Touching all the basses

Israeli and longtime New York-resident bassist Barak Mori gets to strut his stuff at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat.

ISRAELI BASS player Gilad Abro (photo credit: JONATHAN HERINGTON)
ISRAELI BASS player Gilad Abro
(photo credit: JONATHAN HERINGTON)
In recent years, increasing numbers of homegrown artists have been provided with stage time at the main summer edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. That is a pleasing development, and Barak Mori is delighted to have the opportunity to join the roster of Israeli musicians with Port of Eilat performance time.
The 39-year-old bass player recently returned to these shores after a 16-year sojourn in New York, and will perform in Eilat on Sunday. While in the Big Apple, Mori mixed it with all manner of jazz artist, and also found time to record with the likes of Red Sea Jazz Festival artistic director and saxophonist Eli Degibri.
Mori’s road to musical mastery started out on a very different instrument.
“I was accepted to Thelma Yellin [arts high school in Givatayim] on classical guitar,” he recalls.
In fact, Mori wasn’t really into classical music at the time either.
“I learned a few things on guitar from a friend of my brother’s, a guy called Yoram who taught me a few classical things, but he was really into progressive rock.”
The latter was more Mori’s cup of tea anyway.
“I was into Kaveret and electric guitar and that sort of thing. I liked [bass guitarist] Moti Dichneh from post-Kaveret rock group] Gazoz a lot. I liked the bass line he played on [Gazoz number] ‘Hachalalit.’” The audition for the school didn’t go as Mori had expected, but ultimately led to bigger and better things.
“I was sent to study bass guitar with Carlos Ben-Ari, who also taught [celebrated New York-based jazz bass player] Omer Avital. They told me I wouldn’t be able to do anything on classical guitar – I wouldn’t be able to play with the philharmonic, or jazz.”
Mori needed no second invitation and duly threw himself into his new avenue of musical exploration.
“I bought a bass guitar and went to take lessons with Carlos Ben-Ari,” he says, adding that the then head of Thelma Yellin also helped to move things along in the desired direction.
“Ofer Brayer took me along to Matan [intensive music program] and just threw me in there. I’d only been playing bass guitar for two weeks.”
Avital also helped Mori along the learning curve.
“Omer made up a cassette for me,” says Mori. “On one side there was [legendary fusion bass player] Jaco Pastorius playing [jazz standard] Donna Lee, and on the other side there was [modern jazz founding father saxophonist] Charlie Parker with his version of Donna Lee. That’s how I started listening to jazz. That gave me a wide range of styles to feed off and, to this day, I love playing double bass and bass guitar just the same.”
While Mori dug the grooves he caught from Pastorius and Parker, it was the social side of his early musical exploration that appealed to him most.
“What really drew me into jazz was being on the Matan program, when I was 14. It was great to be with other young music students who were all so supportive of each other. And people, like Ofer, helped me a lot. I think they must have seen something in me. And there were [fellow students] Shachar Belcarovitch and [internationally acclaimed trombonist and band leader] Avi Leibovitch, and there were girls there and dancers. It all appealed to me.”
Mori continued getting into to the two albums Avital had taped for him until, eventually, the penny dropped.
“I listened to that tape over and over until I really got the jazz thing, and then I realized that, if I wanted to be serious about jazz, I would have to play double bass.”
The youngster clearly knew his own mind and wasted no time in contacting one of the preeminent bass players in the country, even though his plans were deflected onto a slightly different trajectory.
“I got in touch with Eli Magen and I told him I was a student at Thelma Yellin and that I wanted to study jazz double bass with him,” Mori recalls. “He said he wasn’t the person to study jazz bass with but that he would teach me to play double bass. And that’s what happened. I still take lessons with Eli Magen.”
Things took off in leaps and bounds and, at the age of 15, he found himself making his Red Sea Jazz Festival debut.
“Omer Avital was in the air force big band, but he left the army and I got a call from [pianist] Nancy Brandes [who worked with the IAF ensemble] asking me if I could play bass with the big band at Eilat,” says Mori.
“I was only 15 and I had long hair so they made sure I played at the back of the stage.”
Mori made incremental progress and, when the time came to join the army, he landed a berth with the IAF big band. Mori says he got a lot out of his musical military service.
“I learned so much. We had poor equipment, and sometimes I didn’t have a monitor, and often we had to play for soldiers who weren’t so interested, but I learned that you’ve got to make a show, you’ve got to make it work.”
After getting out of the army, Mori spent a year or so working and saving up to make the transition to New York. And it didn’t take him long to get into the swing of things, meteorological shock notwithstanding.
“I arrived in February. I’d never seen snow before in my life. And the next day I get a phone call from [Israeli jazz guitarist] Ofer Ganor, saying he heard I was in town, and could I join him and [saxophonist] John Ellis for a gig on MacDougal Street [in Greenwich Village]. I had no idea where that was.”
Mori spent a while as a student at the prestigious New School, but a mixture of financial straits and opportunities out in the real world mean that his student days were numbered.
“I got an opportunity to play with [pianist] Eric Reed, and I played with him for a couple of years, and then with [pianist] Benny Green, and I ended up staying in the States for 16 years.”
And now Mori is back and finally about to release his debut album.
“I recorded it in the States before I left. I just had to make an album before I came back here,” he states. The impending release, which should be out by the end of the year, features Mori originals, and he got an impressive lineup of sidemen with him for the project, including pianist and organist Gary Versace, Joel Frahm on tenor saxophone, Joe Magnarelli on trumpet and Obed Calvaire on drums.
Mori will be joined at the Port of Eilat by young pianist Gadi Lehavi and drummer Yonat Rozen, with celebrated clarinetist Anat Cohen putting in a guest appearance.
The Red Sea Jazz Festival runs August 23 through 26. For more information: http://