At Long Last, Piano Jazz Is Back in Israel

Ben Shalev
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Members of Shalosh: Pianist Gadi Stern, drummer Matan Assayag and bassist David Michaeli.
Members of Shalosh: Pianist Gadi Stern, drummer Matan Assayag and bassist David Michaeli.Credit: Gilad Bar-Shalev
Ben Shalev

Though the piano trio is the basic jazz group, hardly any Israeli jazz albums in that format have been released in the past couple of years. Brass players, guitarists and bassists have been busy putting out albums, as have electronic-music artists who flirt with jazz. But piano trios were on sabbatical.

Now they’re back. In the past few weeks, at least three new albums have been released by piano trios, each of which exhibits a different aspect of local jazz. Omer Klein, one of the stars of Israeli jazz in the past decade, was recently signed by Warner Music, and this is his first trio album on the label. Shalosh, representatives of the young generation, treats the traditional trio combo like a rock band. And Daniel Sarid, who’s returned after a long break, is giving expression to the voice of freer jazz.

The Shalosh trio, made up of pianist Gadi Stern, bassist David Michaeli and drummer Matan Assayag, recently released their second album, “Rules of Oppression.” Its third track, “Bond Villain,” recently burst into my headphones during a night walk on Tel Aviv’s Halakha Bridge, between the Yoo Towers, the restive tumult of the Ayalon Freeway and a huge billboard of supermodel Bar Refaeli. The music fit the bill, so to speak. A massive piano, which sounded like three pianos, let loose tremendous chords backed by a rampaging rhythm section. An operatic female voice then broke in, singing a royal spaghetti-western melody, and for a moment the cars on the freeway seemed to be mechanized horses galloping full-tilt on the way to the deserts of Dizengoff.

In two words: epic jazz. Music of broad brush strokes that demands attention and doesn’t take no for an answer. Stern, Michaeli and Assayag deserve high regard for choosing to work with a brush like this, after their debut album, which was painted in thinner, more minor strokes. The epic DNA might speak to a relatively extensive audience who aren’t necessarily jazz fans. But embarking on the epic jazz trail also has a problematic side. That’s because music above which hovers the potent shadow of the Italian composer Ennio Morricone has to be wonderful in itself so as not to collapse under its own grandeur. My impression is that the members of Shalosh, with all their talent and passion, haven’t yet achieved maturity. When the epic element blends with direct, down-to-earth playing, as in the tracks “Rules of Oppression” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” the result is terrific. But there are too many other tracks that generate a gushing feeling that isn’t fully backed up musically and emotionally.

Another reservation concerns the excessive influence of The Bad Plus, one of the leading trios in American jazz over the past 15 years, if not the leading combo. It’s clear why Shalosh is hooked on them, but it wouldn’t hurt to loosen the attachment. Similarly, the combo’s decision to do two covers of pop hits, and the choice of the songs themselves – Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” and The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby” – seems to have been taken from the book of The Bad Plus. The performances are far from exciting.

Personal touch

The music that superb pianist Omer Klein recorded in his first years as combo leader bore strong influences of North African music. Its characteristic rhythm drew on the musical signature of the singer Matti Caspi, and the melodies were clear and catchy. In recent years, Klein has been carving out a new path, whose association with a distinctively Israeli sound is less clear. (This shift reflects a tendency of Israeli jazz artists to somewhat distance themselves from the identifiable local sound that intertwines East and West.) Klein’s new album, “Sleepwalkers,” his first for Warner Music, continues on this new, more personal path, in which associations with the wellspring of Israeli music are more gentle, less explicit. One of the pleasures of listening to the new album, together with Klein’s marvelous instrumental work and that of bassist Haggai Cohen-Milo and drummer Amir Bresler, lies in tapping into those associations.

Omer Klein's "Sleepwalkers"Credit: YouTube

Klein inserts the Mediterranean element in a weakened but vivid dosage, within a context of Black music or music with a Latino flare – as in exhilarating tracks such as “Mixtape” and “Hookup.” An additional direction of exploration comes through in more lyrical numbers, like “Josephine” and in particular, the lovely “Spilt Milk.” Those tracks, and especially the latter, are something like songs – but not closed, clear songs – more like embroideries of gentle and engaging melodies, interwoven with one another.

Clockwise from left: Omer Klein, Haggai Cohen-Milo and Amir Bresler.Credit: Peter Hönnemann

These melodies and harmonies are not clearly influenced by great Israeli composers. You don’t listen and say, “Ah, this is influenced by Yoni Rechter / Ariel Zilber / Sasha Argov.” Instead, you reflect more vaguely, “Could it sound like this if it weren’t for Yoni Rechter / Ariel Zilber / Sasha Argov?” Possibly yes, perhaps not.

The main problem with “Sleepwalkers” lies in its eclecticism. An eclectic album demands that a musician be at his best, if not at his peak, in every channel. In addition to being a wonderful musician, Klein is also a responsible one. If he’s chosen a particular style, you can be sure that he knows what to do with it. Nevertheless, there are no few tracks on “Sleepwalkers” that don’t breach the “good” barrier on their way to the coveted “excellent.”

Potent eccentricity

If one can imagine the music of Shalosh and Omer Klein being played in large spaces and public areas, the music of pianist Daniel Sarid lives in small spaces that act as a home for the more free-style branches of Israeli jazz. These include Club Levontin 7, which Sarid founded and managed for years, and HaTeiva in Jaffa, where he’s currently the artistic director.

Sarid’s music remains rooted in free jazz, and the percussive touch of the piano’s high keys continues to characterize his playing. But his new album, “Loventurous” (together with bassist Gilad Ebro and drummer Ziv Ravitz) also has a more structured and lyrical side.

One of the marvelous examples of the encounter between the two tendencies is “Intentions Declared.” A powerful eccentric element pervades Sarid’s music, and that’s how the track begins: with a few sudden, broken phrases, sharp staccato fragments. But it doesn’t stay that way. After the last staccato shard, the music shifts to a contrary mode, far softer, and the fragments fuse together, until the eccentric element looms again. This track is dedicated to the accordionist Tuval Peter, Sarid’s mentor, who died two years ago. Besides the pieces written by Sarid, there’s also a piece by Ornette Coleman and two tracks of free improvisation. One of the latter is the last track, “AMA-GI.” Expectedly, it’s dominated by the splashes of color in the high register, but toward the end something wonderful happens. After a few minutes of frenetic motion, Sarid plays a sentence of a few meaningful sounds over and over, which seem to build a fence and introduce the spirit of the album within it. It’s time to come together and rest. The last notes, softer and rounder, put the album to bed.

French honors

The Israeli jazz trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s latest album, “Into the Silence,” has been chosen by the French Jazz Academy as Album of the Year for 2016. It was released on the prestigious ECM label. Cohen was also chosen by the French publication Jazz Magazine as musician of the year (in the category of non-French artists).

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