All Keyed Up

Three of the best-known pop musicians in the country are joining forces for a one-time performance, which all but ensures that the summer ends on a high note.

Rehearsal rooms are usually dark, smoke-filled places, with electrical cables all over the floor, paper cups serving as ashtrays, arguments with the sound engineer, as the same songs are played over and over. But that's the exact opposite of what passersby saw in a piano store on Tel Aviv's Ibn Gvirol Street one morning a few weeks ago: Between crowded rows of elegant instruments, Yoni Rechter, Shlomo Gronich and Shlomi Shaban were sitting behind three grand pianos, rehearsing "Laila Tov" ("Good Night" ) from the well-known album "The Sixteenth Sheep," playing with three pairs of hands and singing in three-part harmony.

Shlomo Gronich, Shlomi Shaban and Yoni Rechter
Ilya Melnikov

At one point in the song, Rechter - who wrote the melody to it in 1978 - reached with one hand and simultaneously played two pianos. At another point, Gronich got up and jotted down the vocal arrangement they had agreed on. Photos of the three have been hung up on the wall of the store like VIPs photographed in a New York restaurant.

Rechter, who was conducting, gave some instructions to Gronich, whose vocal range is greater than that of the other two in the trio. Momentarily bewildered, Gronich asked Rechter in a somewhat amused tone, "Can't you make things a little less complicated?"

"Look who's talking," Rechter retorted good-naturedly.

This is the way three of the most talented pianists in the world of light music in Israel were preparing for their joint appearance, scheduled for August 26 at the Shuni Amphitheater in Binyamina. This particular rehearsal was a melange of harmonies, catchy rhythms and improvisation, complicated by an infinite number of other musical details that blended together miraculously.

The fact of these three musicians on one stage seems natural: All come from a rich musical background and boast a mastery of the piano, playing with seemingly effortless virtuosity. This is not the first time they have performed together. A year and a half ago, they gave a benefit concert in Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium for the Beit Noam center for men who commit domestic violence, appearing with vocalist Marina Maximilian Blumin. In addition, Rechter and Gronich have made separate guest appearances with Shaban - who has returned the favor to each of them.

Shaban initiated the upcoming event as part of a series of open-air summer concerts he has been hosting in various venues, featuring some of his favorite artists. This coming Tuesday, he will be appearing with Berry Sakharof outside the Old Train Station in Jerusalem; on September 7, he will join forces with Assaf Amdursky and Eran Zur at the Elephant Pub in Kiryat Haim. In contrast to the other concerts in the series, next week's performance in Binyamina will give the piano top billing over the electric guitar.

What will you be playing at this concert?

Shaban: "In the first part of the evening, I will appear alone and then Yoni or Shlomo will join me, in duets with two pianos. In the final part, all three of us will be on stage. With Yoni, for example, we are combining one of his songs with one of mine; this is a very moving part of the show. With Shlomo, there will also be, from my perspective at least, some very moving moments. Something we have not done before is to have Shlomo sing a song from his first album."

Gronich: "It makes perfect sense for us to be put together. I think each of us feels the same way - we are artists who flow in response to the same sort of inspiration, and it doesn't matter that one of us belongs to an older generation and the other belongs to a younger generation."

Same but different

Despite some similarities in their musical backgrounds, the three artists have taken their creative keyboard skills in different directions. During the era of the pop band Kaveret, Rechter leaned toward rock music, but it was Danny Sanderson who charted the group's musical course. In interviews about that period, Rechter says he sometimes felt like a "hired gun" whose job was simply to play the piano, and was something of an outsider vis-a-vis the others.

Apparently, Rechter feels more at home in the world of improvisation that jazz offers him, as he has demonstrated in albums on which he collaborated with Gidi Gov, such as "First Album" (1978 ) and "40:06" (1983 ) and in his own first album, "Intentions" (1979 ). Of the three musicians performing next week, he is the only one who has written classical compositions, including for symphony orchestras, and children's choirs.

