Slaughtering sacred cows

Local guitarist-vocalist Yonatan Albalak and his Geshem Trio are looking forward to deconstructing jazz standards at the Tel Aviv Opera House tonight.

‘I THINK genre is a bit obsolete. I know that people have the need to hold on to something definable, and put things in boxes, but I try to stay outside the box,’ says local jazz guitarist-vocalist Yonatan (photo credit: VICTOR MUPERPHOTO)
‘I THINK genre is a bit obsolete. I know that people have the need to hold on to something definable, and put things in boxes, but I try to stay outside the box,’ says local jazz guitarist-vocalist Yonatan
(photo credit: VICTOR MUPERPHOTO)
The Israel Opera has been flexing its muscles in the entertainment hinterland for some years now. In addition to its ongoing yearly jazz series, it has recruited all kinds of pop and rock artists for intriguing confluences with in-house performers. The latter extracurricular – non-operatic – activity has been spearheaded by conductor Roi Oppenheim and his Revolution Orchestra.
Oppenheim has been at it again, together with fellow orchestra founder composer Zohar Sharon and guitarist-vocalist Yonatan Albalak. This evening at 9 p.m.
the three will join forces, together with the full ensemble, the Geshem trio, and close harmony vocalist threesome the Hazelnut Sisters, to perform the A Standard Revolution concert at the Opera House in Tel Aviv. The show repertoire comprises new and surprising takes on various jazz standards written by some of the discipline’s luminaries over the past century, including the likes of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and George Gershwin.
The song list features such perennial favorites as Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” Ellington’s “Caravan” and the ever-popular Rodgers and Hammerstein song “My Favorite Things,” from the blockbuster family favorite movie The Sound of Music, which was given a spectacular jazz reading by saxophonist John Coltrane around 50 years ago.
Albalak will take his part in the envelope-pushing proceedings alongside keyboardist Shuzin and drummer Aviv Cohen, who jointly comprise the Geshem trio. The 32-year-old guitarist has been plying his trade through various musical prisms for some years now, mixing it with rockers and avant garde jazz artists alike, and much betwixt.
Even so, Albalak says tonight’s project presented him with some daunting challenges.
“This is a very complex program, and I must say a bit grandiose and pretentious, in many ways. But I think this is a good way to stretch yourself and to grow.”
Pretentious doesn’t sound too promising, but Albalak qualifies his use of a term that normally indicates negative baggage.
“I have been discussing the term pretentious with quite a few people recently,” he observes, expounding on his semantic mindset. “I think that pretentiousness is only a negative thing in retrospect. If you try something that doesn’t work out then it is pretentious in a bad way, but if you aim for something that seems beyond your capabilities and it does succeed, then pretentious is good.”
Some of Albalak’s cohorts in this evening’s program have accrued plenty of mileage in the “pretentiousness” department in recent years.
“Roi Oppenheim and the Revolution Orchestra have tried all sorts of crazy things, with different kinds of music, video artists, you name it, and it has always worked out,” notes Albalak encouragingly.
The guitarist says that the tough reality of the entertainment business, these days demands daring moves, which hopefully come off.
“In Israel we are in a situation in which it is so hard to attain good working conditions in which to create art, so anything that goes beyond three people playing instruments together in a rehearsal room, becomes complicated.”
Albalak and his colleagues have certainly landed themselves some pretty creativity-friendly conditions for this evening’s show.
“We have been given such a crazy opportunity by the Israel Opera, and we are so grateful for it,” he says, adding that, Oppenheim and the company really went out on a limb for this.
“Geshem is a new trio and no one there [at the Opera House] has heard a single note of what we do. I think Roi and Zohar have seen me a few times, and we have worked together on several occasions.
I guess they must have been impressed.”
Albalak is modest, almost to a fault. He has been producing high-quality fare across a wide genre domain for some time now and he has a good name in the business.
He says he has been excited by the current musical synthesis project for some time.
“Everything sort of dovetails, and I think we have ended up with a lot of added value.”
Albalak does not go for the crossgenre take on what he does, or for compartmentalizing art in general.
“I think genre is a bit obsolete. I know that people have the need to hold on to something definable, and put things in boxes, but I try to stay outside the box. Anyway, jazz is something that is complex and contentious, so I prefer to relate to these things as a musician, without breaking them down.”
The guitarist certainly got a good start to his musical path.
“We heard all sorts of music at home when I was a kid. I grew up with a mother who was a musician and a father who is an artist.”
The former is Tzruyah Lahav, a renowned actress, songwriter, singer, instrumentalist and writer, while Albalak Sr. is an esteemed set designer.
“I started playing guitar around the age of 14 or 15, but I heard practically every kind of music going at home before that.”
Once he laid his teenage fingers on a guitar, there was no stopping Jerusalem-born Albalak, and true to his eclectic musical home schooling, he set off in all sorts of directions.
Luckily, it was around that time that he found some like-minded peers to encourage him.
“When I moved to the high school by the music academy [on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University] I found people who thought like me,” he recalls.
“Before that I’d attended a primary school with very uncultured kids, and I was very much the exception.”
That, of course, can be a serious hurdle at a very sensitive age.
“By the time I was 16 I knew I was going to become a professional musician. My teacher told me I could just carry on with what I was doing. I was in all sorts of groups – rock, jazz and electronic.”
Albalak also benefited from the invaluable guidance of such stellar musical mentors as late American- born jazz saxophonist Arnie Lawrence and Lithuanian-born experimental music harbinger Slava Ganelin.
“It was an amazing experience for me at the age of 18 to meet Slava and to spend time with him.
He simply recalibrated my way of thinking.” The Ganelin confluence took place at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance.
Since then, Albalak has maintained a steady ascending continuum, constantly challenging himself and his audiences, while providing full entertainment value. The debut Geshem trio release is currently in the works, and this evening’s Opera House patrons should come away with a smile on their face and with some food for thought.
“We have taken jazz standards and deconstructed them. It has been a fascinating process. I call it slaughtering sacred cows. But, somehow, people will still recognize the original melodies.”
For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and