In step with the ‘Modern Times’

France-based Israeli jazz pianist Yonathan Avishai is in town to show just how far he has taken his craft.

Yonathan Avishai (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yonathan Avishai
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yonathan Avishai says he is looking to keep things simple. The 37-year old France-based Israeli jazz pianist is one of the star turns at next week’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, which will take place August 24-27. Avishai will appear on the third and fourth days of the festival with a trio from France, including long time French-resident Israeli bassist Yoni Zelnik and French drummer Donald Kontomanou.
Avishai is probably best known to jazz fans in this part of the globe as a member of the highly popular Third World Love band, along with American drummer Daniel Freedman, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and bassist Omer Avital. All four will be in action on the first two days of the festival, with Avital as leader, and with the added firepower of saxophonist Joel Frahm.
Surprisingly, although he has been doing the rounds of the global festival circuit and other venues around the world for over a decade, Avishai does not have too much to show in the discography department. Thus far he has recorded just a couple of duet releases, one with a percussionist and one with a drummer, although he appears on numerous recordings behind other leaders.
But jazz lovers looking to get a better handle on what Avishai has to offer won’t have to wait too long as the pianist’s new CD, Modern Times, is due out in the coming months. The album will also form the basis of the trio’s Eilat gigs.
There is something about Avishai’s approach to music that smacks of something from way off the beaten jazz path.
His work exudes a definitively exploratory mindset.
“I am not consciously aware of following a particular direction, but I know I am looking for some kind of sound,” Avishai declares.
“I have some kind of vision, something in my head that I am pursuing in one way or another. I am not looking to be different.
I am looking for that sound, and a sense of space and of equilibrium in the music, whether I am playing solo or with a band.”
That comes across very clearly in the tracks from Modern Times that are available on Avishai’s web site (www.yonatahanavishai.
com). There is an elegance and – yes – a simplicity to the compositions. But the overriding sense is of a work in progress. There is an evolutionary path to the material that takes you along for ride, as Avishai and his cohorts unfurl their tale. “Deuxieme Temps,” for example, starts out with Zelnik playing a quiet single repetitive note, almost hesitantly, before Avishai and Kontomanou join in the pristine sonic pattern. The monotonic attack gradually spreads and takes in more shades and textures as the margins begin to ripple and Avishai’s more punctuated keyboard work takes on decidedly bluesy intent.
The leader and his pals are clearly in no hurry to make their statement and the picture gradually takes on more corporeal form and more dynamic nature.
In fact, it is no more than the measure of the man and his life. Avishai not only opted for France, rather than the more well-trodden path between Israel and New York or Boston, he didn’t even set up in Paris. Until a couple of years ago, the pianist lived in Dordogne, in southwest France, after making an initial foray to Europe to work at a sociocultural center in Alsace, in northeast France near the German border, as a part of an European exchange program. He subsequently studied music therapy in Bordeaux and gave workshops in facilities for special education, primary schools and music schools, and developed a passion for teaching and pedagogy.
Avishai doesn’t just play music, he examines it from every angle, including delving into the roots of the art form.
“In the past few years, I have become increasingly involved in researching the history of jazz,” he says. “I have always been interested in that, but it has become much more important to me.”
Although Modern Times comprises original scores, Avishai often plays standards and numbers from the earliest days of jazz.
“I play ragtime material, and I feed off the genius of some of those early masters,” he says as he returns to the simplicity theme.
“I love the work of people like Duke [Ellington] and Count Basie. What they wrote and played may sound very complex but it is also very simple. That’s what I’m aiming to achieve.”
Taking his lead from the pioneers of jazz naturally takes Avishai back to the days of yore, and the earlier styles.
“There is a lot of swing in what I do,” says the pianist. “That is very important to me. I am getting more and more into what happened in jazz at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the end of the nineteenth century. I am very wrapped up with that. The older I get, the connection with the traditions of jazz becomes ever more important.”
Avishai got part of that when he studied and played with late New York-born saxophonist and educator Arnie Lawrence.
“I think I got that from his energy, and from the fact that Arnie brought something beyond the music and what needs to be played. He gave me something from the experiential side of the music, and how to go about your business when you’re on the bandstand. Arnie gave me so much.”
Like all artists worth their salt, Avishai is basically a storyteller. “I am very interested in the roots of the music, also because of the stories behind those works,” he continues.
“It’s not just the music, there is the social aspect, the historical side and, yes, the story behind it all. All that is very important to me.”
Avishai also cites avant garde outfit the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Modern Jazz Quartet pianist and composer John Lewis and late Latvian-American Jewish painter Mark Rothko as sources of inspiration. That is an eclectic spectrum of influences, and goes some way to explaining the sumptuous textures and rich palette of colors that people Avishai’s output.
Avishai’s quest for sound and expression will go on for many more years, but it should be fascinating to see where he’s at with his learning curve in Eilat next week.
For tickets and more information:, *9066 and