A blessing in disguise

Daniel Zamir joins forces with Yonatan Razel for an evening of spiritual improvisation

DANIEL ZAMIR: ‘Amen’ started a revolution in Israeli music because it exposed many people to jazz who had never heard it before (photo credit: MARKO YONA)
DANIEL ZAMIR: ‘Amen’ started a revolution in Israeli music because it exposed many people to jazz who had never heard it before
(photo credit: MARKO YONA)
An insistent Israeli man. A short matkot serve. Idle chatter. A reading suggestion.
These are the events that led a very secular Daniel Zamir down the spiritual path to becoming the father of Jewish jazz.
The revolutionary saxophonist spent his youth orbiting bebop legends such as John Coltrane, who donned undeniable spiritual compasses, yet Zamir had never thought to associate that revered spirituality with religion.
“I honestly had no idea that Judaism had anything to do with such a thing,” Zamir claims. “From what I knew, Judaism was nothing more than a bunch of codes and laws dictating what to do and what not to do.”
Completely dissociated from his Jewish roots, Zamir, upon acceptance to the New School of Music in New York, fled Israel without looking back. Thus began his spiritual quest into just about every other religion.
“Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Lutheranism, you name it!”
The proud Chabadnik never dreamed Judaism would provide him with any clarity. That is, until he met a wise Israeli man on the beach in Tel Aviv who insisted they play matkot.
Reluctant at first, Zamir eventually gave in. After a few rallies, when the two bent over to retrieve a fallen ball, the wise man gleamed into his eyes, found a portal into his spiritual soul, and then suggested two books – Mishlei (Proverbs) and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) – which would become vital to Zamir’s search.
Soon after, he continued his deep search in New York, while playing Jewish weddings on the side (which completely increased his impression that Judaism had nothing to do with spirituality, he adds). Zamir happened to mention the unusual matkot exchange to his bandmate, who was working at a Jewish book publisher at the time and lent him the two books.
Zamir recalls, “I started to read the Mishlei on the subway and in the bathroom. Then I moved onto the Kohelet. I was shocked to find that they were dealing with the meaning of life. I was certain that I was misinterpreting something, so I reread them in English, just to make sure.”
As the budding jazz musician continued to compose melodies that he once categorized as “world music” or “ethnic music,” with the help of dear friend and co-musician John Zorn, Zamir realized that he had in fact been composing Jewish music all this time.
Phasing into Chabad alongside acclaimed Jewish American rapper Matisyahu, the unthinkable happened. The Israeli expat suddenly got an itch to return to the Holy Land. It was an irksome itch that could not be ignored – quickly spreading across his entire body and soul, thereby slingshotting him back to Israel in 2006 to record his pivotal jazz album, Amen.
“The album started a revolution in Israeli music because it exposed many people to jazz who had never heard it before,” Zamir testifies.
“The amazing thing about the Israeli audience, compared to European or American audiences, is that while they are sometimes less familiar with world music, they’re thirsty to listen. They’re eager to experience and learn new things. [Amen] was a new thing.”
Ironically, as its name hints, Amen was a blessing in disguise – especially seeing as Zamir had his mind set on releasing an electronic album under a pseudonym, perhaps under the influence of best friend Matthew Miller (Matisyahu) in more ways than one. He agreed to the jazz album only in order to “get it over with” before moving onto his electronic vision.
However, Amen’s ridiculous success changed everything: big shows, sold-out venues, collaborations with mainstream artists, and a proud badge to sport on his continued spiritual journey.
Thirteen years later, the father of Jewish jazz continues to invest in unique musical pairings, like his upcoming duo performance with American-Israeli composer Yonatan Razel at the Second Winter Festival taking place inside the Charles Bronfman Auditorium this January – barely five minutes inland from the beach that changed his life.
“[Razel] comes from a classical background, but as a mainstream artist, he’s also very into jazz and improvisation,” Zamir explains.
The improvisation-heavy performance has a start, but no end: “We know the basic form of the songs we’ve chosen to play. They are our compositions, after all – half Yonatan’s, half mine. But then we dive headfirst into what the moment has to offer with no idea where we’ll end up.”
Will he be singing as well as playing the saxophone?
“I sing, I play, I dance, I laugh, I clean, I do laundry.”
Daniel Zamir performs with Yonatan Razel at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv on January 31 before an action-packed winter of jazz festivals, touring and an anticipated album release.