Jazz Guitarist Gets by With a Little Help From His (Celebrity) Friends

Meir Shalev, Eyal Shani and Merav Michaeli will all perform with genre-buster Dekel Bor.

Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev

The sounds of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major for piano, played by Ivo Pogorelich, fill the living room of guitarist Dekel Bor. Though Bor has listened to this work many times, he is still thrilled and moved by it. “Wow, it’s amazing, listen to the way he moves from loud to soft, there’s a whole world there,” he says. “I am not Pogorelich, but that’s what I’m after in my work. To create that moment, that turning point, in which the music is no longer notes, but one soul speaking to another. Like falling in love.”

Bor will seek the magical turning point in a series of four performances beginning Saturday at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv. He will be the only musician on the stage, but he won’t be alone. He will be engaging in a “duet,” as he calls it, with a well-known figure who is not a musician. The first duet will be with best-selling writer Meir Shalev, to be followed by celebrity chef Eyal Shani (March 29), Labor MK Merav Michaeli (April 5) and award-winning actor Moshe Ivgy (April 12). “I consider those people masters,” Bor says, adding, “I am going to throw them overboard without any of us having a lifebelt.”

Why invite people who are not musicians? Why not just play a duet with another musician? After all, even that kind of encounter is a venture into the unknown.

“I want more than that – I want to fly into space,” Bor says; in contrast to the average jazz musician, he is not afraid to let loose with explosive declarations. “Not long ago I finished a year-long tour in which I played the music of John Coltrane,” he notes. “Before that, I traveled around for three years, playing works by Bach. Those were highly structured tours, and at the end of this year I will embark on another tour, of two years, in which everything will again be very clear. In the period between the tours, I felt like doing something experimental, something completely new, something to surprise myself. It’s like the age of 40 crisis coming prematurely,” says Bor, who is 34.

“I swim in the sea every day for 45 minutes,” he continues, “and the sea doesn’t leave you on the same course. It pulls you to a different place every time. Control is an illusion. You have to let go and take a chance. That’s what I’m hoping will happen in my performances with Meir, Eyal, Merav and Moshe.”

Bor says the four are close friends of his. He and Meir Shalev have a common interest in motorcycles, and Eyal Shani and his wife, Miri, are intimate friends: “I bring my girlfriends to Eyal and Miri to get their approval.” He knows MK Michaeli through her sister, who studied with his father, Alon Bor, a senior percussionist with the Israel Philharmonic. “Merav’s reply when I told her about the duets was the coolest of all,” Bor says. “She said, ‘Yalla, when?’ I ask a lot from my partners on the stage. I will throw them into a stormy sea.”

Bor has asked each of the four to choose texts that are important to them and read them spontaneously on the stage while he plays. “Dante’s ‘Inferno’ says that the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remained neutral,” Bor explains. “I also asked them to bring many more texts than what they think they will manage to read – four or six times as many. I suppose we will shatter the reading-playing format. I hope the performances will show my partners in a different light – as I know them and not as the public knows them.” He also plans to use the same format in concerts abroad. In June he will appear in Berlin with the German actor Christian Berkel (“Inglourious Basterds”), with whom he recently struck up a friendship (the two will also appear at Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater in May). That will probably be followed by several shows at Carnegie Hall in New York with American partners whose names Bor can’t yet reveal.

Music has been part of Bor’s life ever since he can remember. “I grew up in the mezzanine of the Philharmonic, waiting for my father to finish working,” he relates. Nevertheless, he wasn’t drawn to playing an instrument until a relatively late age. He was a devoted rock climber, the Israeli champion in his age group. One night, when he was 15, after a day of climbing at the Dead Sea, he heard someone playing a guitar around a campfire – and was turned on. “A month later, I told my parents, ‘You really should buy me a good guitar, because that’s what I’m going to be doing my whole life,’” he recalls.

He was a jazz major at Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Tel Aviv (his favorite guitarists were Jimmy Page and Slash). Even though he started to play relatively late, the music he absorbed in his childhood provided the background for rapid, impressive development. “When I started to play,” he says, “I already knew symphonies by Mozart and Mahler by heart. I could sing the parts. They were my lullabies.”

After his army service, Bor studied in Denmark with the aid of a scholarship. There he met the great double-bass player Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and joined his group, performing with them for about a year. He then returned to Israel, only to leave again, this time bound for New York and the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. One of the panel members at Bor’s admission exam was the double-bassist Reggie Workman, who was impressed by his playing and offered him the opportunity to join his group.“That was a great compliment, and it became even greater when I found out that this was the first time he had brought a guitarist into the group – and the last, by the way,” Bor says.

Another important meeting was with Robert Sadin, who produced albums for Sting, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and many others. “I had an offer to do a Sunday afternoon gig,” Bor relates. “That means with next to no audience. I’d come back from a tour the night before, and a gig was the last thing I felt like doing. But that’s what you do if you’re a jazz musician in New York – play gigs. I went there and didn’t know anyone, but I got along. In the intermission someone with burning eyes came over to me and said, ‘That was really good.’ When he introduced himself, my eyes started to burn, too.” The two started to work together, and Sadin produced the two albums that Bor released in new York, “Emuna” and “Home.”

Bor returned to Israel four years ago. “I felt imprisoned in the world I created,” he says. “My melodies, the chords I used most of the time. I needed to crash that and I looked for an authentic way. The shows with Meir, Eyal, Merav and Ivgy are part of that effort.”

Can you practice for a performance like that?

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I’m practicing like crazy. I set the clock early in the morning and play four-five hours.”

What are you working on?

“What I said about Pogorelich? About how there’s a whole world there between loud and soft? That’s the kind of thing I’m practicing. Dynamics. For the music to jump out. Like in books by [Charles] Bukowski, or [Mikhail] Bulgakov, or Etgar Keret. I’m concerned that these evenings will turn out to be pompous, or elitist, or – what I’m most afraid of – just pleasant. I don’t want them to be tender and pure. I want the music to move, to be crackling with
tension. That’s what I’m working on.”

Dekel Bor.Credit: David Bachar
Shalev. 'There were sections that were very tough to write, and there was also a feeling that I was embarking alone on less familiar territory.'Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
MK Merav Michaeli (Labor).Credit: Moti Milrod
Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani is the inspiration behind Miznon, a Tel Aviv eatery that has just opened an outpost in Paris.Credit: JTA Photo Service