Israeli-Canadian Pianist Creates Songs in the Off-key of Life

Ahead of his appearance at the Piano Festival in Tel Aviv, pianist and singer-songwriter Assaf Shatil reveals where his unique combination of jazz and grunge comes from.

There are a lot of albums that fail to surprise the listener even once. "Pine," the new album from pianist-singer Assaf Shatil, includes two surprises in its first 30 seconds. The first surprise can be heard after 10 seconds, when Shatil's piano enters and begins to paint the musical canvas in a deep blue-gray. This is not the accepted sound of a piano in a pop song but a different sound, richer, which is usually heard on albums of classy jazz trios. In this case, the first association that springs to mind is top jazz pianist Brad Meldhau.

After another 15 seconds Shatil's voice can be heard, and Meldhau retreats into the background since the new association conquers that thought. The dark music, which hovers over the song like a heavy shadow and creates a light dissonance with the harmony, reminds one most of Layne Staley, the incredible lead singer of Alice in Chains.

Brad Meldhau and Alice in Chains? Jazz and grunge? Very surprising, very refreshing - and also very beautiful. Not just the first song but the entire album, which will be launched this week at the Piano Festival that starts Tuesday in Tel Aviv. Whoever wants to bet on the performance of an unknown artist at the start of his career will be well rewarded by attending the performance of Shatil and his trio, which plays on Wednesday at the studio in the Suzanne Dellal Center in Neve Tzedek.

"Alice in Chains? Really? I must show it to you," says Shatil, who goes to the corner of his Jaffa apartment. He returns with a box in which there are dozens of old cassettes. These are his favorite tapes, the ones Shatil listened to obsessively as a youth in the 1990s. He rummages around in the box, trying to find a specific tape. "Here's Faith No More, here's Bjork, there's Radiohead, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Here is the band Cake. But where is Alice in Chains? It's here somewhere."

Wow, I didn't think about it all. I sometimes feel that a musician is like a glue that all sorts of stones fall on and there is no way of knowing what form will be created. Go figure out how the things you listen to affect your musical awareness.

"I love the floating style of Layne Staley, also of [Radiohead's] Thom Yorke. As a teenager, these people and many others were my heroes. I ran away to their music from all I was [involved] in. That was the fantasy, and it was very far away from Yokne'am, where I grew up. This music created an emotional world for me; a world of sound, of expression, of story. I learned there about the power of song, what it's possible to say in song. After that, jazz took me to a different world, but the things I heard on these tapes never left me and I knew they would find expression in the first album I released. I knew it wouldn't be a jazz album, since that's not totally me. It will be an album with songs. It will be a gift to that youth, who longed for it," says Shatil.

The sound of jazz, almost

"Pine is not just a tree," he continues. "It is also a verb - to miss, to yearn. I think that in my music, and in music in general, there is always yearning for something - for exposure, recognition, some type of advancement process. It can be fear or separation, something that expresses itself in music but does not express itself.

"Sometimes I feel my songs are neither here or there," he admits. "They have the sound of jazz, but they are not jazz. They have in them the words and structure of music, but there are no clear roles for the musicians. A little of this and a little of that," he says.

Shatil, 37, started playing seriously during his army service, when he fell in love with jazz. But he didn't become a jazz purist. After the army he went to Bristol, the cradle of hip-hop in southwest England. He lived there almost a year, worked and experienced the British-Jamaican culture. It is possible that something of this musical world leaked into his music, even if it doesn't have an electronic sound. The next stop on his musical journey was Montreal. His mother was born in Canada and fled the frozen winters, but he decided to return. He learned jazz at Concordia University, where he heard Arcade Fire in the cafeteria. "I saw their first performance ... I thought it was awful! Look where they are now and where I am," he laughs.

After Montreal he went south to Boston where he studied in the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music. There he found what he was looking for - an academic institution that doesn't direct its young musicians into a specific musical genre, but instead encourages them to find their own voice.

Three years ago, Shatil returned to Israel. "I didn't feel like being a musician surviving in New York or Boston," he says. "I needed to do the entire circuit so as to understand that the most correct thing was to return to Israel, look for stability and play with musicians from here." It is still possible to find signs of his long overseas sojourn in his speech.

Shatil will be appearing at the Piano Festival with his indie jazz-based trio, with Aviv Cohen on drums, Avri Borochov on double bass and Dan Weinstein on cello. Actress and singer Efrat Ben Zur, with whom Shatil performed at the festival three years ago on her album of Emily Dickinson poems "Robin," will be his special guest.

David Bachar