Really Razel

Sitting down with musician Yonatan Razel to discuss his new album, and how his upbringing and background contribute to his wide-ranging appeal

Yonatan Razel (photo credit: OHAD ROMANO)
Yonatan Razel
(photo credit: OHAD ROMANO)
Intense is a word that readily springs to mind on meeting Yonatan Razel. The 44-year-old, US-born, Jerusalem-bred musician is also certainly one of a kind.
There are not many black kippa-wearing, beard-sporting haredi artists whose songs gain a generous amount of airtime not only on the religiously oriented radio stations, but also on that definitively mainstream of broadcasting vehicles, Galgalatz. And, with the new KAN88 playlist orientation, Razel songs such as “Bein Hazlilim” (Between the Sounds), “Katonti” (I am Not Worthy) and “Poteakh Lev” (Open to Change) also get a decent look in there too.
The latter is the title track of Razel’s latest album, his third to date, and his first since Bein Hazlilim, which came out in 2012. Some of the tracks from the latest release plus a host of other pieces of music, including some classical material, will find their way into the onstage mix when Razel joins forces with the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion on June 21 at the Meir Nitzan Performing Arts Center in Rishon Lezion, for the Melody Meets Orchestra concert. The ensemble will be conducted by David Sebba, with Razel responsible for all the arrangements.
Razel had the best of domestic launching pads for his budding musical aspirations. For starters, his Dutchborn grandfather, Prof. Mark Ruzler – who later Hebraized his name to Razel – was a dab hand on cello, and both Razel’s parents are musical. Unsurprisingly, all the offspring developed their musical gifts, and Razel’s brother, Aaron, and his sister, Rika, are professionals too.
Today, Razel largely accompanies mellifluous vocals on piano, but the cello and guitar are also pressed into service in his shows and recorded work. He received an early helping hand from several doyens of the country’s classical music sector, including the likes of pianist Pnina Salzman, Israel Prize laureate composer and ethnomusicologist Andre Hajdu, and pianist Benjamin Oren. Interestingly, Razel’s haredi parents sent their teenage son to the secular Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and the youngster did not disappoint.
He made rapid artistic headway and, by the time he was 17, was already enrolled in a conductor’s degree program, under Hadju’s tutelage, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His educational path was interrupted when he joined the army, but, as he served as an Outstanding Musician, he was able to maintain his artistic trajectory and even managed to collaborate with some of the music industry’s leading members, such as feted pianist-composer Yoni Rechter.
“I remember I was asked to arrange one of Yoni’s pieces and I told Yoni I thought there was something missing from the piece. I don’t know where I got the courage to say something like that to Yoni Rechter,” he laughs. “But he was fine with that.”
With his musical national service completed, Razel decided he needed a break from music and took a pastoral furlough, working as a shepherd near Sussiya, and also getting in some psychology studies. But the world of music wasn’t ready to let Razel’s talents go to waste.
Rechter needed the benefit of Razel’s arranging abilities again, for a couple of numbers which were to form part of the repertoire for a concert based on Rechter’s material. It was to be a grand affair, at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, with the Israel Philharmonic in tow.
One of the songs Razel was asked to tweak was “Atur Mitzchech” (Your Forehead is Decorated), which is primarily known for its reading by preeminent songster Arik Einstein, and is of almost canonical standing. But Razel’s fearless approach came to the fore once again and when he took his place at the ivories, with Evyatar Banai as featured vocalist, the packed audience was treated to a rendition that tended decidedly toward the avant garde.
So, where did the then-25-year-old get the guts to sculpt such a timeworn favorite to his own young insouciant ethos? “They say youth is wasted on the young, right?” he chuckles – Razel has a propensity for displaying good humor, intense demeanor notwithstanding. “I wasn’t really conscious of what I was involved in.” Even so, the members of the Mann Auditorium applauded enthusiastically as the last notes of the Razel-Banai version dissipated.
