Vocalists are said to be the bravest of jazz musicians. That stands to reason, in view of their unmitigated means of expression and presentation. Their instrument is their own body, and they have nothing to hide behind on stage.
As a pianist, Yonathan Avishai has been “sheltered” from direct contact with his audiences ever since he began performing live around three decades ago. But now he has decided to step out from behind his grand or upright 88-key buffer, and let it all hang out.
Next week, Israeli-born and bred Avishai will come over from his home in Bordeaux, southwest France, to unveil his Pianist show to audiences at Tzavta in Tel Aviv (January 1, 8:30 p.m.) and the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem (January 2, 8:30 p.m.).
Anyone who has caught him live, or listened to any of his albums over the years, will no doubt have gained the distinct impression that Avishai’s artistic credo has a multistratified bent. His keyboard work generally conveys a polychromic sense of the pictorial, and there seems to be more to be mined than initially meets the ear.
He has always been keen to pass that multifarious mindset onto the public through his music, and now he is taking the vehicle of artistic verbiage a step further, with some theatrical seasoning mixed into the presentational potpourri.
“I don’t hide, and I do things [in Pianist] I don’t normally do.”Yonatan Avishai
“I don’t hide, and I do things [in Pianist] I don’t normally do,” he says, “things that musicians, in regular concerts, don’t do.” It is, Avishai feels, a way of accessing and proffering deeper layers from within him which, when you think about it, is really what an artist should be doing in the first place. Art is not just about technique and polishing your skills, or even stage presence. There has to be an emotional level, and a highly personal, uniquely individual, element to any creation, otherwise you may just as well copy some commercially successful product – if you happen to stumble onto one – and keep churning it out until the cash register stops ringing.
The thinking behind Avishai’s new venture, which has already been performed in French in his adopted country of abode, is both logical and surprising. Surely, as a veteran jazz artist he is fully able to channel his thoughts and feelings into his instrumental work. That may be the case, but there is apparently room for maneuver and improving the sensorial conduit and expressive bottom line.
Jazz artist Yonatan Avishai wants us to get to know him
With an impressive discography, including several releases with preeminent German record label ECM, and scores of gigs all over the globe, Avishai now wants us to get to know him a little better. He is now ready to unfurl some sides to him which, he feels, may not be apparent from his instrumental work. “I allow myself to do things that are inside me that I want to do, that I feel powerfully, that don’t have room in a regular show. That might be a desire to say something, or to express emotions with words, or to move around on the stage.”
THE LATTER is certainly an innovative departure for Avishai. Yes, there is the odd dynamic member of the jazz community, such as irrepressible Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, who gets into all sorts of calisthenics and crowd pleasing moves while pumping out the sonic vibes. But Avishai has always come across as the quieter, more intense type, not given to putting himself out there too much.
Back in the day, in youthful romantic circles, the saying was that it is the quiet ones you have to watch. As Pianist is a solo act, it probably does not lean too far in the direction of matters of the heart, that is, as expressed toward a partner in loving sentiments. But one can expect to get a palpable sense of intimacy. “I have been asked what I need this show for,” Avishai chuckles. “Isn’t this [regular jazz fare] enough for you? The answer is no.”
Can one, then, conclude that all these years he has felt a growing sense of frustration with the limits of his daytime job? That was pushing things a little far. “No, not at all,” he comes back at me. “I am not frustrated. Not in the negative sense of the word. But there is a desire, a great passion, to work with the stage, in the wider sense, not just in a musical sense.”
Long unrequited artistic intent notwithstanding, Avishai says he is not about to embark on a new career as a song and dance man, or a full-time thespian. At the end of the day, he is a jazz musician and composer, and he is not about to jump ship and set off on an entirely new professional adventure at the age of 45. We are not exactly talking midlife crisis here.
In fact, the multidisciplinary seeds were sown a long time ago, long before Avishai began even dreaming of a successful globetrotting career in the jazz sector. “I was lucky enough to be brought up by parents who took me to lots of shows and concerts, of all sorts. They took me to see dance and theater, and all kinds of music, from a really young age. I saw things you don’t normally expect a three-or-four-year-old to see,” he laughs.
That laid the bedrock for his jazz career and also, eventually, paved the way for Pianist and the disciplinary ground he covers in the show. “I have a love for this big thing called the stage – not just the music but a place with magic and dreams,” he declares.
That is sewn into the fabric of the new show, which will be performed here, for the first time, in Hebrew, with some English – and French-language spots. We get a peek or two behind the scenes, behind the cerebral and creative machinations that go into making Avishai the artist he has become.
The production, which Avishai describes as “80% my music and 20% other stuff,” came together with fellow Israeli émigré director Sharon Mohar who lives in the same neck of the woods in southwest France. “She is a good friend and a very gifted director,” says Avishai, adding that Pianist has been brewing for quite a while. “Years back, when we worked together on a project for a children’s show we asked ourselves about the dramatic impact of a musician, and whether a musician can act at all.”
The answers to those generic questions, as well as a bunch of personal areas of Avishai’s own life and work, will be forthcoming in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem next week.
For tickets and more information: https://www.tzavta.co.il/ and https://yellowsubmarine.org.il/en/