Alon’s hard jazz night

A former member of Israel’s 1970s pop band Kaveret, Alon Olearchik has experience with a wide spectrum of musical genres and believes he can attract more jazz fans.

Alon Olearchik 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alon Olearchik 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of Alon Olearchik’s current projects represents something of a betrayal – of his teenage musical love, that is.
“I was in the Rolling Stones camp, not the Beatles,” says the boyish-looking 61-year-old vocalist-bassist-composer.
Over four decades on, Olearchik recently lent his vocal skills to the “Jazzing the Beatles” concert at the Wix Auditorium in Rehovot.
The concert involved the Beersheba Symphonette orchestra under the direction of Doron Salomon, and a band of local jazz veterans – reedman Amikam Kimmelman, who also took care of the arrangements and musical direction; EWI (electronic wind instrument) player Eli Benacott; pianist-keyboardist Avi Adrian; bassist Aryeh Wolnitz; and drummer Eitan Itzkovitz.
This is a familiar musical stomping ground for Kimmelman and his cohorts, who make up the aptly named Hard Jazz Knights (a play on the Beatles number “A Hard Day’s Night”); they performed a program of jazzed-up Beatles numbers at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat a few years ago.
Despite his initial allegiance to the harder-edged vibes of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards et al., not to mention late-’60s British super-group Cream and high-energy American rockblues guitarist Jimi Hendrix – Olearchik is delighted to have the opportunity to perform material by the Fab Four.
“I relate to the Beatles’ songs like they are jazz standards,” he observes. “Classic jazz tunes are based on songs written for musicals which people turn into jazz. Amikam took Beatles songs and turned them into standards.”
In fact, jazz musicians have been adapting Beatles songs to the genre for many moons, starting back in the ’60s, when the Beatles were still very much a going concern. The program for the concert features Beatles favorites from various stages along their stellar trail, such as “Yesterday,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “With a Little Help from My Friends” – although the end result will be very different from the three-minute pop originals.
“The original tunes have, maybe, six or eight chords,” explains Olearchik. “In our show there are 30 or more chords to each song. It is really nice music.”
Born in Poland to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, the multifaceted musician moved here with his family at the age of six.
“As far as the rabbinate is concerned, I’m not Jewish,” he notes unemotionally, “and the church relates to me as a Jew.”
He remembers little of his birthplace and says the transition here was to his liking. “My only memory of Poland is that it was very cold and that my parents didn’t want me to play outside because I might get bronchitis. Here, they put us in an asbestos building at Nof Yam, by the sea, and we ran around outside all day barefoot. But I did have to squint because the sunlight was so strong in Israel. That never bothered me in Poland.” Olearchik was not raised on Beatles music or, initially, on any pop or rock. He cut his instrumental teeth playing classical piano and comes from strong musical stock. His uncle, Yossi Olearchik, who still lives in Jerusalem, was a violinist in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and his father wrote Polish songs, both in Poland and after he made aliya.
His father survived World War II thanks to his musical abilities. After being transferred to the Soviet Union ahead of the invading German army, Olearchik Sr.
became a conductor in the Soviet army.
Three of his brothers perished in the Holocaust. The grand piano that sits in Olearchik’s studio to this day is the same instrument his father received from the Polish Communist government after World War II and on which he himself embarked on the road to musicianship.
As Olearchik entered his teens, his musical interests starting veering sharply away from the classical world. But it seems that his father had no problems with that at all.
“My dad bought me my first guitar and got me records. He also set up my first ever gig. My dad was the conductor of a small ensemble which performed with the Yiddish theater in the ’60s. They were putting on a production called Madame X.
They needed a guitarist, so he used his protektzia [connections] and brought me on board.”
It was a baptism of fire: “I knew how to play guitar a bit, but suddenly I had to play from the charts, play louder and softer and not make any mistakes. They were my labor pains as a musician.”
While that was not exactly a jazz gig, Olearchik’s father had previously introduced him to the genre. “I went to a military boarding school in Haifa when I was 14, and my parents bought me a portable record player. My dad got me one record – it was [1962 live recording of jazz diva] Ella Fitzgerald [Twelve Nights] in Hollywood.
