A playdate on Mount Scopus

Paris-based Israeli couple Naama Liany and Shauli Einav front a band mixing jazz, opera and the Israeli songbook.

Naama Liany (photo credit: ASSAF MATARASSO)
Naama Liany
(photo credit: ASSAF MATARASSO)
Fancy a bit of jazz? Not entirely your cup of tea? OK, would something with an operatic touch appeal to your musical taste buds? Or, possibly, a dip into the Israeli songbook? All that, and probably a little more, can be had at the Playdate concert in the auditorium of the Brigham Young University, in Jerusalem on January 17.
The variegated program of numbers will be presented by a Paris-based Israeli couple, opera singer Naama Liany and husband jazz saxophonist Shauli Einav, backed by a jazz quintet with Elad Gellert on baritone saxophone, Nitzan Gavrieli on piano, bassist Guy Levi and drummer Yonatan Rosen.
This will not be the pair’s first show together here. The previous professional Israeli jaunt featuring a program based on songs popularized by late Yemenite-born diva Shoshana Damari, at Beit Avi Chai, took place a couple of years ago. Liany and Einav also enjoyed a spot on Radio France a while back but, says the saxophonist, this week’s gig comes with some added individual value. “We compiled a sort of personal songbook, with works by composers we like,” Einav explains, adding that there is something of an incongruous element to the synergy, which, they believe, offers ancillary advantages. “Basically, we are very different. Naama sings traditional classical music, but she doesn’t try to do both [classical and jazz material]. I don’t try to do this and that either. So we had to look for a common thread, an interface that connects what we do.”
To achieve that they felt they needed to dig into the past of this still young country, and also to draw on the riches of the classical world, particularly the gray areas thereof. “First of all there are the canonic [Israeli] songs of the 1940s and 1950s, and a little from the 1960s,” Einav continues. “And there are also the classical composers who trod the line, like [Leonard] Bernstein and [George] Gershwin who wrote classical music but with a lot of jazzy coloring.”
The proof of the collaborative pie has already been put out there. “When we did this on Radio France, the performance elicited a really good response,” Liany observes. She feels that was down to an honest, uncompromising approach. “It worked well because each of us stuck to their way, and we still managed to find the common denominator between us. Shauli didn’t turn into a classical player, and I didn’t make myself into a jazz singer. There was a sort of shared magic there.”
Einav says “I wouldn’t think of asking Naama to sing swing, and she wouldn’t ask me to articulate like a classical instrumentalist. That simply wouldn’t be genuine.”
That is not just a matter of common courtesy. Keeping faith with a personal and creative credo can be pretty challenging for any artist who is not yet raking in the millions. There is a constant balancing act, as one looks to draw the patrons to the auditorium while stick to one’s take on the art form in question. Then again, there is no substitute for authenticity and, if the audience has really come to listen, in all likelihood they will get what the performer is on about, even if they have to work a bit to take it all on board. The same applies to artists who may be venturing out of their own comfort zone. “Good music is good music,” declares Liany. “That can offer you lots of new layers, and rhythms, to engage in. It can give you a lot of freedom, which comes from a different style, and which is very interesting. I don’t become a jazz singer, but I get a wider playing field to work with.”
The repertoire for Thursday’s expansive show embraces a seemingly disparate swathe of material, ranging from traditional Ladino song “Una Matic de Ruda,” which dates from the 12th century, to Leonard Bernstein’s playful Picola Serenata and his stirring “Somewhere” from West Side Story. Add to that anthemic Israeli song “Hasela Ha’adom” (The Red Rock) composed in the 1950s by Yohana Zarai, the equally iconic “Kalaniot” (Anemones), by Moshe Vilenski, dating from 1945 and popularized by Damari, Kurt Weill’s Latin-seasoned Youkali and a couple of Einav originals and you have yourself one eclectic playlist.
Most artists would go along with the idea that the sounds you imbibed in your formative years comprise the bedrock for your later creative pursuits, irrespective of the stylistic filters you apply. Einav notes that the couple’s natural disciplinary backdrop provides a solid substratum to build on. “I think Israeli songs work really well for us. If you take songs which you grew up with, it doesn’t matter if you perform them like classical material or jazz numbers, that just works better for you.”
“That feeds off your roots,” Liany adjoins. “Music is another language, a very fundamental one. Music is a kind of nonverbal language which is also very communicative.”
While Einav is largely responsible for the arrangements, for Thursday’s showing, he says it was very much a joint venture. “Naama told me what to do, and I just did it,” he laughs. “Seriously, Naama told me about the important areas for her, and what to highlight. I used all of that to create something interesting.” Some numbers required less attention than others. “There were songs I hardly needed to touch,” Einav continues. “Songs like ‘Somewhere.’ It’s such a beautiful song that you don’t really need to change anything in it. And there are other songs which I didn’t need to completely rearrange, but I had a lot more room for maneuver – like Ladino and Israeli songs.”
Einav maybe the one with his hand on the rescoring tiller, but Liany has some input on the final presentation too. “I do the arrangements and then I run them by Naama,” says Einav. “I get her feedback and see where to take the chart from there. For example, with the Ladino song, Naama told me she needs to have a clearly defined rhythm. Let’s say I gave clear beats but the harmony is very different from the original chart – a bit dissonant and jazzy – that works well for both us. Naama has no problem discerning the harmonies. So, there is freedom.”
That suits Liany down to the ground. “The 1930 and 1940s is a period which I have explored quite thoroughly,” she notes. “Of course I mainly focused on the classical works from that time, but it is also very interesting for me to see the different musical, jazzy aspects of that period.”
“Yes, composers like [Darius] Milhaud, who I discovered through Naama,” says Einav, referring to one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century whose large body of work features influences from jazz and Brazilian music, as well as polytonality.”
With such a broad palette of influences and filters, and in the aesthetically and acoustically blessed location at the Mount Scopus hall, Playdate promises to provide one and all with an intriguing evening of quality entertainment.
For more information: (02) 626-5666 and [email protected]