Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Omer Klein: Jazz with roots in Israel

Jazz happens in a lot of places around Minneapolis-St. Paul: clubs, cafés, concert halls, galleries, parks, pizzerias. Under the radar for many of us is the jazz that happens in synagogues and at Jewish community centers.
Israeli jazz musicians are a vital part of today’s New York City jazz scene. But when they come to the Twin Cities, artists like bassist Avishai Cohen are more likely to perform at the Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka or the St. Paul JCC.
A center for Jewish cultural art performances, the JCC will feature jazz again on Thursday, May 14 -- Israel’s 61st Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut). Omer Klein and his trio, bassist Omer Avital and drummer Ziv Ravitz, will present original music by Klein, a pianist and composer since age 7.
Born in Netanya, Israel, in 1982 (he turns 27 on Friday, so if you meet him, be sure to wish him Yom Huledet), Klein graduated from the prestigious Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, the Juilliard of Israel, which has a serious jazz department. In 2005, he moved to the U.S. to study at the New England Conservatory with Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez.
Klein already had his own sound, a mélange of Israeli, Middle Eastern, and North African influences with American jazz. Speaking by phone from his New York apartment on Monday, Klein recalled, "The first time [Perez] heard me, the first lesson we had, he said, 'Listen, man, we’re going to work on several aspects, but this thing you do that sounds so Israeli, don’t ever lose that. ... It’s original, it really comes from you.' "
His music is exotic yet accessible. Minor-key inflections add shadows and emotion to his pensive and beautiful melodies. It’s probably a good thing he’s playing at the JCC -- no club chatter. If you go, you’ll want to hear every note.
Since moving to New York in 2006, Klein has released three CDs. “Duets” (2007) with bassist (and Klein’s former Boston roommate) Haggai Cohen Milo was followed by “Introducing Omer Klein” (2008) with Avital and Ravitz, the musicians he’ll bring to St. Paul, and percussionist Itamar Doari. (Here’s a video of that quartet performing in Tel Aviv.) In March 2009, the solo piano outing “Heart Beats” had its release at the Blue Note jazz club.
Every track on all three CDs is an original composition by Klein. "Oud Song" from "Introducing" is the one I heard first, as an MP3 linked in an email. I stopped messing around on my desk and listened hard. Then I went in search of whatever else I could find.
Klein is already moving on to the next thing. After playing some of the "Heart Beats" compositions with Avital and Ravitz, he began writing new compositions specifically for his trio. "I was imagining Omer and Ziv in my mind while I was writing the different parts, and we have been rehearsing this music for a while now," he said. "They feel this is a new stage in my music and could be a new direction for the trio. We’ll play a lot of this new material in St. Paul. Some of it will be heard for the first time outside of New York City, and some will be heard before New York City. Since everything is so fresh, not all songs have titles."
Avital grew up in Tel Aviv, Ravitz in Beer-Sheva. You may be wondering why Israelis have become such a force in jazz. (More names jazz fans may know: trumpeter Avishai Cohen - same name as bassist Avishai Cohen, but no relation; his sister, clarinetist Anat, and brother, saxophonist Yuval; trombonist Avi Liebovich; pianist Shai Maestro; guitarist Gilad Hekselman; saxophonist Eli Degibri.)
Speaking for himself, Klein says, "I was a musical kid, playing melodies, inventing different things, learning songs from the radio. When I discovered jazz, in which you have to invent things all the time, I immediately knew that I had to be involved with that. I wanted to play differently every time I play."
Speaking as one of many Israeli jazz musicians -- some living in New York, some back in Israel teaching the next wave -- he says, "One thing we all seem to agree upon is there might be something in the Israeli way of life that requires improvisation in everyday life, that requires being creative. ... What we all want to do is express ourselves, be able to express something universal, but still tell our own story."
Omer Klein & His Trio. Thursday, May 14, 7 p.m., St. Paul JCC, 1375 St. Paul Avenue. Tickets at 651-698-0751 ($10 members/$15 public).
Originally published at, Wednesday, May 13, 2009.

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