That was my dad’s mistake, and it introduced me to jazz.”
Still, the teenager wasn’t quite ready to devote himself to improvisational music and, after a year at the boarding school, he returned home to Bat Yam and joined a rock ’n’ roll band called Pirhei Hablooz (The Blues Flowers). That led him to the bass guitar.
“There were five guitarists and a drummer in the band, and they needed a bassist, so I went for it,” he recalls, adding that it was a natural evolution. “Maybe I was scared they’d beat me up if I didn’t agree,” he laughs, “but, as I’d play piano, I used to left-hand bass lines on piano, on Bach fugues and such like. I had a feeling for the bass.”
Even so, there weren’t too many heartthrobs who played bass back in those days.
“No, it wasn’t really considered a sexy instrument to play,” he acknowledges. “I got into [Cream bass player] Jack Bruce, but that wasn’t until later.”
OLEARCHIK IS, of course, best known as a member of Israel’s seminal 1970s pop band Kaveret, but he accrued varied experience before the group emerged, and spread his wings into several other sectors of the music market following the band’s break-up in 1976.
The seeds for Kaveret were sown in the army. When Olearchik auditioned for the Nahal band, Danny Sanderson was on the panel of judges. Sanderson was later to become the principal songwriter and driving force behind Kaveret.
“I played the intro to Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ on bass guitar at the audition,” Olearchik recalls. “There’s a really strong bass line in the intro. Danny said I was in, and that gave me entry to the Hall of Fame of Israeli music.”
Of the seven eventual members of Kaveret, five served in that Nahal band.
Besides Olearchik and Sanderson, lead vocalist Gidi Gov, drummer Meir Fenigstein and vocalist-guitarist Ephraim Shamir also did their army service in the troupe. Only pianist Yoni Rechter and lead guitarist Yitzhak “Churchill” Klepter played in other IDF troupes.
Besides their joint efforts in the Nahal band, Olearchik and Sanderson’s paths crossed in London. Olearchik went to Britain after the army and tried out with lots of bands, and Sanderson joined him there for a while.
“I jammed with loads of groups in Britain,” Olearchik recalls, “but I didn’t have a work permit, so that mostly came to nothing. I used to joke that I wanted to be the bass player with the Rolling Stones, but when I got to England, I discovered they already had one.”
Still, in 1971, London was the epicenter of a vibrant arts scene, and the young Israeli thirstily imbibed as much as he could. “I once went to a show at the [famed London venue of the time] Roundhouse, where there was a naked woman cellist playing on a block of ice.
There was lots of interesting stuff going on there in those days.”
There was also an important stint with pioneering Israeli jazz group Platina – with the likes of drummer Areleh Kaminsky and saxophonist-flutist Roman Kunzman – which helped Olearchik to hone his improvisational skills. Then Kaveret came into being, and his life – not to mention that of almost every Israeli teenager at the time – changed irrevocably.
The band was an overnight success, with a captivating mix of rock, pop and bucket-loads of humor, à la Monty Python, particularly on the Poogy Stories LP. In 1974 the band represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England, placing a creditable joint fifth along with Ireland.
Olearchik says the mix of talent, and the cultural and musical baggage each of the members brought to the table, was an important factor in Kaveret’s success. He was particularly delighted with the addition of Shamir to the pre-Kaveret Nahal band; Shamir, he says, brought not only his mellifluous vocals to both groups, but also a breath of something new: “Everyone sang okay, but they also sounded like kibbutzniks singing around a bonfire.
Ephraim was the real McCoy. He came from abroad and brought something else to the band.”
Shamir was born in Siberia, grew up in Poland and made aliya at the age of 17. A year later, he was in the Nahal band, and his path to Israeli pop-rock stardom was paved.
WHILE OLEARCHIK says he could have done without compulsory army service, he notes there were some formative fringe benefits to be had.
“Recently there was an event to mark 60 years of the Nahal band, and I wondered what good things I could say about it,” he recalls.