Razel also confesses to being a bit of a rascal as a youngster. “I was impudent,” he says. “When I was 15, I was taken to play piano for Leonard Bernstein. I grew up on ‘West Side Story’ [for which Bernstein wrote the score] and I knew his work very well.”
But that didn’t stop the cocky teenager from doubting the legendary conductor and pianist’s musical knowledge. “I played a piano sonata and something else and then he asked me what else I could play. I told him I knew a work by [Hungarian composer Béla] Bartók but that he probably didn’t know it. Everyone in the room looked aghast. I was so innocent.”
Luckily, Bernstein didn’t take the 15-year-old’s unwitting irreverence too seriously. “He was fine with it. He just laughed,” Razel recalls.
Fast forward half a dozen or so years, after the daring rendition of “Atur Mitzchech,” and we find Razel reuniting with Banai, with the latter at the production helm of Razel’s debut solo album All in All. There is nothing avant garde about that record, as Razel displays a keen ear for sweetly lyrical songs, feeding off texts from the Bible and the siddur, and using his classical keyboard training to good effect.
The album sold well, and went gold, and spawned numerous sold-out concerts around the country and abroad. Razel was well and truly on the Israeli pop music map.
Indeed, it appears that Razel obtained something of the Midas touch. A year after All in All, he produced an emotive version of “Vehi She’amda,” taken from the Passover haggada, which he performed together with popular hassidic singer Yaakov Shwekey.
In 2011, Razel won an award from the Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Music in Israel (ACUM) for composition and musical arrangement, and his second album, Bein Hazlilim, came out at the end of 2012. It, too, went gold and it cemented Razel’s popularity across the Jewish world. In 2013, “Katonti,” off Bein Hazlilim, won the ACUM Song of the Year award.
Listening to “Poteakh Lev,” you get some idea of the breadth of Razel’s musical horizons. “Classical music has always been my main focus,” he says. “But I have always been interested in lots of other areas too.”
His mother’s record collection, which took in such Sixties icons as Bob Dylan and The Beatles, also left its imprint on Razel’s formative years. The new record incorporates gospel, ethnic ornamentation, rock lines and some hassidic-inclined pop material.
Razel is highly adept at creating expansive soundscapes and even when he plays solo piano, with added vocals, there is an orchestral feel to the venture. And there is generally an alluring fusion of heartfelt vocal expression with a special keyboard touch, which often tends toward the gossamer end of the finger-tokeys application. There is also something fundamentally Jewish and Israeli about Razel’s output.
Razel often looks to liturgical lines for his scores. So, is it just a matter of going for ready-made, tried-and- tested texts? Is he looking for an “easy life”? His response to my hypothesis was a surprise.
“You know, I feel connected to the songs I write with texts from the Jewish sources,” he says. “I feel less connected to the songs with my own lyrics. I can’t really explain that. Songs like ‘Katonti’ and ‘Vehi She’amda’ mean more to me than songs for which I wrote the most personal text I could create.
“It’s a sort of process where I discover something that, ostensibly, comes from outside me and then I live it and it becomes something internal, inside me.”
Putting out albums every five years may not exactly be a fast-lane release pace, but Razel says he tends to do things in stages. “I am more of a Beethoven than a Mozart,” he posits.
Ever diffident, Razel was not comparing himself to the definitive classical music composer. “They say that Mozart would just sit down and the music would come out of him straight onto the page. And he would write the notes without mistakes. Beethoven, on the other hand, agonized over almost every note – even the best-known phrases,” he says. “I’ll write stuff, and tape it, and then I’ll throw it out. That’s happens the whole time.”
At the end of the day, however, Razel comes up with the goods – songs that appeal to people of all ages, and all ethnic and religious stripes. And at Wednesday’s concert in Rishon Lezion, Razel will strut most of his diverse stuff to, probably, a similarly wide-ranging audience. It promises to be an enriching experience for one and all.
For tickets and more information: (03) 948-4840 and