Jazz means various things to different people. If you’re into, say, the emotive joie de vivre vibes of Satchmo Armstrong you may not dig the frenetic explorations of Charlie Parker and the rest of the modern jazz pioneering gang. But jazz covers such wide sonic and cultural territory that there should be something, somewhere, in the disciplinary stretch that appeals to a broad swathe of music lovers.
As far as Stav Achai is concerned, that’s a given and the 30-year-old pianist-composer will roll out some of her diverse sounds together with her quartet at the annual Woman’s Festival at the Holon Theater in honor of International Women’s Day.
The show on March 8 (10 p.m.) will feature material from her debut release Plastic Cocoon and from her upcoming new Tears In Color album which Achai hopes will be out and about by May. There will also be some covers in the playlist.
In the seemingly boundless and unceasingly evolving domain of Israeli jazz, Achai is a prime example of the free-roaming inventive spirit that has made our musician guys and gals such a hit across the world stage.
She clearly likes a good, strong melody and her charts are often based around mellifluous chord sequences that capture the heart and imperceptibly draw you into her sphere of thinking and feeling. But more often than not, just as you are slipping into a comforting reverie, courtesy of some lyrical line or other, Achai will chuck a curve ball into the melodic storyline.
The propensity for dropping in angular breaks puts one in the mind of the unique keyboard approach of Thelonious Monk, one of the founding fathers of modern jazz. “Monk is a great influence on me,” she admits. “Specifically, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane [1961 release] is a wonderful record.”
The parental element has been a formative factor in Achai’s artistic growth throughout. Her father who sadly passed away two years ago was a musician, who played a range of wind instruments, while her mother is a pianist and piano teacher. She took her infant daughter under her wing and introduced her to some extraneous content.
“In my first years, I studied with my mother classical piano. She taught her students the principles of accompaniment and also to work with chords a bit. It wasn’t quite in the realms of jazz, but her students were given a glimpse of something beyond the classical world,” she said.
She also exposed her young charges to the art of performing for an audience. “We had recitals at each student’s home,” Achai recalls. That was to prove to be a boon for the youngster. “Giving a concert involves learning to deal with the pressure.”
She learned that having talent and the requisite instrumental skills counts for little if you are not able to bring that to the plate when it really matters. “There are lots of technically brilliant players who can’t manage it when, suddenly, they are the front of the stage with the cameras filming them.”
THAT EXPERIENCE and playing at all sorts of school and other gatherings has stood Achai in good stead all her life. She says she never gets the jitters before a gig.
Her genetic head start was complemented by having a sizeable recording resource at her infant behest, across a multifarious spread of sounds and rhythms. “My dad introduced me to lots of music. When I was in high school, I really got into [1970s American rock band] Steely Dan. For me, it was like monosodium glutamate,” she laughs referencing the flavor enhancer which, it must be said, invokes health issues too, partly due to its addictive properties.
“There is something in their harmonies and their rhythms that made me feel I wanted to hear their songs again and again. That drove me crazy. It really got me hooked,” she said.
She says she is not alone in that regard and that some of her jazz muses also mine the rock seam for inspiration. “[49 year old Italian pianist] Stefano Bollani did a cover of Steely Dan,” she notes. In fact, Bollani offered an intriguing take on “Morph The Cat”, from a solo album by the band’s pianist-vocalist Donald Fagen, but the sentiment still applies.
Rock and pop music informed Achai’s awakening musical consciousness as a kid, along with classical music of a minimalistic nature. 85-year-old American composer Steve Reich, one of the foremost proponents of minimal music, is also in the Achai inspirational lineup.
How does that align with the work of Steely Dan, the heavy metal music Achai was into at high school, ethnic music and what have you? “That also comes from home. There was also [85-year-old American pianist-composer] Philip Glass and [74-year-old Brazilian composer, guitarist and pianist] Egberto Gismonti does that, although from a different place. That is always something that enchanted me. I felt I was getting something on an energy level, that it involved a special listening experience,” she said.
Achai cultivated her listening skills as a tiny tot. “There were all these CDs and cassettes at home. I’d take one out and listen to it and then try something else.” That was a constant. “My mum studied at the Academy of Music and Dance [in Jerusalem]. When I was a small child, she’d take me with her and we’d listen to a cassette in the car on the way.”
One in particular grabbed her infant attention. “I remember from a young age listening to music was an activity I did. For me, ‘Misa Criolla’ was the most important work,” she says, referencing the enduringly popular liturgical composition by 20th century Argentinean composer and pianist Ariel Ramirez. “I still remember all the words,” she laughs. “That was the cassette I asked for over and over.”
The lush textures that infused Achai’s young mind and soul are front and center in her own charts today, as are the classical foundations that underpin her jazzy intent, which began making its presence felt when she was a student at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts.
Today, she works with a steady quartet along with bassist Daniel Harlev, guitarist Roi Avivi, and seasoned powerhouse drummer Shahar Haziza. In addition to her writing and keyboard work, and occasional singing, she also helps to promote her Speak Thru label, which is developing into a solid going concern.
The Holon Theater should merrily rock, roll, groove and jive on March 8.
For tickets and more information, contact: 03-502-3001 and http://woman-festival.co.il.