In contrast, Gronich took an avant-garde direction with his first album, "Why Didn't You Tell Me?" (1971 ). He also subsequently opted for jazz music in albums he collaborated on with Matti Caspi, and in "A Little Different" (1974 ), a joint effort with Shem Tov Levy and Shlomo Yidov. However, unlike Rechter, with his restrained style and delicate touch on the keyboard, Gronich's forays into jazz were very wild - for example, his well-known "Yesh Li Simpatya" ("I Have Sympathy" ) - and he is considered a piano pounder.

In 1975, before he left Israel for a time after a number of commercial failures, Gronich collaborated with Rechter for the first time, recording the background sounds for the "Fourteen Octaves" album produced jointly by Rechter and Avner Kenner in 1975. Later in his career, Gronich turned to world music, performing with an Ethiopian children's group, the Sheba Choir. In recent years, he has drawn closer to his religious roots, discovering the world of piyutim (liturgical poems ). His last album, "Journey to the Source," came out in 2008.

As for Shlomi Shaban, he followed an altogether different course from that of either Rechter or Gronich: Early on, he showed a decided preference for rock and roll and electric guitars, and suppressed his classical training. In his debut album in 2000, entitled "Shlomi Shaban," he assumed the image of a rock singer who tells stories, along the lines of Meir Ariel. In "A City" (2007 ), Shaban performed a cover version of Bob Dylan's "Mama, You Been on My Mind." Last year, he came out with "Tower of Song," an album of covers, in which Shaban allows himself the luxury of returning to his roots as a pianist; he even recorded a Chopin nocturne, set to a poem by David Avidan.

Despite the considerable differences between the three of you, what is the common denominator among musicians who compose on the piano?

"They all attempt to be simple and straightforward," notes Rechter, provoking peals of laughter.

Gronich: "Maybe it is the link with the musical tradition. When you play the piano as a child, you begin with the classical repertoire and then continue, basing yourself on the foundations of that repertoire - unlike guitarists, who take up the guitar and immediately begin to play without any binding tradition behind them."

Is it a more complex process than creating music with other instruments?

Gronich: "Yes, maybe. Maybe we could even [describe it with] coarse words such as 'quality' and 'depth.'"

Rechter: "A piano is essentially an entire orchestra. You have everything you need - both highs and lows, all the instruments and rhythms. The piano gives you so many options, and that in itself presents a real challenge. I think people who opt for the world of the piano delve a little more into themselves than do others."

In your opinion, how did you make such musical complexity so accessible? After all, the three of you have entered the canon of Israeli music, instead of merely operating on the margins.

Shaban: "I'll try to answer that on my colleagues' behalf. Yesterday, I talked with another musician, and said it is nice that some of [Rechter and Gronich's] songs sound so simple. Their complexity is not just complexity for its own sake, but rather for the sake of nuance. To the ear of a non-musician, this nuance is pleasant, but then he is not completely aware of what is going on. You hear a melody, you hear a nice song, but what you don't know is that, underneath all this, are many, many little details that help make things even more beautiful. Naturally, the foundation must be a good melody. Underneath, the melody is painted with details that make it even more captivating and moving."

Do lyrics turn music into something more accessible?

Shaban: "It depends. I am a young artist, at least in terms of my repertoire. I have come out with three albums so far, and thus think I am still building my language; in my first album at least, there were songs that were essentially text, and that really helped them get out there. But they had almost no melody. Today, I allow myself to do things a little differently."

Practicing, or not

How do you keep yourselves "in shape" as musicians? Do you still sit for hours and practice?

Shaban: "Following my meetings with Rechter, I changed my training methods. Both Rechter and Gronich are artists for whom the question of improvisation is very substantive; for me, less so. I think both of them are greatly inspired by improvisation. Before I met them, in order to stay in shape musically, I would begin playing scales and etudes. Then suddenly I realized I was making a mistake. Recently, I have been setting aside an hour when I set a metronome to some random tempo and then begin to improvise. In other words, I am not fixed within the rigid classical tradition of repeating scales endlessly until your fingers bleed."

Gronich: "That, for instance, is the difference between those two and myself: They practice and I don't."

Rechter: "Well, then, what do you do all day?"

Shaban: "Shlomo doesn't need to practice."

Gronich: "I do need to practice, but I don't. Never mind."