Quite a few, it seems: “It was where I learned what it was like to be on a stage, to be a professional. The whole discipline of being a performer all comes from that time. You learn how to play your instrument with precision. In the army, if you don’t do something exactly the way you are supposed to, you soon hear about it,” he laughs. “I became a better musician, and I learned how to think like an arranger and a producer.
None of us was a professional musician before the army, and we all came out of the Nahal band as professionals.”
He was also aware of the service he and his fellow band members were providing, and eventually came to realize the enduring effect of their work. “Our performances certainly helped to boost morale at the time. At the 60th-anniversary gathering, at Nahalal, I saw all these people there enjoying the music and the nostalgia trip. You know, religious Israelis have religion, and nonreligious Israelis have songs like the stuff the Nahal band played. That’s their history, of the grandchildren of the Second Aliya pioneers.”
And the Nahal band spawned Israel’s equivalent of the Beatles.
“There wouldn’t have been Kaveret without that army band,” proffers Olearchik, adding that some of the members of Kaveret introduced young Israelis to a whiff of what was going on in the outside world at the time. “Danny Sanderson was the leader of the band, wrote most of the material and brought a lot of the humor to what we did. He lived in America for 10 years, and he taught us how to play rock ’n’ roll, but no less important, he taught us about the attitude of rock ’n’ roll. He was, and still is, a relentless creator of music.”
After three whirlwind years of success, Olearchik decamped for quieter waters and gained a new perspective on his musicianship.
“I went to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music. That was great. I was 27, much older than the other students, and nobody knew me there. When I was in Kaveret, people would applaud my playing, but I never knew if that was because it was good, or because I was Alon Olearchik from Kaveret. At Berklee, if someone said I’d played well, I knew it was genuine.”
After three years in Boston, Olearchik headed for the Big Apple, where he quickly immersed himself in several areas of the buzzing music scene there.
“I played jazz, and in an off-Broadway show, and Latin music and avant garde.
You name it, I did it. That was a good learning experience for me.”
After five years in New York, he headed back here and participated in several Kaveret reunions.
“The reunions were fun, and we played to really big audiences. We made more money out of those shows than we made when Kaveret was a working band in the ’70s,” he says. “I don’t think about us being an icon, and it isn’t necessarily a positive thing. There were lots of jazz greats who were heroin junkies. You have to keep things in proportion.”
That is one thing Olearchik has endeavored to do throughout his long career. He has spread his wares across a wide spectrum of musical genres, from pop to jazz and rock, and has crooned his way through his fair share of ballads over the years. He says he may not always play exactly the kind of music he would choose if his bank balance were closer to Jagger’s, but he doesn’t grumble.
“I make my living from music, which is a blessing,” he states. “I don’t have to ask anyone for a loan to pay my bills.
You do have to make artistic compromises, and we don’t live in a country that subsidizes the arts. If you are a jazz musician living in France, you can live from your music. We don’t have that luxury here.”
Other than the “Jazzing the Beatles” concert run – the Rehovot concert was, for now, the last of a four-date tour – Olearchik continues to perform with Shamir, and recently recorded a jazz CD called Alon Olearchik Style, which includes jazzy versions of such staples as his 1980s pop hit “Ba Lashechuna Bahur Hadash” (New Boy on the Block), and “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (Evening of Roses), which was written in the 1950s and has been performed over the years by such local music titans as Yaffa Yarkoni, Shoshana Damari and Arik Einstein.
He is also perfectly happy to have been on board the “Jazzing the Beatles” project.
“It’s great fun to sing ‘Yesterday’ with a full orchestra and a jazz band behind you. It may sound grandiose, but it isn’t. We are showing respect for the Beatles and for jazz,” he says. “There are quite a few jazz solos in the show, and the audiences appreciate them. They get what it is all about. People who are more into classical music are more receptive to the solos than others who are more used to pop. For me, it is also an opportunity to have fun with things that I may not fully understand, but I enjoy them.”
Somewhere along the line, Olearchik may entertain hopes of drawing a wider audience into the jazz family as well: “You know, gaining an education in the arts isn’t a bad thing.”
The band’s next gig will be on August 5 in Yad Hashmona.