Israeli Jazz Enters the Post-falafel Era

Ben Shalev
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Adam Ben Ezra playing double bass.
Bassist Adam Ben Ezra. His 'Can’t Stop Running' album features sophisticated, engaging sounds.Credit: Ezra Gozo Mansur
Ben Shalev

There hasn’t been such a wealth of Israeli jazz albums in aeons. Over the past three months, no fewer than eight good albums have been released: Three from musicians in Israel (Eli Degibri, Adam Ben Ezra, and Niogi), three in the United States (Amos Hoffman, Arnan Raz and Eyal Vilner) and two in France (Yuval Amihai and Shauli Einav).

What’s interesting about these albums is that not one of them is based on what is thought of as the sound identified with Israeli jazz – that mix of jazz and Mizrahi music that is sometimes dubbed “Falafel jazz.” It’s possible we are now entering the “post-falafel” era of Israeli jazz. Judging by the high standard of most of these albums, this can only be a positive development.

‘Second to the Left,’ Arnan Raz (Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit Records)

Out of the eight musicians, Raz is the only completely new name. The pleasure of making the discovery is not the main reason for amazement over Raz’s album – that would be the music itself. Raz is an excellent melodist. A large number of the tracks here are based on two saxophones playing simultaneously: Raz on tenor sax and Eyal Hai on alto sax. This unusual choice imbues the album not only with a dynamic, but even with a sense of brotherhood. Toward the middle of the album, influences outside of American jazz begin to seep in. Ironically, the first track that conjures up associations with Israeli music turns out to be a cover of U.S. indie-folk band Fleet Foxes’ “Mykonos.”

Second to the Left, by Arnan Raz.

‘Beam Me Up,’ Shauli Einav Quartet (Berthold Records)

The opening of Einav’s latest album is a bit deceptive, perhaps even intentionally: Opening track “1415” starts like a Jewish tune, even Hasidic. But the roots of the album are the imagination and open mind of the saxophonist. Einav doesn’t play freestyle jazz, but there’s a lot of freedom in his jazz. The framework refuses to remain rigid. The improvisation, as opposed to most of the other albums reviewed here, is not organized according to a clear harmonic structure that repeats itself, but has a more fluid and even capricious regularity.

‘Longing,’ Yuval Amihai (independent release)

The new album by guitarist Amihai, who lives in France, is another sign that new Israeli jazz isn’t dipping so much into the fountain of Israeli music. Despite its name, ‘Longing’ doesn’t bear the stamp of Israeli music – unlike Amihai’s previous album, which was filled with Israeli influences. The new album is pure electric guitar (along with double bass and drums), and it’s a pleasure to listen to Amihai’s playing, which is endowed with gentleness and extraordinary clarity.

Longing, by Yuval Amihai.

‘Landing,’ Niogi (Alessa Records)

The latest release from Niogi is the outlier among these eight albums: the quartet’s music has no connection to either U.S. jazz or Israeli music. Niogi (including pianist Guy Shkolnik and Omri Abramov on tenor and soprano saxophones) create measured and pleasant musical movements within the sound landscape that creates vast northern expanses in your mind. The dominant instruments are the synthesizer and EWI electronic woodwind, and influences are the world of European jazz, fluffy fusion from the 1970s, classical music and prog rock.

Landing, by Niogi.

‘Cliff Hangin,’ Eli Degibri (Degibri Records)

Degibri’s latest sounds are not breathtaking thrillers. Instead, you’ll find snappy tales, based on a melody that’s revealed smartly and patiently, backed by a very good ensemble. Degibri plays with jazz musicians he has nurtured since they were very young – pianist Gadi Lehavi, 19, and drummer Ofri Nehemya, 21 – and this almost parental dynamic is what leads him to the wonderful and relatively restrained path of his previous works.

Cliff Hangin, by Eli Degibri.

‘Almost Sunrise,’ Eyal Vilner Big Band (Gut String Records)

The big band sound is the dinosaur of the jazz world, and its extinction was predicted long ago. But it’s still alive and kicking because it has no replacement. Nothing can compete with the sound of 15 woodwind instruments playing together, as “Almost Sunrise” makes quite clear. Vilner works in New York. There are modern big bands in the jazz world today, but Vilner’s approach is traditional-reconstructionist, without contemporary tastes, and he does it beautifully. Alongside tracks by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Benny Golson and Cole Porter, there are two wonderful tracks by Vilner. The music here is exciting, and it’s so refreshing to hear refined and precise solos that last 20 seconds instead of three minutes.

‘Back to the City,’ Amos Hoffman (independent release)

On previous albums, Hoffman played with both an electric guitar and oud, and zigzagged back and forth between the spirit of American jazz and music imbibed from these parts. Hoffman spent a few years in New York before returning to Israel for over a decade, and recently returned to America. His new album is a clear product of this biographical-geographical step. “Back to the City” is an album of pure traditional jazz, mostly the hard bop, bluesy sound of the 1950s and ’60s.

Back to the City, by Amos Hoffman.

‘Can’t Stop Running,’ Adam Ben Ezra (independent release)

Bassist Adam Ben Ezra holds a few characteristics that could make him one of the most successful and beloved musicians in the new generation of Israeli jazz. He’s a good musician, his music is sophisticated but very engaging, he works on the seam between jazz, ethnic and instrumental pop, and he has great control over the Web (his videos are very popular on YouTube). Alongside all these qualities, I also hear two major shortcomings with Ben Ezra. The first concerns his compositions: He knows how to create a meaty framework of rhythm and harmony in his album debut, but he finds it difficult to fill it with melodic content. The second problem is related to Ben Ezra’s multidisciplinary talents. His album starts with jazz, moves into more Israeli-ethnic regions, and then takes a Spanish turn and moves into flamenco. This wide range is a good thing, but you need to be careful not to bite off more than you can chew.

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