prime Minister’s Award for Composition.
Yedid is currently here to oversee performances of, and play in, a number of self-penned works. Last Monday his Images, Fantasies and Dances composition was performed at the Jerusalem Theater, by the Sapir Quartet, as part of the Voice of Music’s live Etnahta radio series. This was followed by the world premiere of his Trio for Arabic Violin, by the Yedid Trio with Yedid behind the piano, Sami Heshibun on violin and longtime collaborator Ora Boasson-Horev on double bass. On the morrow his new Sensations work was premiered at Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine venue by the Atar Piano Trio, in a program that also included works by Ravel, Gershwin, Claude Bolling and Israeli composer Yan Freidelin.
Yedid feeds off an eclectic range of cultural and energetic sources. As the son of parents of Iraqi and Syrian origin, in his formative years he imbibed a heady cultural and musical mix that takes in Eastern Jewish liturgical music, European classical music, jazz and – naturally enough – Third Stream intent. He attended the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (JAMD), where he studied with three very different teachers – Russian-born pianist Slava Ganelin, American-born reedman Stephen Horenstein and Tunisian-born, French-raised bassist Jean Claude Jones. He also spent a year in the hallowed halls of New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, feeding off the pearls of wisdom proffered by acclaimed artists-teachers, such as noted jazz pianists Ran Blake and Paul Bley.
One could say that Yedid has never looked back, and has always followed his own muse regardless of the price. “I left NEC after a year, even though I had enjoyed it and had done very well,” Yedid recalls. “I even recorded with Paul Bley, and I was aware at the time that that was a rare privilege. That was a formative experience for me and helped me get a better understanding of the essence of improvisation. Paul Bley and Ran Blake gave me a lot of encouragement and helped me on my way to where I am today. But, somehow, after a year there I felt I’d found my own voice and that I could do my own thing, that I wasn’t going to sound like anyone else, so I came back to Israel after that first year in Boston.”
That strength of purpose and self-belief have been permanent features of the Yedid ethos ever since.
Yedid says he got a helpful start to his musical life. “My parents are very musical. My father sings the whole time, even in his sleep! Once we thought of recording him.” Yedid’s parents were also intent on ensuring their four children gained some formal musical education. “They didn’t think about any of us becoming a professional musician, but they thought it would be good for us, and they put a lot into it.”
Yedid was the only one to make music his daytime job which, he says, was something of a surprise. “I think I was the least talented, as a child, of all the siblings. But I stuck to it, and I stayed with same piano teacher from the age of eight to the age of 18. I can’t say we always got on, but I became quite serious about music then.”
The turning point in the then classically oriented young Yedid’s musical outlook was inadvertently provided by his sister’s boyfriend. “He was a jazz pianist and one day, he played [Duke Ellington standard] ‘Sophisticated Lady’ on our piano. I thought: ‘Wow! That’s what I want to play.’ I realized then I wanted to play jazz.”
TYPICALLY, ONCE Yedid discovered the world of jazz, he dived headlong into its eclectic and intoxicating waters. “I bought albums by Charlie Parker and the other jazz pioneers, and I spent as much time as I could trying out tunes on the piano. When I had whole days off from the army, and after completing my service, I’d often practice from eight in the morning until six in the evening. But I think lots of artists go through those stages when they discover something new and exciting.”
This followed a furlough in Yedid’s artistic development. “At school my classmates always asked me to play something for them, but when I joined the army I lost interest and stopped playing for a while.” Even so, he had already tried his hand at jazzy explorations and that resurfaced with the impromptu rendition of “Sophisticated Lady” by his sister’s beau.
“I didn’t like the strictness of my classical piano lessons. That was very different from the freer home environment in which we’d been brought up. So I started to improvise.” That was when Yedid took his first steps toward his own niche in the world of music.
After completing his military service, as an aircraft technician, he briefly thought of combining practicalities with art, by studying architecture and enrolling at JAMD. As it turned out, Yedid may have not have designed and built too many buildings, but he has put together a career of impressive proportions.
There are probably plenty of music aficionados who would contest Yedid’s association with jazz, who would claim that he is more a contemporary classical composer and artist, albeit with lots of influences interwoven into his oeuvre. Still, he certainly got a good grounding in the genre and incorporates a generous amount of improvisation in his compositions. In and around the years of his formal education, the early to mid-1990s, he paid his jazz dues playing at almost every venue in Jerusalem and elsewhere, in a variety of lineups.
This was at a time when jazz was far less widespread here than today, and prior to the arrival here of late saxophonist-teacher Arnie Lawrence. When Lawrence moved here from New York in the late ’90s, he galvanized the local scene and kick started the budding careers of many young artists who currently ply their craft here and in the US, such as pianist Omri Mor, saxophonist Shauli Einav and drummer Yoni Halevy – the latter is probably best known as a member of the highly popular cross-genre nonet The Apples.
