The Sum of Many Parts
Omer Avital and the art of musical collage.
By Shaun Brady
Throughout his life, Omer Avital has been shaped by a variety of cultural fusions. He was born to parents of Moroccan and Yemenite descent. He grew up a Jew of Middle Eastern heritage in an occasionally unwelcoming Israeli culture. He was a classically trained guitarist who discovered a love for vintage bebop. He was a part of the first wave of Israeli jazz musicians to arrive in New York City, laying the groundwork for a scene that thrives today but was nonexistent then. And he was a pioneer in folding his cultural heritage back into straightahead jazz.
All of those influences and circumstances can be heard in the rich tapestry of music on Avital’s latest album, New Song (Motéma), on which the bassist/composer leads his quintet of Israeli and American musicians through an evocative set of Ellington-inspired, suite-like jazz spiced with Middle Eastern and North African accents. But despite all of those cultural comminglings, Avital doesn’t see his music as an attempt at fusion. “I’m more of a traditional kind of guy,” he says, “even though I do things that are from a few traditions.”
In late 2001, after spending nearly a decade carving out a name for himself on the New York jazz scene, Avital returned home to Israel to study classical composition, traditional Israeli and Arabic music and the oud. But when referring to the antecedents of his own work, he’s just as likely to point to “Caravan” or “A Night in Tunisia” as he is to reference his actual roots in Israel. And given the vividness and verve of the writing and playing throughout New Song, it would be difficult to point to anything that smacks of the theoretical or experimental, despite the mash-up of sounds and influences.
Pieces like the opener, “Hafla,” and “Yemen Suite” overtly incorporate Middle Eastern and North African modes and melodies, whereas something like “Tsafdina” is harder to pin down, with its hint of Afro-Cuban rhythm and the presence of Algerian singer Mehdi Chaib. “Sabah El-Kheir (Good Morning)” is classic CTI-style soul jazz, and “Small Time Shit,” which closes New Song — as it did the bassist’s 2011 release Live at Smalls — is pure scenester groove, a perfect clap-along jam-session tune with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor.
The fact that Avital’s quintet is equally adept at wringing emotional color from his more expansive tunes while capturing the loose late-night vibe of “Small Time Shit” is a testament to the years the band’s members have logged playing together. Trumpeter Avishai Cohen first played with Avital on an Israeli television taping when he was 12 and the bassist was 17 (the two have worked in each other’s bands and in the co-led group Third World Love since the late 1990s); saxophonist Joel Frahm and drummer Daniel Freedman were among the first collaborators that Avital found upon his arrival in the United States; and though a new addition to the quintet, replacing Omer Klein, Yonathan Avishai is a co-founder of Third World Love and a longtime collaborator.