Saturday, January 12, 2013

Omer Avital and His Band of the East at the St. Paul JCC

When: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 • Where: The St. Paul JCCWho: Omer Avital, bass; Greg Tardy, tenor saxophone; Nadav Remez, guitar; Jason Lindner, piano, Fender Rhodes, and electronic keyboard; Yonadav Halevy, drums

L2R: Remez, Lindner, Avital, Tardy, Halevy
by John Whiting
Omer Avital’s Band of the East is an exciting, mind-expanding jazz quintet. Led by composer and bassist Avital, who came to NYC in the late 1990s in the first wave of Israeli jazz musicians to move here and quickly establish themselves as serious players, they played a generous set in the gym at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center on Thursday night.

Jeffrey Richman, the JCC’s cultural arts director, brings important Israeli jazz musicians to St. Paul every year around this time. Some of the audiences for his annual show have been a bit sparse, due to any number of reasons: it’s jazz, it’s jazz in a gym, it’s jazz in a gym at a JCC, it’s jazz in a gym at a JCC featuring musicians who rarely venture west of the Hudson, and it’s not advertised much. Richman has become skilled at rallying the jazz-loving media troops behind him. Band of the East had a good crowd, probably thanks in part to MPR’s David Cazares, who did an on-air story about Avital that morning. That’s what brought the two men sitting behind me to the show.

The Band of the East is Avital on bass, Greg Tardy on tenor saxophone, Nadav Remez on guitar, Jason Lindner on keys, and Daniel Freedman on drums. At the St. Paul JCC, Yonadav Halevy sat in for Freedman, whose child had been born the day before. Halevy was new to me; born in Haifa, he moved to NYC in 2004 and is now part of the jazz and hip-hop scenes.

Avital and Hardy
by John Whiting
Avital doesn’t consider his music “world music” or himself a “world music person;” he made that clear to Cazares and also to Mordecai Specktor, who interviewed him for “The American Jewish World,” and he calls himself a jazz artist. But his music departs from what we usually think of as jazz, specifically American jazz. As far as I know, he doesn’t play standards. (Given the current vogue for standards-bashing, I feel the need to clarify that I’m not defining jazz/not jazz as standards/not standards. I’m just saying that as far as I know, Avital doesn’t play standards.) Born to a Moroccan father and a Yemenite mother, he sounds like no one else I’ve heard. His harmonies and melodies, rhythms and colors, ornaments and flourishes are from all over: the Middle East, North Africa, the synagogue and the market, the concert hall and the club. In 2002, after ten years in NYC, he returned to Israel for three years to study Arabic music theory, the oud (which he played Thursday night), and traditional Israeli music. He has since formed (with Yair Harel) the New Jerusalem Orchestra (NJO), an Israeli-international-multicultural orchestra that features vocals by Rabbi Haim Louk, a Torah scholar and master of Sephardic piyyut (liturgical music). And he has described the purpose of Band of the East as “to genuinely bring the earthy essence of Middle Eastern and North African music together with the living tradition of hard swinging, spiritually uplifting jazz.”

Avital fell in love with Charlie Parker’s music as a high school student in Israel, and he immersed himself in the American jazz tradition and straight-ahead jazz when he moved to NYC in his early 20s, but he’s a world musician now—a world jazz musician. Jazz being the only music that absorbs and transforms all music. (It’s what Kurt Elling, a world-traveling jazz artist, calls “the ultimate syncretic art form.”) That was thrillingly clear in the final tune the Band of the East played on Thursday, an arrangement by Avital of an ancient Yemenite-Jewish song called “Ayalat Hen.”

Omer Avital on the oud
by John Whiting
Backing up: the concert began with “Eser (Middle Eastern Funk),” a lively, driving, joyous piece that had us all nodding our heads. (Speaking of joy, I’ve rarely seen a musician look happier while performing than Avital.) Next, a lovely ballad, “Zohar Smiles,” which Avital wrote for his son. Then “Ramad Gan,” named for the town where Avital grew up, which he began on solo oud. Followed by the beautifully sad “Neighborhood Song.” (A neighborhood lost and remembered?) Each musician had many chances to shine. I enjoyed all of them, including Lindner on the Fender Rhodes and Halevy, whose solos were volcanic. I was especially happy to see and hear Greg Tardy, a monster player I last saw at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul in—what year was it? 2004? 2007? (I’ve since learned that Tardy took three years off from jazz to engage in Christian ministry at a mega-church in Times Square.)

“Ayalet Hen” started with Avital playing solo oud, then singing. Soon Lindner and Halevy came out of the wings to clap a rhythm in unison. Lindner sat down at the piano and joined Avital on the melody, then played a lengthy improvisation. Avital returned to his bass, Tardy and Remez came in on their instruments, and suddenly the whole thing was swinging.

It was as if the old tune had been shot from a cannon, transported in an instant from past to present. We could still hear the original melody, but now it was modern jazz. Avital turned his bass to face Lindner and danced.


You can hear almost the same concert we heard (but different; this is jazz) in a live recording made at the 92Y Tribeca in downtown NYC on Nov. 8, 2012, part of the WGBO series "The Checkout: Live." That set list also includes “One Man’s Light Is Another Man’s Night,” which I don’t believe we heard at the St. Paul JCC. Daniel Freedman is on drums, and there’s less of Avital’s oud. But this will give you a taste of what it's like to be in the room with this wonderful, worldly band.

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