And what about classical music? Do you have any opportunities to play it for pleasure, rather than for the purpose of improving your techniques, for training?

Gronich: "In my case, the answer is no."

Rechter: "In my case, the answer is yes. I play such pieces for pleasure and actually write some classical music myself. I never play classical music just to practice for an upcoming performance; rather because I feel a need to do it. It gives me so much and advances me in so many different ways that are also connected to my own music. It's hard to explain. When you play Beethoven, you feel him through the piano. You feel a multitude of details that create the sound, details that only musicians can sense. The moment you break down a composition into its parts, you come up with your own creation."

Are there certain composers that you prefer over others?

Rechter: "Recently, and for the first time in my life, I worked on a Schubert's Sonata No. 20 in A major. When I was a young boy, I played his famous pieces and thought at the time that he was over the top. This time when I approached the sonata, which is 40 minutes long, I discovered the beauty it contains. I learned the whole piece. With a teacher, by the way."

Do you still need a teacher?

"We all need teachers. Absolutely. You mean psychologists don't have to see someone who can treat them? [My teacher] also helps me. He is like another ear listening to the musical composition."

The outstanding composers who created the "collective subconscious" of music in Israel - Sasha Argov, Nahum Nardi, Moshe Wilensky, Mordechai Zeira and others - were all pianists.

"I think that contributed to creating a certain sound that is part of Israel's mythology. In addition, the piano provided the setting for the encounter between West and East by bringing Western culture here, to this arid place."

Today, in this era of computerized sound and darbukas, who, in your opinion, among young composers, is doing interesting things on the piano?

Gronich: "Shlomi, of course. Personally, I am captivated by his classicism, his skill as a pianist, his inventiveness and his unique method of interpretation."

Rechter: "With Shlomi, the piano always has a special presence; however, besides Shlomi, other people are doing things - some better than others ... Eviatar Banai has a certain special something and the same can be said of Arkadi Duchin, I think."

Shaban: "I am thinking of someone else: On the one hand, Assaf Amdursky is limited as a pianist, and yet he plays well. In other words, he has no technique, but has a lot of groove. Even when he plays the drums and bass guitar, you can feel it. Thus, even though he is by no means a virtuoso on the piano, you learn something every time he touches the keyboard."

If we put aside the piano for a moment, is there another musical instrument that you have always dreamed of mastering?

Rechter: "In the 1970s, when Chick Corea came to Israel, he said that a pianist must know how to play the drums. So I learned percussion for a year from drummer Jerry Garval, and that was really good. But I am better at this in theory than in reality; I just didn't have what it takes to become a great drummer. I would be happy to try again, but I simply haven't the time."

Gronich: "I would be very happy if I could bend the notes, which is something you cannot do with a piano. To go up and go down without moving your finger, as a guitarist does. But for some reason, guitars and I just don't mix very well. Another instrument I have loved for years is the trombone, but I don't think anything will come of it. I tried it once, but it just didn't work."

Shaban: "Ever since I was a kid, my dream has been to play electric guitar. I went out and bought one but discovered I am just not cut out for guitar-playing. I'd simply love to do a solo for 15 minutes on an electric guitar. But apparently, that will never happen."

Just as each of the three has a unique approach to the piano, each has a different sense of humor, which will no doubt come through in the concert. In the rehearsal we attended, it seemed that they were laughing a lot, usually at private jokes.

For his part Rechter is known for his dry British humor; Gronich tends to be wild and unrestrained; and Shaban has a sharp tongue that turns his performances in many cases into a one-man stand-up comedy routine (even when he is appearing with others ).

"In my view at least, humor is something spontaneous," says Rechter. " We have no jokes that have been 'preplanned' for our joint performance. Nonetheless, in music, amusing things always occur."

"Yoni said something very true," adds Shaban. "I think that the focus will be on musical humor; about one of us putting one over on the other. When you are doing a two-piano duet, it is important to capture the attention of the other side - and you can do that when you make your partner laugh, when you pester or pinch him. They try to trip me up all the time, but the assumption is that the other side can take it. Otherwise, we just wouldn't do things like this."