Israeli musician draws on African and American roots to make jazz

Share story

Omer Avital
For Omer Avital, music is about making connections between different cultures in ways that are faithful to their traditions.
Photo courtesy of Gangi

If Omer Avital could tell you something about his music, it would be that it is not world music, or fusion.

As a composer and a performer, he's a jazz artist. But there's no question that the bassist draws heavily on North African and Middle Eastern traditions.

So when Avital's band plays "The Abutbuls," a tune dedicated to Moroccan music and that side of his family, a North African audience of Muslims and Jews can relate. North American jazz fans will be drawn to elements that recall international explorations by Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.

For Avital, music is about making connections between different cultures in ways that are faithful to their traditions, an approach his quintet will present tonight at the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul. Joining him on stage will be Greg Tardy on tenor saxophone; Nadav Remez on guitar; Jason Linder on piano and keyboards and Daniel Freedman on drums.

Playing with broad musical strokes comes natural for Avital, born in Israel to parents of Moroccan and Yemenite descent. Surrounded by one tradition but raised in another, he has long absorbed a variety of styles, including European classical music and jazz that swings.

Omer Avital
Omer Avital says modern jazz musicians who aim to employ other musical traditions should make sure they master them. That means understanding where the music comes from, and how to transmit the energy and spirit behind it.
photo courtesy of Liat Avital Yeminy

"I think that's where great things arise from, but at the same time there are shared links between different traditions," Avital said. "Without losing — not in a mixture or fusion kind of way but more in a deep current kind of way, you know."

His other projects include the New Jerusalem Orchestra, which combines classical music, jazz improvisation and Arabic instrumentation. He and Yemeni singer Ravid Kahalani lead Yemeni Blues, a group that uses cello, viola, jazz horns and Arabic instruments. But he loves the jazz quintet.

Avital dedicated himself to improvisation as a teenager, first studying classical guitar. He later made a name for himself as in New York City. But at 30, he returned to Israel for a while to study classical composition and Arabic musical theory and oud.

In the United States, his career has not been linear. Instead he tends to record projects that he likes, sometimes for distribution later. The 41-year-old recorded his latest CD, "Suite of the East," in 2006, after a successful residency at the New York club Smalls, and released it only last year.

Hailed as one of the best jazz albums of 2012, it features trumpeter Avishai Cohen, no relation to the bassist of the same name.

Infused with sounds of the east, the recording is a spiritual work with a unifying message that seeks to "document the moment" of a great performance.

"You need to basically know where you come from, where the music comes from, and how you transmit the energies and the spirit behind the music."

Avital is glad the recording allows listeners to approach the music from different vantage points. But as a composer, he's ever mindful of the demands of his art form.

"The feeling of jazz is something that I'm very much into," he said. "And if I explore other feelings I try to explore them in relation to the feeling of jazz, you know, and not, not to abandon so to speak those core elements which I love."

But Avital said modern jazz musicians who aim to employ other musical traditions should make sure they master them.

"I think that in order to get the best out of the genre — which each genre is basically, let's say a spiritual well, so to speak — then you need to commit," he said.

That means understanding where the music comes from, and how to transmit the energy and spirit behind it.

"You need to basically know where you come from, where the music comes from, and how you transmit the energies and the spirit behind the music," Avital said. "Whether you're conducting a Beethoven symphony or you play a jazz concert or if you play Indian music. Those are serious matters to me."