Yedid recalls being suitably impressed with Lawrence. “We were playing a gig at a place on Rehov Hanevi’im [in Jerusalem] when Arnie walked in with his saxophone and blew everybody away. He brought the vibe of genuine American jazz with him.”
However, Yedid was destined to follow a diverse musical path. Even as a student at JAMD, he sometimes crossed artistic swords with the powers-that-be there, but he still stuck out the full four-year term of the program. “I believed in what I was trying to do. That started with me after I finished the army and I still have that today. I stand firmly behind everything I do.”
THAT ATTITUDE has stood him in good stead. He has performed at festivals and given recitals in North America, Europe – including a fruitful synergy with celebrated Austrian composer-trumpeter Franz Koglmann – and Asia as well as in his adopted home Down Under. He also has a dozen CDs to his name, incorporating an extensive palette of genres, subgenres, textures, colors and cultural motifs.
His work can be demanding and challenging, and often requires the listener to sit up and take notice. When Yedid performs, he conveys a palpable sense of heightened intensity. That may sound a bit much for the casual listener, but possibly Yedid’s greatest gift is his ability to tell a story through his music.
His Myth of the Cave trio composition, for example, which he recorded with Boasson-Horev and Canadian reedman Francois Houle in 2002 for German label Between the Lines, is a five-part suite based on the allegory of the cave written by Plato. The Greek philosopher’s work highlights values of good and evil, and reality and illusion, and Myth of the Cave depicts the seeming dichotomy graphically. That strong imagery also came through loud and clear at Monday’s Etnahta concert, as Yedid and his trio ran a wide swathe of Western and Eastern classical and ethnic motifs and inflections as the score ebbed and flowed through a wealth of expansive polytonalities.
Yedid’s visual approach to music has evolved and been fine-tuned over the years. “I compose in musical images,” he declares. “It’s a bit like with movies. Almost always, in music, people want to hear some kind of link – maybe just a chord – between the different sections. In my music I move between sections without any musical link at all, like cutting to a different scene in a movie.”
Myth of the Cave also provided Yedid with an opportunity to nurture another specialized compositional vehicle. “It was then that I started to write for specific musicians, for their strengths and their character. I wasn’t just writing a part for any old clarinet player, I was writing for a specific clarinetist, so it was important for me to know where his strengths lay. I still do that today. I have to get to know the musician in question before I write for him or her.”
If you’re going to push musical envelopes, you might find yourself having to lend your audience a helping hand to understand what it is you are trying to do. Yedid has been aware of that for some time. “That’s why we started the Swedish Chef [club in Jerusalem around eight years ago],” he explains. “I wanted to devise a Jerusalem-Israeli style or stream of music that comes from here, based on pure artistic considerations and not designed just for entertainment purposes. I won’t tell anyone how to write or how to play, but I will tell them what their purpose in playing is. And I wanted to challenge the audiences, and get them to work a bit. The great thing is that it succeeded. That was very gratifying.”
Yedid says his second outing for Between the Lines, Passions and Prayers, represented an artistic leap forward for him. “I dedicated that album to Jerusalem. It was during that terrible depressing time of terror attacks in the second intifada. When I worked on Passions and Prayers I felt I had progressed from being just a pianist to being a genuine artist and composer.”
Paradoxically, as his compositional career progressed, Yedid found himself being drawn back to his homegrown roots, to the liturgy he had heard at home and when he accompanied his father to synagogue. “When I was a kid, I didn’t relate to piyutim as music, it was just something we sang. Music, for me, was something you wrote, played and researched. But I started bringing liturgy into my own music, and I still do that today.”
Yedid currently lives in Brisbane and has held teaching posts there and in Perth, besides performing in concert halls and for local radio stations, since he relocated to the southern hemisphere. The more relaxed lifestyle in Australia allows Yedid more time for his musical pursuits and for writing. “I am becoming busier as a composer than as a performing artist. In last year’s Harp Competition in Israel, 30 different musicians played one of my works, ‘Out to Infinity.’”
Physical distances also have their benefits. “Today, I write music fromthe perspective of someone who lives far away [from Israel], but thefeelings and love and emotions remain unchanged.”
Wherever he ison the globe, it seems that Yedid is his own man, and his own artist.“A lot of people in the classical world don’t accept me as one of them,and a lot of jazz artists don’t look at me as a jazz musician orcomposer, but that doesn’t bother me at all. Ran Blake called mestubborn. Maybe I am, but I like where I am today.”